What have the Daleks got to do with the circus? Not a lot, except that while I was wondering what to call my new book I found myself gazing across the office at my Dalekmania calendar, and suddenly it came to me: Circus Mania!
Cut to the present and I’ve just written a short story set in the era of Dalekmania. It’s called My Dalek Days - a Dr Who-dunnit on a film set in the swinging 60s. It’s just been published by My Weekly (Jan 2, issue). They generously gave me a nice plug for Circus Mania at the bottom of the page. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the story. (Read it from behind the sofa if you wish...)
|"Seek, locate... and buy Circus Mania!"|
A Dr Who-dunnit in the swinging 60s
by Douglas McPherson
Everyone wondered how the Daleks moved around. Some people thought they were remote controlled. But it was a lot less complicated than that.
Someone like me had to sit inside on a little bench, with my feet sticking through the bottom, and push the thing around on casters - all the while remembering to wiggle the eye stalk and the arm with the sink plunger on the end.
It was very cramped and dark inside, and could get pretty claustrophobic during a long day’s filming. Especially as you knew you couldn’t get out. It took two men to lift the top half into place, so once you were in, you were trapped.
Visibility through the wire mesh grill was very poor and communication was difficult. You could hear what the actors and director were saying, but nobody could make out what you were saying unless they put their ear right up against the grill.
We didn’t do the voices, you see. All those shouts of “Ex-ter-min-ate!” were done by an actor by the side of the set, with a funny little gadget to change his voice. We just had to remember to press a button that made the lights on the top our heads flash while he was talking.
It was a fantastic break for me, straight out of drama school in 1966. The Daleks were almost as big as The Beatles. Dalekmania they called it, and everyone was saying the metal monsters’ second big screen adventure was going to be the biggest film of the year.
|Peter Cushing as Dr Who|
On the posters, the Daleks were given a bigger billing than Dr Who. But on set, it was a very different story. Us humble operators were at the bottom of the pecking order.
Not only did we seldom get to socialise with the stars, once we were inside our Daleks everyone seemed to forget we were there at all.
At lunchtime the cast and crew would wander off to the canteen and I’d be trundling after them, waving my plunger and desperately trying to make them hear my muffled cries of, “Hey, let me out of here!”
During the breaks between scenes, people would stand around chatting right next to me as if I wasn’t there. Sometimes they’d even lean on my casing as if it were just another piece of scenery.
At first I thought it was a bit rude. But after a couple of days, I realised I was overhearing more studio gossip than I would as an ordinary extra.
Most of it was spread by Ruby, a mother hen of a wardrobe mistress, with a huge beehive hairdo, who had worked in the studio for years. Whenever you heard her click-clacking across the studio floor in her high heels and skirt that was far too short for her age, you knew you were about to hear some piece of salacious news.
Even when Ruby was on her knees adjusting an actor’s costume between takes, a mouthful of dressmaker’s pins didn’t stop her expressing her opinions.
Most of Ruby’s news bulletins during the first few days’ filming concerned a young make-up assistant called Tina.
|The Daleks invade the big screen|
She didn’t notice me, of course. I was inside my Dalek and by the time the day’s filming was over, she was gone.
Generally, Tina tended to stay in the make-up room. And, unfortunately, us Daleks didn‘t need make-up.
In any case, Tina had a boyfriend, a bit-part actor called Steve, who was playing one of the Daleks’ semi-human accomplices, the Robomen - although, if Ruby was to be believed, their relationship was far from happy.
“That poor girl!” Ruby said in a particularly shocked voice one morning.
Twisting around inside my Dalek, I saw through the grill that she was talking to Alf, the burly foreman in charge of building the sets.
Glancing over her shoulder to check no one else could hear her - and clearly assuming my Dalek was empty - Ruby added in a lower voice, “She told him she was expecting, and you know what he did? He laughed in her face and said he wanted nothing more to do with her!”
Alf made an angry noise and put his fist on top of my dome with a heavy thud.
“It’s time somebody took that young man to one side and told him a few home truths,” Alf said forthrightly.
|"Daleks are the supreme beings in the circus!"|
On rough pavements, the Daleks wobbled and shook like shopping trolleys, and in cobbled alleys we couldn‘t move them at all. Alf had to lay plywood tracks for us to roll smoothly along.
While we waited for Alf to complete the task, I watched Steve clowning about as if he were the star, rather than a bit part. He took particular delight in flirting with a slinky-looking continuity girl right in front of poor Tina.
I noticed that Alf was watching him, too, and seemed to hammer in his nails a little more forcefully.
When I arrived for work the following morning, a real-life drama was in full swing. As well as the usual trucks full of lights and cameras, the road to the warehouses was blocked with police cars and an ambulance.
One of my fellow Dalek operators spotted me and said, “I don’t think we’ll be needed today. One of the Robomen was found dead in an alley. It looks like he fell out of a loading bay - from two floors up.”
At the catering van, Ruby had a different theory.
“It could have been anyone who shoved him off,” said Alf, between bites of a bacon sandwich. “I heard he owed a lot of money - some of it to some pretty nasty people.”
Looking around, I saw Tina on the other side of the road, a check coat hugged tightly over her mini-dress. She looked distraught, and utterly alone, as if nobody knew what to say to her.
There wasn’t much I could say myself. But my heart went out to her.
On impulse, I took my untouched tea over and held it out to her.
As her pale blue eyes flicked up to meet mine, Tina looked surprised, but then grateful as she accepted the steaming mug.
“Morning, Miss,” said one of them, “My name’s Inspector Jewel. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you a few questions.”
The next day, I was back in my Dalek. Steve’s part in the film was too small for his death to threaten the picture and, having already lost a lot of time, the director wanted to press on.
The atmosphere on set was tense, though - and the rumour mill was working overtime.
“They kept her at the police station all night,” Ruby told Alf, as he dusted down my Dalek shell. “But they had to let her go because she had a watertight alibi.”
“Well I never believed it was Tina,” Alf said gruffly. “But I’ll tell you this much, Ruby, whoever did it, did her a favour. She’s better off without that wrong ‘un.”
“You’re right there,” said Ruby. Then, more distantly, she said, “I wonder if she’ll keep the baby?”
|Don't worry readers|
- it's only a toy!
They’re both mad about Dr Who, of course, and they could hardly believe it when they found out their granddad used to be a Dalek.
“Did you exterminate loads of people?” they asked enthusiastically.
“Loads!” I laughed.
Well, one, actually.
But even Tina doesn’t know that.
Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.
"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday
And you can read more fiction by Douglas McPherson in comedy crime book The Blue Rinse Brigade. Click here to download the ebook from Amazon.