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I have not seen a complete episode of Doctor Who since 1972. We go back a long way but I moved on, around the time of The Godfather and the first Roxy Music album. I would like to call it growing up but I use the term with some trepidation. Last weekend’s Doctor Who BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, a remarkable occasion in so many ways, showed me that a sizeable part of the culturally interested population doesn’t grow out of Doctor Who at all.
I have attended many star-filled Proms, important occasions that prompted rapturous receptions, but none that was accompanied by whoops, screams, cheers and tears in quite such generous portions. I was told that this was the fastest selling Prom of the season. Queues for promenade tickets had started forming a full day beforehand. Doctor Who really does appear to matter in British culture.
There was, it’s true, a heritage angle: the series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The largely adult audience was in nostalgic mood. It was readier than ever to pay respect to the programme’s traditions and history. It knew its stuff, too. When a portrait of Delia Derbyshire, the woman responsible for the sound of that extraordinary theme tune, was shown on a video screen, it was greeted with impassioned applause.
Doctor Who is a programme that famously plays with notions of time. Whatever it is, Derbyshire was ahead of hers. When she embroidered Ron Grainer’s theme tune in 1963 with brilliantly improvised electronic sounds, it was as a 26-year-old who had recently assisted Luciano Berio at summer school. She now receives greater ovations than the Italian experimentalist in this most august of classical music venues. Even a Time Lord would have had some trouble predicting that one.
The third Doctor Who Prom – previous editions attracted similarly devoted followings in 2008 and 2010 – was, first and most obviously, a supreme example of synergy. Not just between two of the BBC’s most successful brands but between two cultural genres – children’s science fiction and classical music – that appear to have little in common.
No one would have thought, in 1963, that parading a few Cybermen up and down the aisles would help attract young people to a classical music concert, and that it could be a good thing. It would have been considered gauche, patronising. Here were two spheres of cultural activity that should be kept apart. There was no meaningful relationship that could be forged between robots in silver foil and the lush strings of the symphony orchestra.
In today’s cultural climate, that sclerotic thinking has largely been banished. The forging of unlikely alliances between art forms is only desirable. The engagement of a mass audience with what have been previously perceived as elitist modes of expression is the holy grail of all cultural institutions.
True, Murray Gold, Doctor Who’s current house composer, is no Mahler. And the cheesy march of the Cybermen in the aisles, barely more sinister than the ice-cream vendors who followed them, cannot hope to match the spectacular effects of 21st-century television. But two art forms diluted are at least two art forms that are in conversation with each other. Art does not always have to seek to drift into the most rarefied air.
In addition to the synergistic intentions of the Doctor Who Prom, I also noted a kind of convergence taking place between the music and the television show. In my time, the Doctor wore daft clothes, his companions wore startled expressions, the monsters wore tin cans. I can’t quite bring myself to rewatch any of those episodes but I remember them as slight and trite.
But watching the excerpts from the rebooted version on the giant screens, I was made aware that the emotional stakes are a little higher these days. The section on the Doctor and his companions was full of pain, tears, unresolved farewells, a sense of loss. Gold’s sensitive scores had a palpable effect on the audience. Here was common ground between the fanatical followers of a popular television series, and those audiences who seek a similar charge from the “high” arts. A tragic goodbye is a tragic goodbye, in any language.
The final observation that struck me, as the Dalek chief made an ironic quip about the comfort of the Royal Albert Hall’s seating (I think it was ironic but his tone was not the most expressive), was what an archetypally British affair this was. We may live in a globalised culture – all art fairs look the same, all concert halls are filled with identical repertoire – but national traditions still adhere. When a ferocious-looking alien took the stage, I found myself strangely comforted by her dulcet 1950s tones as she introduced each act. It was like Watch with Mother for reptiles.
This was no Last Night but it was a weird night. Visions of Delia Derbyshire, Patrick Troughton (for the record, my favourite Doctor), the motherly alien, the stiff-backed, silver-foiled robots span around my head as I strode into the sultry Kensington air. They say that nothing makes you feel older than looking at how the past thought about the future, and finding that you’ve already been there. We haven’t mastered time travel yet but we have learnt how to battle a Dalek with a symphony orchestra. The tin cans never stood a chance.
Listen to a podcast of this column at www.ft.com/culturecast