A Brief History of Light Entertainers in Doctor Who

It’s late 1987. I’m upstairs watching episode one of Delta and the Bannermen; the TARDIS crew are on their way to Disneyland. They will never get there (three decades later they still haven’t, at least on TV; there’s probably a book). As the new Doctor – I’m still not quite sure about him, although time, of course, will tell – stalks through the grime and grit of an unidentifiable location that (shockingly) isn’t a quarry, he’s met by a sparkly, rumpled toll attendant with big teeth, and – BLOODY HELL, IT’S KEN DODD!

As a young child, it’s easy to get excited at a celebrity cameo. Many’s the morning I’ll be dragged away from my desk by the eight-year-old, who informs me in the sort of excited tones you normally reserve for engagement announcements that a random person from a programme I don’t really watch is guesting on another programme I don’t really watch. But that’s fine, because he’s just learning the joys of BBC cross-pollination, which is something to be celebrated (there are Americans who joke that we have only twenty-seven actors and endlessly recycle them; this is broadly true, and if anything it shows that the UK talent pool isn’t just a one-trick pony).

Anyway, Dodd’s passing this week has prompted me to consider all those other times the Doctor ran down a corridor only to bump into some variety show stalwart on their way from the green room to the stage. (To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened either, but you see where where I’m coming from, even if the Doctor usually doesn’t.) There will be a more scholarly analysis turning up a couple of weeks down the line, as we consider the role that light entertainment has played in Who over the years, and whether it’s something to be savoured or feared – my instinct, as is so often the case these days, is that it’s an uneasy combination of both, but that’s all you get for now.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy a selection of YouTube clips. Note that this is not exhaustive and that my definition of Light Entertainer is fairly specific, which is why John Cleese is in here and the likes of Beryl Reid, Bernard Bresslaw and Warwick Davis are not. Neither is Matt Lucas, for that matter, because he deserves his own entry. Nor have we touched upon Bad Wolf, or else we’ll probably be here all night. But I may come back to it another time. Spoilers, sweetie.

Ken Dodd (Delta & the Bannermen, 1987)

This is an obvious one, so let’s get it out of the way. A silly scene in an inconsequential story, and embodying as much as anything else why Bonnie Langford’s time on Doctor Who is remembered with as much fondness as your average rectal examination. I mean, we’ve just come from three episodes of obsessing over a hotel swimming pool, and now she’s practically having an orgasm over the fact that she and the Doctor won a holiday in a place she can already visit whenever she chooses because THEY’VE GOT A BLOODY TIME MACHINE. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Ken Dodd, who plays the over-the-top Tollmaster exactly as you would expect him to be played, and who is surprisingly chipper considering he’s standing in a Welsh industrial estate in the middle of the night. His exit scene, too, is suitably grim. Titter ye not, missus. (And yes, I know that’s Frankie Howerd.)

Lee Evans (Planet of the Dead, 2009)

Evans may have carved out a semi-respectable movie career in his later years (even the cynical amongst you have to concede that MouseHunt was quite fun) but he will, in my head at least, always be a standup. Presumably a fan of the show (because who wasn’t, at least in interviews?) Evans helped David Tennant see out his twilight era in Nu Who when he was cast as Malcolm Taylor in 2009’s Easter special. Working from a character bible that presumably didn’t say much beyond ‘fawning’, ‘unorthodox’ and ‘Welsh’, Evans spends most of his screen time sitting in the back of a van, tapping at computers and falling over things; it’s like a really bad episode of Knight Rider. Malcolm is irritating to a fault, but nonetheless able to hold his nerve when a commanding officer is pointing a gun at his head, and his rib-snapping embrace at the story’s denouement was wish fulfilment for millions of fans all over the world. There is a heap of silliness in here, but this is an episode that also features a flying bus, and so Evans gets away with it. Barely, and by the skin of his teeth.

Hale and Pace (Survival, 1989)

You’ll have to scrub to 8:27, unless you fancy watching the whole thing again, but why wouldn’t you? There’s a reason Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, but it’s false logic to lay the blame on this, although many have tried. It’s Perivale on a Sunday, and while shopping for cat food, the Doctor finds himself served by none other than Hale and Pace, arguing over brands and telling bad jokes.  What’s strange about this whole scene is not that it doesn’t fit, but more that it does – Survival is a hotbed of suburban angst and resentment boiling over into feral thuggery, a Pet Shop Boys song rendered flesh, and the ‘Management’ behave in exactly the way you’d expect them to, with McCoy responding like for like.  And since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here, as the story weaves itself around it.

Speaking of which…

John Cleese & Eleanor Bron, City Of Death (1979)

It’s easy to assume the ‘needless cameo from a friend of the writer’ trope is unique to Who’s contemporary incarnation, but we do ourselves a disservice if we park our cars in that particular drive. City of Death is a silly tale, with the Doctor and Romana both at their most brilliant and self-indulgent – something you could also say for the writing – and the net result is a story that I like very much while somehow feeling I shouldn’t. City may be generally regarded as a high point, but it walks a dangerous tightrope along a double-edged sword (and yes, I’m mixing my metaphors on purpose; some writers have practically built a career out of it), with this absurd encounter perhaps standing as the epitome of its general foolishness, even standing as it does as a gently scolding commentary on both the state of modern art and the whole idea that we can somehow analyse it. Purists are best off avoiding James Goss’s 2015 novelisation, which – while resplendent with goodness – nonetheless elects to give Cleese’s art critic a name, a context, and an entire sodding backstory.

Rufus Hound (The Woman Who Lived, 2015)

Oy vey. I mean, you’ve got a strong contender for the dreariest episode of Doctor Who in existence, and what do you do to lighten the tone? You drop in a stand-up comedian whose role is to literally perform stand-up. At the gallows. Right before he’s executed. It’s like having the Doctor play the spoons; at last that was fun to watch, whereas this is about as entertaining as a do-it-yourself root canal tutorial on YouTube, and probably about as painful. The result is a low point in an episode that’s already sitting near the bottom of the ocean floor; about the only thing that could make Sam Swift’s appearance any more pointless would be for Catherine Treganna to kill him off and then immediately bring him back to life again. Oh, hang on a moment.

Nicholas Parsons (The Curse of Fenric, 1989)

Sometimes, casting against type works. He may have been Arthur Haynes’ straight man, but you wouldn’t expect the host of Just A Minute to be…well, serious, would you? But that’s what the Reverend Wainwright arguably demanded, and when Nicholas Parsons turned up in Fenric he wowed audiences by playing the vicar as straight as a die. It’s in this penultimate tale that the relationship between the Doctor and Ace is tested to its fullest, at least on TV, and the Doctor’s manipulation is what people tend to remember – along with the barnacle-encrusted Haemovores, of course. That’s a great shame, because Wainwright’s struggles with his faith are all too real, and his scenes rank among the finest moments in an already fine story.

Frank Skinner (Mummy on the Orient Express, 2014)

In a world of tedious stunt casting and needless celebrity cameos, this is – almost without doubt – the finest bit of work by any guest star in years. It helps that Skinner is a massive fan of Doctor Who and is willing to treat his turn, and the show in general, with some reverence: this is the sort of approach that can backfire massively (step forward, The Phantom Menace) but in this case it turns out to be a blessing. Skinner plays Perkins the engineer, tasked with being a straight man of sorts alongside Capaldi’s Doctor, who (at least until the final reel) is in full blown arsehole mode: he does it with warmth and understated thoughtfulness, and his obvious regret at not being able to join the TARDIS crew full time in the episode’s closing sequence is almost tangible. We might even call it ‘doing a Parsons’ , if that’s not already an expression. Perhaps we could start using it. Tell you what, copyright Donna Noble. OK?

Alexei Sayle (Revelation of the Daleks, 1986)

God. Sorry. Can’t stand him. Move along.