Meeting the Doctor

My ten year old granddaughter tells us her news from the back seat of the car. She’s seen something new, and it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. Doctor Who, the first episode of the first series, she tells us. William Hartnell, I think, wondering what she makes of television from 1963; but no, she means Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. It reminds of when she discovered Beatbugs, an animated series on Netflix, featuring music by the Fab Four. ‘Grandma, I’ve found out about a band called The Beatles,’ she said. ‘I think you’d like them.’

Yarnbombing of Medway Art Box by Unravel and Unwind

Sixty years of Doctor Who hardly seems possible, spanning several generations – and regenerations – and sparking many memories. I was four years old when the first Doctor arrived on our screens, the black and white sets liable to slip on the ‘vertical hold’, or to go fuzzy. I don’t really remember the William Hartnell era, but have a strong memory of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, and his companions, Jamie and Zoe. Not of any episodes, but of a children’s Christmas party. I couldn’t place how old I was when I went, but as the granddaughter once said, ‘If you’ve got a Google you can look it up,’ so I discovered that I would have been around my granddaughter’s age, perhaps a little younger.

My memory starts on a dark evening, walking along a path along by a field with my family, then entering a large hall. The party was already in swing. The hall was dark and there was a magician on the stage. When the lights went up, we were invited to queue up to go into the grotto. There was no Father Christmas to give out presents. Instead, we entered the Tardis. There were real Daleks to walk past, then the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. Yes, the real Doctor, Patrick Troughton, standing a little way back behind a rope. I was upset, as my brother John had flu and couldn’t come to the party, so I as Jamie (Frazer Hines) handed me a wrapped gift, I told him that John was ill, and asked if I could take a present for him, too. Jamie gave me a second wrapped parcel to take home. My gift was a Lady Penelope plasticine set, with moulds to make the Fab1 car, Parker and Lady P, from Thunderbirds. I don’t remember what John’s gift was, and when I asked him a couple of years ago, neither could he.

I couldn’t work out why we were invited to meet the Doctor; the only other Christmas parties I can remember were at my dad’s working men’s club. John told me that it was Alistair and Beryl that arranged it – near neighbours of our family when we lived in the prefab where I was born, and where seven of us lived when were finally allocated a council house. I knew that they had an adopted daughter, Penny, and that they fostered other children, and that they lived in their ‘own house’ on a road that ran at right angles to ours. What I didn’t know was that Alistair worked for the Post Office, and that these annual Christmas parties were for Post Office workers’ children, and that they could invite other families that were ‘in need’. I think my mum would have mortified if she’d known about the ‘in need’ bit, but we probably were. It was John that told me about Alistair arranging for us to go, and a couple of friends who enlightened me about the invitations extended to ‘in need’ children. It’s amazing about these revelations, so many decades on.

I have many other memories about Doctor Who – like the long, multi-coloured knitted scarf I wore in my teens, like Tom Baker’s (the fourth Doctor). It wrapped loosely round my neck three times, and still hung down to my knees. One time, three of us from school wrapped it round each of our necks and walked from school to work in Woolworth’s, the sole runners in a three-necked race.  Then there was the wooden Tardis that my father-in-law made for my daughters, with a clear plastic tub poked through a hole in the top, and a torch inside to let the light shine through. Also, my sister-in-law writing a Doctor Who screenplay for her grandsons to perform and video one Christmas. They declared that it was ‘Certificate 30’, so we were all old enough to watch it.

I shall be watching the new series, as I have with recent ones, but I must admit to finding them harder to follow than I used to. So many special effects, so much running around … perhaps I preferred the sets of disused quarries, the slightly slower moving scripts.

Today marks a year since I last saw my big brother John. He died just over a month afterwards. I miss having him fill in the gaps, like telling me how we came to be invited to meet the Doctor. Perhaps he would have remembered Alistair and Beryl’s surname – I’d love the see if there’s anything I could find about them online. Perhaps I could find their daughter, Penny, ask if she remembers us, and what present she received from the Doctor at that party.