Top Of The Box

Top Of The Box by Tim Worthington - excellent cover art by Graham Kibble-White

Top Of The Box is the story behind every single released by BBC Records And Tapes, from Every Loser Wins to Awesome Dood!.

Between 1970 and 1990, BBC Records And Tapes released almost three hundred singles, ranging from some of the best known and most loved theme tunes in television history to full-length versions of ones that nobody had even asked for a short version of to begin with. Along the way they also put out one-off oddities by everyone from George Formby impersonators and up-and-coming folkies to a 'computer orchestra' and some posh blokes going on about how marvellous The Queen is. Oh and then there's the one that's just the sound of someone hitting a phone.

Possibly the most bafflingly diverse catalogue of singles ever issued, viewed as a whole, it's a fascinating indication of what really was popular - and sometimes unpopular - with viewers at the time. Top Of The Box tells the story behind each of these singles, taking in familiar names, cult artists and obscure bafflements alike, and including the likes of Simon May, Peter Howell, Nick Berry, David Munrow, Roy Castle, Anita Dobson, Fascinating Aida, Aled Jones, Hazel O'Connor, Richard Stilgoe, Spike Milligan, Johnny Dankworth, Eric Clapton, The Grange Hill Cast, The Dooleys, Alan Hawkshaw, Enya, Keith Mansfield, Julie Covington, Georgie Fame, Godiego, Lena Zavaroni, Brown Sauce, Alan Price, Russell Grant, Kenneth Williams, Floella Benjamin, The Not The Nine O'Clock News Team, B.A. Robertson, Paddy Kingsland, Richard Denton & Martin Cook, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and of course Keith Harris & Orville. So many singles by Keith Harris & Orville. Including one that wasn't even released...

You can get Top Of The Box as a paperback here or as an eBook here, or from the Kindle Store here, and - after thanking Graham Kibble-White for the excellent cover art - I'll just leave you with a couple of personal favourites from the catalogue...

It's Still A Police Box, Why Hasn't It Changed? Part One: Breakin' Down The Walls Of Hartnell

Let's face it, pretty much everyone in the known universe is doing their own heavily annotated from-the-start Doctor Who rewatch nowadays. And probably everyone in E-Space too.

And yes, as you've probably already worked out for yourselves, I've also started doing a from-the-start Doctor Who rewatch, only without the annotation-heavy element. There are, let's be honest about this, so many episode-by-episode story-by-story series-by-series in-depth reviews-slash-commentaries going on right now that if I launched one of my own it would basically have ended up playing Bonekickers to The Wife In Space's, well, Doctor Who. Which is why I had actually embarked on this epic DVD Player-hogging Bellal-heavy bonanza for no other reason than sheer personal entertainment, with the idea of taking my own critical stroll through the adventures of Hartnell and company and beyond seeming so obvious and indeed pointless an exercise that it didn't even occur to me as I sat down to watch that Kenneth Williams-esque extra pull a sarky camp face at a teen mag at the start of An Unearthly Child for something approaching the fifty three billionth time.

Anyway, that was the plan - effectively not to even have a plan beyond watching and enjoying old episodes of Doctor Who, and just plain watching The Armageddon Factor. While I was watching and enjoying, though, thoughts, opinions, observations and jokes kept inevitably occurring to me, and I ended up sharing a few of them on Twitter. People seemed to quite like these, and a couple of them suggested that I really ought to be doing this as a series of articles. And so, erm, here we are.

Like Sidney Newman and his disdain for 'B.E.M.'s, though, or indeed like Head of Drama Shaun Sutton demanding a cheaper approach, we need to establish a couple of ground rules first. As a bit of a break from the norm, and in the hope of coming up with something individual enough to make it halfway worthwhile, there'll be no narrative, no through-story, and no attempt a coherent episode-by-episode recycled-flying-insect-effect-by-recycled-flying-insect-effect critical analysis. Instead, it's just going to be a series of observations that occurred to me while watching. It's still going to be series by series though, because, well, you still have to have some kind of structure. Secondly, in the case of missing episodes, I'll be listening to the commercially-released audio recordings rather than watching any reconstructions or what have you - it's actually in some ways the most reliably closest thing we have to what viewers would actually have seen on various relevant Saturdays between 1964 and 1969, it's only right that there should be some hat-tippage towards the people who put so much effort into making these recordings available at a time when that was literally all that was left of the wiped material, and above all else I'm not playing Philip Morris' increasingly tedious game. Of course, there are a couple of officially released reconstructions which throw this 'rule' slightly off target, but we'll cross that bridge as and when. Finally, where relevant, I'll be covering a couple of extra-curricular projects which, in accordance with my self-defined rules and regulations which we won't be going into here, I consider to be more or less 'canon'. Yes, they are. Or rather they will be. Stop arguing.

Anyway, now that we've got all of that established, let's get straight into Series One...

William Hartnell Is The Best Lead Actor The Show Has Ever Had

There. I've said it. And if you want to argue, my fingers are wedged firmly in my ears. Although we're generally encouraged to think of the early black and white days as being slow, creaky and full of 'wooden' acting (as defined by the sort of people who appear to think that primetime ITV1 dramas are full of performances roughly akin to Billie Whitelaw and Keith Michell battling it out over the last remaining BAFTA in the known universe), the actual fact of the matter is that they rarely dip beneath the level of a very good stage play - and, let's face it, in some respects most television shows were essentially stage plays at that point - and that, with no offence intended, William Hartnell is several leagues ahead of pretty much anyone else he shares the screen with. Almost every eccentric slip and stumble is deliberate and intentional, any actual slip or stumble - which, y'know, sometimes happened what with it being recorded as live and that - is quickly and effectively improvised around without ever breaking character, and it's no exaggeration to say that when he's in a scene, everyone else in it ups their game considerably. So the next time someone starts up about him 'fluffing' lines and the like, bear in mind that he was initially reluctant to take the role due to being a successful and acclaimed serious film actor. He did say 'EH?' a lot, though.

The Stock Footage Invariably Looks Awful

It's not really surprising that the early years of Doctor Who should have made such sprocket-overloadingly heavy use of bits and pieces of off-the-shelf film footage from other productions, as it would have been hard and indeed costly enough for an early sixties feature film to convincingly mock up, say, a thunderstorm or a pacing lion, let alone something recorded 'as live' on a handful of sets in three quarters of a broom cupboard at Lime Grove. It doesn't really help, though, when the clips they use have the sharpness, consistency, luminance and definition of an episode of the colour Andy Pandy that's been marinaded in used dishwater infused with marscapone before being rolled down the stairs, used as makeshift dental floss, and left on top of a blast furnace for eight months. And that's even after the Restoration Team have been able to track down, clean up and neatly re-insert the original footage - lord alone knows how it must have looked back in 1963/64. Probably still better than when some Grange Hill pupils on videotape stumbled across some 'foxes' on crackly poorly-matched 16mm with a big tramline scratch, though.

The Female Characters Are Stronger And Better Defined Than Popular Opinion Would Have You Believe

Popular opinion - and the slightly less popular opinion of rentagob dimwits on clip shows - would have us all believe that Doctor Who is amongst the most problematically sexist creations in the entirety of popular culture, with 'the man' dashing around solving all of the problems and getting all of the glory, and 'the girl' left to stand in the background looking pretty, screaming a bit and handing things to him when required. There are, let's be frank, parts of the show's history where this is arguably a legitimate criticism, but the first two series are not amongst them. At this point, it's worth remembering, the show had a strident young female producer and a fifty percent female regular cast, and if the Bechdel Test is your particular favoured method of measuring worth then the overwhelming majority of those nigh on a hundred episodes pass it with ease. Even above and beyond that, Susan and Barbara will often take the lead in a storyline, facing off against Daleks, ritual historical violence and even the laws of time on their own terms, and encountering all manner of well drawn and sympathetically portrayed female characters en route. Even their less Bechdel-impressing conversations are noteworthy for a television show made in the early sixties, particularly their dealings with the numerous other ladies they meet during The Keys Of Marinus, and Susan's celebrated chat with Ping Cho about her life and expectations in Thirteenth Century China. Most notably of all, there's a lengthy scene in which Barbara and Susan reflect with some weariness on the male characters' attitude towards them, which is unfortunately undermined when, almost immediately afterwards, a statue grabs Barbara's arse.

Which is perhaps an opportune moment to move on to...

Barbara Would Seriously Get It

Well, um, we'd probably better qualify this one a bit. With very few exceptions, the focus of the 'Doctor Who Girl' has always been slanted towards the late teens/early twenties end of the scale, with successive production teams shamelessly stating their intention to use the latest cutesy thespianically-challenged sidekick with knockers straining against her ill-tailored top for little other purpose than to get 'the dads' watching. The fact that this role was originally filled by - gasp - a thirtysomething with 'sensible' wardrobe choices and a rather dated hairstyle has always generally been dismissed by fans with a worrying undercurrent of ageism as an of-its-time neccessity that nobody in their right mind would deploy now (apart from the fact that, erm, when Russell T. Davies did it really, really worked), and hapless Barbara has always found herself conveniently omitted from lists of sexy and/or 'icon'-leaning companions. There were to be no adolescent-friendly full-page Doctor Who Magazine posters of poor old Jacqueline Hill. But, with the benefit of a bit more maturity in both senses of the word, let's put a stop to that nonsense here and now and point out that you only have to watch for a couple of seconds to realise that Jacqueline was a strikingly good-looking woman (especially so in these early promo shots unearthed by Clayton Hickman), who also, when they deign to allow her to wear something a tad more with-it, clearly, er, 'has it going on' as well. Meanwhile, once the regular characters have got past the initial prickliness about being intruders in 'the ship', Barbara also emerges as a likeable and attractive character; witty, thoughtful and headstrong, and her flirting with Léon Colbert in The Reign Of Terror is really rather sweet to witness. No wonder the writers of the tie-in novels were always drooling over her. And as it's in black and white, you can pretend she has red hair too. Um, did I really just say that out loud?

There Are Too Many Fucking Rope Bridges

Got twenty five minutes of Saturday afternoon television to fill? Then why not stuff huge chunks of it full of half of your regular cast and a handful of guest stars doing desperately unconvincing 'swaying' acting as they make a protracted tension-deficient meal of their attempts to traverse a hazardous chasm by performing cramped feats of trapeze artistry with dislocated bits of a rickety-looking rope bridge whilst a sound effect snarls off-screen? Even the old Republic movie serials were never this shameless about it.

The Bit With The Ice Soldier Unexpectedly Reviving Is Extremely Effective

You can spend six months and hundreds of thousands of pounds on ambitious CGI effects, and then spend a further six months showing off about them in an endless procession of almost indistinguishable behind-the-scenes features, but sometimes you're just going to get a better result from a meticulously directed and acted sequence in which an immobile suit of armour suddenly jerks into motion in the middle of everyone else's armour-disregarding dialogue. It's also worth noting that Peter Davison claims to have been alarmed by this as a youngster - and not by The Ice Warriors as lazy clip show compilers routinely assume - which is a seal of approval that no amount of BAFTA Craft Awards can buy.

Why Does Everyone Have So Much Trouble With Aydan's Name?

It's Sentence Of Death, episode five of The Keys Of Marinus, and the travellers are transported into 'The City Of Millennium' and indeed straight into a murder mystery that they seem set to wrongly take the rap for. A bigger mystery, though, is why nobody seems to be able to agree on one single definitive pronounciation of the name of actual perpetrator Aydan. Throughout the episode you'll hear a wide range of stresses, emphases and vowel sounds, with William Hartnell alone offering more than one variation. Small wonder he nearly evaded the attention of the City's finest judicial minds.

It's Impossible To Remember Where You're Up To With The Sensorites

Black and white Doctor Who is full of stories that start well with an intriguing first episode, but quickly tail off afterwards, and nowhere is this discrepancy more evident than with The Sensorites. So much so, in fact, that if you opt to break up your viewing of it to an episode-by-episode basis (and, let's be blunt, that's the only way that anyone in their right mind ever would choose to watch it), you'll have a hard time remembering exactly which episode you're on. They all seem to meld into one after a while - it looks, sounds and feels more like an early sixties British sci-fi film than anything else in Series One, which is perhaps not surprising given Peter R. Newman's background as a screenwriter, but not necessarily a good thing in itself; for a start, it's almost twice the length of one of said films, and was made for less than a tenth of their already unimpressive average budget - and the end always seems to be impossibly far off on the horizon. Some fans have speculated that nobody has ever actually seen the last episode, and while I know for certain that I have seen it, and recently too, I couldn't tell you a single thing about it.

Anyway, that's Series One, and we'll see you again soon for Series Two, starring an Inconsistent Cat, The Other Type Of Dalek Cutaway, and Far Too Many Ants...

And if you want to read a more detailed piece on Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Reign Of Terror and all of the other sixties historical stories, you can find one in my book Well At Least It's Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.