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Are you a killjoy? Reviewing The Happiness Patrol

Script Editor of “The Happiness Patrol”, Andrew Cartmel, shared the sad news on Twitter a few weeks ago that the writer Graeme Curry had died and I felt a real pang of regret and sadness when I heard that news. Graeme Curry was just 54 and it seems a crying shame to lose a writer at that age. He contributed one story to the classic Who canon “The Happiness Patrol” in 1988. “The Happiness Patrol” was broadcast as part of the 25th anniversary season. It seems a fitting time to review this story which divided its audience into lovers and haters.

Tweet from Andrew Cartmel
Tweet from Andrew Cartmel

Doctor Who in war with Planet Maggie screamed the newspaper headline when Sylvester McCoy told the Sunday Times newspaper in 2010 that there was an agenda to bring politics into the show. The outraged tone of the article, using words such as a ‘cabal’ ‘anti-conservative propaganda’ ‘fomenting anti-Thatcher dissent’ probably says more about the newspaper’s leaning than the extremity what was actually happening at the time. Reading the Telegraph Sylvester McCoy is quoted as saying they brought politics into the show ‘deliberately ‘but “very quietly” it seems to me his personal expression is taken as representative of some conspiracy. It seems a bit of a grey area. The director Chris Clough considers there was an anti-Thatcher agenda and script editor Andrew Cartmel didn’t discourage the writer from using Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration for writing Helen A. However, Graeme Curry insists he wanted to write a story with an interesting and credible villain, not necessarily a satire of Margaret Thatcher.

Whilst Sheila Hancock may have based her interpretation on the politician, to only see Helen A as a caricature of Margaret Thatcher rather denigrates the politician but also the fictional character. Margaret Thatcher was greatly influenced in her policies by a book called The Road to Serfdom. Written by an Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, it warned of the dangers of tyranny that result from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.

So, Thatcherism (such was the influence of the Iron Lady that she was given her own term for a political philosophy) represented a belief in the free market and a state which wasn’t planning and regulating people’s lives. “The Happiness Patrol “if you think about it properly is the opposite of allowing people to take responsibility for their own lives. The people of Terra Alpha don’t have many free choices. I’m not defending Margaret Thatcher necessarily. In retrospect, for me, privatisation of all the public utilities the state-owned such as gas, telephone, rail services, British Airways s etc I see as trading all the country’s wealth for a short-term gain. The state sold off all their assets and you can then only use all that money once unlike owning something that makes money and reinvests. How many citizens really became richer in the long term because they brought shares in these companies?  

Graeme Curry does put in subtle nods to Margaret Thatcher’s ideas.  The rolling back of state welfare was a key policy. The justification by Helen A ‘that her policies were “For the good of the majority. For the ones that wanted to be happy, who wanted to take the opportunities that I gave them” reminds you that also the least able does deserve to be supported. Whilst it’s fine to be rewarded for using your initiative and not relying on the “nanny” state. (highlighted when Helen A rewards Silas P, a member of her secret police,  “I like your initiative, your enterprise”  a badge for catching 45 killjoys) not everyone has the capacity or opportunity.  The Doctor persuades “the drones”, who labour in the factories and mines, to stop working and rise up in revolt at one point, an echo of the miners’ strikes and printers’ disputes during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms in office.

The miner’s strike was a particularly bitter dispute and the loss of jobs from the mine closures would devastate communities which would take a generation to get over. Margaret Thatcher was a tough politician, proud of her humble roots as a grocer’s daughter, explaining to the public the simple comparisons of managing a budget like a housewife. Helen A herself is far more sinister. The writer puts in ideas more audacious and disturbing than any democracy we have in the United Kingdom. In broad terms “The Happiness Patrol” examines the tools of Helen A’s dictatorship regime Her idea of population control of 17% is utterly monstrous.

Ace and Susan Q

The all-female Patrol, which Ace auditions for are for all their bright colours a death squad. The Kandyman is a Dr Mengele experimenting on his victims with ‘sweets that kill’, the victims covered in a tube smothered with fondant surprise reminds me of a gas chamber.  Harold V, formerly known as Harold F, also suffers electrocution. Sheila Hancock is a wonderful actress who manages to capture the ruthlessness of Terra Alpha’s leader. There is something horribly cold as she portrays Helen A’s childlike delight at fondant surprise or that we find out that she records and watches all the executions. It is a shame that the object of any softness is a pet called Fifi which to be fair is fairly unconvincing as a prop but Sheila Hancock really sells the affection she feels for it and her sorrow at the end feels real.

I think the majority of the human characters are very well realised. Graeme Curry’s script is actually very smart. It tells a story but the message doesn’t over-ride the plot. With three episodes the story loses a lot of the flabbiness normally associated with the classic who four-episode format. At roughly 75-minutes length it efficiently introduces its characters and through some sparky dialogue, we get a sense of who they are quick. Silas P, enjoying undercover too much and luring Daphne with almost a relish to her death, Daisy P the blind devotee of Helen A’s regime “have a nice death”, Helen A, politician and leader, determined to see through her policies, Trevor Sigma, the bureaucratic jobs-worth “No nicknames, aliases, pseudonyms, nom-de-plumes. Real names”

PRISCILLA: I did a good job, and then they put me on this. It’s not fair. I know the streets. I’m a fighter.
ACE: No, you’re not. You’re a killer.

I love the twofold meaning we get with the language used which plays with images of innocuous things such as the waiting zone, sweets, happiness, but which also has a menacing and deadly meaning. You may see the pink wigs the Happiness Patrol wear as ridiculous but the world that Helen A wants is held together only by force. It struck me how everyone who lives on Terra Alpha is busy acting out a role and Graeme Curry says he wanted to write about the falseness, saccharine sweetness and brashness of American culture and in this respect, the script really works. One of the most powerful bits for me, which is almost handled as an aside, is seeing Daisy K without her wig at the end as Helen A’s regime falls.  The only part of the script which falls down is the dreary subplot with the tunnel dwellers who are difficult to understand through ill-fitting face masks and it’s hard to work out what they actually want or add to the story.

HELEN A :And don’t forget, when you smile, I want to see those teeth.

It’s such a good cast otherwise with Georgina Hale-(Daisy K), Rachel Bell( Priscilla P), Lesley Dunlop(Susan Q ), Harold Innocent (Gilbert M), John Normington (Trevor Sigma) It feels as if this company of actors really made the most of the script even where there may not have been lots of individual scenes for each of them. I particularly love the different types of women that we get to see through the Happiness Patrol and it’s a sign of changing times in the 1980s whereas an audience we are seeing women in positions of power in a regime. Having the male two guards talk about their weapons and how the women get the best guns and better jobs was a welcome little twist on the normal status quo. The only actor who I felt wasn’t as strong as the others were Richard D. Sharp as Earl Sigma. As a character, he felt the least drawn in.  

HELEN A: I think you should watch this, dear. You may find it instructive.
HELEN A: I think you should watch this, dear. You may find it instructive.

The other male characters Joseph C (Ronald Fraser) and Gilbert M (Harold Innocent) were very good, laid back and sardonic by turn. There have been suggestions that there is a gay agenda running through the story ( well there is a lot of pink in this story one way or another) If you believe the story is an attack on Margaret Thatcher’s policies then there may be a justification for the claim as the inclusion of Section 28 clause of the Local Government Act 1988 stated that a local authority shall not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Anyway, the surprise of them together in the escape shuttle tickled me. Graeme Curry must have considered that the ultimate revenge on Helen A as she drove her husband away.

Of the regulars, I do feel a bit mean to say that Sylvester McCoy is fine but not exceptional. Much vaulted The rooftop scene with the two male snipers is good but there are parts where he pronounces his lines at times quite deliberately and it’s distracting. It’s not naturalistic. He is adept at the black comedy of the script but doesn’t quite deliver on the drama. I’m not sure why as he does in other stories. There are times such as his singing of As Time Goes By which is truly awful and the scene where he is pretending to be happy in front of the happiness patrol seems a bit hysterical and overblown – but I suppose he can’t use a gun against them.

Sophie Aldred gives a solid performance as the sulky, angry teen Ace although she does become a bit shouty against the tunnel dwellers at times. Her honest interactions with Susan Q, are a highlight and Lesley Dunlop manages to bring real pain to her part that I personally loved.     

ALEX: Don’t see any women doing roof duty. Women always get the better jobs.
DAVID: Women always get the best guns.

I have a real soft spot for the Kandyman. As a waspish psychopath spitting venom with every line he is a marvellous creation and yes, I know he looks like a giant Bertie Bassett sweet feast which is slightly unfortunate. However, I enjoy the banter he has with his creator Gilbert and the hate-hate relationship they share. It amuses me a lot that the chairman of Bassett Foods wrote a letter of complaint to John Nathan Turner regarding infringement of copyright because of the way the Kandyman looks. I Imagine they worried their little consumers being absolutely terrified by the imagined nightmares that voice could bring! The character is a complete antithesis of sweetness and I love the contrast of the way he looks and sounds.

KANDYMAN: Just because Helen A prefers my ugly side doesn’t mean I don’t care, does it, Gilbert M? Gilbert M!
GILBERT: Oh, no, of course not.

I said at the start that this story is a bit Marmite for people and despite an intelligent script what is a bit of a disappointment of THP is the execution of what this world looks like. Visually the Kandy kitchen is probably my favourite set with the large oven and pipes reminiscent of a nightmarish fairy-tale but the street scenes which are darkly lit do look like a studio. From what I remember from the feature on the making of the episode the production team weren’t looking for realism. But I would have liked maybe one line saying suggesting the people lived in a dome or just something to explain the artificialness of the surroundings.

What a sweetie
What a sweetie

“The Happiness Patrol” is like a batch of chewy toffee. It’s either a sweet sensation that you can decide to enjoy slowly pondering on its various notes or it just gets stuck on your teeth which frustrates you. Happily, my own personal preference is it’s a little sweet gem which I don’t tire of watching.

What are your thoughts on “The Happiness Patrol”? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk.