Doctor Who: The Robots of Death screening at the BFI
It was the finest afternoon of the year so far, last Saturday, and everyone I spoke to felt bonkers being indoors, crowding into the NFT1 cinema at the BFI Southbank in London. But, yes, it was worth it to watch The Robots of Death on a big screen. It’s one of the finest Doctor Who stories of the 1970s – indeed one of the finest pieces of British television, full stop.
And not only that, but up on stage were three of the luminaries who worked on that show. Pictured above: producer Philip Hinchcliffe with actors Louise Jameson and Tom Baker, who, of course, played companion Leela and the fourth Doctor.
It was a huge coup for the BFI to secure Tom Baker, Doctor Who legend, earliest surviving Doctor and fabulous raconteur, so there was wisdom in having a smaller panel than usual at these monthly events.
Also in attendance, however, were Anneke Wills (1960s companion Polly), and Brian and Sadie Miller, husband and daughter of Elisabeth Sladen, who died almost exactly two years ago. Before her latterday success with The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sladen was a key figure in the Tom Baker period and, as a tribute, a clip was played of her in buoyant form at a BFI event from 2010.
Current showrunner Steven Moffat introduced The Robots of Death as “one of those rare events in Doctor Who where I think it’s sort of perfect. Doctor Who rarely bothers with anything as boring as ‘perfect’. This is from the era that I remember and love the most.”
He was clearly delighted to have schmoozed backstage with his predecessor Philip Hinchcliffe and with Tom Baker. “I remember once queuing for hours and hours for his autograph, and I discovered many years later that in the same queue on the same day was, uh, David Tennant.”
Among other figures from the period coming forward to say a few words was Mat Irvine, who created many of the models and visual effects for the series in the 1970s and 80s. A last-minute guest was Matthew Waterhouse, who played early 80s companion Adric. Now, almost everyone working on Who is a fanboy or fangirl but Waterhouse led the way 30 years ago. He recalled his own childhood enthusiasm: “We had posters of Tom and Louise on our bedroom walls. Because we were in love with Leela. Even if we were gay.”
After the screening, Philip Hinchcliffe and the ever-radiant Louise Jameson were called down to the stage from their seats in the auditorium, while Tom Baker came in from the wings, apparently having had no desire to sit through the episodes. He was on sparkling form but no one could fail to notice that the star, now 79, was steadying himself with a walking stick.
Hinchcliffe commended the story’s director Michael Briant on “an absolutely phenomenal job. That was almost an impossible thing to achieve, all in the studio and in the timescale we had.” He explained how, on taking on the job, “I immersed myself in science fiction and fantasy, and out of that evolved a lot of story ideas; this robot idea was one I had very early on, but [Tom’s] third season was the first time we could do anything about it.”
Baker recalled the roles that led to his becoming the Time Lord: “I was playing Rasputin and what was motivating him was crumpet really, and I was extremely keen on crumpet so I was really rather good as Rasputin. And my next catastrophic failure was Macbeth, who I played in the style of a crumpet-lover, and then when Doctor Who came along, I embraced this lunacy, this cloud-cuckoo-land where people had to be convinced by absolute nonsense. I came from a very religious background, so it was easy for me to believe in something I knew nothing about.”
He then told a very funny, tall story about a fan once asking him to sign his wife: “I was terribly embarrassed because she was dead. The man said, ‘But she was a great fan of yours.’ I always have a special pen for writing on coffins or dead people,” said Tom wistfully.
Louise Jameson said she has the director Pennant Roberts to thank for casting her as Leela. “He kept a little black book with lists of actors’ names and he would put three, four or five stars against the names. I stole the book and I had a little look and, bless him, I had five stars.” He gave her two of her defining roles on television: intelligent savage Leela and later Blanche, the ex-prostitute PoW in Tenko.
Around 60 women auditioned for the part of Leela, and she was called back several times, “but Tom didn’t want to do the interviews,” said Jameson. “I must have been mad,” cut in Baker. “When I first met Tom his first statement to me was ‘Well, I hope you’re into bondage, darling, because you’re going to spend 90 per cent of the time tied up.”
Both actors alluded to their difficult working relationship back in the day. “Apparently I was very cold to Louise,” continued Baker, “which now amazes me because we’re such close colleagues and loving friends.” They’ve both recently revived their characters for a long series of audio-only dramas produced by Big Finish. “Now with darling Louise we’re on this wonderful roll of adventures…
“Doctor Who changed my whole life,” confessed Tom Baker, “and has changed my whole life since, because, in a sense, I’ve never stopped being Doctor Who.”
On Saturday 4 May, the BFI will screen the fifth Doctor four-parter, The Caves of Androzani.
BFI programmer Justin Johnson announced that the guest list will include: incidental music composer Roger Limb, director Graeme Harper, actors Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding (who played companions Nyssa and Tegan) and the fifth Doctor himself, Peter Davison.
The story chosen to honour sixth Doctor Colin Baker will be announced this Wednesday (24 April).