Doctor Who: The Hugh Grant Years

Well, there’s a surprise.

The list of Actors Who Were Considered For Doctor Who And Didn’t Do It is long and impressive, counting among its ranks the likes of Bill Nighy, Richard Griffiths, Rik Mayall, Alan Davies, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson – and a certain Peter Capaldi. It’s always a quick headline grabber, if only because it gives hacks like me an opportunity to imagine existing stories with new actors, knock off thinkpieces about possible directions and legacies, and crack the occasional joke. But we’re now able to add another name to this particular roster, although in order to explore a little further we must go back to the dim and distant pasts of 2003, when Russell T. Davies was still getting the band back together, but hadn’t quite got Christopher Eccleston.

The Davies / Eccleston not-exactly-feud seems to have gained new traction over the last few months, as the party with nothing left to lose becomes increasingly candid and the other is respectfully silent. But it emerged last week that Russell T. Davies had a number of other heretofore unknown A-list actors on his radar – and that he originally tried to get Hugh Grant, only to find his path blocked by Grant’s agent. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen now, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and you can’t blame said agent for chucking the script in the bin, any more than you can blame Dick Rowe for not signing the Beatles. Even as late as 2004, the resurrected Doctor Who was generally viewed with the same sceptical eye that was originally cast over the first Star Wars movie – an arguably healthier state of mind than the fanatical reverence that is now accorded to both.

Veterans will know that Grant’s been in the show anyway: he turns up at the end of ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’, in which Steven Moffat trolls the fandom by regenerating giving the Doctor a love interest and then regenerating him into a woman, although not before hinting that he’d have liked to do the same to the Master. He gets through as many regenerations as possible in the space of twenty minutes, and has one of his characters age rapidly by having them hang about in a sewer for the best part of a millennium. The cast are all marvellous (particularly Jonathan Pryce) but it is tempting, when we watch it now, to look at Moffat’s subsequent Doctor Who career as some sort of wish fulfilment bucket list.

Certainly it’s difficult to envisage Eccleston’s Doctor in the hands of Grant. It just doesn’t fit, largely because in the grand scheme of things, Eccleston doesn’t fit either. His Doctor is the only one not to be openly posh. It’s partly the accent, but partly his whole demeanour. Tennant looks as if he could sell you a flat and bung in an optional stake in the communal garden in between his third and fourth cans of Red Bull. Eccleston looks like he’s on his way to a nightclub, and not the decent sort.

I’m not saying this was a bad thing. Eccleston may have never quite convinced me, but he was the Doctor, and the phenomenal success of the revived show is largely down to the gravitas he brought with him (along with a short temper and reputation for being difficult on set). In many ways the revived Doctor Who works precisely because he is so different. There is a scene early in ‘Parting of the Ways’ in which Eccleston is observed sitting in a corridor with Billie Piper, surrounded by bits of wire and circuit boards, randomly building something – and it was that moment when, as far as I’m concerned, he actually became the Doctor for the first time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the rest of the series, even in the company of a not-quite Doctor. He’s cheery and enthused, he spits righteous (and self-righteous) anger, and when he takes the hand of a frightened shop girl and compels her to run, there is nothing I’d rather do than follow.

Still: you could never imagine Davison suggesting beans on toast. And it’s difficult to imagine any other actor complaining about ‘stupid apes’ without sounding, frankly, a little bit racist (although we might legitimately argue that Eccleston does as well, so let’s not go there). By and large the Ninth Doctor’s dialogue, with its use of colloquialisms and affectations (‘Listen, love’) is written for Eccleston, and it shows. You can imagine the Ninth Doctor quoting dialogue from other Doctors (some fans, indeed, have already done just that) but it’s difficult to imagine the reverse. By and large it simply doesn’t work: the Ninth’s entire manner is different. Even Tennant’s use of ‘fantastic’, in the closing scenes of ‘The Christmas Invasion’, is a one-off.

So there can be little doubt that the Ninth Doctor under the baton of Hugh Grant would have been a very different kettle of fish – perhaps a little posher, a little less earnest and a little less dark. And they’d probably have to change half the dialogue.

And that, dear reader, is exactly what I’ve done.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Kenneth Horne edition)

This week, a deleted scene from The Last Jedi gives us the crossover the fandom deserves, if not the one it needs.

Elsewhere in the same film, Peter Capaldi makes another unexpected appearance in the caves below the island.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Matt Smith joins David Tennant in revealing the more unusual places fans have accosted him for attention.

And this abandoned concept sequence from the original Star Wars shows that George Lucas had plenty of controversial ideas before Peter Harness did.

d

Happy Star Wars day…

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The Incredible Shrinking Time Lord

Hey, you. Yes, you! You dozen or so new followers, all from Outlook.com addresses. Don’t think I can’t recognise a spam account when I see one. I’m watching you. One foot out of line and I’m going through the list, so watch yourselves.

I published a thing earlier this week that has caused a bit of a stir, and it looks like this:

The caption was ‘Exclusive first shot of the royal baby’.

Most people seemed amused and it went down quite well in all the Facebook groups I frequent – but there was one, in particular, where the knives came out in force.

“Disrespectful and offensive,” said one person, while an angst-ridden millennial described it as “a classless and distasteful attempt at satire”.

Satire? Satire?!? Look, it may be broad, and perhaps not terribly funny, but it’s certainly not satire. It’s just a throwback to ‘Delta and the Bannermen’. It’s not even a current photo, but rather one from a previous birth – it was up before we saw any pictures of the as-yet unnamed prince (my money’s on Edward, but we’ll see). I don’t know. There is a thing about fawning over the Royal Family, unless you’re a republican, in which case you consider them tax-dodging parasites (I used to, but it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and now I don’t). It’s particularly common on the other side of the pond, where there is unbridled adulation for the figurehead of a country they couldn’t wait to be rid of back in 1776; listen, she’s not your queen, and you’re pretty rude about Trump / Clinton / Obama (delete as applicable), so if you can have your fun, why can’t we? Or are some things more sacred than others?

“You’re in America,” I said. “Over here in Britain, ridiculing the Royal Family is par for the course.”

“No,” said a woman I will not name, except to say that she complains about everything, most notably the casting of Jodie Whittaker. “No, it isn’t.”

That’s not to say that all Americans are offended and all Brits are on board; we may have Spitting Image but there is a movement, particularly since the death of Diana, towards granting the monarchy a reverence it arguably does not deserve. The queen is human. So is Prince William. No human is untouchable, not even royalty. I find it ironic that in twenty years time when this no-longer-small child is out partying and Clarence House’s damage control department is working overtime to keep the press happy, it’ll be absolutely fine to take the piss, but having a little fun with a picture of a newborn in which the newborn isn’t even bloody visible is somehow out of order. Seriously, you’re offended by a Photoshopped alien? There’s not much I can do about that, but if that’s really the case, I fear you may have set the bar rather low.

It’s a busy page and a busy feed and so long as the comments continue to tail off (and I’m not locking them, out of general principle) this will happily fade into the background and be remembered as one of those things that many people laughed at and some people got upset over (one person even going so far as to leave the group, which is frankly overkill). Having said that there are occasional additions to the thread, like in those monster movies where they slaughter the entire host and then at the end the odd one keeps popping up with a “YAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!” and a whiff of fangs, only to be shot down by the one who got scared earlier in the film.

“Consider the possibility,” I was told this morning, “that since this has apparently offended a number of people, maybe it is offensive.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve considered it.”

Anyway: the other thing that happened this week was this piece I found in Metro about celebrities with shrunken heads. Some of them are really very good (the Bieber one, in particular, is wonderful) and I thought…well, why not have a go?

This. This is why not.

 

 

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 978)

This week: as the recent series of The X-Files draws to a close, speculation mounts as to exactly what happened in ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’, and what it could possibly have to do with Doctor Who.

News breaks of Christopher Eccleston’s impending arrival at Comic Con.

And Peter Capaldi turns sixty. To which we say Happy Birthday, sir. May all your camels be fertile, and may the wind be always at your back, except when you’re standing at the edge of the harbour.

D

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My hat, it has three corners

Please excuse the radio silence in here this last couple of weeks. I’m still trying to get this book finished, and I think it will be worth it. I have set myself a self-imposed deadline (my 40th birthday, which is imminent) for a first draft. It’s manageable provided I focus, which means that certain things – like this blog – have rather fallen by the wayside of late.

We do have a few interesting posts coming your way imminently, but I’m still writing for The Doctor Who Companion, including a rather interesting piece on hats that you might want to check out. We arranged it for Wear A Hat Day, which took place at the end of March in aid of brain tumour research. The notion of the Doctor’s headgear has been a talking point for years, of course,  although lately it’s mostly a bunch of tedious memes about fezzes, which are not and have never been in any way cool. Here’s the TL:DR version – the Doctor used to wear a hat because everyone else did. It’s only later that it became a plot point, rather than a simple fashion accessory.

(I received several comments about this one on Twitter, but the best read “You talk to him.” / “No, you talk to him.”)

Still, it did give me the opportunity to wonder about the Doctors who generally didn’t wear a hat, and how they might have looked if they did.

I think the Eighth works quite well, although it’s not quite as settled on his head as I’d like it to be; it looks like he’s got a ferret bobbing underneath it. The same applies for Nine, although I do like the idea of the Doctor going to a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert (this is Guns ‘n’ Roses in their heyday, not that group of session musicians Axl Rose toured with a couple of years back) and chilling backstage with the band. And if the Twelfth was wearing a white suit, he’d look a little bit like Herr Starr from Preacher.

Twelve’s refusal to wear any sort of headgear has often vexed me, because he’d look good in a hat, particularly during his grumpy season.

Yes. Well.

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Doctor Who and the Collaborative Poem

It’s International Poetry Day
And thus I just popped in to say
That I used to write a lot of it
Before realising it was mostly shit.

Sometimes when you write for an audience you learn a few things about yourself. When I was doing my A-levels I wrote poetry as a way of expressing the angst of a lovesick teenager. Odes to girl-of-the-week (that’s a little harsh; there were only three or four) flowed off the tongue with all the usual mixed metaphors and ill-advised cliches; next week it would be someone else. It was like that Stevie Wonder album where each song is dedicated to a different girl, something The Beautiful South parodied in ‘Song For Whoever’. Rosalind? I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.

Of the substantial block I wrote over the next four or five years there is only one that I still like; everything else is garbage. The moment I realised this was the moment I started doing performance poetry, and adapting my writing style to suit the ageing beatniks who hung out in the local arts centre; they were a good crowd and one of them is a very talented published writer whom we always knew was destined for greatness. I got on with them, but found the poetry was suffering. It seemed a little more egocentric, more applause-orientated, than the other stuff I’d written – carefully laid-out free verse that was designed to be looked at, rather than heard. So I stopped. Years later I went back and realised the free verse was similarly dreadful. I make no apologies. Sometimes these things are like a bad curry; it’s simply a matter of getting it out of your system.

So I have no idea what’s new in poetry or what people are listening to; I just go back to the old favourites: Duffy, Heaney, Hughes, Hart Crane, and e.e. cummings (a few feet away, on my pine bookshelf, sits his collected poems, the title scandalously capitalised). These days I stick to the prose. I don’t even write songs anymore. A little streamlining never hurt anyone. “You should stick to what you’re good at, and I’m good at being a priest.”

My regular readers (both of you) will recall that a while back I did a crowd-sourced short story that involved people adding a sentence at a time until we had something tangible; I then added a couple of pictures and Brigadier’s your uncle. Today’s exercise is even more bizarre: I had the group submit random numbers. Any number they liked, as long as it came between 1 and 300. The thread swiftly exploded and I managed to get all the data I needed in a matter of minutes.

And then, using a bizarre and convoluted system that only I understand (and will not explain) I mined the transcripts (thanks, Chrissy) and pulled out the corresponding dialogue. And here, for the benefit of the general public, is what may be the world’s first crowd-sourced Doctor Who poem. Also possibly the last.

Here we go…

Wilson’s dead. Inform the Emperor Dalek
it slipped my memory. You see, I’m going for a little trip myself.
Oh, yes, yes, indeed, yes.
Is that you, Yates? Where are you?
So they’re abandoning us. They’re not even going to try

and seal the shaft. Deja Vu.
You’re sure he’s still in bed?
You are interrupting me. There’s nothing to forgive
No doubt, I shall join them.
Just get down here. Come to me.
Where am I? Let me out!

Of course I’m real. Do you know
what I did for a job when they threw me out of school?
Go along and see. Go along and see.

– Well, possibly she’s taking a stroll in the garden.
– What do you mean?
– I mean, I suppose it’s time I should be going.
– Yes, I know, but he was trying to help you.

Hey hey! Mama mia! Bellissima.
All right, I’ll take it. Greyhound
to Trap One. We will survive. We will survive. Now you will help us.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Vernal Equinox Edition)

I am working on something resembling new content, honest, but I’m also writing a book. So you’re going to have to be patient, OK?

With that in mind, here’s two scenes, sandwiched together. Obviously.

Elsewhere, the Sixth Doctor’s new companion gets a facelift in the wake of a new merger between Panini and Dreamworks.

And there was sad news in the entertainment world yesterday as we learned of the death of Jim Bowen – late of Last of the Summer Wine, but best known for the long-running darts quiz Bullseye. Which, unbeknown to many, once guest-starred Jon Pertwee…

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Have I Got Whos For You (Part 6)

This week, in Whovania, Bill rises to the Tide Pod challenge.

“And you’re sure it’s OK for me to eat this?”

Elsewhere, a deleted scene from ‘The Zygon Inversion’ shows that Peter Capaldi wasn’t on his own in that playground.

A new publicity still from Torchwood does the rounds on social media.

And the Doctor explains to Clara just why he got kicked off that United Airlines flight.

Happy World Book Day!

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The new Doctor Who logo, dissected

…I mean, it’s a typeface. A bloody typeface!

Things happen in that slow downtime between a reveal and a follow-up. The fandom gets cranky. There is a clamoured cry for new information, a grumbling in communities about when we’re going to get to see new footage or get plot details, tempered with a general sense of annoyance when they actually arrive because I didn’t want to know anything about the new series and why are you dropping all these spoilers in here? Whether the news dripfeeds in via convention soundbites or fan theory rendered flesh, either there’s too much information or not enough. The poor old BBC, it seems, can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.

And then last night we had fresh information. Well, a logo. It’s accompanied by an image of Jodie Whittaker standing on a hill. There is a sixteen-second audio ident going viral on YouTube. None of it is anything to write home about. But pity us poor journalists. Sometimes you have to keep the hit counters up even when there’s bugger all to actually discuss. There is a saying that no news is good news, which is true for just about everyone except the people who get paid to write it.

It didn’t take the Radio Times long to jump on the bandwagon. Not content with publicising fan-generated titles a few weeks ago (I’m not linking to that; it’s a matter of principle), they decided to apply a little creative thinking to the new logo and point out the rather obvious-looking distortion in the last two letters of the words ‘Doctor Who’ that make it look like a Venus symbol knocked on its side. So, you know, obviously it’s a woman. For my part, I am getting Prince flashbacks.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time. Long-time readers of this blog may (but probably won’t) recall a thing I wrote a while back entitled The Art of Looking Sideways, in which I talked about whether or not we could really say that Theta Sigma was the Doctor’s real name and concluded that it almost certainly wasn’t, but that there was a cheeky jibe by the production team when you shift round some of the components. It’s a precursor to Peter Capaldi’s appearance in World War Z, in which I’m told he plays a scientist at the World Health Organisation. He is quite literally Doctor Who. Just don’t tell the noobs; they get really irritable when you try and tell them it’s an acceptable name.

Assuming you’ve seen the Eighth Doctor movie, you’ll be aware that there’s only one quote that regularly makes the meme lists: it’s the Doctor talking about patterns that aren’t there. And I’ll confess that it’s this that comes to mind when I consider the desperate search for hidden information that occurs every time there’s a publicity still, a title drop or (god preserve us) an actual teaser, resulting in arguments and alarums and hundred-comment Reddit threads. Except that I admit that my reaction to the Venus theory was to point and laugh. As deconstructions go, it was pathetic. A six-year-old’s comprehension exercise contains more insight. Hidden Messages? I fart in your general direction. You wouldn’t know a hidden message if it jumped out in an orange shell suit and yelled “I’M HERE, YOU NUMBSKULLS!”

I was in one of my more sensible groups and we were discussing the Venus thing and its connections with Theta Sigma – a theory one of us said he hoped wasn’t true, because “then the nerds had won”.

“That D with a line through it looks a bit like an ice lolly knocked on its side,” I said. “Any thoughts as to what it might mean?”
“Martian ice cream?” was the response I got. “Plus, look at the way the end of the H lines up with the O. It looks like a 10, so…”

Light bulb.

Regular readers will also be aware that I run a series called God Is In The Detail, which pokes light-hearted fun at fan theory to the extent that whenever I post any links to it on Facebook, Poe’s law goes into overdrive and everyone starts telling me I have too much free time (which is probably true in any case, but still). Anyway, that’s the vibe I had in mind when I produced this. And I’d just like to point out that as soon as it was uploaded, I went outside in the garden to play with Edward, so I do get out occasionally.

There. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Radio Times.

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The War Master in the Night Garden

In 2007, Doctor Who fans were gifted with the finest Master to grace the screen since Roger Delgado. He was suave, he was eloquent, he was angry and malicious, he was…well, he was British, which probably helped. Unfortunately he lasted only a minute and a half before getting shot by an insect and regenerating into John Simm.

It was such a pity. Derek Jacobi was born to play the Master, and for just a moment or two, he did it brilliantly. His replacement was a gurning, dancing clown, manic and ridiculous and – it must be acknowledged – perfectly matched opposite Tennant, but not always an easy watch. Things didn’t improve when he returned with a hoodie, an inexplicable penchant for cannibalism and a secret plan for cloning himself, leading to what is affectionately known as the show’s Being John Malkovich moment. It would be years before we saw the version of the Simm Master that I’d always wanted to see – sneering, reserved and (for a change) respectably dressed, and even if that turns out to be his last appearance, his turn in ‘The Doctor Falls’ was a cracking way to go out.

But enough of this, because we were here to discuss Jacobi – who, having turned in a memorable performance in ‘Utopia’, promptly toddled away back into the land of romantic comedy-dramas, bad sitcoms and the occasional CBeebies bedtime story. He tangoed in Halifax, helped build the Titanic and endured a love-hate relationship with Magneto. Recently we saw him lock horns with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. But of his Master, there was nothing – until last December, when he teamed up for a Big Finish audio series entitled Only The Good, in which we got to see the reincarnated renegade in action during the Time War, before he fled to the end of the universe.

What to say about the War Master set? Well, it’s broadly good, although it opens with a largely inconsequential opening story with people I didn’t care about on a forgettable planet that’s being besieged by Daleks. Stories two and four are better, although in one of them the Master is at his most un-Masterlike (the title of this particular story is ‘The Good Master’, so it’s not exactly a spoiler) and it’s initially rather disconcerting to witness him behaving like the disguised human he would eventually become. Of the four, ‘Sky Man’ is far and away the best, despite – or perhaps because – it is a story in which the Master barely features, instead allowing his erstwhile companion Cole to take centre stage. Cole himself is worthy, if rather dull, but if the story’s conclusion is more or less mapped out in its opening conversation it’s still devastatingly effective when it happens.

It also definitively answers one of the questions that the fans have been arguing about for years: namely, was it really Jacobi’s Master in the Time War? The naysayers point out that he states he was ‘a naked child found on the coast of the silver devastation’; similarly John Smith remembers growing up in Ireland with his parents Sydney and Verity, but that’s fabricated, fourth wall-breaking codswallop. This is a slightly younger, sprightlier version of the man we saw in ‘Utopia’ – a man saddled with the weight of twenty years of fruitless labour and a lifetime of false memories, plus the aforementioned insect. Bringing him back was a no-brainer. If you want a resurrected Time War Master, and Jacobi is a narrative fit, why the hell wouldn’t you sign him up if he was available and willing?

It’s a pity we won’t get to see this incarnation meet up with John Hurt: that would have been a heck of a show (and yes, I know it kind of undermines the series 3 arc; don’t tell me they couldn’t have found a workaround for that). But three decent stories out of four seems to be par for the course for BF sets these days, and it’s fun to hear Jacobi casually toss aside supporting characters like sacrificial pawns, outwit the Daleks and occasionally struggle with his conscience – or at least appear to struggle. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion makes a second series rather difficult, for reasons I won’t give away (although you’ve likely figured them out already), and it seems a shame to essentially ditch this new incarnation of the Master just as we’re getting to know him.

But here’s how you terrify your kids: you get them to sit through ‘Utopia’ just before bed, and then you put the In The Night Garden soundtrack on the bedroom CD player.

My views on In The Night Garden are well-documented, if by well-documented you mean eight hundred and fifty words defending the BBC and a couple of doctored photos. I love it because it works and because I do not understand why it works. If that sounds a little odd, it’s because these days it’s mostly anomalous – fan theory is endemic in just about everything, and it is a strange phenomenon, in this enlightened age, to enjoy something because you don’t get it. Twenty-first century media is all about the How and Why, and it’s killing the industry: the rare glimpses behind the scenes that we got in the 70s and 80s are now a regular fixture; outtakes and bloopers have spread like a rash on YouTube; we know everything about a story before we see even the first trailer. One can only hope that Chibnall’s reign – taking place, as it does, behind a security net to rival a Presidential visit, or even a Blade Runner location shoot – goes some way towards reinvigorating the show and bringing back the sense of wonder it once had, and he’s only going to manage that if he slows down on the goddamn press releases.

But no, In The Night Garden is wonderful television: calm, serene and just the right side of weird. Of course grown-ups find it odd. Grown-ups aren’t the target audience. This is TV for the very young, meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed, something that seems to escape the notice of the many parents I talk to who still seem to labour under the ridiculous misapprehension that when the BBC are making TV programmes they simply turn up in a TV studio and wing it. That’s not how it’s done, and the end results look weird because to babies and toddlers the whole world looks weird. (If people really think this is a new thing, they’d be wise to hop onto YouTube and find the little surviving footage that still exists of the oft-forgotten Wizbit. If you’re going to tell me that they’re screwing up our children, it is vital to acknowledge that the process began at least thirty years ago, and probably long before that.)

A while ago, I did a mashup that fused footage from Bing Bunny with some of Mark Rylance’s Wolf Hall dialogue. It was reasonably coherent, and exploring the darker side of Flop’s affable, endless patient personality was the most fun I’d had in a good long while. It also got me into hot water with Aardman, who didn’t like the juxtaposition of ‘adult material’ with programmes meant for kids. The bottom line is that however many disclaimers you include in the description – and however many warnings you tag on the front end – parents are going to let their children watch it, and Aardman were understandably twitchy about compromising the sickeningly wholesome reputation of one of their flagship programmes. (There was the small matter of copyright infringement as well, which I’ve always thought was a little petty given that it was an unmonetised video, but that’s their prerogative.)

But there I was, listening to the War Master set and thinking…wouldn’t it be wonderful to fuse some of the dialogue from this and dump it into a few of the Night Garden episodes? What if the lurid, excessively safe world of Igglepiggle and his friends were bombarded by a quite different and overtly sinister narrator who sounded exactly like the one whose unreconstructed tenor warbles through each of the show’s 100-odd episodes? What if we piled on the filters, added a bit of slow motion and ran the theme song through the editing suite? What could possibly go wrong?

The results, I hope, speak for themselves – and if they’re a little freakish, that’s a good thing. This owes a lot to the black and white Teletubbies video that’s doing the rounds (you know, the one with Joy Division), although it’s less of a mood piece and more of a meditation; it even attempts to tell some sort of story. There are two bits of dialogue, by the way, lifted directly from ‘Utopia’ rather than the War Master set; bonus points to anyone who can work out what they are. And yes, the ending is a bit Blackadder. No apologies.

Oh, and it’s in black and white because it looks cool. Isn’t that a pip?

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