The Nimon, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There’s acting, and then there’s acting. And there are sandwiches, and then there are peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

One of my favourite performances in Doctor Who is that of Peter Barkworth in ‘The Ice Warriors’. He plays Clent, the obstinate leader of the base under siege (I use those words quite deliberately), a man with an agenda, a performance target and a serious problem. Clent’s journey encompasses the usual suspicion and paranoia but, like most surviving supporting characters, he’s sensible enough to listen to those who know what they’re doing before it’s too late. In the story’s conclusion, Clent is finally reconciled with the excommunicated Penley (played to perfection by a bearded Peter Sallis). “You are,” he says, “the most insufferably irritating and infuriating person I’ve ever been privileged to work with. Can’t write a report though, can you?”

It’s a marvellous moment. There’s something joyously reassuring about it. You instinctively like these men and you are glad that they have come through unscathed. It’s a scene in which supporting characters cease to be people who bounce off the Doctor and become people in their own right. It’s understated and beautifully performed. It seems, in a way, an odd scene to rank among one’s personal highlight reel, given that it does not consist of bombastic speeches, dazzling plot twists or epic moments of self-sacrifice. But there it is nonetheless, squarely placed in mine.

‘Understated’ is not, perhaps, a word that one might apply to the character of Soldeed. Doctor Who villains are known for being twisted and a bit mad, but Soldeed is off the scale. It’s partly the eyes – Graham Crowden is a master of the unfocussed stare, taking clear lessons, perhaps, from John Laurie in Dad’s Army. It culminates in a gratuitously tortured mental collapse as Soldeed realises the extent to which he has been duped, before dying in a shower of sparks and the bitterest of cackles. It’s the sort of scene you do at parties. Or maybe that’s just our house.

Soldeed

My feelings on ‘The Horns of Nimon’ are well-documented, at least on this blog. It is – for reasons that will become obvious if you read the thing – one of my favourite stories, precisely because it is so uproariously flamboyant. I have attended hog roasts with less ham. It’s very easy to be critical of this period of Who, coming as it does hot on the heels of some of the best stories in the show’s history, but there is a place for silliness. There’s nothing wrong with having a story that knows its own identity and bears no shame in it, unless that story happens to be ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one person who’s allowed to hate ‘The Horns of Nimon’, and that’s Anthony Read.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days talking about animatronic lions and Michael Aldridge – but when we watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the other week, it was Barbara Kellerman who lit up the screen. I hadn’t seen it in well over twenty years but I had forgotten (no, strike that, I had never even noticed) what a thoroughly melodramatic performance it is. Her temper is as brittle as the ice. There are sentences teased out to snapping point. She does this thing with her wand. And when she gesticulates, it’s with her whole body. It’s as if Kellerman was in a drama workshop demonstrating the principles of over-acting, and her switch got stuck.

Jadis

This isn’t a bad thing. The role demands it, after all, at least it does in this particular rendition, which demands that actors chew up the scenery so that you can’t see the holes. Tilda Swinton is all the more subtle, which suits the mood (and production values) of the film. Kellerman is as subtle as a house brick through an immigrant’s window. She is clearly having tremendous fun – indeed, there are times when, rather like Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, she looks like the only one who’s having any fun. It’s hard to single out a particular scene where she is, perhaps, being even more ridiculous than in the rest of the story – her “How many Nimons?” moment – but if I had to pick one, it would be the moment Edmund arrives in her throne room. “ASLAN?!?” she bellows, in a deep, throaty voice that makes her sound rather like a furious Margaret Thatcher. “HERE??? IS THIS TRUE?!?”

You can see quite a bit of that in the video. It was Joshua who suggested that the White Witch was “A bit like Soldeed”, and I had to agree. So I put them together, and found that of the two, the Witch comes out on top. For the most part she wipes the floor with him. Only in his final scene does Crowden come anywhere near the theatrical pomp of his castle-dwelling, wand-packing rival, but it was fun finding out. There was only one musical choice for this sequence, and it was Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets – better known, perhaps, as the theme from The Apprentice – for no reason other than it fit. There is even a loose narrative of sorts, or at least a simulacrum of interaction between them. I do not pretend that it makes any sense at all. But it’s like peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You really don’t think it’s going to work. And yet somehow, it does.

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