To Play the Fool

Ken Dodd needs no introduction from me. He’s been in British showbusiness even longer than the Doctor and is still on his first body, although god knows it’s long due a revamp. He’s been an enormous success of screen, stage and radio as well as a multi-million-selling singer and a highly successful if somewhat erratic accountant. He’s probably the most highly regarded comedian Liverpool has ever produced, and there is some stiff competition on that score. He has also made one famous appearance in Doctor Who, in Sylvester McCoy’s Series 24, when he played the Tollmaster, and it is widely recognised that he was crap.

What went wrong? At first glance the answer might be obvious: they hired a comic to do an actor’s job. After all, Doctor Who has often been worryingly keen to cast comedians first and hope the acting takes care of itself; for every great success, like Catherine Tate, there is a Peter Kay in the archive. McCoy himself was a comic turn when cast, which explains why he’s the Doctor who can be seen most clearly growing as an actor during his tenure on the show.

But Ken Dodd is no Norman Pace. He is an accomplished stage actor whose Malvolio in Twelfth Night was greeted with critical acclaim. As a performer he is capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hands for several hours. And then several hours more.

Fortunately, McCoy himself has given us his perspective on why Dodd’s appearance didn’t work. Speaking at the Regenerations convention in Swansea in 2013, McCoy explained that Dodd assumed he had essentially been hired to play Ken Dodd. Hence, when kidnapped by the Bannermen, he turns in what Sylvester described as a “whoops, missus” performance of pantomimic inappropriateness. He went on to explain that, in his opinion, the blame for this lay squarely at the door of the director, Chris Clough – who, McCoy explained, did not leave the monitor room for the duration of filming and did not offer any advice Dodd once during the recording of his scenes.

One might have believed this sort of thing to be the director’s job…

“If I could have spoken to him, I’d have said ‘you’re being snatched by the IRA’,” added Sylvester, explaining that it was simply a matter of getting the level of peril right for veteran stand-up. Ken Dodd, after all, is a family entertainer from the oldest surviving school, and no doubt his first instinct was to keep the subject as light as possible in what he will have understood to be a popular children’s show.

Even sadder, it seems that not only could Ken Dodd’s least successful moments have been smoothed out with a simple conversation, but a moment of real brilliance has ended up on the cutting room floor. In the broadcast version of Delta and the Bannermen there is a brief scene where the Tollmaster is loading campers onto a charabanc. During filming, according to McCoy, this was a scene where Doddy really shone, greeting the campers individually, ad-libbing jokes and reactions with them, really playing up the Redcoat aspect of the character. Not only would this have made a better showcase for Dodd’s ability, Sylvester argued, but would also have provided much greater contrast against the Tollmaster’s darker moments. Sadly, as is often the case with the famously loquacious Ken, much of his performance had to be excised for reasons of time and has been lost in a cutting room bin somewhere.

As Doctor Who fans there’s a game we like to play. When the Doctor is due a regeneration, or the Master is up for renewal, or we all agree that it’s time to sack a companion off and get somebody interesting in instead (naming no impossible names), we like to get together online or in person and argue about who we would cast. Everyone has a favourite actor in all the recurring roles, not just the Doctor. There may even be some out there who think that John Simm’s Master was better than Derek Jacobi’s.

Quite often the powers that be will surprise us with a casting choice that we would never have thought up on our own without quite powerful pharmaceutical stimulation. Billy Piper was a huge surprise when first announced as the first companion of the revived series, and an even bigger surprise when she turned out to be actually rather good at it.

But if there’s one thing we should bear in mind from poor old Ken Dodd’s misfiring appearance on our Show of Shows, it’s that even the cleverest of casting choices will not be enough to rescue a role from a director who just isn’t interested. Actors probably get too much credit these days, but they can sometimes shoulder more than their fair share of the blame as well.