Tardis-travelling on television only

Doctor Who films should remain as nothing more than rumours.

Remember when Doctor Who was played by Eric Idle? Or how about the time it was Pierce Brosnan on a quest to find his father? Then there was the David Hasselhoff Doctor, with his trusty companion Pamela Anderson and a rapping time machine. Classic.

Rumours of Doctor Who movies roll round every couple of years and, generally, like the monstrosities described above, never actually happen. Most of the time, they don't even make it into serious development.

But there are two reasons to think this week's rumours have more truth to them. One is that they come from a plausible director, David Yates- he of the Harry Potter franchise. The other is the involvement of Jane Tranter, the BBC exec who did so much to bring Who back to TV in 2005. She, along with the lead writer of that version Russell T Davies, are now in the US trying to build the BBC's Hollywood business; this would seem to be an obvious project for her.

Just because something is possible, though, doesn't make it a good idea, and this is definitely not a good idea. Doctor Who is - I realise these points are obvious to the point of tedium- but they are key: British and a TV series. It is a spectacle of a kind designed specifically to be watched in the nation's living room on Saturday evenings, as an alternative to X-Factor or Ant and Dec. This explains so much about what makes the show fun; it's what allows cliffhangers and ongoing story lines, it's what makes it a shared cultural experience, something to be anticipated and tweeted and deconstructed. It's what allows the series to gobble up whatever bits of popular culture it fancies, and to turn them into monsters or silly jokes.

None of that would work in a film. You can't have ongoing stories or a nation watching all at once, clearly. But nor can you stuff it with the kind of silly gags that only make sense to those living on a single rainy European island. Can you really imagine a movie Who featuring Patrick Moore playing himself as a dirty old man? Or a version of The Weakest Link with a murderous robot Anne Robinson (the 'Anne-Droid')? In a movie version, kooky gags like that'll be the first thing to go.

But there's another less obvious reason why Hollywood and Who are mismatched. One of the reasons, I suspect, that so many literary or comedy types are unashamed Doctor Who fanboys is because it is a writers' series. It allows radically different scriptwriters to come in and offer their own take on the show without the risk of breaking it. How many other children's TV writers have become famous in their own right, like Davies or Steven Moffat have? How many shows have run publicity campaigns based on the status of a Richard Curtis episode or a Neil Gaiman one? Hollywood, however, doesn't think much of its writers. It's notable that a director is leading this, and one that doesn't seem too concerned that he has not gotten a script lined up yet; the writer, apparently, is just a detail.

Nonetheless, the show is probably still safe. A movie may conceivably make more money (although it would be one hell of a gamble), but in terms of the BBC's remit, and in giving it a centrepiece for the TV schedules, a TV series is far more valuable. That's good. A movie version of Who could quite plausibly miss the point of everything that makes the series worth having in the first place.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser