Peter Wyngarde – A Life Amongst Strangers by Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins

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I’ve been a fan of Peter Wyngarde’s film and television work for a fair few years, but until now I didn’t really know a great deal about the man himself – apart from a series of oft-repeated tales (which no doubt grow more distorted every time they’re repeated).

Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins’ hefty tome (clocking in at over 500 pages) has been designed to rectiy this and although she’s obviously approached the book intent on righting perceived wrongs from various points in Wyngarde’s life, it still manages to paint a vivid picture of a charismatic, but often difficult, man.

Wyngarde-Hopkins first met Peter in the early nineties when she set up a fanzine dedicated to him. Over the years their bond grew closer as she became his assistant, companion and eventual soul mate. Drawing upon an impressive archive (letters, scripts, diaries, interviews) she’s been able to fashion a substantial biography where the subject is often able to chip in on the subject in hand.

His early years, as a prisoner of the Japanese in an interment camp in Shanghai, are vividly portrayed. There are lighter moments – organising theatrical entertainments – but also darker ones (the guards broke both his feet in order to discourage him from running about).  Wyngarde’s relationship with his parents – his mother looks to have been something of a flighty man-eater whilst he idolised his father (who died at sea in 1947) – is also touched upon.

Rather like his mother, Wyngarde enjoyed a healthy sex life (one of the things he’s – along his with acting – probably best known for). And as he attempted to establish a name for himself as an actor in post-war Britain, there were no shortage of opportunities for liasons.  Plus plenty of invitations which Wyngarde declined (from the likes of Noel Coward, Peggy Ashcroft and Bette Davis). It’s up to the reader to decide how much of this is credible – no doubt Wyngarde wasn’t above spinning a tall tale or two.

His years in provincial rep and his eventual emergence during the 1950’s as a familiar face on both the London stage and as an early television favourite are entertainingly sketched. The likes of Kenneth Williams and Orson Welles feature in some amusing anecdotes.

By the 1960’s Wyngarde was guesting in a number of cult television series which still endure to this day. Most notably The Avengers and the episode A Touch Of Brimstone, in which he played the Honorable John Cleverly Cartney, leader of a modern Hellfire Club. Wyngarde would later recall that Cartney’s whip cracking was very carefully choregraphed – one wrong move could have resulted in a serious injury for Diana Rigg.

His real ascent to cult fame would, of course, come with Department S and Jason King. Paid the princely sum of £336 for the first thirteen episodes (rising to £1,000 if the series continued past that point) Wyngarde seems to have earned the respect of many of the guest actors (Anthony Hopkins speaks warmly of his experience working with him on Department S) although it was a different story with his co-star Rosemary Nichols. More detail on this – or indeed production of both series – would have been welcome, as they’re dealt with rather quickly.

Two very different events during the seventies are still debated today by Wyngarde watchers. The first is his 1970 self-titled spoken word album, which included such memorable offerings as “Rape”. Judging by the eleven tracks not included in the final cut (including “Merry Sexmas”) it could have been a double album ….

A Life Amongst Strangers posits that RCA had hoped the album would be a flop, thereby allowing them to write it off as a tax loss. But unfortunately for them it turned out to be a success. That’s certainly an interesting spin on events.

In 1975 Wyngarde was fined £75 for committing an act of gross indecency in the public toilets at Gloucester Bus Station. Although he kept working, this dealt a devastating blow to both his career and public image from which he never really recovered.  Wyngarde-Hopkins remains convinced he was innocent (and that he was PERSECUTED! not prosecuted).  Throughout the book she’s also at pains to dismiss the numerous rumours concerning his sexuality – presenting Wyngarde as a firmly heterosexual character.

From the eighties onwards the work began to dry up, although there were still some notable credits, such as Flash Gordon (1980) and a guest role in a 1984 Doctor Who serial (Planet of Fire). Peter Davison would remember Wyngarde’s contribution to this story in his autobiography, although this still attracted Wyngarde-Hopkins’ ire (due to the fact he misspelt Wyngarde’s surname and omitted him from the index).

His final years, as his health began to falter, makes for bleak reading – although by the end you’re left in no doubt about just how much Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins loved him.

A Life Amongst Strangers offers a substantial portrait of Peter Wyngarde. As with all autobiographies and biographies the reader will have to decide just how accurate a portrait it is, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on detail.  Published by Austin Macauley, it’s well worth checking out.

Peter Wyngarde biography due February 2020

A biography of the legendary cult actor Peter Wyngarde is due to be published on the 28th of February 2020 by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd 

Written by his long-term partner and soulmate Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins, the press release states that the book will reveal the real man behind the colourful public image whilst not shying away from the controversy that surrounded his personal life. 

Most people who worked with Wyngarde seem to have formed strong opinions about him – either pro or negative – so I look forward to this book with great interest.

Soupy Twists by Jem Roberts – Book Review

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If you’ve more than a passing interest in British comedy, then the name of Jem Roberts should be a familiar one. His three previous books – The Clue Bible, The True History of the Black Adder and The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams – are all proudly lined up on my shelves, and they’re now joined by his latest – Soupy Twists: The Full, Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As the lengthy title indicates, this is no hastily knocked together unauthorised history. Although it draws upon previously published interviews (selected quotes from Stephen Fry’s volumes of autobiography are also effectively dropped in) there’s plenty of fresh insights as well. Although if you’re looking for scandal then you’ve come to the wrong place – the partnership between F&L has always been a very harmonious one (although the handful of cross words they’ve shared are discussed along the way).

Beginning their comedy marriage, along with a group of significant others such as Emma Thompson, during their undergraduate days at Cambridge, F&L seemed to effortlessly move into television during the eighties via Alfresco, Black Adder, Saturday Live and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. It wasn’t quite as smooth as that of course, so the odd misstep (The Crystal Cube) is also touched upon.

Alfresco (and its predecessor There’s Nothing To Worry About!) might be largely unloved today (indeed, they were largely unloved back then as well) but I’ve always had something of a soft spot for them, so there were some nice new nuggets of information in this section for me. For example, I never knew that Rik Mayall was nearly part of the troupe.

It’s no surprise that A Bit of Fry & Laurie takes up a fair chunk of the book. And quite right too. There’s some fascinating material here – sketch extracts which never made it to screen as well as tantalising titbits about more cut sketches, such as further Tony and Control meetings ….

Another notable cut from S2 of ABOF&L featured Rowan Atkinson (this was deemed not to be worthy of transmission – which makes me even more intrigued to see it). Whilst Fist of Fun was the gold standard of DVD releases (virtually everything which still existed from the studio tapes – save a few moments snipped for legal reasons – made it onto the bumper releases) sadly A Bit of Fry & Laurie was a depressingly bare-bones DVD release (no extra footage at all). It would be nice to think that a deluxe ABOF&L DVD set might appear one day (well we all have to have dreams).

Apart from Fry and Laurie themselves, a host of friends and collaborators pop up to offer their own insights. Some of these are quite sharp – such as Deborah Norton, who found working with Stephen during the first series of ABOF&L to be rather difficult (although when they met years later everything was much more harmonious).

Their post-partnership careers (following the broadcast of the fourth series of ABOF&L in 1995) are neatly summed up in the final chapter before we reach the rather appetising dessert – nearly one hundred pages of unseen extracts from the Fry & Laurie archive. There’s plenty of good stuff here, most of which could easily have turned up on television.

Covering all the bases, this is a detailed and entertaining read which I devoured in several sittings. Highly recommended.

The Blue Peter Diaries by Richard Marson. Miwk Book Review

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Covering the period from 1997 to 2008, The Blue Peter Diaries offers a fascinating insight into the production processes of one of the BBC’s flagship programmes.  At different times amusing, raw and poignant, as the book wears on it becomes clear just how fiercely devoted Richard Marson was to the show.

The candid nature of the entries makes for compelling reading.  Which presenter could be something of a diva?  And which were the best and least prepared?  All will be revealed ….

When pouring through the diary entries, it becomes clear that there are several running themes.  Marson’s disdain for the pop world is one (visitors to the studio such as S Club 7, Steps, Westlife, Sugababes and Britney Spears all receive less than glowing write-ups) whilst you also get a real sense of the way he had to fight his corner against BBC executives keen to downsize or marginalise the programme (especially during his final years as editor).

That Richard Marson was a staunch gatekeeper, resolute in his determination that BP should never be compromised or have to play to the lowest common denominator, may be why he was eventually eased out of his dream job.  The various scandals that dogged his last year (the naming of the BP cat, the phone-in debacle) seem more like excuses than reasons.

But whilst there’s plenty of behind the scenes wrangling – not only from the execs but also from members of the production team less invested in the show than Marson himself (they tended not to last long) – it’s also interesting to have a ground-level view of the off-screen dynamics of the presenters.

Konnie Huq, Simon Thomas, Matt Baker and Liz Barker became something of a dream-team, easily able to stand alongside the classic line-ups of the past (such as Singleton, Noakes and Purves).  But when that team began to break up, their replacements (Zoe Salmon, Gethin Jones) sometimes struggled to connect with the senior presenters (Matt had little time for Gethin or Zoe, Liz wasn’t particularly enamoured of Zoe).  But none of the presenters suffer hatchet jobs in the text, and any occasional bad behaviour can often be explained away by having to work at such an intense level.

Having enjoyed his previous books (including a detailed history of Upstairs Downstairs and candid biographies of John Nathan-Turner and Verity Lambert) I’d always hoped that one day Richard Marson would write about his experiences on Blue Peter.  That he’d kept such a detailed diary was an unexpected bonus, since it gives us an immediate and visceral lowdown on proceedings (had the whole book been written today, decades or more later, then it obviously would have been very different).

Running to 448 pages, this is an absolutely essential read and comes highly recommended.  It can be ordered directly from Miwk here.

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Red, White and Who – Book Preview

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For many British Doctor Who fans, when considering America’s relationship with our favourite programme it’s the 1980’s which immediately springs to mind. That was the decade in which the show exploded in popularity across the US (in relative terms anyway) and whilst British fandom was beginning to turn on itself, becoming increasingly bitter and negative, in America there appeared to be only single-minded love for this newly discovered programme.

There was plenty of money too, as the stars of the programme quickly discovered. The leap from the fledgling and low-scale British convention circuit to the all-expenses paid, air-conditioned hotel experience of the American dream wasn’t lost on anybody. This helps to explain why just about anybody who was anybody in the Who world elected to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the programme at a massive American convention.

As Gary Russell explains in his brief, but amusing forward, this was one of the reasons why British fans regarded their American counterparts with jaundiced eyes. The fact that they also got The Five Doctors two days earlier than us simply rubbed salt into already bitter wounds. And then there’s the term Whovian ….

If you want to irritate an old-school British Doctor Who fan, just refer to them as a Whovian. It works every time. Coined by American fans back in the eighties, the new series has now brought this unlovely term back into common usage (something which continually irks me I have to admit, but then I’m an old-school British Doctor Who fan).

However, the story of Doctor Who in America began well before the 1980’s and continues right up to the current day, meaning that this mammoth book (704 pages, including 130 pages of appendixes) doesn’t leave any stones unturned in order to present us with the full picture.

I’ve had the chance to peruse several sample chapters from the book and what I’ve read has impressed me.  For example, whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that Doctor Who debuted on American television in the early 1970’s (with a package of Jon Pertwee stories) I wasn’t aware that the first faint flickers of interest in the series had occurred long before that.

In the mid 1960’s these mainly consisted of newspaper reports which took an amused look back over the pond during the period when Britain was gripped by Dalekmania.  For some American commentators there was plainly the fear that the Daleks might, following the Beatles, be the spearhead of another British invasion (something which filled certain writers with dread!)  An enthusiastic, if somewhat inaccurate, article from Famous Monsters of Filmland from 1965 is another early example of Doctor Who reporting in the US (these early chapters feature a plethora of fascinating press clippings and promotional material – both for the Dalek movies and the early television sales – which adds considerable extra value to the insightful text).

Chapter Eight – Love and Monsters – covers the PSB pledge drives as well as demonstrating early examples of fan-power.  This is another interesting topic for non-Americans – most of us have probably seen footage from various pledge drives over the years, but exactly how they worked (and the likelihood that money pledged for Doctor Who might not even go towards purchasing that series) was again another revelation.  I also loved Gail Bennett’s remembrance of John Nathan-Turner.   In the early eighties JN-T was, even in the UK, very much a fan’s producer, but it seems that he found greater acceptance in the US.  The notion of JN-T “holding court” at a convention with a group of fans in a hot tub sounds typical of the man, for good or for ill.

Chapter Ten – Doctor Who in Bits – discusses the way that American fans took to the brave new world of the internet whilst Chapter Fourteen – Creativity: Trippingly on the Tongue – exhumes another half-forgotten relic from the history of American Who.  John Ostrander’s stage-play The Inheritors of Time created a certain amount of interest in the mid eighties (not least for the fact that an American Doctor had been cast) but due to a lack of funds it was never mounted.  Ostrander teases the reader with a few hints about what the play contained, although he remains tight-lipped about many of the details (even after all these years it appears he hasn’t given up hope of resurrecting it).

Towards the end of the book, Chapter Twenty – It Couldn’t Have Happened to a More Deserving Fellow – examines the way that the series, in the Matt Smith era, really began to find a foothold in the public consciousness.  Which was a far cry from 2005, when American fans were frustrated that no broadcaster had picked up the Christopher Eccleston series.

Other chapters promise to cover Doctor Who’s first successful invasion, thanks to Tom Baker and Howard Da Silva (although possibly Da Silva’s help – via a series of narrations, designed to educate the American viewer about the series – was more of a hindrance).  As might be expected, the fan experience – via conventions and creative works – also looks to be covered in depth.

The sample chapters suggests that Red, White and Who will be the last word on this topic.  Although the list of authors – Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, Robert Warnock, Janine Fennick and John Lavalie – is a lengthy one, their voices seem to blend together seamlessly.

It’s available for pre-order here and whilst it isn’t cheap at $49.99, it does run to a hefty 704 pages and contains 600 images.  So whilst it’s true that the cost may be a little off-putting for some, what I’ve seen of it so far indicates that it’s no cheap cash in.  This looks to be something crafted with love and appreciation and should certainly be worth your consideration.

Remotely Interesting – Ben Baker (Book Review)

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Who doesn’t love a television quiz?  I certainly do and Ben Baker’s third television quiz-book, Remotely Interesting, manages to entertainingly deliver as even this grizzled television watcher discovered some interesting new nuggets of information (the original title for Goodness Gracious Me, for example).

There’s plenty of variety across the many different rounds.  Eight Word TV Tango sees popular programmes boiled down to an eight word description (“Soft and septuagenarian soil-securers bumble for Britain”) whilst Points of Groo digs out letters sent to the Radio Times, TV Times and Look-In, challenging the reader to guess the programme under discussion.  Sadly (or possibly impressively) I did well here, even though the actual letters were new to me.  They all provided fascinating nuggets of social history (as Ben says, it takes a special type of person to write into a publication in order to proffer their opinion)

Belong in a Presidential Tweet is another entertaining section as Donald Trump (warning, Fake Trump) offers his own unique Twitter-styled take on popular programmes.  Theme from a Hummer Place (challenging you to identity popular television themes from every fourth word is listed) is a simple, but ingenious, idea.  “Don’t, beat, drum, right, not, some, born, of, come, nothing”.  Hmm, I’ll come back to that one.

Another fruitful area for quizzing are the lists of ten facts on various topics (five true, five false) scattered throughout the book.  How can you not love a book which asks you to ponder whether popular-ish Simpsons character Cletus (aka “the slack jawed yokel”) has children called Incest, Q*Bert and Stabbed In Jail?

Although I like to pride myself on my knowledge of television trivia, thanks to Remotely Interesting I now know many more useless factoids than I did before, which makes it a book that informs as well as entertains.  With over fifty sections and a wide variety of questions, it certainly has something for everyone.

As Ben explains on his blog.  “There’s rounds about robots, catchphrases, The Beatles on TV, theme tunes, live programmes, Netflix and the online revolution, game shows, spin-offs, remakes, famous mothers, kids shows, booze, radio transfers, foreigners, Great Telly Years (1969, 1990, 1982 and 1977) and a bunch of Christmas stuff for good measure! The suggested age range is anything from 18 to 65, and probably beyond! Its accessible but challenging where it needs to be with lots of speciality rounds for all the family”.

Remotely Interesting comes warmly recommended.  Further information can be found here.

Prophets of Doom – The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch to be reprinted

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Originally published in 2012, Prophets of Doom by Michael Seely is an invaluable guide to Doomwatch.  It contains new interviews with surviving cast and crew members as well as an episode by episode guide (with a wealth of production information and background detail on each story).

The book drifted out of print a while back, but the recent DVD release has prompted a reprint which should be ready by the end of May.  It can be ordered directly from the publishers, Miwk, here.

Because Miwk are something of a niche publisher, their books don’t tend to have especially large print runs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this book go out of print again in the future.  Therefore I’d recommend putting an order in sooner rather than later.  Below is the book’s blurb –

In February 1970, one of the most important television drama programmes from the 1970s was broadcast on BBC1. Not only did it introduce a new word to the English language, it also brought to a mainstream audience of ten million viewers each week the new, emerging idea of the scientists’ moral and ethical responsibility in society. This was Doomwatch, a visionary science fiction series which took scientific research and technological advances and imagined where they could go disastrously wrong if greed, politics or simple ambition won over caution. This was drama with a message. And it was heard.  The fears of the Sixties: over-population, test-tube babies, super-sonic aircraft, DDT, the Bomb, all found expression in Doomwatch.

Launching the career of actor Robert Powell, Doomwatch entertained and thrilled its audience with concepts such as a plastic eating virus, animal hearts transplanted into children, toxic chemical dumps, cannibal rats, the surveillance state, noise that can kill, food poisoned by drugs and chemicals, and by the end of its first successful series, the ultimate horror: a nuclear bomb washed up underneath a seaside pier, its countdown ticking down to claim the life of one of the celebrated Doomwatch team.

It was conceived by a research scientist and a television dramatist, Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, who had previously devised the Cybermen for Doctor Who. With Doomwatch, they soon became famous for creating seemingly prophetic storylines in which the media eagerly found parallels in real life.  Were the writers of Doomwatch prophets of doom or simply scaremongering popularists?

The programme divided the scientific and political establishment into those who thought the programme was a much needed and timely warning and tried to do something about it, and those who thought it was a naive, reactionary piece of trivial, and ignorant television. Dr. Kit Pedler actively tried to create a real-life Doomwatch, and was at the beginnings of the alternative technology movement in Britain and did his own experiments on creating ecologically sound housing and develop a new way of living in a modern society without destroying the habitat or regressing back to the stone age.

With contributions from the family of Dr. Kit Pedler, Darrol Blake, Jean Trend, Glyn Edwards, Martin Worth, Adele Winston, Eric Hills, and others, this book will tell the proper story of Doomwatch both on and off the screen, how it was made, the true story behind the stories, the controversies, the back stage bust-ups, and how the programme inspired those who looked around the world in which they had been conditioned to accept, and begin to question.