Doctor Who Exhibitions: Middlesbrough Town Hall

Originally published in Doctor Who Magazine Issue 567, dated September 2021

BOB FISCHER meets the North-Eastern fans with fond memories of the 1973 BBC TV Special Effects exhibition in Middlesbrough. According to one visitor, “It was like a strange dream…”

“The Daleks and Doctor Who have invaded Middlesbrough Town Hall. And they’ll be occupying the building, with ghosts and monsters to help them, for the next six months…”

So began the lead story of BBC1’s regional news programme Look North on Wednesday 4 July 1973. Presenter Mike Neville made the solemn announcement before handing over to reporter Luke Casey, who – earlier in the day – had interviewed both Jon Pertwee and visual effects designer Jack Kine in the console room of the newly-installed exhibition. “This is very much a better TARDIS than the one I have to operate, and I can’t wait for the exhibition to finish so we can grab it and use it ourselves!” joked Pertwee.

It had been a stressful day for the incumbent Doctor, whose flight to Teesside Airport was delayed for an hour. “The TARDIS is a lot more reliable than the airlines,” he quipped to The Journal newspaper – which also reported that, afterwards, Pertwee was jetting straight out for a holiday in Ibiza. Nevertheless, he found time to greet press and fans alike inside Middlesbrough’s Town Hall, and local legend maintains he also expanded his collection of vintage glassware with a visit to Mona Taylor’s antiques shop on nearby Gurney Street. 

14-year-old Alan Savage was one of the local youngsters waiting at the exhibition, taking an unofficial “school holiday” to attend with his younger sister, Denise. “With it being a working day there wasn’t a huge crowd, but we were asked to line up and wait for him,” he recalls. “He appeared from behind the TARDIS door, saying ‘I am the Doctor!’

“It was a like a strange dream. I told him, in a stammering voice, that he was my favourite Doctor. He graciously bowed, said ‘Thank you very much, young man,’ and I floated out of there. Did it really happen?”

The exhibition occupied the Town Hall’s intimate crypt, more commonly graced by live music from the likes of Hawkwind and Mott The Hoople. Opening fully to the public on Thursday 5 July 1973, its first paying customers on that day were two Durham 18-year-olds, Bob Richardson and Tony Loughlin.

“It was such a grubby building back then!” remembers Bob. “Black, grimy and Victorian. But, as we went down the stairs into the crypt, the first thing we heard was the hum of the TARDIS. We went past display cabinets showing wax bottles to be smashed over actors’ heads, and there was a full-sized rubber alligator fixed to the wall. Then we turned right and saw the police box doors. As soon we stepped into the TARDIS console room, the take-off sound effect started playing and the column went up and down. We stopped in the doorway, absolutely gobsmacked.”

Many visitors recall the exhibition feeling oppressively dark, with intimidating, blacked-out corridors. And, for some children, a single glimpse of the automated Daleks built by Tony Oxley and Charlie Lumm was enough to immediately curtail their visit. “They were shouting ‘Exterminate’ and I screamed the place down,” admits Nathan Cooke, aged five in 1973. “I was inconsolable. I thought I was about to die.”

Older brother Nigel, then 13, is still laughing. “We didn’t get very far in!” he chortles. “Nathan ran out, down Corporation Road. My dad had paid for the tickets and there was no refund, so there were several attempts to get him back in there. But he wasn’t having it…”

For six-year-old Martin Shipley, now proprietor of the Who-Ray! science fiction gift shop in nearby Stockton-on-Tees, it was the giant maggot from The Green Death (1973) that proved more traumatic. “At the end of the corridor, this dripping, juicy maggot was staring at me,” he remembers. “I screamed and screamed, and I wouldn’t go past it. My godfather had to put his hands either side of my eyes and guide me back through the whole exhibition.”

Similarly troubled was 10-year-old Val Harrison. “The maggots had only just been on TV,” she recalls. “This one was life-sized, and it moved. I had my dad to protect me, but they should have put somebody on the Emergency Exit door, opening it for terrified children…”

Images of the Middlesbrough exhibition are scarce, although prolific amateur photographer John Hendy took four atmospheric shots, included on an excellent website (mydadsphotos.shendy.co.uk) curated by his son, Simon. Bob Richardson and Tony Loughlin also took a handful of snaps during their own repeated visits. Memories of the exhibition, however, remain vivid. For many, a visit to the Teesside TARDIS became a regular part of their weekend’s activities.

“Back then, kids were ejected from their houses on Saturday mornings!” laughs Steve Harrison, Val’s husband. “So we’d go to the ABC Minors cinema club, or Romer Parrish’s toyshop, and then – when the exhibition opened – it was only 10p for Daleks and the TARDIS. So it became assimilated into our routine. I easily went 10 times, and I enjoyed them all.”

Steve recalls further exhibits: an animatronic owl and a cobweb machine, both adding atmosphere to the Old Mill. A Teesside Evening Gazette report, dated 14 July 1973, also mentions a “laser gun used in Dr. Who and the Drashigs” and suggests the mill itself was inspired by a set created for 1972 BBC1 crime drama, The Man Outside. Oddly though, no-one recalls the “Tutankhamen’s Head” prop referenced by Mike Neville in that dramatic Look North bulletin. A programme, incidentally, that survives only as a home audio recording made by Bob Richardson.

(Listen to it here:)

Bob also kept a 1973 diary, which records him making 12 further visits to Middlesbrough that year. He recalls the popularity of the exhibition taking a toll on the displays themselves. “On my second visit, the black Dalek had been vandalised,” he says. “The eye stalk had gone, and – on subsequent visits – so had the sucker. People were wrenching off pieces of Dalek to take as souvenirs. Within the first month, it looked pretty ramshackle.”

One Middlesbrough youngster shamefully confesses to such petty larceny. “A little lamp from the TARDIS console just materialised in my pocket,” admits Neil Smith, a slightly wayward 14-year-old at the time. “In my defence, there were lots of holes where other lamps had once been! There were bits of that exhibition disappearing every week. It was just like the real TARDIS… every time you walked in, it looked bigger than it had been the week before – because more and more of it had exited through the door!”

More legitimate keepsakes were available from the Town Hall box office. Martin Shipley still has the “TARDIS Commander” badge he purchased, and Neil Smith bought a 7” single of the Doctor Who theme music, with Paddy Kingsland’s twangy B-side REG inspiring his enduring interest in electronic music. Fellow Middlesbrough youngster Stephen Roddam, however, almost missed out. “I wanted that, but it was out of my price range!” he laughs. “I got a Dalek postcard instead. There was a tiny kiosk with everything propped up on the counter. And eventually I got the single from a lad across the road. We agreed a swap for my copy of The Streak, by Ray Stevens. I think I got the better deal…”

The Teesside TARDIS dematerialised on 31 December 1973, and the Town Hall crypt returned to more traditional uses: within the month, it played host to a performance by whimsical prog-rockers Stackridge. But the exhibition clearly left a lasting impression on North-Eastern youngsters; not least Bob Richardson, who subsequently enjoyed a long career with the BBC. He worked largely as a graphic designer but also had a stint at BBC Enterprises, even assisting with the permanent Doctor Who displays in Blackpool and Longleat. It’s perhaps testament to the potency of the show that the legacy of the Time Lord’s visit to Teesside has proved so enduring.

Or, to quote Bob’s breathless diary entry for Thursday 5 July 1973: “I’ve seen the TARDIS and it is bloody fantastic”.

DOCTOR WHO AND THE PRISMUS GLOB

“The Prismus Glob was made of green blobs, with a tabard of leathery flaps,” remembers Giles Schumm. “He had a nose with blowholes, gripping hands like an Ice Warrior, and huge rolling balls for feet.”

Giles is describing his winning entry in the Design A Monster competition run in conjunction with the 1973 Middlesbrough exhibition. An 11-year-old Teesside schoolboy at the time, his prize was a tour of BBC TV Centre.  

“My dad, my sister and I went, and met up with two other winners. We were taken onto the set of Colditz, and I also remember looking down into a studio where Vera Lynn was recording!   

“And I vividly remember being on the set of The Monster of Peladon [1974]. Jon Pertwee and Lis Sladen were with us, and they were lovely. We all had dinner, and I sat next to Jon. I’d seen him tell a story on Joker’s Wild a little while before, but I’d missed the punchline. I said ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be asking you this at the BBC… but could you tell me the end of the joke you told on ITV?’”

TV historian David Brunt pinpoints 11 February 1974 as the most likely date for Giles’ tour – the only day on which The Monster Of Peladon, Colditz and Vera Lynn were all filming at TV Centre. And, although the original Prismus Glob picture has long since vanished into the Vortex, Giles – now living in Berlin – has gleefully recreated it, exclusively for Doctor Who Magazine.

1974 TV Centre, Prismus Gob and TARDIS Commander badge images courtesy of Giles Schumm. All 1973 Middlesbrough Exhibition photos, diary entries and Look North audio courtesy of Bob Richardson.

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