Paradise Towers *

High-rise Who brings career-low for Richard Briers

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Paradise Towers *

Season 24 – Story 145

“Build high for happiness”

Storyline
The Doctor and Mel soon realise that Paradise Towers doesn’t live up to its reputation. The 304-storey block is a dilapidated dump inhabited by girl gangs (Red Kangs and Blue Kangs) and cannibalistic old ladies called Rezzies – all kept in check by fascistic but inept Caretakers. While Mel pals up with Pex, a somewhat cowardly warrior, the Doctor is hailed as the Great Architect who built the Towers. But the deranged architect Kroagnon’s disembodied brain is actually trapped in the basement. It is using robotic Cleaners to rid the building of “human garbage” and eventually commandeers the body of the Chief Caretaker…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Monday 5 October 1987
Part 2 - Monday 12 October 1987
Part 3 - Monday 19 October 1987
Part 4 - Monday 26 October 1987

Production
Location recording: Elmswell House, Chalfont St Giles, Bucks
Studio recording: June 1987 in TC1

Cast
The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Melanie - Bonnie Langford
Chief Caretaker - Richard Briers
Deputy Chief Caretaker - Clive Merrison
Tilda - Brenda Bruce
Tabby - Elizabeth Spriggs
Maddy - Judy Cornwell
Fire Escape - Julie Brennon
Bin Liner - Annabel Yuresha
Pex - Howard Cooke
Blue Kang Leader - Catherine Cusack
Young caretaker - Joseph Young
Yellow Kang - Astra Sheridan
Video commentary - Simon Coady

Crew
Writer - Stephen Wyatt
Incidental music - Keff McCulloch
Designer - Martin Collins
Script editor - Andrew Cartmel
Director - Nicholas Mallett
Producer - John Nathan-Turner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Let’s tackle the Richard Briers issue at the top. Venerated actor, BBC sitcom deity, he is shockingly bad in this story.

No doubt a few extra thousand viewers tuned in in 1987 to see Briers having a stab at Doctor Who, so perhaps that’s a success in itself. Producer John Nathan-Turner should be applauded for enticing big-name guest stars and his “stunt casting” of actors in wildly inappropriate roles often pays off.

But from the word go, there’s no escaping the fact that the Chief Caretaker, the key baddie in Paradise Towers, is just Richard Briers in a silly cap, silly moustache, putting on silly voice. Mugging for England. Sending up Doctor Who in a horribly misjudged, self-indulgent performance, especially after the Caretaker has been “zombified” by the Great Architect. Briers growls and clomps about like an embarrassing dad playing the Boogeyman. It plunges an already teetering production into the abyss.

Paradise Towers is an “almost” story. Almost a disturbing psychodrama. Almost a black comedy. Almost a disaster. But… it almost works – if you stick with it and are in a forgiving mood.

New and inexperienced script editor Andrew Cartmel was determined to cultivate fresh writers. Indeed from Paradise Towers onwards no one who’d written for Doctor Who in the past would ever be invited back. And Stephen Wyatt’s first stab must read well on the page; and its sources are thinly concealed.

He borrows the dystopian tower block setting from JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise. The all-girl Kangs feel like Anthony Burgess’s droogs from A Clockwork Orange – sanitised in a children’s TV rinser. Their dialogue is crisp and playful, mangling English and minting new phrases. Their HQ is a “brainquarters”. Residents who are captured and killed are “taken to the cleaners” and become “unalive”.

The Kangs have names like Fire Escape and Bin Liner. The latter tells the Doctor that the Caretakers “wipe away our wallscrawl [graffiti], chase us down carrydoors, catch us if they can”. Fire Escape tells the Time Lord, “What you wear is high fabshion, ice-hot for an old one.” The young actresses playing these peculiar characters are extremely good and overcome their costumes and daft red-flecked wigs.

Briers aside, the performances are deft. The scripts demand a heightened acting style that borders on Ortonesque: the rulebook-obsessed Caretakers use a snide nasal delivery that recalls Inspector Truscott from Loot. Kath, the lubricious landlady from Entertaining Mr Sloane, could easily be the basis for the Rezzies.

At first I wondered if I’d misheard that moniker – Rezzies – given the way that Tabby and Tilda, flat-sharing spinsters, eye up Mel. “Mel’s not at all like a Kang,” purrs Tabby. “She’s a nice, polite, clean, well-spoken girl. Just the sort we like.” Although they bag her with a shawl and prod her with a toasting fork, it’s only implied that they want to devour Mel from a dining perspective. Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce are superb in these parts, and the story flags after they’ve been dragged to their deaths down the waste disposal chute.

Pex is the most successful character, presenting himself as “a finely tuned fighting machine”, taunted by the Kangs as a “cowardly cutlet”. He’s less pumped up than writer Stephen Wyatt intended, but Howard Cooke makes Pex memorable and sympathetic.

With so many positives, where does Paradise Towers fall down? It suffers from an uncertain, uneven tone. The seventh Doctor and Mel are too cartoonish for this grim milieu. The direction and lighting are creative one minute, flat the next. The music is distractingly flash-bang-wallop. The robotic Cleaners are ridiculous, slow and armed with cutting devices that clearly wouldn’t work and with clumsy claws that each victim must ease him or herself into.

In the midst of all her troubles, Mel is determined to take a dip in the top-floor swimming pool – and is attacked by a bright yellow robotic crab. Bonnie Langford flails around in the ice-cold water and emerges with immaculate make-up. 

I like my Doctor Who grounded in reality, or with “real people” coping with outrageous fantasy. No one in Paradise Towers feels real.

Questions remain unanswered, some minor, some crucial. Where is Paradise Towers? On Earth or out in space? How has this closed society survived so long without contact with the outside world? Why did the Kangs’ parents think it safe to consign Kroagnon to the basement? Why isn’t his brain shown? (Perhaps that would have been too close to the Rani’s giant brain in the previous story.) Why is the Chief Caretaker feeding him bodies?

Paradise Towers represents a brave new world for Doctor Who, but it’s a place I’d never return to for pleasure.

*

If you’re tiring of my reminiscences of being on set in the 1980s, take heart. Paradise Towers was the last story I observed in production and now I haven’t a single recollection of it. What I do recall is interviewing Clive Merrison, the actor cast as Deputy Chief Caretaker.

He’d actually phoned Doctor Who Magazine asking to be interviewed. (Those were the heady days before the PR stranglehold, when actors themselves might call a publication to promote their work.) Neither I nor my fellow DWM scribe Richard Marson fancied the commission, so our lovely editor Sheila Cranna coaxed us into doing it together.

We trotted along to the Acton “Hilton”, the BBC rehearsal block in west London, and took notes while a pleasant man wittered on in an actorly manner about having a Cybermat crawl over his chest in The Tomb of the Cybermen in 1967 and about the huge fun he was now enjoying with Sylvester McCoy and Richard Briers. So, we interviewed him, yes, but neither Richard nor I have any memory of ever writing it up. As far as we know, it never saw print. An almost interview.

Such nonchalance reflects my disenchantment with all things Who in the late 1980s. In my early 20s, I was more turned on by the wonders of the real world and fast growing out of the sci-fi series that had captivated me since childhood. 

Radio Times archive material

RT billings (Despite the caption on the RT photo of Richard Briers, it's never stated in the programme that Paradise Towers in on Earth.)

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