Doctor Who: Familiar Faces by Drew Meyer

Doctor Who: Familiar Faces takes a look at the non-Who works of Doctor Who actors and Directors. Each article will focus on a movie that has at least two ties to Doctor Who.

#1 Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, and Stratford Johns in “The Lair of the White Worm.”

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My teenage years were rife with Ken Russell films. And really, that seemed to be the perfect time to watch them.  I’m not saying that it was a good thing, but I certainly thought they were good movies. They were weird, they were (usually) sexual, and they were weird. The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), Listzomania (1975), Altered States (1980), Gothic (1986), and Whore (1991)—these were (along with Cronenberg and Gilliam) the visual background to my cinematic formative years. They made the perfect companions to my literature of choice at the time—healthy doses of Henry Miller and Vertigo Comics.

Oddly, it wasn’t until 1994 that I saw the topic of this piece. I had just dropped out of high school and was spending my days as a busboy at a Jimmy Buffet themed restaurant, and my evenings with a group of women who had recently discovered the awkward and harmless fumblings of Hugh Grant. In their search to absorb all things Hugh (and uncovering the delightful “Impromptu” in the process) they came across Russell’s gem, “The Lair of the White Worm” (1988). Even the rumpled coif of Mr. Grant wasn’t enough to make it worth their while to finish the film…but I was entranced.

As for Grant, his tie to Doctor Who comes from the short but enjoyable “The Curse of Fatal Death” (1999), a Comic Relief sketch penned by Steven Moffat. Grant plays the 12th iteration of the Doctor alongside (sort of) Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant (more on Grant in a future Familiar Faces), Jim Broadbent, Joanna Lumley, and Jonathan Pryce as possibly the best Master of all time. It’s a crime that this hasn’t made it to dvd, but it can easily be found on Youtube. I consider this to be canon in the timeline infected by The Great Intelligence, along with “Scream of the Shalka.”

As I have stated before on the vidcast, I’m all about the bucolic village Satanism of rural Britain. In literature and cinema, I find the tenacious hold of paganism in modern society to be fascinating. No film does it better than 1973s “The Wicker Man,” but Lady Silvia Marsh’s (Amanda Donohoe) Temple House of horrors makes a good run at it. Its got a lot going for it: an ancient snake cult in Derbyshire; folk legend come to life; drunken folk music (which is catchy as hell); murder; transmogrification; and some of the most bizarre dream sequences/visions filmed in the 80s…let that sink in for a moment.  But the reason to even mention the film in the first place, is that aside from Hugh Grant, it stars a VERY young Peter Capaldi.

We’re introduced to Capaldi’s Angus Flint as he uncovers the skull of a massive worm (which should be spelt (spelled?) wyrm) as well as some ancient coinage depicting a serpent on a cross. It’s as likely that we’ll see Capaldi recreating scenes from this movie as it is reprising characteristics of Malcolm Tucker in 2014’s series 8 of Doctor Who…but make no mistake, it’s Capaldi’s Flint who’s the hero of this story. Even though Grant’s character Lord James D’Ampton is easily convinced of nefarious goings-on, his contribution to the story’s resolution are slightly unclear. Capaldi does all the leg work…heh…leg…taking on Donohoe’s Lady Marsh who (spoilers) as an immortal priestess of Dionin can transform into a naked blue-skinned serpent woman—complete with heaving bosom and armpit hair…just like a real snake. (Note: It’s particularly funny to see the naked serpent goddess with her sacrifice who is still in her underwear, as actress Catherine Oxenberg refused to do nude scenes.) Capaldi had only been in the business 6 years before taking on the role of Flint, which he does admirably in (what I assume) is his native Glaswegian accent.

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“Worm” is an enjoyable but odd outing  given the strange eroticism of Lady Marsh (especially where boy scouts are concerned) and the competent acting performances of most of the cast–a cast which includes Stratford Johns who plays D’Ampton’s butler and which classic Who fans may recognize as Monarch from the 5th Doctor story “Four to Doomsday.”  The effects are….typical for a Ken Russell film from the 1980s, and if you squint, the worm itself could be creepy. Overall the movie is better than the source material by Bram Stoker, which I attempted to read after I first saw the film, but gave up after getting bogged down in the first few chapters. While researching for this piece I discovered that Russell originally wanted Tilda Swinton to play the part of Marsh. While it certainly seems unlikely that an actor of Swinton’s caliber would take part in Doctor Who for anything short of an anniversary special, I can’t help but voice my fan desire to see her play the inevitable return of the Master. If we can’t have a female Doctor, why not a “femmy” Master?

So, if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with Mr. Capaldi’s work before he tackles the world’s most popular television franchise and don’t feel like deflecting the volley of profanity hurled by “The Thick of its” Malcolm Tucker, and you like your flicks on the weird side….why not enter “The Lair of the White Worm?

 

Next time we’ll look at Noel Clarke and Alex Price in 2012’s “Storage 24”