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What We Watched: Mandog

A new arrival turns up at a comprehensive school, provoking too many questions and not enough answers. Two friends from the school are intrigued and are determined to solve the mystery. They secretly follow the individual to an old scrapyard (“What a mess!” they say.) There, they encounter a sinister and hostile stranger who tells them they are uninvited and unwelcome and must leave – only to discover that the stranger has a time machine and is a wanderer in the fourth dimension.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

In fact, it’s a summary of the first episode of Mandog, a children’s science fiction series from 1972. (See what I did there?)

This, then, is the first in a new series of articles; we’re calling it What We Watched. The idea is that we’re going to look back at some television science fiction contemporary with Classic Who, well known at the time, but now largely and sometimes sadly forgotten. The hope is that it may reflect some light back both on Doctor Who and on the contemporary cultural landscape in which it was broadcast. These were the programmes which the fans of Who watched at the time; the ones they devoured because they reminded them of the Doctor’s adventures and provided a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, while they waited for next Saturday. Or for the new season. They give some context for the milieu in which Who was originally broadcast.

We’re going to concentrate on the stuff that’s less well known. So, nothing on Trek or Blake or Quatermass, but you may discover more about Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s ITV series, or the mysterious forces that possessed the inhabitants of Maybury in Children of the Stones, or the horrific vision of reality TV created by Nigel Kneale.

So. What about Mandog?

The first episode of Mandog – there were six of them – was broadcast the Wednesday after part one of Day of the Daleks in January 1972. I was six. On Saturday, I’d jumped out of my skin when the chief Dalek crashed into shot and barked “Report!” at the Controller of Earth Sector One; on Wednesday, I was not much less enthralled by the adventures of Sammy, Katie, and Radnor.

Radnor, you see, was the dog. He was Sammy’s dog. Sammy and Katie were two schoolgirls. It isn’t easy to guess their ages as the actresses who played them were distinctly elderly; in those days, child actors tended to be hideously wooden and sensible directors cast adults instead. No matter. Radnor was the star and he was a nice dog who was fluffy and friendly and he wagged his tail a lot. Here is a picture of Radnor (and I’m sorry about the definition: no high-def shots of him exist, alas).

Fluffy and friendly, as I say. Actually, his real name was Ben and he was a dog trained for TV who could do tricks and stuff.

We liked Radnor. Ben. He was nice.

Actually, the concept of the series was that a bloke and a dog swapped consciousness. Consciousnesses. So Radnor/ Ben was a dog but he had a bloke in his head. (Don’t say, “You what?”) Hence: Mandog. This meant that Ben could have a lot of fun eating plates of bacon and eggs (which he did), drinking cups of tea, and driving a car. Yes, he drove a car. I think you just saw a special effects paw on a steering wheel; Ben was talented but even his trainers couldn’t teach him to drive. Look, I don’t remember. It was 50 years ago.

So far, so risible.

But! You can see part one on YouTube! It’s not the best print but it still allows you to access the adventures of the homo sapiens / canine crossbreed. Part one is entitled The Man Who Walked Through Doors. (Bear with me…)

Anyway, Sammy and Katie are two schoolgirls and part one opens with them in detention. (Unusually, the whole series is shot on film and on location, so we get to see a genuine 1970s classroom and not a set. What a treat!) Sammy looks out of the window at a bloke by some garages. Bloke has forgotten key. So, he accesses his futuristic roll-back-and-mix device and vanishes. Wow! He is, you see, the Man Who Walked Through Doors. (He is also a bit of a twerp as he does it in broad daylight and in full view of everyone but we shouldn’t be too scathing: nu-Who has lots of examples of the TARDIS landing in crowded shopping centres and other public places without anyone turning a hair. Evidently, weird stuff happening without people taking a blind bit of notice is a convention of the sci-fi genre. Or it could just be lazy writing.)

Sammy and Katie (whose accents are posh with Estuary plastered over them – no dialogue coaches in those days) take Radnor and follow chappie to a scrapyard where they’re met by the Earthling out of Meglos. Yes, it’s none other than Christopher Owen and he’s very sinister and tries to get rid of them.

Actually, two things jar at this point. The first is that there’s a hint of sexual menace in his threats. Presumably this would have gone over the heads of the kids who were watching, but it does beg the question of why is it there at all? These days, this bit would never have got past a script editor. I would have thought it would have made any parents wince, too, if they were watching with their offspring.

The second thing to jar is that the director’s told Owen to put on a (bad) Irish accent when he’s threatening the girls. Mandog was made in 1971, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so the subtext seems to be that Owen’s character could be a member of the IRA.

That said, the shorthand seems to be: speaks with an Irish accent, therefore sinister and probably evil. Ouch.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. On the other hand, Owen reverts to standard English later in the episode, so it does beg the question of why they chose an Irish lilt as opposed to any other accent – and it’s hard to come up with a kind explanation. Have a look at the episode and see what you think. Interesting, though, that sexual menace and national stereotyping made their way into children’s TV in the early Seventies; neither would be allowed today. That said, the series also does try to be progressive: very unusually for the time, Katie is disabled and is a wheelchair user. An early attempt at what we’d now call inclusivity; this was 50 years ago, remember. So there’s an odd mix of the progressive (inclusivity) with the regressive (national stereotyping). Such were the Seventies, perhaps.

Owen takes the girls into the office at the scrapyard and a hideously long info-dump follows. The Man Who Walked Through Doors is called Justin. Owen, Justin, and his buddies are fugitives from the 26th Century and they call themselves The Group. They are on the run from the Galas, the risibly-named secret police of a future totalitarian England. (Justin, The Group, Galas. Must have taken them ages to come up with those names.) Justin, explains the Earthling out of Meglos (okay, he’s actually called Levin) is very naughty because he allowed the girls to see him walk through doors and he’s blown their cover and must be punished. They will have to kill him. Well, of course! “No, no!” cry the girls and an alternative is found. An obvious solution presents itself: let’s just swap his consciousness with the dog’s. And it is here that you can have a giggle because: well, if you thought the effects on ’70s Who were a bit crummy sometimes, wait until you see the Mind Transfer Machine from Mandog. It is quite astoundingly high tech and convincing. The Mind Transfer machine is a piece of plywood onto which the SFX boys have screwed a domestic light bulb. That’s it. Okay, so it’s a red one, and it flashes when the mind transference is in progress, but I doubt it broke the budget. (Actually, it flashed grey for most viewers; colour tellies were horribly expensive in 1972 and therefore less common than monochrome ones.)

And so: Justin becomes Radnor and Radnor becomes Justin and that’s the end of part one. Only later do we get to see the dog driving a car and eating bacon and eggs. But wow, was that something to look forward to!

It’s a shame that only the single episode seems to be available. Watching it on YouTube recently, I smirked and I cringed at Mandog – but then, I was bringing anachronistic 2022 sensibilities to a programme I first watched 50 years ago. You have to try and watch these things in the context of the time. And actually, Mandog is rather charming. It’s not without its silliness but, as an example of children’s science fiction, it was jolly good. It still is.

I also think watching Mandog – and other contemporary television programmes – does help us to appreciate the mid-Pertwee years in their original context. This is what TV was like then. Understanding that context, in terms of television and contemporary wider culture, helps us to appreciate Classic Who more. For example: Pertwee was the most lordly of all the incarnations of the Time Lord. For some today, he’s too patrician, too posh – but when he played the Doctor, BBC newsreaders and government ministers spoke with old fashioned Oxford accents (the prime minister was the plummy Ted Heath, not the Yorkshire Harold Wilson), and commuters still wore bowler hats and carried rolled up umbrellas. Pertwee makes sense in his context. The resonances of terrorism in both Day of the Daleks and Mandog would have had a different (and a deeper) echo for the viewers of the time than they do today.

Similarly: Day of the Daleks may look rather cheap now, but it looked superb at the time. The Ogrons were absolutely state of the art and the Daleks, absent for five years, still pulled a huge punch. Again, it’s possible to appreciate this more by watching Mandog: the Galas, when we eventually see them, are men dressed in black; Who’s villains were far more imaginative by contrast.

Mandog’s script is rather good; Day’s script is much more sophisticated. The pace is similar: events are allowed to unfold gradually and characters are allowed to become established. You could almost say that character took precedent over plot, whereas today (especially with Who) plot takes precedent over character. Get the characters right, put them centre stage and allow them to dictate the story, and the story becomes much richer.

Probably the most interesting thing about Mandog for Who fans is its electronic theme tune – composed and performed by none other than Delia Derbyshire. Synthesisers were available by 1971, so it doesn’t have the impact of Who’s oscillators and tape reels, but do listen to it. For one thing, you won’t be able to get it out of your head for the rest of the day and will curse me accordingly. For another, you’ve got a similarly strong bass line and a catchy melody. It sounds a bit like the boinga-da-boing Paddy Kingsland version of the Who theme composed a year later (and mercifully never used, except on a couple of Australian prints of Carnival of Monsters).

See what you think. I enjoyed it, anyway!

Very few pictures exist from the series. So, here’s a pic of the novelisation. Script and novel were both by Peter Dickinson, who wrote a lot of fantasy and science fiction for children. You do wonder whether the mighty Terrance approached him to write for Doctor Who

Simon Danes

What We Watched: Mandog

by Simon Danes time to read: 8 min
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