Carry On, Leonora: 4

(This penultimate section is by way of illustrative digression, tying two bits of what I think of as under-acknowledged Britishness together. Especially as those ideas our lords-with-no-sense-of-timing and self-serving masters declare as ‘British’ are tearing us apart in a singularly unlovely manner. This clip might be useful.)

At this point, an analogy from that particularly British example of dark whimsy, Doctor Who, might be useful. In the second episode of ‘Terror of the Autons’, from 1971, Roger Delgado’s Master compels through hypnosis a bluff businessman, played by Northern Irish character actor Harry Towb, to sit down in a self-inflating shiny black plastic chair, which then proceeds to suffocate him in a manner that may not seem very convincing to modern eyes. A sinister synthesiser accompanies his demise much as pianists provided atmosphere in early silent cinemas.

Just before he sits, Harry opines, ‘You’ll never sell that, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Sure, it looks like a…like a black pudding!’

How manically close the terrifying is to the absurd in this scene, and in lots of the ‘classic’ period Who, where limited budgets competed with the wildly imaginative writing. It’s hard to take seriously as an adult, but part of that is precisely because it’s so disquieting. The proximity of the food reference to his near digestion by a chair, that hint of kinkiness in the shiny shiny blackness, the use of synthetics both material and musical (I remember getting just such an inflatable chair for my teenage bedroom, though it never showed any signs of being possessed by the Nestenes) – all of these elements combine into a model of the unheimlich that adults hurriedly dismiss as mere genre, but children instinctively get. There was accordingly an outcry about the amount and kind of violence in these episodes from the Jon Pertwee era.

This effect appears to be generated in a similar way to Leonora Carrington’s work by the interplay between narrative and symbol: here the narrative is very simple, and the symbol is highly complex. By contrast, in new Who, it’s often the other way round, because it is partly directed at the adults all those children became, who now want the Whoniverse to have the narrative and rational integrity of other long-running or slow arc series. In place of heroes and companions and monsters and villains, they now require characters, so that their attention appears to be dignified by narrative substance rather than irrational obsession.

As Doctor Who acquires continuity, as opposed to the suggestion of continuity, and approaches that type of realism which causes people to draw up schematics of imaginary starships, as opposed to that type of narrativeness which allows children unpoliced access to both daydreams and nightmares, it becomes, inevitably, less scary.

In a way, then, the process by which hard-headed Harry both surrenders and is surrendered to his weird, as the Anglo-Saxons rather precisely called fate, is a version of the famous suspension of disbelief – here a suffocation of scepticism that the primary demand of narrative be met: that the story must be followed, that its interpretation of events must dominate. As children and Leonora Carrington realised, there is something profoundly weird about such an idea, which might be more important still than narrative’s insistence on continuity.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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