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Having Faith in the Curse: BFI London Special Event Saturday 23rd November 2019

Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 26 is released on the 20th January 2020 and to celebrate the BFI (British Film Institute) on the London Southbank recently ran a special event on Doctor Who’s 56th anniversary showing the “ The Curse of Fenric”.

What seemed to slip under most people’s radar was the John Nathan Turner documentary that was added to the schedule two hours before the main event. It’s entirely appropriate that it’s a feature on the upcoming Blu-ray when you consider John Nathan Turner saw four Doctors as producer and more working on the programme in his career. It is the personal and revealing story of the life of the last producer of classic Who and packs an emotional punch. I’m not normally an early riser on a Saturday but I can honestly say I’m so glad that I made the effort to see it on a big screen.

Even though the theatre was half full (maybe it was the 10am start!) director Chris Chapman was there excited to see it with an audience which also included people who had taken part in the documentary. So, there were friends of JNT, Chris Bidmead (writer), Kate Eastell (JNT’s PA), Peter Davison, amongst others. It’s definitely a highlight of the whole day for me.

Chris Chapman, director of Showman - the Life of John Nathan-Turner
Chris Chapman (right) director of Showman – the Life of John Nathan-Turner

The tickets for the screening of “The Curse of Fenric” was probably one of the fastest-selling on the BFI site that I’ve seen. As soon as the members day tickets opened there was a rush on the event and I’m not surprised. Perhaps it is the growing popularity of these BFI events but they are always sold out but this time tickets were snapped up quickly. In the Doctor Who Magazine Poll of 2014, the story came 19th most popular out of 156 classic stories just behind the Five Doctors (18) and above Spearhead from Space (20) which is no mean feat. It is all in the writing for me from Ian Briggs. One of the surprises was Ian Briggs getting up before the screening to talk about the script. He describes the Curse of Fenric as more of a developing horror and supernatural story before becoming science fiction. It is one of my favourite stories of the 7th Doctor era because we get to see another more manipulative side to the Doctor and Ace is growing up.

I love the rich storytelling, where characters are well developed and believable even Sundvik who we never see but learn about through the translations. The script sparkles as it challenges faith and belief in family, love, ideology in a war period where people were questioning who was the enemy. I love Nicholas Parsons as Reverend Wainwright who despises that the British could bomb German cities and kill innocent people.  Doctor Judson, played by Dinsdale Landen, a wheelchair-using genius was Ian Briggs explained based on Alan Turing but with changes to expand the relationship with Nurse Crane. The antagonism between them was extended, in the novel, to explain that it came from a close former relationship.

Ian Briggs (centre) with interviewers Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddy
Ian Briggs (centre) with interviewers Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddy

Ian Briggs seemed very happy to be at the BFI and revealed that he started his writing career in the 1980s by attending a scripting writing event at the BFI where he got some excellent advice on how to pass interviews. He described his time on Doctor Who as “a joy”. He enjoyed writing Ace in Dragonfire describing her character as “beautiful” and he handed her over to Andrew Cartmel. He realised Doctor Who was a writer led programme where writers were listened to. His later experiences were as more as a hired gun but Andrew Cartmel created space and a think big mentality. Ian Briggs loved John Nathan Turner because he was larger than life character and he fought for the show.

Mark Ayres is a stalwart of the BFI events and besides revealing that he was working on an undisclosed season right now (Future release alert!) was happy to describe the revisions he made for “The Curse of Fenric”. He loves the show and cares that the releases are the best they can be for the fans, as a fan himself. He referred back to the 2003 DVD release where a feature-length special edition was then created. Whilst the original scripts were fantastic due to the demands of tv schedules for transmission the story had to have twenty minutes cut. John Nathan Turner had thought it a bad idea to recut the story but the special edition now was in script order and told the story as it was meant to be. He is someone who is regularly called on to restore and update effects and when asked which period was easier to tinker on and update, he said none as the technology keeps moving.

The differences were; the black and white era was about preserving as much as possible of the analogue sound and the colour era was mainly fixing fadeouts, clicks and pops and replacing the loss of sound. Mark described one scene where Kathleen and baby Audrey are escaping through a window. It was a summery dry scene as the Haemovores are coming around the corner which became stormy and wet. He restored the effect and revised the sound. I liked that before the story started there was an acknowledgement that the version was for director Nicholas Mallett and producer John Nathan Turner.

Mark Ayres, composer on Curse of Fenric (right)
Mark Ayres, composer on the extended and restored Curse of Fenric (right)

There were a quite a few highlights of extras created for the Blu-ray and they look hugely entertaining. Outtakes which prove Sylvester McCoy is naturally a comic. Behind the Sofa with Janet Fielding’s pithy wit, a feature including the season’s writers. The trailer featuring a grown-up Ace was shown and speaks to the popularity of Sophie Aldred character’s as it was very warmly received by the audience. Sophie Aldred and script editor Andrew Cartmel were together as the guests after the previews and there was some discussion that maybe it is time for Ace to come back in some capacity. She was meant to be a proactive Cathy Gale type in Fenric who seduced a soldier and fell in love.

Ace’s growth set the template for the companion in the revival and interviewer Justin described it as “groundbreaking”. It’s acknowledged that Ace and the 7th Doctor are a popular pairing and Sophie Aldred discussed their relationship where they clicked together having many similarities in their acting life, political outlook and sharing a birthday! John Nathan Turner was discussed as an instinctive caster of actors who would give new people an opportunity but also enjoyed the more showbiz aspects of the business where he might be accused of stunt casting.

Andrew Cartmel I must admit fascinates me. I had a very delightful discussion with him about “Ghostlight” at London Film and Comic Con and brought his book. For years there has been discussion about the Cartmel Masterplan, which is a backstory where the writers attempted to make the Doctor more mysterious. He started as script editor on the show on the strength of his scripts and explained he obtained an agent who was a friend of JNT. He wasn’t aware of the sword over the show but only of its reputation.

Q&A with Sophie Aldred and Andrew Cartmell
Q&A with Sophie Aldred and Andrew Cartmell

He revealed John Nathan Turner would read feedback from the magazines and  Andrew would get letters from fans saying don’t destroy the show. Andrew Cartmel hadn’t watched the show systemically but watched some early Tom Baker and got on with the scripts and finding new writers. Due to the lack of money, they had to be more creative and he felt by the end of season 26 that they were getting it right with the show. Characters came first and he didn’t realise the impact they would have on the modern era. Plans were in place for the 27th season, he had spoken to writers and didn’t expect the cancellation but was asked to write an open ending which he did.

The Curse of Fenric signing card and BFI information sheet
The Curse of Fenric signing card and BFI information sheet

After the panel, the whole event finished with a signing with Sophie Aldred and Andrew Cartmel with a lovely postcard available. Expectedly there was a huge queue for both and I had to admire their endurance talking with fans and the patience of everyone waiting to see them.

It was another well-organised event by the BFI and the perfect way to end it was settling down and chatting with our Big Blue Box podcast friends Garry and Adam in the BFI balcony bar. Next year is going to be another busy year for the BFI as more Blu-rays come out and the animated missing stories come to the big screen. I’m really looking forward to coming back in 2020!

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