Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Master of the Universe
For a time I was professionally involved, in various ways, with cult telly programme, Doctor Who. And that is how I ended up at Birmingham airport driving a Dalek.
The airport was host to a children's book festival, and, for some reason, felt the presence of a Dalek would encourage the little angels to read more sci-fi. The budget didn't stretch to hiring a professional Dalek operator. Even if it had, it wouldn't have happened. Give a "resting" actor some gainful employment? Or let a big kid like me drive the thing? No contest.
The Dalek made its own way up to Brum, hidden under a tarpaulin in the back of a lorry The tarpaulin seemed a good idea. The last thing you need when you're doing 70-plus on the motorway is seeing the galaxy's meanest motherf**ker cutting you up on the outside lane.
Down in the airport loading bay, a special screen had been set up, to conceal the Dalek's arrival from any passing kids. It was all about maintaining the illusion. A Dalek, as everyone surely knows, is a mutant blob of alien hatred, housed in a travel machine made of bonded polycarbite armour, and landing in a flying saucer. It is most definitely not a piece of tat hired from BBC Props, its wooden panels chipped and warped, crying out for a fresh lick of Dulux, and brought in by Rent-A-Van.
The deadliest creature in the universe comes in two parts for quick 'n' easy self-assembly. There's the slatted "skirt" with the bumpy bits and the rubber fender round the base; and the top half with its gun-stick, sink plunger and eyestalk. The operator perches on a tiny splintered cross-bench in the bottom half, which is open to the floor. You're positioned in such a way that, as you start walking, your knees are forced against the inside of the casing, pushing the Dalek forwards.
Stripped down to shorts, vest and knee-pads (driving Daleks is sweaty work), you climb in, and the top bit is lowered over you. It's surprisingly roomy inside; there's even a ledge to rest your Evian bottle. There isn't any claustrophobia either: the grille around the Dalek is made so you can see out, but others can't see in. And, as your hands are going to be pretty busy manipulating that gun and sucker-arm, a leather strap dangles in front of you. Grab that by your teeth, and the eye-stick it's attached to will wiggle up and down.
By this time I was beginning to have second thoughts. Was this something a grown-man really should be doing? But this Dalek was fearless; this Dalek wasn't going to chicken out now. I was manoeuvred into the service lift (the stairs were out of the question for obvious reasons), the floor button was punched, and I was taken up to the airport's main concourse.
The doors opened, and, as my Dalek embarked on its initial attempt at world domination, it made its only mistake. The large castors fixed round the fender make moving over flat surfaces relatively easy. Too easy, in fact. My space-invader gathered speed down the steep slope. That was when I discovered Daleks do not have brakes, and narrowly managed to stop crashing into a display of Terry Pratchetts.
I soon got the hang of it though, gliding around the room in a circle, clinically regarding the humans through my eye lens, sweeping my blaster menacingly in their direction. And what, just a few minutes ago, had been a decidedly shabby and static prop, had with new-found mobility become the Star Attraction of the airport.
Foreign tourists, just out of Arrivals, stared, shook their heads uncomprehendingly, and shrugged on their way. Check-in girls deserted their desks to catch a look. Grizzled old baggage-handlers ran over, eyes green with jealousy. Can I play? Can I play? Oh, please, I wanna play too! Even the flight announcers got in on the act, with a dead-pan request over the PA for the Dalek on Level One to return to Passport Control immediately.
And of course, the kids loved it. Crowding round me, then racing away, when I threatened to blast them into oblivion. And when the inevitable smart-alec brat decided there was really a man in there, he became my quarry for the rest of the afternoon. I chased him past book displays, in W.H. Smith and the airport bar, through sliding doors, only stopping when I managed to pin him against a wall and get him really worried. And every single person in that airport got out of my way. You do not mess with Daleks.
And when the kids had been bundled home, the book-displays packed away, I was still there, prowling the concourse of Birmingham Airport. I'd've stayed all night if they'd had let me. In the end, they had to drag me out of that thing, dripping with sweat, half-a-stone lighter, my knees bloodied and bruised, and a perfectly insane grin on my face.
I don't know how many books were sold that day. But I do know that, for one glorious, megalomaniac afternoon, I was Master of the Universe. And I could have exterminated anyone I wanted to.