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June 18, 2009

Crackerjack!

Delta and the Bannermen

Due to be Released: 22 June 2009

Produced by 2Entertain

Time heals all wounds.  Or as the Seventh Doctor might mumble "Time wounds all heels".  The McCoy years still cause some people to get red in the face with anger, frustration and the memory of one too many playground taunts circa 1987 about how terrible Doctor Who is nowadays.  Others launch incredible defences of the era, usually in exhaustive detail, arguing that actually Silver Nemesis just appeared to be a load of old crap but was in fact playing with the conventions of the series, and that Time and the Rani was not a fearful mess, and even if it was, well, The Time Monster is much worse.  So ner.  Personally speaking, I always felt slightly caught in the middle, as I bailed out on Doctor Who immediately after the transmission of Episode 1 of Paradise Towers, and didn't see another McCoy story until the DVDs started coming out years later.  But following an embarrassing conversation at a convention (what other kind is there?) when someone's reference to a 'Red Kang' left me bewildered and suspect, I decided I should do something about this and watched every McCoy story in rapid succession.  As a result of this, I formed the uninspiring conclusion that while the stories do get better and generally less embarrassing, I still can't get over the fact that throughout the era the performances of the leading actors range from mediocre to terrible.  This is quite a problem for me, as watching a programme called Doctor Who loses its attraction a little when every time the title character appears I have to wince and squint my eyes.  But it's my problem, and I mention it only so you can bear my prejudices in mind.  The important thing is that there's really no reason for anyone to get angry about it anymore. In 1987 - no-one died.

The production is so peculiar and the tone so odd, that you are constantly left wondering if the makers are pulling the viewers' collective plonker

LickyDelta and the Bannermen is the McCoy story from Season 24 that most people now try and rehabilitate.  I'm sure at one point Dragonfire was the one that everyone firmly stated was the best, but the revisionists are out in force for Delta, and it has to be said that maybe, just maybe, they have a point.  Certainly it moves at a hell of a lick to start with.  No sooner have we seen the tail-end of an unexplained genocide, than Gavrok (Don Henderson) is gunning people down, the Doctor and Mel win a ticket to Disneyland from Ken Dodd, and a space/time travelling coach comes crashing down in a 1950s Butlins-style holiday camp.  And I haven't even got around to Stubby Kaye as Weismuller yet.  The production is so peculiar and the tone so odd, that you are constantly left wondering if the makers are pulling the viewers' collective plonker, or just incompetent.  Take Hawk and Weismuller.  The infamous tent scene (if it isn't infamous it should be) is like some unholy cross between Brokeback Mountain and Five Go Mad in Dorset: "Oh Weismuller - you're so licky!", and similarly you wonder if Gavrok's gunning down of Ken Dodd is the wish-fulfillment of someone who barely made it through to the fifth hour of Dodd's stand-up act.  But there's enough genuine incompetence on display to cast severe doubt on Delta being some kind of sophisticated post-modern playpen.

The kind of acting last seen in Plan 9 from Outer Space

Any remote interest you might have in the characters on display is instantly dispelled by the kind of acting last seen in Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Belinda Mayne (Delta) has the permanent expression of someone trying to remember something important that has just slipped her mind. In her case it’s that she should start acting, but alas she doesn’t have a knot in her hanky.  David Kinder (Billy) is just a constipated sloth on Mogadon, while Sara Griffiths (Ray) is bearable aside from her accent which probably angered more Sons of Glendower than the whole of The Green Death.  It's not all bad - Don Henderson and Richard Davies (Burton) are rarely anything other than great, and Johnny Dennis is genuinely charming in his role as the hapless Murray.  Unfortunately I was unable to concentrate on these positives as my ears were usually ringing from the full onslaught of Keff McCulloch's incidental music which makes the average Murray Gold score sound like John Cage on one of his quiet days.  Five minutes of 1950s pastiche is just about bearable and indeed arguably necessary.  Ten minutes and you're calling the hospital.

Criticism of Delta and the Bannermen needs to be kept in proportion.  A lot of people like it precisely because it was a bit of fluff unfettered by the increasingly heavy continuity that dominated the Colin Baker era, and therefore they seized upon Season 24 as a fresh start.  For others, the whole of Season 24 was the nadir of Who, with a programme that once vaguely resembled mainstream drama finally descending to the level of one of the comedy sketches from the end of Crackerjack. Fortunately it can now be seen as just of the many weird phases in the continuing story of Doctor Who, rather than the beginning of an ignominious end. 

Extras

Delta fans will probably bemoan the absence of a "making of" feature in the release, and I suppose I would have liked to have at least seen evidence that Belinda Mayne and David Kinder were either method acting or just playing themselves.  That aside, there's more than enough material here to keep people happy. Effectively filling in for the lack of a "making of" is a feature on the filming of Delta from the Andy Crane-helmed kids show But First This which is supplemented by unedited versions of the featured interviews.  There's some interesting stuff in the rushes, not least that McCoy is much more explicit about his admiration for Patrick Troughton as well as coming out as a fan of Blake's 7.  It also features Ken Dodd giving away everything about what happens to his character, and leaving the poor sods who edited the final version to pick the bones out of it as best they can.  There's another very short contemporary piece from Wales Today notable mainly for the interviewer asking McCoy how his new job was going: "They haven't sacked me yet" is his jovial response.  If only, if only...

"JN-T was one of the great pantomime producers I’ve ever come across"

There are some other gems, including a slight but nice interview with Hugh Lloyd where he makes his feelings about John Nathan-Turner known: "JN-T was one of the great pantomime producers I’ve ever come across”.  It's hard to disagree with this, and I cite the main feature and the rest of Season 24 as evidence.  Less welcome is the baleful presence of Noel Edmonds in one of his regular skits from Noel's Saturday Roadshow known as Clown Court.  For those of you who are lucky enough not to know about this, Noel's Saturday Roadshow was Edmonds's low-key penitent comeback show  which acted as a rehabilitation programme after the death of Michael Lush on The Late Late Breakfast Show.  It's effectively a form of Noel parole ("get through this without anyone dying and you'll be fine"), only sadly without the earlier imprisonment.  I can't really do it justice here, but only Edmonds could turn something as innocuous as outtakes into a tongue-poking sneerathon.  It's a far greater abomination than anything else in the McCoy era, but it has the added awkwardness of showing that McCoy couldn't even handle a brief skit without screwing up his lines about a hundred times.  So it was a relief to move on to another episode of Stripped for Action, even if it meant an inevitable appointment with Mr Cartmel.  (Who is the most annoying of the 1980s script-editors?  There's only one way to find out...fight!) I don't know an awful lot about the Doctor Who comic strips, so I found this piece pretty illuminating and had no idea about stuff like the Hulk appearing as an early form of cross-product placement.  Unfortunately after 15 minutes everyone got very bogged down with continuity issues and the mind-boggling difficulties of trying to reconcile the novels, television shows, comic strips and Golden Wonder packets.  After a while I started to lose the will to live, and briefly felt like Lance Parkin must feel all of the time.  But it's a diligent and well-made feature, as are the assured Delta production notes written by an unknown novice who goes by the name of Andrew Pixley.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew Cartmel's voice remains resolutely unsexy

The most revelatory of the extras is the unedited version of Episode 1.  It lacks incidental music, but it becomes rapidly clear that this is not so much a lack as a positive boon. The episode passes by in an oasis of blissful silence and it's approximately 150 times less irritating with McCulloch's clamour removed.  Almost as revelatory is the DVD commentary where we get to hear that Sara Griffiths's real voice (minus the ersatz Taffness) is about as sexy as it gets.  Unsurprisingly, Andrew Cartmel's voice remains resolutely unsexy but despite that he can always be relied upon to bring a rich vein of unintentional humour to the proceedings.  He insists on reading out some of his extraordinary contemporaneous diary entries, but brought my house down when he started riffing on the brilliance of the name Ray for a companion: "Ray gun, x-ray, space ray... (pause) ...cosmic ray”.  With a masterplan from this man, how could people have ever imagined that the programme's future was anything other than assured?

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