Believe it or not, fantastical Doctor Who episode The Giggle actually has some basis in real history – well, up to a point...


The third and last of the show's 60th anniversary specials opens in Soho, 1925, where Charles Banerjee (played by Charlie de Melo) is unwittingly stepping inside the domain of the Toymaker (Neil Patrick Harris).

The visitor is looking for a test subject and selects Stooky Bill, a puppet, despite the Toymaker's protestations that he's separating Bill from his 'wife' Stooky Sue and their 'babies'.

Banerjee, we discover, is in the employ of one John Logie Baird (John Mackay, who played the same role in Russell T Davies' ITV drama Nolly), who is on the cusp of inventing television. Using the head of the dummy, the Scottish engineer is successful in his efforts to transmit a televised image between rooms in his laboratory at 22 Frith Street, London.

Of course, little does Baird suspect that his work has been corrupted by the Toymaker – oblivious, Baird is hailed as a genius and pioneer, with the end results of the Toymaker's work only making themselves apparent almost a century later, in 2023.

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Stooky Bill and John Logie Baird's television apparatus
Stooky Bill and John Logie Baird's television appartus Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Though the real Baird didn't source his test subject from an omnipotent, extra-dimensional being – at least as far as we know – Stooky Bill did in fact exist...

Baird first devised a basic television system in 1924 – it used a spinning disk with 30 lenses to send moving pictures as electrical signals. The lenses picked up light from an object, and a device changed this into an electrical signal sent by radio waves. At the receiving end, a similar spinning disk with a light recreated the image of the object.

Baird's system was not able to televise human faces, because they had inadequate contrast, so he used the head of a ventriloquist's dummy – nicknamed "Stooky Bill" – whose brightly painted face had greater contrast. The lights illuminating the subject also generated so much heat that Baird couldn't use a human for testing – as seen in The Giggle, Stooky Bill's painted face eventually became cracked by the heat.

The puppet's unusual nickname came from Scots vernacular, with "stooky" or "stookie" being another word for plaster-cast and also being used to refer to a foolish person.

Scottish engineer John Logie Baird demonstrating his most famous invention, the television, to members of the Royal Institution and the technical press using ventriloquists' dolls
John Logie Baird demonstrating the television, to members of the Royal Institution and the technical press using ventriloquists' dolls. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Doctor Who portrays Bill as having a 'family', but there is no evidence that Stooky Sue and the babies ever existed in reality – although Baird did use another male dummy, named "James", in his experiments.

John Logie Baird began giving public demonstrations of television in 1925 and 1926, even demonstrating the world's first colour transmission in 1928. A year later, in 1929, his company Baird Television Development Company Ltd. made the first television programmes officially transmitted by the BBC.

Baird died, aged 57, on 14th June 1946 – a blue plaque marking his first demonstration of television sits at 22 Frith Street, Westminster, London.

Doctor Who: The Giggle and previous episodes are available on BBC iPlayer and on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.

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