This September I lost Mum. Although she had been very ill in the past, and I had rehearsed for the worst many times, her death was completely unexpected. Numbly, I set about arranging a non-funeral ceremony, and also found myself writing the article below.
It started out as a eulogy, but after I’d posted it I worried it was only a fan piece and, worse, one about me, not Mum. So I wrote a fuller non-religious service, which took place in beautiful sunshine and included three of her favourite songs. This time I remembered Mum for all the goodness she brought to the world, and wrapped the eulogy around a more-fitting example from popular culture, her favourite book: Sheila Burnford’s ‘The Incredible Journey’.
But I kept coming back to the first draft, the one you about to read (thanks for being so patient) partly because it is more raw about my feelings and memories. And partly because people got back to me.
Since its publication, I have been contacted by many strangers, a lot of them Doctor Who fans, who similarly recall watching the show in the company of people they have since lost. Although the tones of their expressions differed greatly, some academic, some nostalgic, the content had a similarly about it.
First off, and no surprise really, all were conventional offers of condolences, an etiquette whose importance I admit I underestimated, for I did find this aspect comforting. Secondly, the majority responded with stories of their own, usually about loved ones who had passed. These stories typically reunited the dead and the living through the recollection of significant events. Finally, every single person who wrote to me identified as profoundly important the theme of television as a source of vernacular memory.
That little idiot box in the corner, which a generation watched guiltily, is also the centre of so much family-ness. Part of the Gogglebox culture where television’s stories are shared and retold in conversations. Television is not a mere mediator of our stories, it harvests them; it’s storytelling skill lies in its placement in our lives, reflecting back our domestic realities, an everywoman who sits and watches while we watch.
As one stranger put it to me, about her and her father, You reminded me of our own memories watching Doctor Who together.
Television memories are those where the popular and the personal are entwined, times when we sat down together, reflected in the green screen, memories that don’t seem significant and are all the more precious for that.
Here, then, is that blogpost dedicated to Mum.
WATCH WITH MOTHER
If you come here a lot, I owe you an apology. Publishing the blog every day has become a habit, and a convenient way to promote the thirteen writers of the Doctor Who and History book. But last week my Mum died. Last week I thought I’d never publish the blog again. Then I remembered the many times Mum kept me company while I watched my favourite show. Suddenly it seemed fitting that I should restart the blog with this post, remembering the times I watched with mother.
That’s her in the photograph. It was found in a recently recovered personal archive. Black and white like the Hartnell and Troughton Doctors. It reminds me how careless we can sometimes be with old media. With memories. Even when the subject is so beautiful.
Mum, it’s nearly on .. hurry please.
I am standing on the threshold between the living room and the kitchen, beckoning Mum to come sit down please .. please .. please. The best show in the world is moments away, and Mum is still washing and cleaning. So I am frantically giving her ten-minute, five-minute, ten-second warnings.
Mum, it’s about to start ..
Mum, you’re missing the theme tune ..
She won’t want to miss the Doctor, I tell myself. And I haven’t missed an episode since that bleak and fogbound London street (my first encounter with the city I now live in) became billows of abstract cloud and soared into my imagination. And because I love Mum, I don’t want her to miss a single second of the show and it upsets me when she dawdles, and because I don’t want to miss a single second either.
She encourages me to run along and watch, and promises she’ll be there soon. Very often she is too, and sometimes she sits all the way through, quietly watching. Sometimes I watch her watching the show, and sometimes I notice her watching me watching.
But there are times she is too busy to join me. And then it feels like there are two universes: Doctor Who and a banal planet where we are housebound. By the time Jon Pertwee falls from the TARDIS and is confined to Earth, things are going wrong between my dad and her. By the time the Doctor takes a TARDIS trip to medieval England, in The Time Monster (1973), she is a single parent, a tough thing to be in the Seventies. And the house is devouring all her time by this point. Still. I’m pretty sure Pertwee is her favourite Doctor, even though she is watching the show less and less.
I wonder now if Mum had been enacting the concerns of another Doreen (the Liberal politician and television producer, Doreen Stephens) who headed BBC’s Children’s Department from 1964 before leaving for ITV where she commissioned another childhood favourite, Catweazle (1970-71). Stephens was worried about the middle-class protectionism of Watch with Mother (1953-75), and felt it was quite wrong for parents to guide children into watching purely educational, rather than entertaining, programmes.
Of course, the truth is simpler and more beautiful. Sometimes you watch something to enjoy sharing it with someone special.
When the truth finally comes out, it isn’t much of a surprise. I am in my twenties when Mum asks me if I still enjoy that “children’s programme”. She tells me she had always found what we now call the ‘classic series’ too slow and discursive. She likes shows where real life happens, namely the soaps (she later becomes a big Emmerdale fan). And the American detective series, Columbo (I am, this moment, imagining how Peter Falk would have played the Doctor). Coming up to date, she favoured Strictly Come Dancing, and therefore occasionally caught sight of what we now call the ‘reboot series’. This was too quick for her – everything seems to happen all at once.
In truth, Mum was always out of step with the Doctor. Really she had no time for the show at all, except inasmuch as it became a convenient medium through which she could understood me better. And so she would randomly ask after what was happening in a given series, and (more importantly) whether I was enjoying it.
It was a conversation point; she already knew the answer. Childhood passions have a habit of becoming adult obsessions. My childhood collection migrated from toy cupboard to fan hoard, and she boxed off the non-Doctor Who stuff to goodwill. When I became a university lecturer, and ran an option in Doctor Who studies, although many others were incredulous, it made complete sense to her. I know she very was proud of my research and writing and how my passion and fandom gave me the opportunity to express myself.
There are few constants in life. But sometimes we take even these for granted. There was a bit in the Eighties when I was busy with adult things, exploring my own life and loves, and put Doctor Who to one side. I regretted doing so later. Sadly, this also applies to Mum. I saw her a little less in young adulthood. I left them both waiting for the return of the prodigal son; luckily neither waited too long.
We are fellow travellers, my Mum, the Doctor and I. We travelled virtually to other planets, and physically, to another continent. We were ten dollar migrants to Australia, where I got a rare second chance to revisit all the early Hartnell stories (roughly a year after the BBC transmitted them) including my personal favourite, Marco Polo. I wrote about that story in the Doctor Who and History book because it feels like it is about our adventures too. It took us four weeks to cross the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, and finally the Indian Ocean, while Marco’s caravan took seven weeks to cross Cathay (in the serial).
Mum had many qualities. She was a great cheerleader. She was a down-to earth farm girl. She had that quintessential English beauty, was mistaken for young Princess Elizabeth on more than one occasion and, to her utter embarrassment, won a beauty competition. But she wasn’t a fan of travelling away from home and immediately regretted doing so (maybe that’s why she was a little suspicious of the Doctor’s flights of fancy). Much later, just as Marco eventually won Kublai Khan’s permission to return to Venice, my father relented and we dematerialised from Australia, falling back to England much the same time as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor.
The Doctor rarely mentions his mother. The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) remembers her as human. In the audiobook, ‘Seasons of Fear’ (2002) he recalls how she sang him the Zagreus nursery rhyme. And how his mother watched as his father held him aloft to see the stars (‘The Eight Doctors’ novel by Terrance Dicks, 1997). According to Russell T Davies, the unnamed Time Lord in The End of Time (2009-10) might actually be the Doctor’s mother. But my favourite reference is from ‘A Big Hand for the Doctor’ (Eoin Colfer, 2013), where the First Doctor has a vision of his mother asking him to tell her all about his adventures.
‘Stay here, my little Doctor. Stay here with me and you can tell tales of the worlds you have visited. I so want to hear your stories.’
She is so pretty, he thought. Just as I remember her.
Mum wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who, it turns out. But she was a fan of me, of course. So she frequently sat through twenty-five minutes of flight and fancy, nodding, smiling, tutting at all the nasty terror, cooing too, always one eye on her son.
And I will keep telling her about my adventures, yes. And many of those adventures will doubtless also include the Doctor. And I would give anything for a long evening, a boxset and her company. Or better still, to imagine that all this is just the interregnum between adventures.
To all of you with mothers in the Whoniverse, snuggle up a little closer to them. Don’t plan to do it in a timey wimey way. Do it right now. Put The Time Monster on and, through one eye, watch with mother.
For Mum. My watching companion. Always.
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