Monday, 27 August 2012

Do You Have A Favourite Dalek?

With the Daleks returning to our television screens this coming Saturday in the new series of Doctor Who in an episode titled Asylum of the Daleks, which is to feature every single Dalek that has ever appeared in Doctor Who from 1963 to the present, it promises to be one hell of an episode. But what was it about the Daleks that made them such an instant smash in the first place that the BBC kept bringing them back? Why were they so scary? And why, when they first appeared on TV all those years ago, did thousands of kids, of which I was one, hide behind their parents sofa, peeping nervously out from behind the arm-rest, to make sure it was safe to continue watching?  And why was it, when I did a photo shoot with a Dalek for the jacket of my David Tennant biography, did I feel like I was meeting a celebrity? 

It’s hard to describe why the Daleks were so terrifying. They were just metal boxes spinning round threatening to ‘exterminate’ people. But somehow it worked. Somehow they managed to impregnate the national consciousness and became the most terrifying symbol of destruction. Maybe it was the weird staccato voice. Maybe it was a fear of the Nazis on which they were apparently based. But whatever the reason, they were frightening enough to give most children nightmares in the 1960s.

To many, though, yes, it was their chilling speech - and their design. It seems quite remarkable today to think that if it wasn't for a combination of budget restraints and inspiration, the original Daleks, created by Terry Nation, and designed by BBC designer, Ray Cusick, they may never have seen the light of day. And even more remarkable is that if Cusick hadn't had come up the now familiar pepper-pot shape design, the ball-covered skirt, domed head and infamous sink plunger, the Daleks may not have been such a huge hit. In fact, it is a testament to Cusick's design that every time they return, they immediately captivate a whole new generation of fans.

When Doctor Who was once again broadcast in 2005, many fans hoped the Daleks would return to the programme. After much negotiation between the BBC and the Nation estate, which at one point appeared to completely break down, an agreement was reached. Written by Rob Shearman, ‘Dalek’, the sixth episode of Series One, was shown on BBC1 on 30 April 2005. The new Dalek exhibited new features, including a swivelling mid-section that allowed it a 360-degree field of fire and a force field with the ability to disintegrate bullets before they struck it. As well as being able to fly, it could also regenerate itself by means of absorbing electrical power and the DNA of a Time Traveller. The ‘plunger’ manipulator arm could now crush a man’s skull, in addition to the technology interfacing abilities shown by earlier models. When the Dalek fired in a wet, metal room, its laser conducted like electricity. The Doctor described it as a ‘genius’, able to calculate a thousand billion lock combinations in a single second and to download the entire contents of the Internet. A more sophisticated model of the Dalek mutant was also featured.

It seems everyone has a favourite type of Dalek, colour and design. What was yours?

Monday, 6 August 2012

In Search of Becoming an Actor

I was reminded last week of the time when I wanted to become an actor. Like so many others at the time, I thought the best way into the industry was by trying to get some work as a film extra. I had already looked into getting into drama school or joining a repertory company, but both were pretty prohibitive. Both the drama school and repertory company options presented financial hiccups. Neither I nor my parents had the finance to make it happen. And as my parents considered it the kind of career that was precarious to say the least, where you would spend more time out of work than in, I suppose the repertory company seemed the most ideal out of the two. But in the 1960s, local repertory companies would take young hopefuls on as stage hands, and if you were very lucky, you may end up with a walk-on part, but it was an almost impossible way to live unless you had some savings or came from a wealthy family. I think the going rate at that time was £5 salary per week and out of that you had to find your own digs, in the same town where the rep company was based, so it was pretty much of a no-no.

Then I came upon the idea of perhaps trying to get a job working as an extra in films. I seem to remember that some studios hired people for crowd scenes, so I did some research, wrote a few letters asking to be seen, and made some phone calls, and ended up getting an appointment with the casting director at MGM in Borehamwood. But even then, it was not that simple. All the casting director told me was that it was pretty much impossible to do anything without an agent and without an Equity card. Equity is the actor’s union and back then you had to be a member even to be picked to do crowd scenes in a film or television drama. The casting director knew such an agent who may be able to help, so from MGM I was sent back down into the West End of London where I would meet with the recommended agent and reiterated with her what I wanted to do. The agent told me the first thing I had to do was to get some casting photos done. It just so happened that I knew this photographic studio in Brighton, close to where I had an office job at the time, and so I booked a photo shoot. I don't think I could afford many prints, but I remember doing a whole session of photos with the photographer, who also owned the studio. We did a range of different scenarios in different outfits, from portrait to character shots. I remember it was quite a poky little studio but well equipped to get some professional looking pictures done. We got some good results, for what the London agent had requested. I sent off what I could afford at the time, but never heard and never got a call even to attend a casting audition, not even as an extra.

Many years later I joined an amateur drama group. I was cast in about nine plays in all. The rehearsals were about three months for each play, two or three nights per week, and then the run of the production was usually nine days long, opening on a Friday night and running through to the Saturday of the following week. It was hard work, and I don't think until then, I realised how gruelling it was to be an actor, but it was always good fun though and was a great taster for anyone who was thinking of becoming an actor. But by the time I joined the drama group I wasn't looking at it as a profession, just purely a hobby. When I was thinking of it as a career, I wasn't really interested in stage acting, I just wanted to act in films or television and that was one of the reasons I went off to MGM Studios in Borehamwood. That and thinking I may get onto see some the stages where films like Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra had been filmed, but I didn't. I got nowhere near the actual studios where they were filming. I got as far as the admin offices and that was it!