Sylvester McCoy: What A Knit!

In the days before Lovarzi, the Fan Show, Comic-Con, Doctor Puppet, and Class (it wasn’t all bad), it was a hard time to be a Teenage Doctor Who Fan. A TDWF, if you will. I’m talking about the late 1980s when all the cool kids were into RoboCop, the TV talk of the playground was Blackadder the Third, and Stock Aitken Waterman stalked the Earth.

There’s a lot of nonsense talk about how school children didn’t watch the news and that regenerations would be a big surprise back then. But that’s simply not true. There were only four channels and the announcement of a new Doctor would be on the Nine O’Clock News, Newsround, and featured on Saturday kids shows like Going Live! (which everyone at school watched, if they didn’t have football practice or another sporting event).

Everyone was aware of the behind-the-scenes Doctor Who turmoil, and – whatever the truth – the alternative facts that filtered through the school gates were that Colin Baker was so fat and awful that the long-promised imminent nuclear attack would be a blessed relief and so much better than another C Baker season. Anyway, Doctor Who was a crappy old TV show that the BBC wanted to axe, whoever was in it. Only some spotty obsessive nutters threatened to march on TV Centre in their unflattering jumpers and NHS specs and cry into their Target novelisations until they brought Dr Who (a programme they didn’t like either) back.

The first time I saw Sylvester McCoy after the announcement was on a BBC children’s show where two gormless schoolkids (at last, people I can identify with!) investigate what it’s like to be an actor. I recorded the McCoy sequence on a VHS clips tape. Any TDWF worth their salt would keep an E180 next to, or – if you were properly prepared – in the VCR ready to press record if any Who-related item popped up on TV. (Fret not, Millennials; there is a glossary* at the end for all this archaic terminology.)

After McCoy greets the kiddies, they show a clip of him in his then-starring role in the National Theatre production of the The Pied Piper (see below). What I found alarming about it at the time (and many repeat viewings) was that McCoy’s Piper get-up seemed to be an exaggerated version of Colin’s totally-tasteless costume. And the sequence features McCoy performing a very ’80s song/rap before prancing off stage followed by a gaggle of kids.

Now, to these 30-years-older eyes, McCoy gives a wondrous, charismatic performance. It’s a kids’ theatre show, so you’d expect high energy and theatrics. You can see why John Nathan-Turner saw the show and thought, ‘He’s our new Doctor!’, but when I saw it my heart sank a bit. They seemed to have picked an OTT clown performer, all big gestures and and shouty histrionics.

Season 24 did not help. Now it’s an amusing blip in the revelation of the real McCoy, the Cartmel Masterplan in waiting ready to blow us away with Remembrance of the Daleks and all that followed. I can watch and enjoy Season 24 stories today, but with a blessed sense of relief that this isn’t how it ultimately turns out – there’s a dark tunnel at the end of the overlit studio light.

So, within the space of a year, initial trepidations turned out to be unfounded. The 25th season and silver anniversary was vintage stuff (in the most part), a glorious re-invention of the dusty-old show. But you tell that to the kids of the day, and they wouldn’t believe you.

Despite the renaissance I witnessed on my telly-screen, my classmates were blind to its charms. Blind! They’d been worn down by the backlash, believed the anti-hype and refused to watch or enjoy McCoy’s Doctor Who. It may have been to do with age. The McCoy era spans ages 13 to 15 for me, a notorious time to put away ‘childish’ things – only to wake up many years later and remind yourself that there’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes…

I never abandoned my Doctor Who life; I just employed a Chameleon Arch-like technique of internalising my TDWFism. It all became about my personal interaction with the programme – magazines, books, and videos at the weekend. Always alone. Never discussed.

But I did love McCoy, maybe more than I admitted. This came out in a strange, unexpected way. One thing that everyone (fan or not) agreed on was that McCoy’s costume (in the most part) was OK – particularly after the last debacle. Except the jumper. We hate the jumper. The question mark jumper. I mean, really? Really? Really? (We didn’t say ‘Seriously?’ in 1987.) I don’t know where to start; it’s like Scrappy Doo. That level of ‘why, why, WHY?’ Scrappy Don’t. And Scrappy definitely don’t do the jumper. Scrappy scrap the jumper, JNT. No, you’re not listening? Don’t add a question mark umbrella… that’s like the opposite of… oh, we give up.

So what’s strange is why I asked my mother to knit me a McCoy question mark jumper in 1988. And not only to ask her, but to then design a knitting pattern so she could knit me said jumper. And then go into a knitting shop to select the best-matching colours. This is what I did with my mum when I was 14-years old. Thank Logar I didn’t bump into a school friend in the high street, them clutching a pirate video of RoboCop, me with a bag of wool and an exercise book page with a home-drawn question-mark knitting design. ‘What’s that in the placky bag, Peter?’ ‘Um. Excuse me while I walk into oncoming traffic…’

My mum knitted it while I was away on a school camp. She presented it to me when I arrived home. And I looked at it with shame. What had I done? The v-neck and the bits around the arm-holes were all wrong. I’d neglected to let her know they were meant to be turquoise like the zig-zag. I’d forgotten the pockets.

And when, misguided TDWF, did you expect to wear this monstrosity? At the school disco (never went anyway), on a trip to WHSmith (my usual weekend leisure activity)? I think I wore it once around the house, and felt a bit of a knit the whole time. I definitely wore it while having soup or something, because there’s still a brown food-stain in the middle (I’ve never washed it).

After its singular outing, the shameful tank top was consigned to a cupboard in my parent’s house for 25 years. Things happened. Went to university. Moved out. Got married. Had a baby. Dad died.

One day, Mum was clearing out the house and came across the unloved garment. She brought it (along with a woefully inaccurately-coloured home-knit Tom Baker scarf – another story) in a plastic bag to my house. ‘You did the pattern for this; do you remember?’ Mum said with a strange air of pride in her offspring.

It was about to be the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and, alongside a bunch of friends, we planned to celebrate and watch the anniversary together. Make a weekend of it, hire a holiday home and all watch together. Yes, in the intervening years, I’d opened the fob watch and found out who I really am…

As a bit of fun, we decided to dress up to watch The Day of the Doctor. We had a River Song, a Brigadier, a Weeping Angel. My son (aged two) was the Eleventh Doctor (‘My Doctor – the most powerful one,’ he says). I decided to come as ‘generic Doctor’. I had bits of costumes from lots of Doctors gathered over the years and put them all together in one hideous fanboy mashup.

And I wore my McCoy jumper. 25-years later, I knew why I wanted it all those years ago. I didn’t care about the inaccuracies: it seemed strangely appropriate. You know, I could pay £44.99 and get one of Lovarzi’s stunning replicas (I do have an accurate Tom Baker scarf now). But there’s something special about that (still) stained and inaccurate silly old jumper. Because however grown up you are (or pretend to be), being childish isn’t something to be ashamed of.

*No, there isn’t, beardy.