December, 1988. I’m in a Reading theatre – a brick and steel monstrosity which, even though it is only ten years old, is already in need of a lick of paint – watching the annual pantomime. Treading the boards this year are ’80s comedy stalwarts Little and Large, playing the robbers in Babes in the Wood; they acquit themselves with their usual aplomb, although they do hog the production a bit. Staring out from the stage at the shabby decor and a hushed, expectant audience, Sid Little is strumming a mandolin and gently singing the opening bars of Mistletoe and Wine – that year’s Christmas number one, back when such things mattered – but halfway through the chorus he is interrupted by a frenzied, highly distorted electric guitar. And on troops Eddie Large, dressed as a green-skinned alien, belting out (or pulling off a convincing mime to) the chords to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll, and shouting “DOCTOR WHOOO-OO ! HEY! DOCTOR WHO, DOCTOR WHOOO-OO!”
That’s about as far as he gets before he’s drowned out by audience applause, accompanied by a wounded stare from the incredulous Sid (nobody did affably disgruntled like Sid Little, although many have tried and fallen short). It was a show highlight, this ridiculous set piece in the middle of a slurry of innuendo and cheap pyrotechnics and the fixed grins of local dancers. No one knew who the KLF were, at the time, because officially they didn’t really exist yet, but we were all singing their songs.
Well, not exactly their songs. Cauty and Drummond are intelligent men who know how to pen a decent melody (anyone in doubt should listen to Justified And Ancient), but the best composers steal, and the KLF stole shamelessly, and often with dramatic legal repercussions. It’s assumed they got permission for Doctorin’ The TARDIS, particularly given the record’s three decade longevity (although it’s always fun to witness the bemusement of someone who is discovering it for the first time). Fun, low-tech, and irritatingly catchy, the song smashed into the top 40 in the summer of ’88, rising to the top spot three weeks after its release, accompanied by a shoestring video where a suspiciously homemade Dalek (30 years before Resolution!) trundled around a Wiltshire car park, somehow not quite falling to bits. The critics hated it. Richard Skinner called it “an aberration”; Drummond didn’t argue with him.
Certainly listening to it now, it’s hard to see it as anything except a joke, something that can’t have bypassed many in the industry who heard it at the time. There is none of the self-conscious sheen of Simon Cowell’s formulaic pap (where concurrent X-Factor winners release approximately the same song accompanied by precisely the same video, only without any public acknowledgement that this is what they’re doing). This is a pi$$-take, pure and simple; two glam rock songs fused with a TV theme. It even has a Dalek shouting “DOSH, DOSH, DOSH, LOADS OF MONEY”, for crying out loud. It’s a Harry Enfield reference, but it was oddly prophetic. (Drummond and Cauty went on to write a book about the experience, entitled The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, which is worth a read if you can get hold of it.)
But the Doctor Who theme is that rarity among TV intros: an abstract, malleable novelty, almost Rorschachesque in its vagueness, capable of being whatever you want it to be. Over the years, it’s been swamped by drums, electric guitars, and a full concert orchestra. It’s been revamped, remixed, glammed up, dumbed down, given lyrics – well, sort of – and inserted into all manner of pop songs, with varying degrees of transparency. It’s even on a couple of Pink Floyd records. You couldn’t do that with, say, the theme from Blankety Blank, or the theme from Are You Being Served for that matter (although that didn’t stop Matt Berry from tackling both, along with the Doctor Who theme, on his recent covers album). To see why, we need only look to the original: a minimalist ternary shuffle of white noise and analogue tape, which apocryphally prompted Ron Grainer to demand of Derbyshire, “What is this ambient b*llocks and how does it bear any relation to the striding military march I sent you?”, although over the mists of time, it tends to get watered down to something like “Did I really write this?”
That last sentence may have been fabricated, but that’s something that Drummond does on a regular basis and I make no apologies for it; you can’t write an article about this sort of thing without having a couple of laughs. Because let’s be honest: pop music does not sit well in Doctor Who. It is far too other-worldly. It’s like casting Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones – it ends in disaster. Tainted Love got a whole new audience when the Beeb used it in The End of the World, but that’s largely because Cassandra introduces it as “classical music from the world’s greatest composers”. The sight of the Master cavorting round the Valiant to the Scissor Sisters is frankly painful to watch. Louisa Allen – better known as Foxes – manages a competent crooning of Don’t Stop Me Now in Mummy on the Orient Express, but it grates awkwardly in an episode that’s already all over the place. The sight of Peter Capaldi emerging from the smoke on top of a tank strumming the electric guitar was too ridiculous for anyone to get really angry – but having him immediately jump into Oh Pretty Woman is a misstep, and by the time he’s belting out Amazing Grace, some episodes later, you’re about ready to wrap the guitar round his scrawny neck. Intrusive music swiftly wears out its welcome. Athlete get away with it (just) in Vincent and the Doctor, largely because of the potency of the scene, but the choice of song proved to be divisive, as was the decision to back the Series 11 trailer with Macklemore’s Glorious.
There are exceptions. Courtney Pine, for example, is a welcome addition to Silver Nemesis (because every birthday party needs entertainment of some sort). The use of Love Will Tear Us Apart in Series 10 was inspired. And as recently as 2018, Stormzy showed up (at least aurally) in Arachnids in the UK, in one of those scenes that probably looked dreadful on paper but which was sufficiently ridiculous to just about work. Still, for the most part it’s something to be avoided: just as most musicians can’t act, so too the inclusion of pop music in any facet of Doctor Who sticks out like a thumb of painful and uncomfortable soreness. It’s either gimmicky absurdity or back-scratching mutual publicity, and neither scenario does the programme any favours.
Outside the show itself, it’s a different story – except it isn’t.
I said earlier that many singers can’t act (although was there a point where we forgot, as I did, that Billie Piper used to be a pop star?); the reverse isn’t necessarily true, as anyone who’s heard John Levene’s really quite lovely version of In My Life can attest. (Levene has made his name on the cabaret circuit, of course, and I have it on good authority that he’s a bit of a wild card at conventions – you never know whether he’s going to turn up with a biro in one hand and a duck whistle in the other and demand to do a song.)
With one exception (which we’ll get to) the lesson learned is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Doctor Who actors to make records, except when they’re about Doctor Who. It is a recipe for genre-crossing disaster: there has never been a musical episode of Doctor Who (and no, Pirates doesn’t count) and the cringeworthy musical cash-ins when the BBC had more abandon and less creative discretion stand as compelling evidence as to exactly why they’ve never got around to it. We could talk about Roberta Tovey, except we’re not going to, because that song is the aural equivalent of colonic irrigation. I’m sure she was a sweet kid, but is there any chance we could get her to spend her Christmas with a Dalek, perhaps in the hopes that it will rip out her vocal chords? Then there’s Frazer Hines’ effort – 1968’s Who’s Dr Who? (answer: Peter Cushing, surely?), which tinkers with bits of the theme in its opening bars and which would almost work as a piece of overtly commercial psychedelia were it not for the backing singers, all of whom sound like prepubescent Blue Peter competition winners who’ve just been administered a powerful dental anaesthetic.
Sometimes these things are better when they’re parodied. Sometimes, indeed, the parody eclipses the original. Airplane is a far better film than the many disaster movies it spoofed: at a microcosmic level, The Chicken Song is a better record than Agadoo. Sometimes, something is so ridiculous, it breaks something within you, the thing that enabled you to take the original seriously. I can’t listen to Pump Up The Volume without hearing a Geordie voice bellowing “CAN SOMEBODY HELP MRS PATEL OUT? SHE’S ‘AVING ONE OF HER FUNNY TURNS!”. (You will either giggle at this or not have a clue what I’m talking about; if it’s the latter I’m not about to explain it to you.)
I’ve been scratching my head for the last few years trying to work out whether The Doctor And I is a parody. Certainly it seems pretty straight-laced – a rehashed (sometimes painfully so) version of one of the better numbers from Stephen Schwarz’s Wicked, in which the young Elpheba sings of her enthusiasm for the Wizard of Oz. Ideologically, it’s a perfect fit, but some of the lyrics really don’t work, and will induce involuntary wincing in all but the tone deaf (all right, actually deaf). Barrowman must have known this was ridiculous, mustn’t he? Mustn’t he? But then that’s not a reason to pass up an obvious money-making opportunity. Whether it’s camping in the jungle or camping it up at a convention, Barrowman always gives 100% – and it’s hard not to see him taking on a song like this with anything but his usual boyish vigour.
The truth is that this cover has, at least in our house, overwritten Schwarz’s original, simply through being utterly ridiculous. And the same applies with the Doctor Who theme, because whenever I have it playing in my head (which is often) it is usually the Mankind version, as embedded a few paragraphs down. Which is a shame, because there are 101 things you can do with that abstract melody. You’ve never heard of Truth2Tell – a Bristol-based Christian rock group from some years back, who enjoyed brief local success before fractured egos drove them apart – but they split their live set in two, singing original compositions in the first half, while reverting to rock and roll standards (with a suitably religious flavour) in the second. One particular highlight was Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky, which included a lengthy jam after the middle eight. The keyboard player for Truth2Tell was one of my oldest friends, and after a gig I made a creative suggestion – “Work in the Doctor Who theme during that bit. The kids will love it.” And he did, and they did, in that order.
Go through the archives and you’ll find a bunch of artists whose legacy the band had tapped into. We’ve mentioned Pink Floyd – the first song that included snatches of the theme, Embryo, is comparatively difficult to get hold of, but they worked it into One Of These Days and Sheep, both of which have since become live staples. Muse didn’t go as far as inserting the melody outright – but Uprising, the lead single from 2009’s The Resistance, was so reminiscent of the Who theme that you’d be forgiven for thinking the band did it on purpose; if nothing else they must have noticed in the studio.
It is Jon Pertwee who gets the golden buzzer. Not content with spearheading (excuse pun) a new golden age for the show, he provided a voiceover for the show’s theme, reciting lyrics written by Rupert Hine with Shakespearean precision, although unless I have my information wrong it failed to crack the top 40. That’s a shame, because Who Is The Doctor is an underrated classic: the sparky orchestration (also Hine) is one of its key strengths; Pertwee’s deadpan, utterly sincere delivery is another. “As fingers move to end mankind,” he chants at the end of the song, “Metallic teeth begin their grind. With sword of truth I turn to fight / the satanic powers of the night.” Nearly 50 years on, not much has changed.
Fast forward through the ’70s now – past Dark Side of the Moon, Grease, the Sex Pistols, and Barry Gibbs’ falsetto. Because in 1979, a sound engineer called Don Gallacher got together with a few mates in a rented studio above a bingo hall and produced what is arguably the finest contribution to the Doctor Who musical canon.
If you’re thinking you’ve heard this sort of thing before, you have: Mankind’s cover of the Who theme takes its cue from Meco’s disco version of Star Wars, overlaying Grainer and Derbyshire’s masterwork with wailing toms, Seventies synths, and a whole lot of pizzazz. The lyrics were a contractual obligation to ensure the record got BBC airplay – although I’ve never worked out, after all these years, precisely what alien creature they’re supposed to be. Cybermen? Quarks? Sparky’s Magic Piano? In any event, the vocals are about the least interesting part of a record that swoops and soars through 7 minutes, if you can find the 12″ version. It is, in its own way, quietly astonishing. I’d say that the real Doctor Who was never this camp, but a few months after this was released we met the Movellans. Go figure.
Now mes enfants: I’ve been putting it off, but we do need to talk about this one.
Let’s have an honest conversation. How much of the sneering over Doctor In Distress is a heady mixture of contemporary scoffing at ’80s culture coupled with anti-Levine sentiment? In other words, do people hold him in contempt because of this record (well, that and the idiocy on his Twitter feed), or do people hold this record in contempt because of him? Is this a case of musical snobbery, the asinine, redundant concept of guilty pleasures? But how much pleasure has this really brought anyone over the years? I would also like to point out that Levine’s machinations, for better or worse, did have some tangible effect, because in one way or another the record did bring back Doctor Who. It also gave us Bonnie Langford. The prosecution rests.
Part of the problem is the performance: Baker swallows down great mouthfuls of a dog’s breakfast (and learns, the hard way, why they lick their testicles) while Bryant wobbles over a microphone, but even the ’80s regulars they managed to
blackmail rope in really aren’t trying very hard. Ainley’s sole purpose at the recording is to provide one of his trademark laughs and say four words they could probably have found in stock footage somewhere, and there’s a kid who appears on the right at 3:17 who looks about as bored as I was the last time we watched Time and the Rani. Never mind the fact that the effects are better than most Classic Who; it’s a travesty of a song that deserves its appalling reputation. And when I’m thinking this is all just a tad unfair, I go back to Levine’s recent Facebook post about Series 11 – which we will not quote or even link to here, purely out of concessions to taste – and any sympathy or goodwill I might have had for him evaporates in a double heartbeat.
What little proceeds the record generated went to Cancer Research, so I suppose I should at least try and restrain the catty remarks. These days, it wouldn’t happen. We have iPetitions for that sort of thing – an outlay far easier and less imaginative than the act of throwing a hissy fit in a studio because your favourite programme got taken off the air. What would a 2019 Doctor Who charity record sound like, anyway? Jess Glynne and Olly Murs duetting for Across The Universe? Bonnie Tyler leading an all-star cast in a rousing rendition of Holding Out For A Hero? Tim Curry bellowing I Can Make You A Man?
But when all is said and done, there is still a market for things like this, just as there’s a market for canned air and illegal dog fighting. Doctor Who has always enjoyed an uneasy alliance with pop culture (are we really supposed to believe that Capaldi’s Doctor has never heard of Alien?) but it loses any sense of zeitgeist if it ignores it completely. So perhaps the odd charity record or musical tie-in doesn’t matter too much. “Everyone’s got a song inside them,” the Tenth Doctor insists at the end of Music of the Spheres. “Every single one of you.” And he’s probably right. Just as long as it’s not actually in the show, or about the show, and no one in the show takes part. I think that would be for the best, don’t you?