Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Unbound 05. Deadline by Robert Shearman (September 2003)
Sir Derek Jacobi has long been one of my favourite actors (it was a great privilege to see his marvellous turn as Malvolio at the Donmar in London some years back) and he brought effortless class to the Master in Utopia. It’s a veritable coup, then, that Big Finish has got him in for Doctor Who Unbound, and a real sign of the company’s quality that after only four years in business they could pull in a bigger name than most guest stars of the classic series, one of the finest actors in the land, whose voice has only got richer and richer as he has grown older. It goes without saying that he is brilliant in Deadline. Jacobi plays Martin Bannister, a slowly ailing author, a neglectful husband and father, a man who has pissed away his hours in writing, a perverse man, a man who now has “nothing left to say”; he inhabits the role beautifully, by turns comic, outraged, outrageous, vitriolic, and quietly poignant.
Martin’s running commentary on the opening conversation is particularly marvellous: the writer pulling the strings, as a god who directs everything, king of his fictional little realm, manipulating his characters like a vast hand reaching in to toy with figurines. He confuses his own son with Ian Chesterton, one of his silly creations; he confuses his nurse with Barbara Wright; he confuses his grandchildren, both real and fictional. Deadline makes an excellent companion piece with Auld Mortality, and not merely in the Hannibal references: the fictional and the real blend here every bit as much as they did there, green stains multiply into footprints, the wardrobe seems bigger on the inside and monsters break out of it. The first time Martin awakes from Doctor Who in a nursing home is a deliberately bathetic moment. No one wants fiction to move from sci-fi escapism to a messy room in a nursing home, but here it does. And it is bitterly real.
The father/son relationship here calls to mind The Holy Terror, which was in part about the tortuous relationships between fathers and sons – indeed, murder was an integral element. It’s much less gory, here, much more real; but every bit as agonising. Just listen to their first conversation – every pretence, every feigned moment, everything unspoken – it is very, very well done. There’s an almost unbearable scene where Philip breaks down crying to his father, confessing that after all his attempts to be a better man than his father, everything still went wrong, his wife still left him.
It seems both disingenuous and tricky to talk about how Martin is something of an authorial insert for Robert Shearman himself, but that does seem to be pretty self-evidently the case (not that I think the two’s moral characters are in any way comparable; I’m sure that’s not so!). The lines that feel most personal in this play are those in which Martin angrily denounces his own work during an interview with a fan of one of his old shows. The story bristles with fallibility, introspection and self-critique. I write a little, although much more like the amateur ditties of the care home nurse than anything else, and I’m very familiar with the crushing sensation every time I try to call to mind something to write about, a crushing sensation that, like Martin’s response to the fan, is simply “Why?” Why create any bloody art at all if it’s just going to hurt us and ruin our relationships? Why toil that much for such little gain? No one is ever going to remember it. Heck, no one is ever going to remember these reviews. Why bother?
If we step back a moment, what’s fascinating is that Martin has his own authorial insert, of course: the Doctor. This fictional character has an obsession with another fictional character who is the only bright spark in an otherwise grey life; it drives Martin forward, flawed and horrible though he is. He pours his torture into thoughts of escapism. And that’s why this play is so beautiful – it shows us that Martin needs Doctor Who. He needs that escape from the abysmal reality around him, as do we all – a world where it is not merely that he is unlikeable, but everybody is (his grandson is aggressive and makes no effort to engage with people; his son kills a guinea pig and presents the ashes to him in lieu of his mother’s). There is a stark warning, perhaps, not to spend too much time in one’s head, but would we really want to see more of Martin in the real world either? No, it is Doctor Who, if anything, which could possibly save him. For a few flickering moments before the nurse taps on the door again, he’s happy.
Deadline is an excellent title – not only does it convey the writer’s inevitable fear, the fevered, anguished panic of failure, but it tells us everything we need to know about Martin’s flat, grey, depressing life, drawing ever nearer to his death. It’s a quiet and reflective audio drama about failure and loneliness, but not the broad-strokes type that’s the meat and drink of tragedy and space opera; it’s the limp, slumped, pathetic kind, the kind that doesn’t make grand stories. Its figures are pathetic, its rants acrimonious. It doesn’t matter whether it lasts or not, or whether writers fade into obscurity. Deadline is as far from Doctor Who as you can get, but this is still brilliant, and it made my skin crawl, and it made my eyes damp, and it set off trains of thought that go round and round in my head.
Or to put it another way, Shearman has the answer to his “why?”
The Hartnell theme, still sending a shiver down my spine, still the best after 52 years of variations. Perfect. It’s also lovely the way a few bars of the old theme crop up every time Martin thinks back to his old Doctor Who ideas.
Lots of nods back to the dialogue and tone of An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, the original unaired pilot and even The Masters of Luxor: I won’t list all the examples; you lot know them all.
“You can’t expect things to stay the same just because you’re not interested in them anymore.”
“They seem to be dying in the wrong order!” Martin says of his three wives.
“I am a good husband, a good father! I work really hard at it, I’m better than you! I decided I’d do everything better than you, for me it would work, I’d do everything different, whatever you did I’d do the opposite. A good husband – I’m good at it – I – I won’t find it funny when my wife dies, I won’t make stupid jokes! And if my son ever told me he hated me, because I do, Dad, I really hate you, if my son ever felt about me the way I feel about you, I’d die of shame.”
Easy Laughter and Breaking Bread Together are two of Shearman’s real-life plays.
“It’s the only thing I ever felt truly passionate about. I used to burn with ideas, to put things down on paper, to say something new, to change the world, just a little! I’d have given my soul for it. Sometimes I think I did.”
“Doctor Who? He sounds vaguely oriental.”
“A monster! It has the eyes of a bug!”/“Oh no, a bug-eyed monster!”
“Next episode: UNIVERSAL DOMINATION MOST FOUL.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a creature with the eyes of a bug.”
“The interview, for the Official Juliet Bravo Magazine?”/“Oh my God, don’t tell me there are unofficial magazines about it as well!”/“Oh yes, the programme may be dead, but it still lives on for us, the fans! We can still watch the videos, and talk about it at conventions, and there are spin-off novels, too, and audio dramas featuring a handful of the original cast!”/“Why?”
“It’s not as if I was especially busy anyway – a couple of hours TV and a sponge bath – but I can reschedule.”
“Arrogant? You’ve got to be to do this job, to believe that the words you come up with are worth anyone’s time or money. If I hadn’t been arrogant, I’d have been like you! Someone who can only write about writers, because they haven’t the guts to do it themselves. When I was young, I was going to be the best playwright since Shakespeare. Hell with it, I’d be better than Shakespeare, let’s beat the Bard! I wrote plays of dazzling sophistication and intellectual rigour…in 1961, I was one of the Ten Young Writers to Watch Out For. The Times had done a list; I was number seven! As the years go by, you realise you aren’t as good as Shakespeare and you aren’t as good as those other nine writers to watch out for. They’re all being watched and no one’s watching you. You scale down your ambitions. You pride yourself on always being able to meet deadlines, and then you’ll be proud if no one sacks you when you stop being able to meet ‘em!...You end up with nothing left to write, because you’ve nothing left to say, and you’re not sure you ever did have.”
“It was a bit of cheap Saturday night viewing, that’s all, something to carry the family over from the footballs scores to The Generation Game. It seems to me that if you’re trying to analyse it, as you and your friends obviously do, you’re missing the point!”
“It comes out of the wardrobe and it wants to kill me.”/“What does?”/“How should I know? I haven’t named it yet.”
“If you don’t want to be alone, you don’t have to invent fairy stories.”
“I shall defeat you, as I defeat all of the monsters!”
“How can you write characters when your whole life you’ve never made any effort to understand real people?”
“Doctor Who, you utter bastard!”
“I so much wanted to be a great writer, Philip. An artist; a genius! It’s what geniuses do. Wagner, Picasso, Dickens, had affairs, treated their wives, their children like shit! They had the right. I wanted to be like them, rise above the right and wrong. Only the art mattered!... but the thing is, I was wrong. I wasn’t a genius. I didn’t produce the Sistine Chapel, I produced 14 episodes of Juliet Bravo. I gambled my family away on a dream of posterity when it turns out I was a hack all the time. I could have had a family, could have had a grandson, all these years.”
The guinea pig is another instance of faintly ridiculous Shearman absurdism – “if you wanted to see me, you could have called! You didn’t need to set rodents alight!”
“I’m a nice man, dad. I could be really worth knowing.”/“You kill guinea pigs.”/“It was only a little one.”
I wonder if Shearman knew that Doctor Who was going to be announced as returning to TV for its 40th anniversary (as Newman says to Martin), the very month that Deadline came out? My guess is he didn’t, given when the audio must have been recorded. But it’s phenomenally good timing, either way!
“What business have you to be a writer when you don’t understand people?”
The real world is “more frightening than bug-eyed monsters”. Too right it is.“You are the teller of stories, the weaver of spells. You are Doctor Who, the saviour of countless worlds, the eccentric old man in a police box. You are Doctor Who, my grandfather, and I love you.”