Saturday, 16 January 2016

Main Range 081. The Kingmaker by Nev Fountain (April 2006)

The Kingmaker cements Nev Fountain as one of the greats. His second story is an inimitable historical-farcical-metafictional-surrealist romp-cum-tragedy, and even a label so stupidly broad pigeonholes it slightly, sidestepping the inherent folksy Englishness of the whole thing. One of the best things about it (and that’s a very long list) is that it gives us one of the programme’s definitive statements on the nature of writing – that all writing is by necessity time-travel, by necessity rewriting history. And the flipside, of course, is that any account of history is a story, a fiction, a distortion of the events (what was once described as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applied to history itself). Some accounts of history might distort more than others, or they might take a more roundabout route to get to the same ending, but they’re all stories in the end – the Doctor’s account of historical mysteries for children, William Shakespeare’s Richard III (“tawdry propaganda”), and Nev Fountain’s The Kingmaker. I’m firmly in the pro camp when it comes to the question of whether fiction should address the theme of fiction itself, and many of my favourite Doctor Who stories have done so; The Kingmaker is no exception. Fountain invites us to judge the play (both Shakespeare’s and, by extension, his own) as a piece of fiction, warning us fairly early on that “the characters in this play are fictitious, and any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.” The “truth” of Richard’s death itself is altered (“let them record that Richard died this day fighting like a lion, and not blubbing and hiding up a tree.”) In other words, this is a falsified and exaggerated account of Richard III every bit as much as Shakespeare’s: story and myth trample all over history.

…which of course makes it in every aspect the definitive Doctor Who Shakespeare story (sorry, Gareth Roberts). Not only is it gloriously low-brow (there are lewd innuendoes galore, silly jokes and quips about Richard’s appearance, and the script is frequently filthy), but it is also highly erudite – the very definition of Doctor Who doing Shakespeare. Cross-dressing, mistaken identity, over-elaborate deceptions, theatrical revelations and plenty of requisite “clowns” – far more than a Doctor Who story with Shakespeare in, Fountain’s narrative structure plunders freely from Shakespearean comedy. There is an unapologetic ambition in its structure – very few scenes link traditionally one to another, and we are often left slightly bewildered as to how we jumped from one location or time period to the next, with reveals or answers to questions delayed for as long as possible; all the while Fountain continues to keep the plates spinning. The last part in particular is where the skill and forethought in this script becomes most apparent, as the apparently hotch-potch juggling of different ideas, times, places, characters and themes is interwoven in a beautifully farcical whirl (but not *always* farcical: for the record, the moment that really knocked me for six was the realisation that the Doctor has been watching Peri and Erimem play tennis dressed up as the Princes without knowing of their real identities. The way this is interwoven with the terrifying choice with which Richard presents the Doctor is masterfully affecting drama: innocence and terrible knowledge, all at once. As Richard intoned “tick” for every thwack of the tennis racket, my heart was in my mouth: what would the Doctor do?). The Kingmaker is, in the best Moffat tradition, a true farce. It’s just a farce that is also turned to seriously good exploration of history, too. And didn’t Ol’Shakey himself turn on a dime between King Duncan’s murder and the porter making penis jokes, after all?

Let’s talk about how Fountain keeps those jokes flowing, then (albeit briefly; I quote most of them below). To parody the programme’s fannish, even cosplaying, obsession with iconic figures, as Fountain did with the actor playing the eponymous character in Omega, is one thing, but to deliberately open this play with some gloriously am-dram performances is a yet bolder move on his part: both a gentle nod to the series’ many less convincing guest turns over the years but also a bit of comically charming Shakespeare-in-Love style lascivious bantering between actors and groundlings. In his hands modern colloquialisms are placed into the mouths of “historical” figures such as Earl Rivers and the Duke of Buckingham; while he toys with some period dialogue, Fountain romps freely, anachronistically and shamelessly through the echelons of the English language, producing all manner of jocular juxtapositions that would be awkward if they weren’t so funny (Royal High Concussor, Rapid Rebuttal Unit, multi-skilling, the Lincolnshire Tattletale, the Wessex Busybody…). As in Omega, Fountain’s script asks a lot of Peter Davison, and the by now seasoned actor rises to the challenge of meatier-than-usual material with a great deal of relish. We get to see him properly furious, ranting to himself about Shakespeare being a letdown, always a delight with this generally quite collected incarnation – but for the majority of the time, we get to see him being incredibly funny, and Davison (an adept comic actor, although that’s not all that remarked upon) handles the lightness of touch that runs throughout The Kingmaker terrifically well; he’s a brilliantly funny ‘straight man’, never delivering his jokes with a sense of mugging to the audience (yeah, you can’t really mug on audio as such, but you catch my drift), rather as wry and ironic asides. It’s not just humour, though, of course, but terrifically inventive jokes that serve multiple purposes – with an imagination to rival Douglas Adams at his wittiest, Fountain conjures up the notion of publisher’s robots from the 64th century going back in time to coerce lazy writers into finishing the books they never wrote (“Contract has been Made” is my favourite joke in a blissfully good sequence of them), and gives us without doubt the single best iteration of the central Doctor Who gag – the notion that our hero’s extradiegetic moniker actually stems from a misplaced comma in the umbrella series title “The Doctor, Who Discovers” for a range of factual children’s books. An age-old question, a vital puzzle, turns out to have been a mere typographical error just as the most significant historical events arise out of random chance. That is exactly such stuff as farce is made of.

The sequence in which Peri writes a letter in 1483 that the Doctor will read in 1485 – and he replies from 1481, and so on, and they finish each other’s sentences across the different eras – signifies one of the story’s key themes: that knowledge is power, even if that is a fictional knowledge. The written letters between these two fictional characters set history on its rightful path; Peri is guided by fiction – “trust me, I saw this done in a movie”; and, as we hear later, “the answer’s easy. Someone told him, of course.” It’s like that old Alan Bennett thing from The History Boys about finding an expression of feeling whilst reading that chimes with your own, and it is as if a hand has reached out and taken yours. This is not a story named after the pub, and though it’s an in-joke to Shakespeare’s description of “Warwick the kingmaker”, that’s not it either – because in the end, fiction is the real kingmaker: the ability to rewrite things as we wish to, and to convince others that our story is a good one, that will move and entertain and terrify. Stories are power. And they are not so inaccurate as all that – they are just truth of a different kind. Richard, for instance, is visited by tourists and people from the future throughout this audio’s time frame – as of course he is, every time we go to the theatre to see a certain play, is he not?

For me, a major part of what makes The Kingmaker remarkable is how stonkingly good a story it is for both Peri and Erimem – who we have often discussed as being problematic characters on audio. From their opening conversation about how most “fun” things in history were denied women because that was the custom of the age, there is a palpable sense that this is their story – that Fountain is invested in telling the tale of these two women in history. Their roles in The Kingmaker are as far from box-ticking companion-inclusion as it gets. They are the point. At every turn, we are invited to cheer the narrative invasion – no, let us call it reclamation – of Peri and Erimem taking back the narrative spaces that have been denied female characters in the past (Erimem breaking men’s arms when they get too grabby, for one thing; subverting all dull expectations of what roles the so-called “weaker sex” might be forced to play in such a time period). The masculine-dominated 15th century is subverted (I’d say “emasculated” if that didn’t make it sound like a bad thing) wonderfully by Fountain (look no further than “this is a country stuffed with power-hungry knobs with their own private armies, just waiting for the chance to make their own Do-It-Yourself monarchy”). Perimem may start off as serving wenches in 1483, but end up as princes in 1485. But in 1597, men continue to play all the women’s parts – an utterly opposite aberration to the truth. It is not until 2006 that we get to cast a glance back and see how the history “really” happened. It’s the perfect marriage of the unequal, male-dominated world of Elizabethan theatre and the unequal, male-dominated world of science-fiction (cue Peri: “it’s the time we’re in – it wasn’t seen as proper for a woman to provide low entertainment”), both being roundly and squarely rebutted.

Morris and Bryant are utterly at ease with one another here – as we saw, in a less serious manner, in the party in The Veiled Leopard – and their excellent chemistry is a real highlight. Dropping them in to one of the definitive “Doctor Who does the mythos of England” stories is extra smart due to the fact that, well, neither of the characters is English, bestowing on them a certain alien quality (and a great kick in the balls for the English monarchy, too, that its most mourned sons were not just two women but in fact an American botany student and a “savage” Egyptian warrior queen! The very idea!). Erimem has fewer problems adapting to this slightly brutal and not-at-all-cosy medieval world, putting Peri at a certain disadvantage; Bryant plays her fish-out-of-water routine very well, and is extremely ably matched by Morris, who has rarely been as funny as she is here. Their best scenes revolve around the central question of whether or not they can afford to sacrifice the Princes in the Tower at the altar of history – Peri, with a modern’s view more similar to ours, abhors the idea of murder, whilst Erimem’s larger-picture understanding of the world as a brutal place is much more open to the concept; these moments are deftly, wonderfully played. Later on, Caroline Morris gets probably the single best moment she has ever had as Erimem to date, as she asks the Doctor’s advice regarding her abortive strategy to sacrifice both herself and Peri at the altar of history (“in order to keep a friendship, I have destroyed a friendship”). The conversation that unfolds between them is delicately wrought, elegantly tapping into the story’s depiction of history’s falsehoods: “How can a friendship be built on lies?”/“The same way history can. Just look at what’s happened here – if a king can become a playwright, and a playwright can die a king’s death, surely a friendship can survive a small untruth? You’re still friends at the end of it, aren’t you? The story changes, but the ending stays the same.”

Of course there *had* to be a Doctor Who story about the princes in the tower at some point: even more irresistible a mystery of English history than the disappearance of Agatha Christie. And so we learn there never were any Princes in the Tower – just two women dressed up with codpieces. Again, because it’s worth repeating, a male “event” in history is revised and feminised in a fashion that is both moving and hilarious.

The untold history of the Tower, like the Dalek in Jubilee, becomes the story of women. So much of history is, wrongfully, “men’s studies”. The Kingmaker knocks that pedestal gleefully down. This outstanding Doctor Who story is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and clever. And so very just. It redresses a balance that sorely needed redressing, and that’s a rarity in a lot of stories particularly of this genre, even today. If fiction is power, Peri and Erimem are real royalty, and we are all more kingly for having known them.

Other things:
I love the fact that the Doctor goes to meet Shakespeare in 1597 to research Richard before going back to 1483, for instance; palpably absurd as a practical choice, but wonderfully elegant in the framework of this particular tale. Look to our stories to tell us how people think.
The lines in the Richard III performance at the start aren’t quite accurate, which paradoxically is quite accurate – given how overlapping, mixed-up and confused most of the folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays are.
“Peri, I have a question about this play. Which side do we wish to win, the actors or the audience?”/“What with actors like these, I’m rooting for the audience every time.”
“He plays the part of the queen, and yet he is a man.”/“That’s quite common in British theatre, believe me.”
Gareth Jenkins’ music is stirring stuff: all grand strings and drums, but not skimping on some eerie piano scores either. Like the magnificent and authentically Elizabethan accompaniment to a performance at the Globe, it enhances everything without ever being a distraction.
“I think Richard was pregnant. The guy has this complex about being unattractive, has these violent mood-swings, murders everyone in sight, gets weird nightmares, and has a strange craving for horse at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
History as a sequence of ups and downs – “in four hundred years’ time, they get the Beatles and fashion sense!”
“Have you ever tried getting a writer to keep a deadline? I’d say laser cannons were the minimum requirement.”
“There was a point during my stay on 20th century Earth that I discovered UNIT was not the most security-conscious top secret agency there’s ever been.” Quite the retcon here – the idea that the Doctor became a minor celebrity during this period is never actually supported by the TV stories themselves, yet it still works perfectly, fitting with both the new series’ approach to the character but also the sheer unlikelihood that nobody has ever commented on the Loch Ness Monster swimming up the Thames before. It simultaneously fills a plot hole and takes the piss out of UNIT.
How Green was My Gallifrey? and The Female UNIT – amazing.
“It was a choice between children and adult fiction?”/“It was either that or a novelty cookbook.”
“History is like a sleeping giant. Best observed, never tampered with.”
The staggeringly accurate Jon Culshaw voicework – years before Tom Baker would agree to join Big Finish – is the icing on the proverbial cake, a very cheeky and shrewd gag on Fountain’s part (“when you record yourself on tape, it never does sound like your own voice, does it?”).
Stephen Beckett gives an amusing performance as Richard (Duke of Gloucester at this point), a petty and vain man who the story roundly mocks. And yet he has a great dignity to him too, gifted with most of the best dialogue as he challenges the Doctor on his attitude to the web of time. The story never exonerates Richard – it just doesn’t play him as the moustache-twirling Mephistophelean villain it would be all too easy to portray him as. He’s a ruthless and power-hungry man, able to make the most horrific decisions if he has to; he is also eminently mockable and faintly ridiculous, but that does little to quell how unnerving he can be at times.
Although City of Death is the clear big influence on this story, you can see a number of new series tics manifesting themselves too – from the consciously Salford-accented Richard III (complete with “fantastic”) to “What the Chaucer is that thing?”, a clear nod to The Unquiet Dead, to the aside about a “Northern chap with big ears”, Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor haunts the narrative (and he was just about still the incumbent when Fountain was writing this, I should think, or at the very least a recent memory; the audio was recorded before The Christmas Invasion aired).
The idea that the Doctor and Shakespeare go drinking together and had a drunken brawl had me in stitches (“the man is an absolute hack, a fiction-peddling puppet to the house of Tudor and a lapdog to the court of Queen Elizabeth! I told him straight, Billy, I said, Billy…”).
“Midnight is for assassinations. Dawn is for betrayal. Noon is for executions. Dusk is for flight. Late morning is for bloody battle.”/“What’s the afternoon for?”/“Lunch.”
Even the details of Richard’s similes are all carefully chosen (“it sounded like a dying horse”, and later “about as reliable as a dead horse”).
“The TARDIS is old. It’s like most old people – always making noises when you least expect it.”
Gloucester’s response when he learns that both the privy and Biggins’ head have vanished: “oh well, Biggins never used either of them.”
“I am Satan – Mr Seyton.” Seyton getting mistaken for the Doctor, and being thoroughly disturbed that he is so, is a great in-joke to Black Orchid, and also the Master’s irritating penchant for turning up so frequently during this era.
The Shakespeare jokes come thick and fast: “I hope you’re not going to think a bit of flowery nonsense, three hails, and a bit of hereafter are going to prompt me into a psychotic killing spree to be King of England.”
“Would you like to sit in carousing or non-carousing?”
“Pleasant, Open-Faced Pete.” HAHAHA. Very nice.
“He used to think himself a kestrel and throw himself out of trees – always landed on his head when he tried to swoop for voles.”
“Doctor, I already consider you as a dear and trusted friend, and as a personal friend, I will not insult you by refusing to take your money.”
“You are so squeamish!” Erimem berates Peri. “I cannot understand why you and your people are so scared of death, so frightened of the commonest thing in the world!”
“They seem like spunky little wenches, and not uncomely.”
“I take against men with pointy little beards. They should have the courage to grow a proper full beard, or be clean-shaven.”
“C’est la vie, as they say in Scotland.”
Potentially my favourite line: “I’m a performance artist from the 20th century, and this is my latest installation. I was going to call it “Two Men Chained To a Wall”, but then I thought “Freedom” would have a bit more intellectual gravitas.”
“You wanna know if I killed the Princes in the Tower, do you? You wanna know if I’m a goodie or a baddie, don’t you? I know about you, Doctor… I know the type of person that you are. The kind of preachy, namby-pamby, wishy-washy, holier-than-thou, lily-livered milksop that you are. The kind who doesn’t make hard choices, the kind who just waltzes into a king’s life to do research on him!”
At first I thought nothing would ever top Fountain’s stunning Part Three cliff-hanger to Omega (not that he should feel disheartened by that; memorably, when asked why he had never written anything as good as his first novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller replied, “who has?”) – and yet the man goes ahead and pulls off an even better one here. All the cliff-hangers are strong, goosebump-inducing moments (and the Part Two one nicely deviates in the recap by letting us listen in to someone else listening in to the cliff-hanger), but the Part Three revelation that the mysterious traveller from the future is, in fact, William Shakespeare himself. Well, why not? Both he and the Doctor’s nemesis are theatrical masters, after all.
“I’ve seen servants walled up with their masters so that they can join them in the hereafter. I get very tired of having to see the world through your eyes, Peri.”
“I wouldn’t say architect; more like a god. You see past, present and future, and make sure we all act according to the rules. In fact you’re worse than a god; at least a god allows his subjects to repent.” Beckett and Davison sell these scenes amazingly well: to kill the Princes and allow history to stay on its course, or to retain his principles by staying his hand and risking everything?
“I don’t think another hole in her head would be a good idea, we’ve got enough trouble with the one under her nose!”
“It’s always women and young men who take the longest to get ready. I might’ve known that both combined would take double the time.” (Erimem having to “whiten up” every week is hilarious, as is Peri strapping down her breasts).
“The difference between life and death is not a huge thing – it’s just a different stop on a journey.”
“Not the Master, my dear, just a master – of words. Oh, and a master of the dramatic arts. Oh, and poetry. Yes, I think that just about covers it.” (Shakespeare, modest as ever; Michael Fenton-Stevens does a great job of transitioning from the suave Seyton to the much more Brummie-sounding playwright).
Ginger beer is the Doctor’s Achilles heel, it would seem. Delightfully unsophisticated.
“I’m sick of you two nodding and winking at each other like a couple of tramps in a musical!”
“We’re very particular about who we have on the throne. No dribbling imbeciles, no milksops and no birds.”/“That must narrow things down.” My new favourite line.
“Would you believe, it shrank in the wash.” No, *this* is my favourite line!
“I proclaimed them bastards, after which everyone proclaimed me much the same thing.” Or this one.
The TARDIS landing on the stage in the middle of the Globe: “Oh, now that’s a good trick” (hard to believe that this wasn’t attempted in The Shakespeare Code).
“You’ve recast!” (and then the inevitable follow-up: “I’m Richard the Third!”/“No, I am!”/“I’m Richard the Third, and so’s my wench!”)
“’Ere, was that William Shakespeare being chased by a man with a big sword? Everyone’s a critic.”
Peri attempts a riff on The Comedy of Errors but the audience aren’t having it – they saw that one last week!
“Your contract with existence will be revoked.”
“Isn’t that what a lover does? To shape the truth for his mistress to give her immortality?”
“I keep spelling Shakespeare wrong.”/“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“Clarrie’s just a detail to you, a stray pen-stroke in the ledger of history. Dead as he’s meant to be, and time didn’t even have to blink.”
“So long as the turnip-munchers get their archery on a Saturday, and the pub doesn’t run out of ale, we could put a dead squirrel on the throne of England and they wouldn’t give a damn. Nothing matters, really. Not in the long run.”/“That’s a thought that seldom crosses my mind. Perhaps it should cross it more often. I find it strangely depressing and reassuring all at the same time.”
Francis Bacon “will be happy to give you a hand”. Wonderful anti-Stratfordian gag.
Just as a cheeky finish, the question of the TARDIS’ erratic behaviour is explained as the Doctor’s inebriation giving the TARDIS hiccups. Literally everything is tidied up.

Next: 082 The Settling by Simon Guerrier.

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