The Dalek Invasion of Porirua: 1984
The New Zealand production of Seven Keys to Doomsday
by Graham Howard, with special thanks to Brian Hudson, without whom this article would not have been possible
So began the cyclostyled promotional flyer advertising the “first Australasian production” of the stage play “written by Terrance Dicks, script editor for the television series”. Also noted in the flyer was the fact that Dicks' approval had been gained to mount the production, that the BBC had authorised the use of “the Dr Who character”, and that Terry Nation had agreed to the use of the Daleks. The flyer goes on to declare — a little tongue in cheek — that “these best known of all science fiction villains are being assembled for their Australasian debut, and a special effects team is tackling the design and construction of neutron blasters, laser swords, electronic force-fields and a crystal-tuned ‘Doomsday Weapon’.”
Seven Keys to Doomsday premiered at the Porirua Little Theatre on Saturday 24 November 1984 — almost 21 years to the day that Doctor Who began in Britain — and ran until 8 December in a scheduled run of performances. (Porirua City is about 20 minutes north of Wellington.)
On Sunday 29 October 2000, I spoke with Brian Hudson, the director of the Porirua Little Theatre's version of Seven Keys to Doomsday.
In the early 1960s Brian had been working as a television and radio announcer with the NZBC. Around 1965 he left New Zealand for a holiday in Britain, but ended up staying there for some ten years. For most of that time, Brian was employed by the BBC in a diverse range of roles, but worked principally as a newsreader with the BBC Domestic Service. At various times, he also worked as a continuity announcer and was asked to provide the voice-over introductions to various programmes and plays (stage, radio and television).
He was involved for two years with the BBC's Friday Night Music Hall at the Players Theatre in Whitehall, and worked on programmes such as Dad's Army (the radio version), Brothers In Law (with Richard Briers) and All Gas and Gaiters (with Derek Nimmo). During his time at the BBC, Brian worked with many of Britain's well-known actors. Two of those actors will also be well known to fans: Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Unfortunately he doesn't remember the programmes on which he worked with them — “it was a long time ago”. However, he does remember a great deal about his production of Seven Keys to Doomsday.
Graham Howard: What gave you the idea to stage your own version of Seven Keys to Doomsday?
Brian Hudson: Well I'd worked in amateur theatre for years and years, appeared in a lot of plays, directed a lot of plays. One year, in 1984, we were looking for a production that children might like. I had three young boys who had grown up with Doctor Who, and I had seen the original [Adelphi] production of Seven Keys to Doomsday in London. It was very impressive! And it seemed that it might be a good idea to do this play. I sent away for the script, and when I had a look at it I decided it was impossible! So I wrote to Terry Nation, who I'd met briefly when I was working down at the BBC Television centre, where I was doing some announcements. I asked him “can he help?” and “can I do it?” He said “yes” to both. I wrote to the BBC [about using the Doctor Who character] and they said “yes”, so we paid the copyright. I don't remember how much the [rights to the play] cost — but given our budget, it can't have been very much. Terry got in touch with someone at the BBC who sent me a ‘construction manual’ that contained drawings and dimensions of the TARDIS, and the Daleks. From there we were able to translate the designs into cardboard, bits of tin, timber and whatever else.
Porirua Little Theatre presents
Cast: Dr Who (Michael Sagar); Jenny (Theresa Milgate); Dave (Alistair Hudson); Jedak (Patrick Hudson); Tara (Kaaryn Cater); Garm (John Bannerman); Marko (Paul Barton); Grandmaster (Peter Stead); Empress (Michèle Dixon); Clawrantulars (Bob Paton, Peter Stead, Colin Coke); Dalek Operators (Merrill Coke, Jennifer Cater, Ian Petersen); Dalek Voices & Computer Voice (Brian Hudson, Bob Cater).
Production Team: Director: Brian Hudson; Assistant Director: Dorothy Warner; Stage Manager: Basil Mahan; Production Secretary: Annette Lewis; Costumes: Annette Lewis, assisted by Rosemary Stead, Margaret Judd, Dot Addley, Lima Watson & the cast; Set Construction & Backstage Crew: Basil Mahan, Peter Bowler, John Mahan, Ian Lewis, Graham Anderson, Jack Stewart, John Bannerman, Ken Browne; Set Painting: Ursula Lipski, Russell Kitto; Lighting: John Mahan, Stephen Milgate; Special Effects: Ken Browne; Prompt: Noela Williams; Make-Up: Rose Hudson, Dot Addley; Publicity & Programme: Rose Hudson, assisted by Colin Coke, Ruth Cater, Wendy Kitto, Russell Kitto; Photography: Ken Browne; Poster: John Tregilgas; Front Of House Manager: Adele Mahan, assisted by members of the society; Booking Officers: Margot Stuart, Lima Watson.
GH: Did the BBC or Terry Nation impose any restrictions or offer any suggestions as to how to present the Daleks, The Doctor, or the play itself?
BH: No, I think they were slightly bemused that we wanted to do the play, and thought we were so far away that it didn't matter!
GH: Did the construction of the Daleks pose any difficulties?
BH: Two of the hardest pieces were the domed top and the sensor domes. For the domed top, we eventually found a sort of plastic bowl — it didn't have a proper ridge to base it on the bottom, but it was all right in the end. We worried greatly about the little sensor domes that are on the body, but we found an absolutely ideal solution. At that time, women's tights were sold in little plastic eggs. When split in half they were perfect. So all the ladies of the society were buying their tights in these little plastic egg containers. There are a lot of pairs of tights in three Daleks, believe me!
Probably the thing that was the most difficult of all was making the Daleks' voice box. We had to scratch around in electronic magazines, and eventually found a design for a “voice modulator”, so we went ahead and built one. We worked hard and spent a lot of time on the electronics because it was so necessary for the Daleks to sound right. If there was a signature to the Daleks it had to be their “exterminate!!” When it was finished, our voices were put through this machine and came out sounding like Daleks. There were two of us, stuck out the back, who did the Dalek voices.
GH: Did you need any specialist help in building the Daleks?
BH: The particular people who worked on my stage crew were — and are still — very talented people, and we got something that looked — certainly from any sort of distance — reasonably accurate. Actually, they weren't terribly difficult, once we'd got the basic structure together. We did have to make sure that we could get people inside them, but we knew the BBC had used the same dimensions as us, which helped. I don't think we had any great problems with them on stage — they seemed to run nicely. It took a while for the drivers to get used to the fact that they had these protuberances, and they had to watch their distances. But I think those inside them had a lot of fun — the Daleks were vital to whole play, and they got the biggest rounds of applause!
GH: What about the Clawrantulars?
BH: We had more of a problem with these, because we had to bulk the actors out. They had about seven or eight layers of foam built into their costumes, which were very, very hot and there was only a small space for air through the mouth. So they suffered.
GH: Did you have instructions or documentation on how to make their costumes, or how they should look?
BH: No we just did what we thought would suit. We tried to make them look like a sort of tail-less lizard, dark green colour, vaguely reptilian.
GH: The Master of Karn that you mentioned as being impressive in the British play would have been a challenge.
BH: It didn't actually have to come right out on stage. All it had to do was grab someone. So we made these eight-foot ‘scissors’ representing the two parts of a great big claw that came out grabbed the person around the waist and dragged him off.
A Brief History of Seven Keys to Doomsday
Doctor Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday was written by Terrance Dicks who had long held an ambition to see Doctor Who done as a stage production. Dicks seized the opportunity when in 1974 two theatre producers, Robert de Wynter and Anthony Pye-Jeary, contacted the Doctor Who production office wanting to mount a play based on the series.
The production required huge screens on to which a sequence of 2,000 slides was back-projected at the rear of the stage. The play was intended to run for four weeks at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End, twice nightly, and then go on tour. The scenery however proved too big to transport on lorries, and would not have fitted on most regional theatre stages.
When the play opened 16 December 1974, Jon Pertwee had just given up the role of the Doctor, and Tom Baker would make his TV debut in the role just 12 days later. The play's producers decided against offering the role of the Doctor in their play to either Pertwee or Baker, instead preferring to create their own Doctor — someone who was a mix of all the previous incarnations, including Peter Cushing. Trevor Martin (who had previously appeared in Doctor Who as one of the Time Lords at the Doctor's trial in The War Games) was cast because of his booming voice and long white hair.
To play the Doctor's two companions, Jenny and Jimmy (named Dave in the script, but changed shortly before the play opened), Wendy Padbury (formerly Zoe in the TV series) and James Mathews were cast. In the opening scene, Jimmy and Jenny are members of the audience who run from their seats to assist the regenerating Doctor.
In addition to the Daleks, a new race of monsters was created for the play. The producers disliked the name ‘Crocs’ given in the script, so they ran a ‘Name the Monster’ competition in a national newspaper. The winning entry was ‘Clawrantulars’.
Costing £35,000 to make, the play made just under £27,500 at box office. This was due to the play's run being cut short after only four weeks due to an IRA bombing campaign in London that scared off many parents from bringing their children to see the show. Despite its short run, the play was still a critical success. Plans to take the show on tour around the country, beginning in Blackpool, were however abandoned. Terrance Dicks later re-used the name of the planet, Karn, in The Brain of Morbius.
The Buxton Drama League remounted in the UK in December 1981, staged at the Buxton Opera House and starring Colin Jones as the Doctor.
The Porirua Little Theatre's 1984 production is believed to have been the only time the play was staged outside the UK.
The Doctor and his companions are sent to the planet Karn by the Time Lords. They want the Doctor to collect the seven crystal keys that form the Crystal of All Power, from the planet Karn. Once on Karn he meets resistance fighters, Jedak, Tara and Garm. He also meets the Clawrentulars, a race of aliens who are working for the Daleks. The Daleks want the crystal to power their latest weapon. The Doctor is forced to hand the seven fragments over to the Daleks. But he has sabotaged one of the keys and it explodes destroying the Daleks.
GH: What about some of the other props, and sets? From reading the synopsis of the play, it looks like there would have been some difficult staging, set and costume requirements. For example, how was the TARDIS handled?
BH: We built the interior, and put the phone box out in front of a curtain. The characters would then go into the phone box, there would be a quick blackout, the phone box was removed, the curtains were opened up, and there you were, inside the TARDIS, with the control console bleeping and flashing.
We also had to think about how we were going to handle the planet [Karn's] surface. We made it fairly barren, with caves, which were easy to do. If we'd had to build alien houses or castles we'd have been in a bit of trouble! We kept it simple.
We used lots of sound effects, lighting effects and explosives for various bangs and flashes (these days you need an explosives licence — actually you probably needed one back then too!).
There was an immense amount of work that went on backstage from the property and costume people. It was really their play more than it was mine. Anyone who can persuade all the wives of an entire theatre society to give up the little egg containers that their tights come in — after persuading them to buy them in the first place — must be pretty resourceful!
GH: Do you still have the Dalek or any other props?
BH: No all the props are long gone, I'm afraid.
GH: I'm particularly interested how you came to cast the actor Mike Sagar to play the Doctor.
BH: I knew what I wanted in the Doctor — someone who could appear slightly... I suppose fey is the word. I always liked the second Doctor. He was just ever so slightly ‘off the planet’ or eccentric, which is what I was looking for. I also wanted an actor who had the height and the experience to be able to dominate proceedings — it was essential that he have a strong stage presence. It's hard to act against something like the Daleks — it's like acting against dogs or children! I was extremely lucky with Mike, he was very intuitive, and he gave me exactly what I wanted in the Doctor.
GH: Was he someone you approached, or was he just part of the auditioning process?
BH: I had known Mike in other plays, and was reasonably aware of his capabilities. I asked him to audition for the part, and he did. He made a very good job of it — I was very, very pleased.
I used young people for some of the other parts. With amateur societies, the older, more experienced people often get the parts, but there was nothing in the play to suggest the planet dwellers had to be a particular age. I also wanted them to display a fair degree of athleticism to contrast with the heavy, slow, ominous movements of the Clawrantulars.
GH: Did you make many changes to the script from the UK version of the play?
BH: I stuck pretty much with the script. I took very few liberties with it. It was only when we ran into serious technical difficulties that I made some changes. Remember it was produced on a shoe-string budget — I can't remember what the amount was, but it was peanuts. You are limited by the technical constraints of the theatre too. But generally it seemed to work all right.
GH: One interesting aspect of the UK version was the ‘regeneration’ of Jon Pertwee (via projection screen) into Trevor Martin. Did you include a regeneration scene?
BH: No that's one thing we didn't attempt.
GH: Another unusual aspect of the play was that the actors playing the companions joined the action by rushing from the audience to join the Doctor on stage. Was this aspect of the play retained in your version?
BH: I don't recall exactly. I remember we started with the opening theme... We stuck pretty much with the script [Brian looks at the opening scene from the script he has with him]... it's in the script so, yes it looks like that's what we did.
GH: The play appears to have been well publicised. One of the photos shows what appears to be a television cameraman filming some action on the set.
BH: We let TVNZ know what we were doing and they sent a camera crew out who interviewed some of the actors, and filmed the Daleks on the set. They played the segment on the local news — back then we still had regional news.
GH: There was also the striking photo that appeared in The Evening Post newspaper with the Daleks before the Beehive...
BH: It was actually all planned — it attracted a lot of attention when we were trying to shoot that photograph. We moved the Daleks around to other locations too. It was a very good publicity gimmick. The play got pretty good publicity actually, quite reasonable houses.
GH: How did the audiences respond to the play?
BH: The audiences were good. Those that came to see it enjoyed it I think, they responded very well, and there was a nice round of applause for the actors each night. Oh yes, it was reasonably well received. It was certainly something a bit different!
GH: How did the children react to the Daleks?
BH: Some were scared, some were delighted, some were even on the Dalek's side, no doubt — children can be quite perverse when it comes to that sort of thing. The parents appeared to enjoy it too.
GH: Doctor Who hadn't been seen on New Zealand television for well over a year when the play was on. (Given the date, I have to wonder whether it could have been the publicity surrounding this play that stirred TVNZ to consider repeating Doctor Who only a few months later.) Was this a concern when you were considering staging this play?
BH: I think I would have thought twice about doing it if it had been on TV, the comparisons would have been in television's favour, and I wouldn't really have liked that!
GH: Are you a fan, or have you followed Doctor Who, either over here, or in the UK?
BH: Oh, yes. Put it this way; there are not very many episodes I have missed. My children (two of whom were cast in the play) were also keen followers of the programme.
GH: I never saw the play myself, or knew anything about it until very recently, otherwise I would have tried to find out more about it years ago. Just as a matter of interest, has any other Doctor Who fan approached you about this production before now?
BH: No, you're the first I am a little surprised to say. I'm sorry you missed it!
GH: Any final thoughts?
BH: It was a lot of fun to do. It had a lot of challenges, but we managed to get a pretty worthwhile product at the end.
After reading Graham Howard's article David Lawrence offered further insight into the Porirua production of Seven Keys to Doomsday. Here's David's letter, which originally appeared in TSV 62 (April 2001):
This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).