Stand By Your Fan
The Official Doctor Who Fan Club Volume One by Keith Miller
Some things are almost too lovely to be written about. On the face of it, The Official Doctor Who Fan Club Volume 1 is a rather pricey book full of facsimiles of BBC correspondence and photocopies of badly printed newsletters that were unreadable then and now look older than the ancient scrolls of Gallifrey. In fact, not only is it fascinating at a factual level, full of contemporary insights into how the series was made and received, but it’s also a remarkably funny and warm book that tells Keith Miller’s story as he moved between his life as a teenager in a poor part of Edinburgh, and the self imposed role of co-ordinator of the official fan club which involved at one point almost daily contact with the Doctor Who production office.
Fandom and its relationship with Doctor Who is already a burgeoning academic field and books by Matt Hills and Miles Booy are surely only the first of many more to come. The series has been running so long now that the reputational waxing and waning of eras and the corresponding revisionism of different generations of fans is worthy of examination, especially as natural milestones such as the 50th anniversary and the final DVD release of the original series approach. It’s all very interesting stuff, but necessarily takes you away from the reason people became fans in the first place, which was the emotional pull of both the series itself and the need to share your enthusiasm with like minded others.
Miller’s book takes you to a time before DWAS, before arsey pieces about The Deadly Assassin, before fandom had a “view”, even before the word “classic” had taken its dread hold on fan vocabulary. In the beginning, as demonstrated in the reprinted newsletters, it was just Keith retelling the old stories in his inimitable fashion, alongside Doctor Who quizzes, crosswords and competitions.
It’s certainly true that even in this prelapsarian era the serpent was out and about. As far as Keith is concerned (and of course this is his story – not an impartial view) the forces of darkness are represented by, rather wonderfully, a young Peter Capaldi and another devout Pertwee fan called Stuart Mooney. Both try to wrest the fan club from Keith, and it’s hard not to think of them as Malcolm Tucker and his underling Jamie from The Thick of It, scheming deviously only to be confounded by the mild-mannered Miller who has the ear of the production office.
And it’s this aspect of the book that I particularly loved. Once Barry Letts had decided to put his trust in Keith, he remained steadfast, an unswerving loyalty conveyed by the other star of this book, Sarah Newman, Letts’ production secretary. The relationship that blossoms between Newman and Miller is terrific, and her conscientiousness does her so much credit, particularly in the way she encourages Keith about his O Levels, consoles him after his father’s death and protects him from Capaldi and Mooney’s frequent power plays. My favourite moment though is when she responds to Keith’s wonderfully fannish query “Are you related to Sydney Newman?” with a heartfelt “No I’m not – thank God!”
There are many other great things about the book including a touching newsletter message from Roger Delgado; a lovely cameo in the BBC canteen from John “Last of the Summer Wine” Comer; Keith’s long-savoured revenge on a Polystyle editor; and the unexpected attraction of Keith’s mum to Barry Letts. For those seeking information about the show itself there are descriptions of Keith’s set visits to Carnival of Monsters, The Three Doctors and Planet of the Spiders as they appeared in the fan club newsletter, alongside the slightly franker versions as he recollects them now. These are all fascinating for the glimpses they provide of the productions and well-known characters such as Letts, Dicks, Manning and Sladen. Jon Pertwee obviously looms large, although sadly his reputation for overweening self absorption is only further expanded here when it’s revealed that he even intervened on the production of screen-printed fan newsletters when he thought he wasn’t featured prominently enough.
Students of Who fandom will find enough in this book to keep them going for ages, and when it is read alongside the features on organised fandom in issues 9-12 of that excellent fanzine The Frame it helps to provide as full a history of the pre- DWAS era as anyone could have reasonably expected. As such Keith Miller has performed a valuable service to future Who scholars, but this is only the first volume, and the soon-to-be-published second promises more insights as the production team changes and the Philip Hinchcliffe era begins.
My only caveat about the book is that some tantalising threads are left dangling that will not be picked up in the second volume. This is particularly true of Sarah Newman, who is such an important and likeable character throughout that an update on her whereabouts and subsequent life seems an important omission. Fortunately, I understand that Newman has been tracked down by enterprising Who sleuths and that someone is talking to her about her time on the series including the correspondence with Keith. If that’s the case, then it’s just one of the many positive aspects of the publication of this highly enjoyable and touching volume.
The Official Doctor Who Fan Club Volume One is available from here.