Blue Box Boy   1 comment

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Matthew Waterhouse. Or perhaps a sympathise-hate relationship with Matthew-Adric would be more accurate.

The Peter Davison era was one of general disenchantment for me. So were the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras to be honest. But Davison was the trigger of my growing disenchantment. It’s enough of a strain on childhood loyalties when the Doctor changes at just the age when you’re discovering what great fun sex can be. Maybe I could have held on to the childlike wonder had the last of the Great Doctors not been replaced by someone I couldn’t look at without picturing his arm up a cow’s backside.

The multi-person TARDIS crews of the era didn’t help, spending most of their time squabbling or whining about wanting to get back to Heathrow. So, I wasn’t in the most receptive of moods to accept Adric, even if he’d been written as an interesting character. The passing of the sonic screwdriver was more of an emotional wrench for me than the passing of the Artful Dodger in jim-jams.

Only years later did I begin to sympathise with Matthew Waterhouse himself as he became the acceptable whipping boy for a hypocritical fandom. Just look at the pious people on the various forums bemoaning the spitefulness of fans who dare to criticise Tennant or Russell T Davies and then see the contempt with which the pious are happy to treat Matthew Waterhouse.

But what really made me sympathise with MW was his treatment at the hands of his fellow thesps. How many times over the years have we come across the usual suspects from that era of DW revelling in anecdotes of their stunning discovery that teenagers aren’t as emotionally mature as grown adults? It’s surprising to find someone notorious for studiously ignoring her co-star at rehearsals mounting the high horse of emotional maturity and professionalism.

We all bitch about friends, relatives and work colleagues behind their backs, I’m sure. But how many of us would do it in a public forum where the target of the bitchiness was very likely to hear/read about it? I suppose that, to bitch about a former colleague in public requires the sort of breezy lack of self-awareness necessary to sit at a table for hours, signing autographs for cash. Speaking of which, am I the only one amazed that anyone could do that without blushing? I’m not suggesting that they should suffer the attentions of the fans gratis but couldn’t they find a less openly tacky way of raking in the shekels to boost their pension funds?

Unless I missed the issues of DWM containing a rare interview, MW never seemed to bitch back at his detractors which always seemed a point in his favour. And that’s before we even get to the hideously embarassing DVD commentaries in which MW appears with his former co-stars and in which he might as well be in a different studio for all the notice any of them take of him. The only light relief coming from MW casually-on-purpose tossing in a comment on the works of Apollinaire at the point where his co-commentators are at their most frivolous on the subject of hair and make-up. On reflection, maybe that is MW’s way of bitching back at them.

So, when I recently read a rare DWM interview with MW plugging his new memoir Blue Box Boy in which he was pretty frank about the people he’d worked with on Doctor Who, I placed an order for it, thinking: oooooooh this could be the juicy revenge he’s been nursing for years. As the old saying goes: revenge is a dish best served on bed of wilted spinach drizzled with a fennel vinaigrette.

The first thing which hits a reader is the conceit of writing the whole book in the third person. Matthew felt this…Matthew did that…Lalla told Matthew, etc. Although an interesting choice, it does take a bit of getting used to and you never do entirely. This conceit is at its weirdest in the first third of the book which covers MW’s childhood and his growing obsession with Doctor Who. Possibly because at this early stage of the book the reader is still getting used to the device. One doesn’t learn much about MW’s childhood though, as this section of the book is more concerned with his childhood as a DW fan. This often consists of lengthy discussions of tacky DW merchandise of the period which you can imagine provoking fond memories from a contemporary but, as he’s  few years older than I am, most of these toys were too early for me to have come across. But when he hits on something I remember such as Jon Pertwee’s record “I am the Doctor” (which MW used to recite in class – how did he survive school?) or the various DW special offers in breakfast cereal, it’s nicely nostalgic.

Unsurprisingly, you do soon find yourself flicking forward in the book to check how much more of this there is to go before you reach the bit you bought the book for – his time in Doctor Who. This is when MW really hits his stride and you almost forget the various stylistic oddities.

Tom Baker’s behaviour in rehearsals and on set in this period will come as a surprise to few of us but there’s a real poignancy in MW’s disappointment in his idol. Tom is treated with a strange distance considering that he was the focal point of the show. He appears less as the sun at the centre of everything that happens and more as a bright comet orbiting outside MW’s relationships with the other actors and crew. I can’t remember one occasion where we find Tom actually speaking to MW in the whole book.

Some of the nicest bits of the book are where MW clearly had a good relationship with someone at the time. He speaks with genuine warmth of Anthony Ainley and you get a sense of what a nice man he was. More surprising was how he writes of Janet Fielding, someone whose abrasiveness you can easily imagine having been rubbed up the wrong way by MW when they worked together. He writes of her with genuine respect and you feel that, while they’ve never been bosom buddies, her distance frrom MW was about not being that interested in a kid and being too honest to hide it rather than any transference of anger at other people (hello, Lalla) or mean spiritedness. Mind you, Janet is an agent now so maybe MW is just taking care not to burn any professional boats. He does get in at least one lovely dig at Janet Fielding though when he describes a backstage scene after a DVD commentary when she and Peter Davison are having a furious argument about politics and MW and Sarah Sutton are shooed off into a corner as if, to JF and PD, they’re still 1980s teenagers with no opinions worth having. This reference to her views on her co-stars’ lack of seriousness seems clearly a sly dig at JF’s notorious DVD commentary persona where she rarely moves off the subject of her hair and make-up.

I’ve seen it suggested that the use of the authorial third person was MW’s way of distancing himself emotionally from his subject matter. Perhaps it was in part a desire to absolve himself of any charges of personal animus towards his own critics. If so, it certainly succeeds in achieving an impression of detachment but it doesn’t wholly manage to avoid cattiness and occasional breathtaking rudeness. Even when dissecting the personality of Lalla Ward, MW remains detached and relatively inoffensive. But he is regularly and spectacularly callous (at least in retrospect) about the feelings of the little people. If you’re an actor or a director at the time (and your name isn’t Peter Grimwade) the worst you get at MW’s hands is fair comment. But if you were a relative nobody on DW at the time, the sort who doesn’t even appear in the closing credits, you might well open this book to find yourself summed up in passing as, say, “an overweight woman with a drink problem”. The reader can’t escape the impression that MW finds this stylistically amusing and is delighting in his own wryfulness. Do parents not teach actors simple good manners?

Overall, there’s some real meat in this memoir of particularly the atmosphere of rehearsals. There’s a bit too much of the author’s pre-Who life and providing little insight. You’ll be a little disappointed if you expect to learn much of MW’s relationship with Tom Baker as he appears mainly as a character viewed from outside the goldfish bowl of Tom’s ego. MW gives his side of some of the anti-Waterhouse stories such as giving acting advice to Richard Todd and being told to fuck off in a pub by Tom Baker. But just as many anti stories are left out and you’re left to decide for yourself whether they were the invention of their originators or whether they were too accurate for MW to want to include. All in all, it’s the opposite of the book in City of Death. Bit boring at the start and finish, lots of meat in the middle.

Posted October 31, 2010 by docwhom in Doctor Who

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