27 January 2017

Good Times! #14 ManoptiCon 5 (1997)



(first published in Faze 1997)

"There were other Doctors?" Tom, when asked his opinion of the other Doctors.
Taking place in the middle of a week in which we, finally, have a Labour government, won the Eurovision Song Contest and it became winter again, Manopticon 5 was going to have to try hard to make an impression; a feat not helped by the tropical temperatures, faster than light speed lifts and unhelpful staff which characterised the hotel. Nevertheless the organisers ensured that this fifth and final Manchester event had a good go at matching up to the May's already memorable happenings. And a lot of it had to do with the man we call Tom.



He arrived to a reception that near tore the roof off (which would have been a bonus in the interminable heat), a slightly stooped very tall grey haired man in an anonymous brown coat. He is carrying a small blue bag. "That's my bag" he informs us before placing it on a table and never referring to it again. This is casual genius, the sort of thing that only the likes of, say, David Bowie, can pull off. Watching Tom unfurl his off kilter worldview I can't help but be struck at how he would be the perfect lead for a series today if someone would write it. Tom's on the con trail this year in support of what promises to be his rivetting autobiography now called 'Just Who on Earth is Tom Baker?' With a broad grin and trademark "aah"s in between sentences, he relayed various anecdotes and fielded questions most of which he toyed with, half answered or sometimes abandoned.
Most interestingly every tale is tinged with a personal angle that adds a surreal quality to his whole life. He meets a woman who he should know but doesn't, keeps guessing -what play were they in together and so on - but can't work it out. "We were married" she finally tells him. There's a similar encounter with his son. There's a woman who mistakes him for Shirley Williams! He describes his early life in Liverpool, the fact that he's betrayed most people he's known, his gravestone story (now updated to include a bizarre encounter with some burglars). He seems to focus on aspects of his life that could, if they happened to others, provoke misery and depression, yet he imbues them with the vibrancy of the best fiction as if revelling in failure and inadequacy purges him of it. He glosses over his triumphs lingering instead on the darker things and somehow keeping us amused with a storyteller's art and that grin. Yet this never seems phoney in the way that many showbiz 'confessions' do and seems to reflect the search for meaning in life that everyone has. The book will surely be the best autobiography of the year. He also signed autographs for as many people who wanted them. He's the best convention guest there is; go see him this year as it's part of his contract to promote the book and who knows when he’ll pop up' again. It makes you wonder why the question 'Who's the best Doctor?' is ever asked. Or, as MC Gary Gillatt said on stage afterwards "Let's see David Duchovny do that in 20 year's time". 

Mind you, Sylvester McCoy is someone I'm warming to as the years pass. His mind is always one step ahead of his mouth and his chatter is often suddenly interrupted by a strong opinion or thought. He's a bit less manic now, ready to temper his crazy paving approach a bit. He's still unpredictable and prone to run with the conversation in a completely different direction. Another brill guest, he spent alot of the time wandering around; for example he spotted a video playing a German version of one of his stories and came over to join in making the day for another group of fans. .

Yee Jee Tso kicked the audience's less than enthusiastic response to last year's TV Movie (which had been expressed elsewhere over the weekend) out of the ballpark with a rambunctious appearance and endeared himself to even the movie's strongest critics with his friendly, energetic personality best shown in his arrival (he was the only guest to respond to his intro music), helping raffle of a couple of the Australian versions of the telemovie or enthusiastically signing autographs as long as he could. He'd arrived from Canada that morning (sporting pop star cool shades and velvet jacket) but there was no sign of jet lag as he answered a variety of questions with freshness and honesty, even from someone who kept harping on about whether the Americans were more anti-establishment than us (he's actually Canadian and interviewer Gary Russell neatly deflected this rather too serious line of questioning).
He also talked a lot about the character of Chang Lee whose background had been fully explored in the original script; he was an orphan who lived with his uncle and there'd been a whole scene explaining how he got involved with the gangs. He did address the film's 'cheesy' factor and put forward the view that nobody really wanted to see both Grace and Chang Lee die and if you were going to bring them back cheesily then you might as well do it in a good cheesy way! He said he'd love to have been in any series that might have followed and judging from the great reception he got even the most anti US Who fans would have liked to have seen him continue in the role. Let's hope we get to see him in some more stuff soon.

We arrive at Mark Strickson next. One always sensed that behind Turlough's perpetually scowling countenance there was a more mischievous persona but it only occasionally peaked out (such as in 'Frontios' where he delights in teasing Tegan about Earth's future). Here, Mark spent most of his panel showing us clips from the wildlife films he's now producing which feature a mad Australian called Simon crawling about with venomous snakes and playing footsie with deadly alligators. Some of this footage was breathtaking and he explained that the approach was to try and move away from the dry nature of similar films and turn what was a documentary format into entertainment. Now with appropriate producer's swagger he produced the miracle of a hall full of Doctor Who fans more interested in snakes than the series! 

Mary Tamm's odd mixture of poshness and Northern humour makes her a very watchable guest and her revived career thanks to Brookside (although she says she wasn't initially looking forward to that job) means she can now look back on Romana more fondly. Like Mark, she managed to keep the focus on a wider angle than just the series. Watch out for her in four upcoming appearances including Heartbeat. The UNIT team of Nick Courtney, Richard Franklin and John Levene were re - assembled and are always are a hearty bunch to touch base with especially as they've all changed a bit down the years. Nick is now the affable uncle figure who brings a practical and wry view to matters. Richard - after his v.weird T Bag period -seems much more assured nowadays and interestingly stood as a Referendum party candidate in the General Election while John now has the deep voice and glossy smile essential for anyone living in America and working in showbiz.
Manopticons are renowned for their exclusives and, as well as netting Tom and Yee Jee, they lined up a number of guest artists from the series' history who are also well known in the wider acting world. Mark Eden (Marco Polo) seemed such a decent bloke that it was hard to reconcile him with the clip of Carries' nasty Alan Bradley we saw. Jean Marsh too was so friendly and both seemed to have affectionate memories of the series which has played only a tiny part of their working lives. As for Patricia Quinn, it's hard to tell what she thinks but her appearance was brilliantly camp and stagey and focussed mostly on Rocky Horror though she did express dismay at her dull 'Dragonfire' costume; she'd insisted on doing her death scene without her hat!
Other unexpected guests included Michael Sheard who's now a cult figure thanks to the Grange Hill repeats and has a book out soon essaying the life of a jobbing actor which considering how many hundreds of things he's done should be worth buying especially as the marketing will revolve around the magnificent Mr Bronson, a character I'm pleased to say the actor is nothing like really. There was also William Gaunt, Don Henderson, the voice of St lvel Gold Michael Jayston (who has a wicked sense of humour) and The Bill's Simon Rouse who's performance in 'Kinda' remains etched in fans' minds.

In fact the event was so guest packed that there isn't room to either cover or in fact see everyone (which may be a slight criticism given the humidity in the hall) so relegated to being mentioned in despatches are Colin Baker, Terrance Dicks (yes, he still hates the telemovie), Nicola Bryant, Lis Sladen (who I was actually in a lift with - it felt like an episode of 'Genesis of the Daleks" or something for a moment), Caroline John (who is quite batty actually), Matthew Waterhouse (who's a bit of a trainee Tom with his self-deprecating views), Sarah Sutton, Sophie Aldred (who's getting married soon), Michael Craze (who's always looking for the "next pretty girl"), Wendy Padbury and quite possibly others I've forgotten (it was that kind of event).
There was the usual noisy cabaret and musical culmination of Lambert and Hu's extravaganza and also a running 'Room 101' feature whereby guests disposed of items they didn't like which were later auctioned off. Events were linked together by Gary Gillatt's breezy and sometimes rather cheeky MCing and played out in front of a superb Totters Lane set. Matters climaxed, missus, with an increasingly smutty multiple panel based on DWM' Tardis Box feature in which we learned of Sophie once trying to cut off her brother's finger, Matthew avoided every question, old mates Nick and Michael S teased each other and Patricia flirted with Yee Jee!

This was apparently definitely the last Manopticon and the committee can be justifiably proud of a series of barrier breaking conventions that combined all the guests you could want with a fresh and enjoyable presentation style. The audience reaction indicates that further events would be more than welcome but whether or not they happen Manopticon is the big convention success story of the Nineties.  

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