Talons Series: Gentlemen of Victorian London
“Yet another Holmesian double-act? Here we go again writing about Robert Holmes and his vast contribution to Doctor Who, and that annoying habit of his to write “amusing” duos. Am I the only one not to like Robert Holmes scripts? I mean here we are in Victorian London in a story centred on a music hall of all things, and what does Holmes do? He resists the temptation to introduce an “amusing” music hall owner and his cod Irish stage hand doesnâ€™t he? Does he heck as like!
“I see what youâ€™re doing now, youâ€™re making out as if there are people out here who donâ€™t like Robert Holmes scripts arenâ€™t you? Mocking me are you, Mr Editor-of-Kasterborous? Who do you think you are? I know more about Doctor Who than you! I could have been a writer! I could have written countless Doctor Who books, but I chose to remain an important librarian. I know all about characterisation and plotting, and Iâ€™m telling you Mister that Robert Holmes scripts are not the be-all and end-all of Doctor Who!”
So if you donâ€™t mind, you three that agree with the chap above, if you could just wait until the next article is published…
â€¦Meanwhile, the rest of us can carry on with this vast carousel of cod Irishmen, blustering music hall owners, distinguished gentlemen pathologists and scorpion-venom swallowing Chinamen. The Talons of Weng Chiang is among the finest Doctor Who stories, and Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago two of the finest characters within the shows narrative. As a scriptwriter on Doctor Who, Robert Holmesâ€™ work is unparalleled. This is fact. But he is also fortunate to have been at his peak during a period of relative stability and strong leadership on Doctor Who. What on earth would have happened had Talons been rested a few seasons or put off until the 1980s?
Imagine a Production Meeting at BBC Television Centre around 1984. Present are series producer John-Nathan Turner, story director Andrew Morgan, and the recently cast Christopher Biggins and Rentaghostâ€™s Michael Staniforth as Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot. JNT explains that the Doctor will arrive in 19th century London, where he and his companions will meet Biggins as a music hall owner and Staniforth as the progressive Litefoot. All well and good for 80s Who and 80s television output, but why? How could this kind of casting enhance Doctor Who? Arenâ€™t you glad we donâ€™t have proof that it doesnâ€™t!
Christopher Benjamin was already a recognised character actor when he appeared in Talons of Weng Chiang, having appeared in “The Avengers”, “Danger Man”, “The Saint” and others. His previous role in Doctor Who had been as Sir Keith Gold in the Season 7 story Inferno. A very different part, this ably demonstrates the actors range, and his intuition. His understanding of both parts is perfect, from what they do for a living and their relationships with others to what side of the bed they sleep on and what theyâ€™ve had for breakfast.
Similarly, Trevor Baxter has been in the business since the 1960s, appearing in episodes of “Adam Adamant Lives!”, “Z Cars” and “The New Avengers”. His only Doctor Who appearance, Baxter gets the chance to play an unusual character. As Professor Litefoot is a progressive thinker and attracted to Leela, Baxter is able to display very un-Victorian attitudes in a surprisingly Victorian way.
The ability of both players is, of course, a massive factor in their interaction. When the two characters Jago and Litefoot first meet, Jago is all fake bravado while Litefoot takes this new connection to the Doctor in his strideâ€¦
‘That’s my trouble, Litefoot.’
‘Well I’m not awfully… Well, I’m not so bally brave when it comes to it. I try to be but I’m not.’
‘Well when it comes to it, I don’t suppose anybody is.’
The Doctor is of course central to the story and as such holds the characters within it together. Upon his first meeting with Jago he suspects immediately that the theatre owner has been hypnotised. His presence soon brings to the surface an interesting type of snobbery in Jago who accepts the mantle of assisting the Doctor (whom he believes to be one of Scotland yards finest), and then tells anyone who listens.
While discretion isnâ€™t a word Henry Gordon Jago is too au fait with, Professor Litefoot meanwhile no doubt considers the word key to his profession. As a pathologist raised in China, he has a strangely open mind for a man of his era. His behaviour towards the Doctorâ€™s savage companion Leela is of the chivalrous nature. While she may not understand the concept, she doesnâ€™t seem to be offended in any way, although she is a little confused when Litefoot attempts to impart the intricacies of Victorian etiquette:
“And then, for example, I would say, ‘One lump or two, Miss Leela?’ To which you reply ‘One will suffice, thank you.’ Now do you follow?”
“Supposing I want two?”
“Oh no no no; one lump for ladies.”
“Then why do you ask me?”
So the Holmesian double act combine with strength, humour, an attention to detail on behalf of the men in costume, and the dialogue of a skilful writer. Never is this more eloquently demonstrated than in The Talons of Weng Chiang – no exceptions.