The Dark Room: “Doctor Who and the Cabinet Of Mutants” by Darren Giddings

“Lights out! And stop giggling…”

That first childhood night spent away from the bosom of the nuclear family could be a disorientating experience, and for many it came on the dreaded school trip to a residential centre or – horror of horrors – even an Outward Bound camp. Here, the safe rituals of bedtime were thrown into sharp relief by the totems of unfamilarity: itchy blankets, foul-tempered wardens and whispered tales of spectral Grey Ladies, prowling the dormitories to claim adolescent souls.

No surprise, then, that many children packed reassuring reminders of home into their battered suitcases. Among them was Darren Giddings who, in 1978, bravely journeyed across Wiltshire accompanied by two timely tokens of his favourite TV show.

Over to you, Darren…

“January 1978, Braeside, Devizes, Wiltshire. Braeside was a residential centre run, I think, by the county council. It still exists, but no longer in council hands. Staying there for a couple of nights and seeing the sights of Devizes was a rite of passage for those of us in the final year of primary school. It was a big deal – Devizes was 15 miles from home, and many of us had never spent a night away from our families.

Here’s a blurry view of the approach to Braeside …

I know it was January 1978 because, while we were there, we all huddled round a black and white telly – with the world’s worst reception – to watch one of the earliest episodes of Blake’s 7. A scene with a long tunnel extending unconvincingly from a penal spaceship caused particular hilarity among my peers, and embarrassment to me, who had likely asked to watch it in the first place. I was the sci-fi one.

The story of this picture almost tells itself. My pyjamas are tucked under the pillow. Instamatic flash cubes and a toy Tom Baker are on the cabinet. A Target Doctor Who book awaits my attention. It looks like ‘The Mutants’, which had only been out for a few months, but was still ‘one of the latest ones’. I’d be very surprised if I hadn’t read it already: these were the exciting days when there were still swathes of Doctor Who stories I knew only from paragraph-long synopses in The Making of Doctor Who. When a Target came out, it was like a missing episode being recovered. To this day, my internal visualisations of those books are so much better than the actuality. Perhaps if real Doctor Who in the 1960s and ‘70s had been closer to my imagined version, it wouldn’t be such a forgotten and unloved series…

Apart from Blake’s 7, the only other thing I remember about the excursion is a visit to a printers’ workshop. A real old-school printers’ shop, with century-old machines, dust and ingrained ink. The staff looked century-old, too. I immediately wanted to be a printer.

Of course, within 20 years it was all gone.

I was 11-and-a-bit years old. I’d spent just over six years in a Ladybird Books village school. A year later, I was just a number in a Grange Hill secondary school filled with what I thought were punk rockers: my parents’ tabloid newspaper had already successfully warned me of these bogeymen.

Lost innocence perhaps began at Braeside. Although this was not my first adventure sans family, it was the first one where I actually felt a bit grown-up and the master of my own destiny. I don’t think I felt quite the same way again until I moved into my first shared house ten years later.

And here’s Tom today. Sadly, The Mutants fell foul of an ill-advised Target purge in my late teens…”

Thanks, Darren. The Dark Room is a collaborative effort. If anyone would like to contribute their own childhood photos from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. Thanks so much.

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One thought on “The Dark Room: “Doctor Who and the Cabinet Of Mutants” by Darren Giddings

  1. Gavin Wilson October 21, 2021 / 3:24 pm

    “To this day, my internal visualisations of those books are so much better than the actuality. Perhaps if real Doctor Who in the 1960s and ‘70s had been closer to my imagined version, it wouldn’t be such a forgotten and unloved series…”

    Darren makes quite a valid point here. I wonder how big a fan following Doctor Who would have had it not been for the Target novelisations in those pre-home video years.

    Like

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