The Happiness Patrol is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. That’s not possibly a view that’s particularly widely shared (it ranked only 172 out of 241 stories in the DWM 2014 poll). But then The Gunfighters could only manage a ranking of 202 in the same poll, which is even more bizarre.
After watching The Happiness Patrol on its orignal transmission back in 1988, my first thought was that it was like Paradise Towers – only done right. There’s a lot to enjoy in Paradise Towers, but some of the performances do let it down. Happiness is cast so well, with no weak links.
Sheila Hancock is Helen A, an autocratic leader who has little time for anybody else’s point of view. Saddled with an apparently subservient husband, Joseph C (Ronald Fraser), they were seen at the time as obvious caricatures of Margaret and Denis Thatcher. The tone of Hancock’s delivery, for example, is clearly modeled on Thatcher. Hancock told DWM in 2001 that she hated Mrs Thatcher “with a deep and venomous passion” so it’s not surprising that she took the material in the script and pushed it, possibly, even further.
But though Helen A can be seen as a Thatcher-clone, the script is pointing in another direction. Take the final scene between Helen A and the Doctor.
HELEN: They didn’t understand me.
DOCTOR: Oh, they understood you only too well. That’s why they resisted you.
HELEN: I only wanted the best for them.
DOCTOR: The best? Prisons? Death squads? Executions?
HELEN: They only came later. I told them to be happy, but they wouldn’t listen. I gave them every chance. Oh, I know they laughed sometimes, but they still cried, they still wept.
Helen A had been running a reign of terror, with mass murders, referred to as “disappearances”. Whilst Margaret Thatcher had many faults, “death squads and executions” weren’t amongst them. This aligns Helen A and Terra Alpha much more with countries such as Chile, where political opponents of the military junta in the 1970’s also “disappeared”, never to be seen again.
Helen A has some loyal soldiers to call on – such as Daisy K (Georgina Hale) and Priscilla P (Rachel Bell). Both Hale and Bell are great value, Hale’s drawling style of delivery can make the most out of even fairly mundane lines, whilst Bell is given some good scenes which highlight exactly how much of a fanatic she is (and just the type of solider Helen A requires when things turn desperate).
PRISCILLA: I used to work with explosives when I was in Happiness Patrol B, the anti-terrorist squad. We worked the night shift. I like working late at night.
ACE: Not interested.
PRISCILLA: Night times are when they come out.
PRISCILLA: The killjoys. Depressives, manic reactive indigenous. We got them. All of them.
ACE: What do you mean, got them?
PRISCILLA: They disappeared.
ACE: You make me sick.
PRISCILLA: I did a good job, and then they put me on this. It’s not fair. I know the streets. I’m a fighter.
ACE: No, you’re not. You’re a killer.
John Normington (Trevor Sigma) and Lesley Dunlop (Susan Q) had both guest-starred in S21, but had very different roles here. Trevor Sigma is a much less showy part than Morgus (Trevor Sigma exists only on the periphery of the plot and his major contribution is to confirm exactly how many people have disappeared on Terra Alpha in the last six months).
Dunlop is much more central to the action and gives a very nice, understated performance (which isn’t easy in that costume). In episode one she discusses the futility of her life and how she welcomes the possibility of her own death – something that it’s hard to find many examples of in the series, prior to this story.
But I did wake up one morning, and suddenly something was very clear. I couldn’t go on smiling. Smiling while my friends disappeared, wearing this uniform and smiling and trying to pretend I’m something I’m not. Trying to pretend that I’m happy. Better to let it end. Better to just relax and let it happen. I woke up one morning and I realised it was all over.
Ronald Fraser has little to do throughout the story except react to other characters (although his final scene is a gem). But Fraser’s lovely as the befuddled consort and he adds another touch of class to the story . Richard D. Sharp (Earl Sigma) is very solid and provides a good foil for McCoy’s Doctor, which leads us onto the most controversial aspect of the story.
Yes, the Kandyman looks like Bertie Bassett. For those who can’t get beyond that, The Happiness Patrol is clearly a disaster. But the Kandyman is a wonderful creation – visually he looks great, he’s got some killer lines and despite the heavy costume, David John Pope gives him a definite character.
And there’s a fabulous relationship between the Kandyman and Gilbert M (Harold Innocent). Virtually every scene they have together is laugh-out-loud funny, starting with the first when Gilbert returns to the Kandy Kitchen and the Kandyman angrily asks him “What time do you call this?“.
I also love this exchange in episode two.
KANDYMAN: What’s affected me? Help me!
GILBERT: It’s quite simple. Created as you are out of glucose based substances, your joints need constant movement to avoid coagulation.
KANDYMAN: What do you mean?
GILBERT: You’re turning into a slab of toffee. I saw this at the planning stage, and then I realised what the solution was.
KANDYMAN: What’s that?
GILBERT: I’ve forgotten.
The Kandyman does rather fade out of the story after episode two though. He only has one good scene in the last episode before meeting a rather sticky end. So whilst many people, I’m sure, would have been happy if he had fewer (or no) scenes, when re-watching the story I’m always disappointed he doesn’t have more.
The Doctor and Ace are in the thick of the action. Ace gets to make friends with Susan Q and the Pipe People, as well as tangle with Helen A’s pet, Fifi. Aldred continues to impress, especially since given her inexperience she’s always mixing with actors who have had much more experience than her – but she more than holds her own.
McCoy has several stand-out moments – the final scene with Helen A and the encounter with the two snipers in episode two (“Why don’t you do it then? Look me in the eye, pull the trigger, end my life. Why not?”). This is a defining moment for the Seventh Doctor, which McCoy pulls off very well. As previously mentioned, when he downplays, McCoy’s very effective.
The notion of the Doctor initiating a regime-change during the course of one night does seem a little unlikely, so it’s best to suppose that the rebellion was already well under way and the Doctor’s arrival was simply the spark that lit the flame.
There’s very little that I can find fault with – although I do wish that it had ended on the pull-back shot of Helen A comforting Fifi. That seemed to be the ideal ending – and the typical good-bye scene with Susan Q and Earl Sigma that actually closed the story did seem like something of an anti-climax.
It would have been the easy option to fill all the stories from S25 with old monsters, but thankfully with The Happiness Patrol they wanted to do something different and they certainly succeeded.