She gives a masterclass in how to chew and spit out even the most mundane line, making it hilarious. The only other actress I’ve seen do this is Maggie Smith. “I’m GLAD you’re happy, but what are you doing here, hmm? You don’t look like locals. IN FACT, you LOOK like killjoys.” You have to hear it to believe it. Her sneering delivery takes arch to a higher level.
Amazingly, this ultra-arch, ultra-pink satire largely steers clear of blatant camp, as it sharpens it teeth for more obvious political targets. But homosexual overtones do get in under the radar. Let’s not forget that 1988 was the year the Conservative Party pushed though its Clause 28, which banned local authorities (and, by default, schools) from “promoting” homosexuality.
Thus Priscilla P ends a scene with the line: “I am what I am.” (Thank you, Gloria Gaynor.) The hissy-fitting Kandy Man’s first line is “What time do you call this?” while his creator Gilbert M is an exile from planet Vasilip – I ask you! Gilbert eventually flees in an escape shuttle with Joseph C, two tubby old dears in pink overalls, abandoning Helen A – just like many of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet ministers would almost exactly two years hence.
“I hate Mrs Thatcher with a deep and venomous passion,” Sheila Hancock told Doctor Who Magazine in 2001, and she seizes upon these scripts, determined to play Helen A like the controversial British prime minister.
The Doctor teaches the Terra Alphans (and us) that happiness is nothing without the counterbalance of melancholy. It’s a positive message. Ultimately, he cracks the sugarcoating of control freak Helen A. When her rubbery pet, Fifi, dies, she cannot control her heaving sobs. “Tis done,” says the Time Lord, and even we, despite ourselves, must sympathise as an iron lady grieves for a dead dog.
Radio Times archive
RT billings part one part two part three RT picture
A gallery of rare Radio Times images taken on set in 1988
Available on BBC DVD