Doctor Who at 50: The Tomb of the Cybermen at the BFI

Steven Moffat: "Genuinely, from my heart, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. It is absolute genius. The most frightening thing about a monster isn’t when it arrives; it’s when it’s about to arrive"

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Doctor Who at 50: The Tomb of the Cybermen at the BFI
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Classic 1960s Doctor Who on the big screen and a top line-up of guests – it’s another hit for the British Film Institute… (Pictured above: director Michael Ferguson, actors Anneke Wills, Bernard Holley, Deborah Watling, Shirley Cooklin and Michael Kilgarriff, with the BFI’s Justin Johnson.)

This month, the BFI turned the clock back to 1967 for the stone-cold classic, The Tomb of the Cybermen, starring second Doctor Patrick Troughton. To take off the chill, BFI hosts Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddy called a surprise guest up to the stage – comedian Frank Skinner. As you may have read in Radio Times (19 January), Skinner has outed himself as a fan of the show. But how big a fan? “Well, I’ve never dressed as a Cyberman – for pleasure! 

“I’m the lowest of all creatures, the celebrity fan,” he joked to the audience. He’s watched since the start in 1963 and, for him, the appeal remains the enigma of the central character. “Having watched Doctor Who all my life, I still don’t know much about him. Even now Matt Smith can do one of those looks into the mid-distance and you think, ‘He’s seen so much…’” (Apologies for the dark photo; the auditorium lighting was very low.)

Current showrunner Steven Moffat was next up to eulogise. “When I first watched episode three of Tomb, I was so frightened I didn’t watch Doctor Who again until Jon Pertwee! Genuinely, from my heart, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. It is absolute genius. The most frightening thing about a monster isn’t when it arrives; it’s when it’s about to arrive.

“Patrick Troughton is sheer magic as the Doctor.” Moffat restated how 11th Doctor Matt Smith raved about his predecessor and this story when he watched it on DVD. (He was born 15 years after it was transmitted!) And, as an aside, Moffat made light of Smith flying off to make his first Hollywood movie (How to Catch a Monster). “It’s all right – he’s coming back.”

He concluded: “Everything we do in Cardiff… is out of love for the show you’re about to watch. I’m never more of a fan than when I work on Doctor Who, attempting to re-create what you’re about to see.”

And so episode one began. Although I’ve watched Tomb countless times, I have to say the big-screen experience gave me the shivers. It’s a brilliant, suspenseful piece of 60s television. I wonder, what must it have been like coming to this story completely cold in September 1967..?

A glitch in the projector between episodes brought Michael Troughton up to the stage early. He revealed that his father, Patrick, who died in 1987, was “an incredibly nervous actor. I think this is something people don’t realise. He worked from the inside out, very emotional. Unlike Jon Pertwee, for instance, who was a very technical actor. My father worked from instinct.”

He spoke of his reluctance to write a biography of his late father. “I left almost 20 years. He was a very private man. I wanted to wait until the dust had settled and I got full-ish agreement with his family. If you read the book, you’ll realise he had three families.”

After the screening, the main panel featured six guests who were either involved on Tomb or with the Troughton period. Well-worn anecdotes were inevitable but here are My Best Bits.

As companion Polly, Anneke Wills worked with the first two Doctors, and she’s now hoping to revise her opinion of William Hartnell by reading his granddaughter’s biography. “There was so much more to Bill than I knew at the time. All I knew was this difficult, bad-tempered person who kept saying, ‘It’s not my line, it’s your line and you forgot it.’ The switch-over from Bill to Patrick was like day from night. No wonder I was completely in love with Pat, because he was simply marvellous.”

Director Michael Ferguson recalled working as an assistant floor manager on the first Dalek story in 1963: “I have this claim to fame, because I was the first Dalek. Sitting on the front of a [camera] crane, I held the plunger [that came into shot in the cliffhanger].” Ferguson rates Troughton as “by far the best actor of them all, certainly from the early period. He was a thinking, caring actor, with an enormous amount of experience.” 

Deborah Watling, who played companion Victoria in Tomb, spoke of the chemistry with her co-stars. “We got very close over the year I was in it. Pat became like a second father and a best friend, but he got me into a bad habit.” Young “Watters” liked to have a quiet, sober, sandwich-box lunch, “but Pat said, ‘You’ve got to come with us.’ So he took me to the BBC Club – and I’ve never looked back!” she said, with heavy meaning.

Bernard Holley, who went on to star in Z Cars, said Tomb was only his second telly role. “I was alive in the first episode and dead in the second. But I got the same money for both.” In 1971, he made a second Who, playing an alien in The Claws of Axos, directed by Ferguson. “Michael came up to me in the BBC Club and said, ‘How do you look in gold..?’” 

Shirley Cooklin (second left with Watling), who flew in from France especially for the event, was both the exotic bad girl Kaftan in Tomb and the wife of producer Peter Bryant. “It was a great thing in our lives when he got Doctor Who. We were very excited. We had script meetings at home and I was very involved in the production.”

In the 60s she was despairing of the roles being offered to her, so Who’s script editor Gerry Davis “took pity on me and said I’m going to write something that will be really right for you – you’re going to be villainous.” She brought all her grandchildren along to the BFI and was delighted they could see her younger self in classic Who.

Last up, Michael Kilgarriff, a tall actor who’s played several monsters in Doctor Who – an Ogron in Frontier in Space; the giant Robot; and the Cyber Controller twice (in Tomb and in Attack of the Cybermen nearly 18 years later). It’s never a bundle of laughs being stuck in those costumes: “Once you’re covered up, people forget you’re there.” After the Controller’s death scene, he was abandoned lying on his back when the crew went off for a tea break.

Kilgarriff recalled watching Hartnell in panto in Ipswich in the 60s shortly after he’d given up the role. “It was very sad. The lights came up and there was the Tardis and out came Doctor Who, but he might as well have gone home at that point because the poor chap – well, I don’t know what he was doing in a panto. He couldn’t offer anything at all. He couldn’t sing. He couldn’t dance. The comics ran rings round him. Life after Doctor Who was not good for him.”

A downbeat note, perhaps, but then with Mark Gatiss’s An Adventure in Space and Time currently in production, I am very much thinking about the joy and sadness that the role of the Doctor brought to the twilight of Hartnell’s career.

In the hospitality room afterwards, Mark quietly imparted to me a starling piece of news about his forthcoming drama. I’ll say one thing for Mark Gatiss: he knows how to make a seasoned fan-boy gape. But again I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say it ticks several boxes for me. Oh, this is a tough one. Gah!

In all, another hugely memorable day on the Southbank. But what I’ll treasure most is the quiet time beforehand. When I first met Anneke six years ago, I was struck by her radiant personality. Since our RT interview last year, we’ve become firm friends. Before Tomb, she invited me to lunch at the BFI with her pal Matt Evenden, and I introduced them to my RT colleague Ralph Montagu and my oldest pal, writer/director Richard Marson (pictured). Connections were made. Intimacies shared. And I realised that the Doctor Who world is full of many lovely, delightfully bonkers people.

Gallery of photos from the BFI/Tomb event

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Next month: the Jon Pertwee classic, The Mind of Evil

Sunday 10 March will see the premiere of this 1971 six-parter in its newly coloured-restored form. Tickets sold out on the BFI website in a matter of minutes!

The guest line-up has just been announced:

Katy Manning (the Doctor’s assistant/companion Jo Grant)

Richard Franklin (Unit’s Captain Mike Yates)

John Levene (Sgt Benton)

Director Timothy Combe

Script editor Terrance Dicks

And members of the Restoration Team.