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Notes from a Who Island

By Paul Scoones

New Zealand, as almost 24 hours of continuous flight time makes all too painfully obvious, is geographically about as far away from Britain - the ancestral home of Doctor Who - as it is possible to get without leaving the planet. Fans of the series who have yet to make the pilgrimage to the United Kingdom sometimes regard the place with a mixture of envy and fascination, not only for its abundance of locations featured in the series but also for its exhibitions of original costumes and props, its much larger range of readily available merchandise than can be found on this side of the world, and its widespread fan culture, complete with a monthly London pub meet where you can be sure of seeing at least a few Doctor Who novelists.

When myself and my partner Rochelle visited the UK back in May it was her first visit and the first time I'd been back since emigrating at the age of five. Our aims were to catch up with friends and family, see the sights Stonehenge, Tower of London, castles, etc), do lots of shopping and generally have a holiday - all of which we achieved. While it was not our intention to seek out Doctor Who locations, we did want to see a few, and lets face it, most places in Southern England are not very far from a site of some significance to the series, and so in our travels around the country we saw some noteworthy sites without on most occasions going very much out of our way to do so. Although there were specific Doctor Who location visits, most places we saw just happened to be on the way somewhere. A visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, for instance, also took in Cutty Sark and The Queen's House, both locations featured in Dimensions in Time and parts of Cambridge were instantly recognisable from Shada.

Being so far away from it all there is perhaps an additional sense of ‘otherworldliness’ that New Zealand viewers get from in Doctor Who which is probably lost on their UK counterparts. It is a very strange sensation to set foot for the first time in a place which is very familiar for having been seen many times on video. One such place was Butlers Wharf. This block of old warehouses just to the left of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames river holds a particular fascination for me as, when researching Resurrection of the Daleks some years ago, I made a study of material relating to the area. When the story was made the warehouses and streets were empty and abandoned but, fifteen years on, the place has been extensively redeveloped. Many of the tall brick buildings and narrow cobbled roads are still there, but the buildings have been cleaned up and the interiors converted into shops and apartments. Even as we were visiting the area however, some of the warehouses were being demolished, presumably to make way for more modern dwellings. The wharf where the TARDIS materialised and Tegan fled from Lytton's ‘policemen’ has been completely remodelled, but it is still possible to pinpoint the spot using the proximity to Tower Bridge and the distinctive ‘archway’ connecting the wharf to the street beyond (more recently seen in the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS). Perhaps the most instantly recognisable feature is the cluster of iron walkways connecting the upper floors of the warehouses high above the street.

Paul Scoones outside the entrance to the Longleat Doctor Who exhibition

There are occasions which cause you to ponder the disadvantages of being a Doctor Who fan, and the experience of not being able to walk across Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament without picturing Daleks on the bridge in my mind's eye was one of these moments. Fortunately this wasn't always such a problem; it wasn't until my second trip to Trafalgar Square that it occurred to me that the reason why the statues of the lions were so familiar was because of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. I wonder just how the BBC coped with filming in the vicinity of so many hundreds of pigeons... perhaps the birds weren't nearly so numerous in 1964?

Another London landmark prominent in the series is St Paul's Cathedral, seen in The Invasion as the Cybermen emerge from the sewers to invade the city. Although this isn't apparent on screen the big flight of wide steps that the Cybermen walk down are quite some distance from the cathedral. From the cathedral itself it is necessary to cross two roads and walk down a side street between two buildings. The steps themselves lead down to a walkway alongside the river Thames. Which rather begs the question, what special purpose does the Thames hold for both the Cybermen, who head in this direction when they descend the steps, and a Dalek - seen to emerge from the river? I think we need to be told!

The London Underground, although never technically used as a series location, still holds a strong resonance for fans. Stations including Goodge Street, Holborn, Piccadilly, Monument, Warren Street and Covent Garden will be familiar to fans of The Web of Fear, and the real impact of the revelation that the Doctor and Peri are actually on Earth in the first segment of The Trial of a Time Lord would undoubtedly have been especially poignant to anyone familiar with Marble Arch station.

It's about as difficult to go to London and not notice the Telecom Tower - formerly the Post Office Tower from which WOTAN attempted to take over the world in The War Machines - as it is to visit Auckland and not see the Sky Tower. It's particularly easy to view the Tower from just outside the Fitzroy Tavern, a few blocks down the road, where a number of Doctor Who fans meet up at an informal gathering on the first Thursday of every month to exchange news and gossip, and generally chat over a few drinks.

Rochelle and I had been in London barely a week when the May ‘Fitzroy’ took place. Teaming up with TSV regulars David Ronayne and Darrell Patterson - both now living in London - we were delighted to find ourselves made very welcome by Paul Cornell, Gary Gillatt, Alan Barnes, Andy Lane and an old friend of mine, Warwick “Scott” Gray. A more pleasant bunch of people you could not hope to meet. The same equally applied to the other Doctor Who people we were fortunate to meet up with, including David Howe, Gary Russell and Andrew Pixley.

Very early on in our holiday we visited the National Film Theatre on the South Bank by Waterloo Bridge. The building is situated adjacent to the Royal Festival Hall, and the buildings and walkways were instantly recognisable as the location used for the Earth detention area in Frontier in Space.The prefabricated concrete structures were not the drawcard however - instead we were at the NFT to visit MOMI - the Museum of the Moving Image. When MOMI first opened in 1991 it was home to he highly-publicised and well-attended ‘Behind the Sofa’ Doctor Who exhibition. This has since been replaced by other featured exhibits, the latest of which was devoted to Hammer Horror - including work by my namesake, visual effects designer Ian Scoones. The multi-floor museum traces the history of cinema and television from its earliest beginnings to the present day, using live performers and many video and film screenings. In addition to a mind-boggling array of props, informative displays and interactive exhibits are Cybermen, Daleks (including one you can get inside, the giant Robot K1, the not so giant robot K9, the TARDIS and a slightly moth-eaten Tetrap. The accompanying information plaques are informative, though the Fifth Doctor is apparently played by someone called 'Peter Davidson'!

Venturing south of London for a few days, our first stop was the sleepy spa town of Tunbridge Wells, home to the offices of Doctor Who Magazine, where we were welcomed by Gary Gillatt, Alan Barnes and Warwick Gray. Tunbridge Wells is over an hour's drive from London; those frequent mentions of reading on the train in the Magazine's editorials take on greater significance with the realisation that the DWM team spends about three hours each day commuting! The Marvel UK offices are housed in a block of offices down a narrow alleyway. DWM itself takes up a small corner of an open-plan office space in which all of Marvel's editors and designers work. The team were working on issue 266 when we visited; the proof pages for The Aztecs Archive were just back from the printers, and Gary also showed us various alternatives for the issue's cover, explaining the need to balance the subject of the photograph with the magazine's logo. Coincidentally, this was the very issue in which Andrew Pixley's A Question of Answers piece for TSV 53 appeared, albeit substantially rewritten and renamed. From a personal point of view I found it very interesting to compare DWM's presentation of the piece with my own approach still fresh in my mind.

The crypt on a hill at Arundel, from Silver Nemesis

Taking our leave of the friendly trio at DWM we set out for the seaside town of Brighton, spending a frustrating half hour along the way trying to locate Harrison's Rocks at Groombridge. The location used in both The Mind Robber and Castrovalva eluded us - despite driving the route twice, religiously following the instructions in the locations guide, and stopping to ask a local for directions - so we hurried on to the coast.

Whilst in Brighton we sat on the stony beach in just about the same spot featured in The Leisure Hive. It was there that it dawned on me that the Brighton Pavilion the Doctor mentioned is not part of Brighton Pier as I had previously supposed, but an imposing edifice looking not entirely unlike the Taj Mahal, situated a couple of blocks inland from the beach.

West of Brighton is Arundel, where we spent the following night in a bed and breakfast overlooking the wall of Arundel Castle, which doubled for Windsor in Silver Nemesis. Shortly after returning to New Zealand, I watched the story again and knew at once that the trip had changed my perception of the programme forever. When Richard and Lady Peinforte are walking down the main street I was looking out for the Castle View Bed & Breakfast, and spotted the shop where I stocked up on supplies.

The crypt - Peinforte's tomb in Silver Nemesis - is located in a field on the crest of a hill, a short distance from the Arundel township and accessible via a walking track up a valley bordered by farmland. By the time we reached the crypt we found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm. The building hadn't changed a bit in the decade since its use in the series and if anything was even more impressive when we were there due to the very atmospheric conditions of the storm. A magical experience and one of the most memorable of all the Doctor Who-related experiences of our trip.

A rather unwell-looking Cyberman on display at Longleat

Later the same day - having visited the truly awe-inspiring Stonehenge - we paid a quick visit to Longleat, a very large country estate including a mansion house and a safari park. It's best known to us fans as the site of the anniversary celebrations back in 1983, frequently described by those who were there as the Doctor Who equivalent of Woodstock. Fifteen years later, the Doctor Who content is relegated to a cramped exhibition area at the back of the mansion house. The exhibit suffered a major fire in September 1996 and was reopened in March 1997. Some of the props seriously affected by the blaze were still on display in their fire-damaged state, including a Paradise Towers cleaning robot and the Terileptil Android. This display was labelled “The Great Fire of Longleat”. Also on display were the charred and unrecognisable remains of the replica K9 prop in which the fire started. The Longleat exhibit is very small - just one circuit, but the props are imaginatively displayed, accentuated by mood lighting. The various items on display were also for the most part identified by name and the story of origin.

Nine days later whilst on another trip away from London - this time to Wales - we visited the UK's other major Doctor Who exhibition - at Llangollen in North Wales. The Llangollen ‘Doctor Who Experience’ is housed alongside an impressive collection of model railway layouts and the Dapol toy factory, which produces both Doctor Who figures and model railway accessories.

Arriving at the museum early on a wet Saturday morning we were greeted by the manager of the Dapol factory unashamedly dressed up in full Colin Baker costume. He proudly informed us that the museum contains all original props as used in the series, whilst unfortunately at the same time wiping down a vintage car displayed just outside the entrance made up to look like Bessie, but on close inspection clearly wasn't. Inside we were greeted with a stern warning not to photograph or video any props as the BBC apparently forbade this - why? The BBC equally endorses the Longleat exhibition, which also features original props from the series, and there were no restrictions on photographs or video recording there. Later I learned that fans that had visited Llangollen previously had had no such strictures placed upon them.

Rochelle with the ‘fake’ Bessie outside the Llangollen Doctor Who Experience

The Doctor Who Experience is considerably larger than its Longleat counterpart, containing display after display simply packed full of masks, costumes, guns and other props from the series. Sadly, very few of these items are labelled and several displays are simply clothes racks of costumes behind glass panels.

Although it was a pleasure to be able to view so many props first-hand, the experience was for me further spoiled by the intervention of three staff members. Dressed up as the Second and Sixth Doctors and the Master, they proceeded to tear around the exhibit opening and slamming doors and shouting their way through an apparently improvised Doctor Who sketch. Rochelle and I were the only visitors in the exhibit and so the entire performance was apparently put on for our benefit. These cringe-inducingly-amateurish antics detracted from my viewing pleasure, but younger visitors would presumably appreciate the live entertainment.

Also of great interest is the Dapol factory tour accessed via a corridor that contains the real Bessie, where photos are thankfully permitted! Dapol have recently expanded their toy range to include Time Lords, Silurians, Sea Devils, the Master and the Third Doctor, with more characters to come. The figures are unfortunately not nearly up to the highly detailed standard of Kenner's current Star Wars range, but having seen the factory in operation I have a greater appreciation for the level of care and dedication that goes into the production of the Dapol Doctor Who figures. The toys were available to purchase in a well-stocked shop within the building, containing a plethora of Doctor Who and other SF merchandise. The Dapol building also has a café that has adorning its walls the signatures of many instantly recognisable Doctor Who personalities.

Paul with the ‘real’ Bessie inside the Doctor Who Experience

From Llangollen we drove a long way southeast through the beautiful scenery of Snowdonia, instantly recognisable as the Death Zone in The Five Doctors and Tibet in The Abominable Snowmen. Our destination however was the odd little village of Portmeirion, near Porthmadog on the east coast of Wales. Portmeirion is a tourist attraction featuring an eccentric conglomeration of small buildings apparently inspired by Mediterranean architecture. Appropriately, the locale was used to represent the Italian town of San Martino in The Masque of Mandragora, and is most famously remembered as the Village from the sixties cult classic TV series The Prisoner. On this occasion, we arrived just as the attraction was closing, but fortunately although the shops and exhibits had shut for the evening we were still able to wander around the village.

Back in London, I couldn't resist the opportunity to visit Perivale, a name familiar to fans worldwide as Ace's much disliked hometown, mentioned frequently in the McCoy era and used as a location for Survival. Perivale has a station on the Underground's Central Line, which we used to get into London from Wanstead most days we were in London. On a day with nothing else to do near the end of my stay in the UK, instead of getting off at Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus as usual, I travelled on out the other side of central London to see Perivale for myself.

Armed with a reliable Doctor Who location guide, I made my way from the station across a playing field to the playground where apparently Ace had her encounter with the Cheetah person on horseback - the playground now looks quite different. I then passed through a walkway into a quiet suburban street where I quickly spotted the alleyway where the Doctor pursued the Kitling and, very close by, the street corner where the TARDIS materialised.

It was almost a decade ago when the BBC set up their gear on these doorsteps for a few days in the summer of 1989 to record Survival. Seeing a few teenagers playing in the street I was struck by the thought that the story could have been both very frightening and exciting to watch on television for a young child living in Perivale. How many impressionable youngsters living in the streets where the story was recorded watched the episodes back in 1989, I wonder and did they check outside the window for signs of a suspicious-looking black cat or a cheetah person on horseback...?

The Who Shop in East Ham, visited on one of many shopping excursions!

Walking further, I reached Medway Parade, home to some of the stores visited by the Doctor and Ace. The remarkably short street of shops seemed much larger on the television screen. The grocer's shop where the Doctor obtained cat food from a couple of familiar looking comedians appeared to have been fire-bombed at some point and was now boarded up. Almost directly across the road is the shop corner where Ace's friend Ange pestered the time travellers for money for the ‘Hunt Saboteurs’ charity, now also a deserted building. Just behind this row of shops is a very dirty and depressing-looking block of flats that served as the location of Midge's family flat. The motorbike shop where Midge obtains his wheels is still there - just around the corner from Medway Parade and facing out onto the motorway-sized road known as Western Avenue, or the A40, which seems to divert traffic away from Perivale. Certainly all of the shops seemed devoid of customers on a weekday afternoon.

All of these shops seem more spread out when seen on screen in Survival, but conversely, the Doctor and Ace seem to make the trip from here to the Horsenden Hill recreation ground - scene of their later showdown with the Master and Midge - in very little time. In fact, it proved to be a quite a walk back through the streets, across the field, past the tube station, a long way up Horsenden Lane, and then a steep track to the top of the hill. Not the sort of thing you'd want to have to do on foot too often - and the view from the top is, rather depressingly, of apparently endless suburbia in all directions.

Perivale's shopping precinct being so small, empty and on the whole rather run-down brought home to me what viewing Survival doesn't really successfully convey. Perivale is not a particularly nice area of London, and in creating a character who originated from this area, I believe the makers of Doctor Who were aiming for the impression of a fairly rough street kid. The impact of the suburb and what it really meant for someone like Ace to have come from this area is to a large extent lost on anyone who doesn't realise what Perivale is like.

Two guises of the disembodied Tom Baker, on display in Madame Tussaud's

Our second to last full day in the UK was spent visiting Madame Tussaud's, the famous waxworks museum. Back in the early Eighties the museum's collection included a small Doctor Who display; Tom Baker's wax effigy from that exhibit appears in all those Five Doctors publicity shots. Given that this was fifteen years earlier, I was not expecting to find anything Doctor Who-related on display. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see the disembodied heads of the Fourth Doctor and Meglos prominently on view in a large collection of heads of former exhibits, incongruously placed right below George I and Princess Margaret. Madame Tussaud's apparently reuse the bodies when they change their exhibits - I wonder who has Tom Baker's body these days...?

All good things must come to an end, and after five weeks we had to bid a reluctant farewell and return home. Highlights of the trip included spending a great deal of money in London's Forbidden Planet (a two-level store devoted entirely to SF merchandise!), hunting out bargains (including the 1977 Denys Fisher Tom Baker action doll!) in Cambden Market and taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel for a one day visit to Paris where we went to the very top of the Eiffel Tower - we resisted the temptation to call out “Bye, bye Duggan!” though! Regrettably, we missed out on visiting Blist's Hill open air museum at Ironbridge Gorge - used in The Mark of the Rani, as the museum had closed by the time we got there; and when we visited the Who Shop in East Ham we learned that we'd missed out on attending a signing session by Katy Manning by just one day!

We're already planning the next trip...


Rochelle's response to the above article, from the TSV 56 letters column:

Rochelle Thickpenny, TSV Office

The experience of our trip to England last year will always be one of my lasting memories and one of the most mind-opening extravaganzas of my lifetime. But when I read the article Notes From A Who Island [see last issue], I had trouble recognising the same trip. I feel the obligation to comment further on some of the finer detail overlooked in Paul's version, so let me now provide an addenda to the comings and goings of our adventure

Did you know that the downfall of the Cybermen in Silver Nemesis was actually a barb wire fence! I came to that conclusion after Paul and I had climbed what seemed to me to be the foothills of Mount Everest, through sodden bush to reach the crypt in the grounds of Arundel Castle, where I decided that it would be kinda' fun to halt the adventure by getting stuck in a rather compromising position, straddled over a barbed wire fence. Let's put this way - I literally had a lasting impression of the place!

Also I would like to pay homage to the staff at The Doctor Who Experience at Llangollen. Paul thought that the harder he stared at the exhibit glass, the quicker that the amateur dramatic display presented - obviously as part of the staff's work obligations - would piss off. But as being part of the “I don't mind being a dick and dressing up” part of fandom (yeah, I know whatever turns you on), I thought that it was cool, 'cause what other job would let you do something like that?!

Longleat has a lot of fab' buttons you can push on the control panel of the TARDIS that make lots of sounds, but once again I was put in my place by the filthy looks from Paul.

The real reason why I didn't call out “Bye, bye Duggan!” from the Eiffel Tower was that I was too petrified holding on to the rails to even contemplate speech. Now I realise why monkeys came down from the trees in the first place.

Well, it's good to know that Britain is financially secure for the next few years, due mainly to my mammoth shopping excursions. I think on the flight back, the plane was straining a bit!

Thanks also to David Ronayne who introduced us both to Tibetan food while in London; yum, “would you like any fries to go with your Yeti burger?” And I'm sorry, David and Darrell, I might have to be a bit more plastered next time to be able to see the Ice Warrior in the architecture of that building, uh-huh!

Paul, you wrote in the last issue, that we're already planning our next trip; I'm going to hold you to it!

This item appeared in TSV 55 (October 1998).