bbc, Cold War, cybermen, dalek, daleks, denis healey, doctor who, hansard, house of commons, house of lords, margaret thatcher, politics, popular culture, television, the doctor, the master, time lord, zarbies
With rare exception, politicians know they are not trendy. They would not have been drawn to their particular profession if they were. Bookish, obsessed with ideas and also with power, politicians, one tends to find, were mostly elsewhere when others experimented with substances, listened to the latest music and otherwise enjoyed the fads of youth.
Yet politicians are performers too and this fact, combined with their need to appeal to the ordinary voter, has made many of them over the years want to look trendier than they are.
In Britain, as elsewhere, a popular way to do so has been to appear alongside the country’s TV stars or, failing that, to drop references to them or to their series into public utterances. Jimmy Savile notwithstanding – a most unfortunate example everyone can now agree – over the years few televisual phenomena have attracted more attention of this sort than Doctor Who. On the series’ fiftieth anniversary, I decided to look in a bit more detail at some of the references our elected representatives have made to The Doctor down through the decades.
The first reference I found comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the House of Lords (where, of course, no one is elected at all). It is from January 1965, just over a year after the BBC’s new series came to TV screens, and it occurred in a debate on broadcasting. The Earl of Bessborough, a 50-year-old Tory, makes references to the strange new show in a way which clearly indicates that he wants his fellow peers to think he has a more-than-passing acquaintance with it. As these things go – as you are about to see – he does it rather deftly.
“I will not… say whether I consider “Emergency Ward 10” to be a more interesting programme than “Dr. Kildare”; nor that I am more fascinated by “Fireball X.L.” than by “Dr. Who” on the BBC,” the Earl began, “although I must admit that if… we are anxious that people in this country should be more industrious… then I think we have a good deal to learn from the ants, or zarbies as they are called in “Dr. Who”.” It reads oddly, but then so many things that politicians say do.
And most were much less subtle than the noble lord, often choosing considerably less appropriate moments to deploy their time-lord reference. In 1972, for instance, John Golding, a Labour MP, was in the middle of asking about gas leaks when he felt his TARDIS analogy coming on. Specifically referring to a leak that had recently been detected under a telephone box in east London, Golding asked if it had been the government’s intention for natural gas to ‘turn a telephone kiosk into the movable type of kiosk in which Dr Who travels on Saturday evenings?’
Er, no, came the puzzled reply.
With similar deftness, Andrew Bennett (also a Labour Member) alerted colleagues in 1979 to the fact that he knew of no fewer than two cult TV series, while making an otherwise unremarkable contribution to an agriculture debate.
“Too much of our legislation dealing with the countryside is an example of the worst aspect of British politics,” he said. “Namely, the kind of compromise that leaves everybody dissatisfied. That is a difficulty which must be borne in mind. My children were arguing the other day about which television channel they should watch. One wanted “Dr. Who” and the other “Wonder Woman”,” he said. “The simple solution in that situation is to take the view “Very well, you can have one minute of one channel, then one minute of the other channel.” [But] that is an example of the worst of all worlds.”
And, quite possibly, the worst of all culture references.
Though possibly not. As late as 1994, well into the series’ dead period, Tory Michael Forsyth was talking to MPs about “K.9” when he decided it would be funny to clarify that he meant “not the character from Dr. Who but article K.9 of the treaty on European Union”. Mmmm, thanks Michael, people would have been confused otherwise.
Daleks and tardises, zarbies and K9, not to mention the Master and cybermen, all are there somewhere, along with specific references to many individual doctors: recorded for posterity in the official proceedings of our parliament. And many other mentions have doubtless been lost: those shoe-horned into campaign speeches, for instance, or that formed the basis for tortuously convoluted gags at party fundraisers.
Among the Hansard references, I particularly enjoyed Peter Hordern’s 1966 description of Tony Benn as ‘that new dalek of our society’, when Benn became Minister of Technology. And to complement it, there is Roy Roebuck’s dig at the Tories of 1970, describing a housing policy as the product of ‘the Daleks at Conservative Central Office’. The dalek as symbol of technophile progress; the dalek as byword for heartless cruelty.
But my favourite Dr Who reference of all comes from good old Denis Healey, the one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a speech he made in November 1988. Back then, Mrs Thatcher was at the height of her late imperiousness (just as disaster was about to strike) and among other controversies, rumours abounded that she was once again taking advice from a deeply unpopular American academic called Alan Walters. (Ultimately these rumours would prove true and lead to the resignation of Nigel Lawson.) Healey’s Dr Who moment lampoons Walters, and as it comes in the midst of a much longer purple patch I am quoting it at some length. (By the way, I defy you not to laugh at some of Healey’s other jokes, in particular the hilarious fourth and fifth sentences.)
“We have seen cognitive dissonance in domestic policy,” Healey said. “For example, the poll tax, and the creation of private monopolies to make water and electricity more expensive. We saw it this morning in the National Health Service. I often compare the Prime Minister with Florence Nightingale. She stalks through the wards of our hospitals as a lady with a lamp – unfortunately, it is a blow lamp […] The Prime Minister has already made it clear that she wants to replace the Treasury with an immigrant acolyte from the United States who is regarded by many people as Dr. Who. He certainly resembles Mr. Jon Pertwee, who once acted in that capacity. It now appears that she wants to abolish the Foreign Office and, no doubt, replace the Foreign Secretary with Colonel Oliver North – if Colonel North is able to escape imprisonment in the next few months. She has already shown that she wants to abolish the BBC, the House of Lords, the Church of England and the monarchy. No institution will be left to protect our democracy, except for the Special Air Service and MI5.”
Politicians undoubtedly find popular culture useful. Among other purposes, saying the names of genuinely popular people and things helps politicians to bridge the gaps between them and the ordinary folk – if only in their own minds. Yet in the case of Dr Who one commonly occurring trope is missing – and here, perhaps, one must credit MPs with having at least a little common sense. There is hardly any photographic evidence of their liking for the programme: no photos of politicians posing with Dr Who characters or paraphernalia, nor visiting Dr Who sets. Unlike with Jimmy Savile and many other once-popular but later-discredited personalities and phenomena, MPs must have sensed with Dr Who that the risk of joint appearances. And indeed it is true that these would have had enormous comic potential for their opponents, as well as for sketch writers and tabloid journalists.
Some photos must exist somewhere of course. But for now I finish with a recent picture of our future (unelected) leader and his wife with the daleks. And I hope that anyone who knows of the political pics will post links to them below.
The proud Whovian Tom Harris, who is MP for Glasgow South, has been in touch since I first posted this to put the record straight. There’s no avoiding the camera when Doctors are around as far as he is concerned. Here he is with some former holders of the post – and this is just the tip of a rather large iceberg. More, much much more, is available on his Facebook page. Thank you, Tom!