Frivolous Monsters

Before They Were Famous (1990 – 2011)

In 1990 I entered a competition in a magazine which I went on to win. It was a much simpler time back then as you can tell by the prizes which consisted of a CD and a couple of audio tapes. Truly a different age. The magazine duly published my name as one of the winners but, in what’s amiss from today’s security-minded era, they also printed my address: An action which led to me receiving a speculative letter through the post from a group of much-older men luring me a rendezvous at a city centre pub. I was only just fourteen.  Mitre 1

I didn’t end up getting murdered. The Manchester and Salford Local Group were a group of Doctor Who fans, later branching out to science fiction in general, who met in The Mitre Pub’s function room primarily to screen old episodes of the world’s longest running science fiction TV series, although most of them were there to drink and chat.

Try explaining to kids these days how special old TV used to be. A time before just about all of it was available to buy in WH Smith. A time before DVDs existed. A time before the internet worked and YouTube existed, where dodgy bootlegs on VHS tapes were shared and traded amongst fans. Back then I got to see TV from the sixties and seventies once a month on Sunday afternoons.

I think it’s fair to say they weren’t expecting me to be as young as I was, but they were happy enough to take my subs and welcome me into the fold. Hanging out in The Mitre also provided me with the coming-of-age experience of buying my first drink in a pub which was a nervous affair as I had to beat a path to the crowded bar where the stern landlord, arms crossed, head shaking, told me that I had no chance before I even had the opportunity to open my mouth and only ask for a Coke.

The guy who ran The Manchester and Salford Local Group was called Steve Lyons. Amongst everything else he was the one prepared to lug a video recorder and TV set into the city centre before going through the sometimes arduous process of connecting and retuning it. He also produced a programme/fanzine which I thought was hilarious although, later on in the day, I think my parents might’ve had a different opinion as they examined it, raised an eyebrow, and refrained from commenting upon the “content”. Steve Lyons, along with Chris Howarth, would later capitalise on this themed humour when they got published The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (1996) and a sequel The Completely Unofficial Encyclopaedia in 2006. Completely Steve Lyons Chris Howarth

Because, as alluded to above, this was before he was “famous” which is a bit odd to me as on many occasions, back in the day, he’d give me a lift home in his van as if he were a normal human bloke.

To give you some background Doctor Who, the world’s longest running science fiction series, was taken off TV in 1989. The baton was picked up in 1992 by Virgin Publishing who secured the rights from the BBC to produce original novels and, right from the start it seems, they were open to new writers. And a generation of fans stepped up to the plate.

In 1994 long after I’d drifted away from the MSLG Steve Lyons became one of these and by my reckoning one of the more exciting writers in the range. When I knew him he worked in a bank or a building society, but now look at him go.  Steve Lyons BooksSomeone else who I’m pretty sure must’ve also gone to the MSLG is a guy called Paul Cornell who seems to have spearheaded the vanguard of fans becoming writers. I say “I think” as, for one thing, in his Manchester-set novel Goth Opera it includes the passage:

On the bench by the cathedral, opposite the Mitre Inn, Russell sat. He was a student, went for Salford ‘cos of the night-life, and he’d found some.

This was before a vampire attack, right there on the bench outside The Mitre, which is all very odd when you know it’s a real place that you used to hang about in. Paul Cornell went on to write for the TV series when it returned and also one of the few good episodes of Primeval. The one with the mammoth loose on the motorway if you were wondering.  Paul Cornell Scarecrow Mammoth Goth OperaIn 1997, at the collapse of the Virgin books range, the final few novels became rare and very hard to get hold of. Although I seem to have hallucinated a wonderful bookshop in the centre of Birmingham where I managed to pick them up for practically nothing. I say “bookshop” but it was effectively a second-hand porn emporium (second-hand porn being the worst phrase in the English language, just pipping bus replacement service and physical theatre). I went in with my eyes closed, obviously.

I also found in there an original 1964 Doctor Who Annual for just five pounds! Having never seen one before then even as a poor student I couldn’t hand over my money quick enough. I’d barely got a couple of steps before I was called back, the mistake obviously realised, and the owner pointed to the sign above the counter which informed me that it was “Everything 10% Off Day” and he gave me back 50p change. An original 1964 Annual for just four pounds fifty!

To add more mysticism to the shop I returned there a few years later to find it was a trendy bar called The Slurping Toad, and was told that it always had been. Like Brigadoon the second-hand porn emporium had disappeared back into the Midland haze.

From 1992 until 1997 a total of sixty-one new Doctor Who novels were produced by Virgin Publishing at which point the BBC told them to knock it on the head. Thanks to the final push living in Birmingham in the nineties I managed to collect them all. And now, twenty years on, I’ve just finally finished reading them. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was worth all the effort.

Steve Lyons though, and this can’t be said for all the Virgin writers, has since gone from strength to strength. Sadly he’s not made it to TV yet, but he’s now a mainstay in the science fiction world with the number of novels and audio dramas he’s written and contributed to.   Steve Lyons CDsThe MSLG came to an end (as far as I’m aware) in 1996 when the IRA bombed The Mitre by parking a 3,300 pound bomb outside of it. I know I’ve already alluded on another blog post to the destruction the bomb caused by being parked outside the site where I eventually met Jon Pertwee, but that was WH Smith on the other side of the van, it’s not a catch-all excuse for everything in Manchester.

The Cathedral next to The Mitre after the bomb.

The Cathedral next to The Mitre after the bomb.

Checking up on details now I see that The Mitre escaped with minor damage as those buildings around it shielded it from the impact of the blast and were demolished as a result. I do think I took a lot from having known fanzine-producing writer-becoming Steve Lyons as famous people are normally on a pedestal, not people you see in real life. And knowing that normal people can go on and become successful writers surely must have had helping hand, somewhere along the way, in my own decision to quit my job and become a failing writer.

A conclusion to this tale, in 2011, is that after a violin concert in Bolton I went out drinking with “the talent” in Manchester, in something of an after-show party, and my ears picked up when it was suggested that we should move on and go to The Waterhouse pub. I was keen as I’d never been and also remembered, in The Completely Unofficial Encyclopaedia, Steve Lyons proclaim on the subject of a charity eBay auction to win a night out with two other writers, Paul Cornell being one of them: They’re smashing blokes and everything, but we’re not sure it’s worth the two and a half thousand dollar winning bid”, before adding: “Come into the Waterhouse and you can have an evening with us for the price of a few pints.The Waterhouse ManchesterAnd what did we do? We walked through the door and there he was right in front of me, as he returned to his table with a round of drinks for other probable luminaries who I just couldn’t identify. So I’m thinking that either he’s in there all the time, fulfilling a bold claim he made in print in 2006, or he was just in for the very reasonable-looking Thursday curry-night offer.

I didn’t speak to him, but then if I were to remind him I knew him twenty years ago, before he was famous, and that when I was a child he enticed me to a rendezvous in a city centre pub… Well, it does sound a little bit too much like an accusation of the olden day version of internet grooming, doesn’t it.


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28 thoughts on “Before They Were Famous (1990 – 2011)

  1. i, Coomber on said:

    I’m sure I recognised the name, and after a quick look on some wikis only just realised that The Completely Useless Star Trek Encyclopedia came from the same mind as the Doctor Who audio Colditz.

    My shelves are weirder than I though.

    • I didn’t think that anyone reading this would actually know who he was, and I wrote the article accordingly, and it just goes to show that first up and somebody else has stuff by him. That man obviously gets about.

  2. My question is after the disappearing store did the original 1964 Doctor Who Annual disappear too? Was it a figment of the imagination?

    • No, I still have it. I was going to scan it, but thought it a bit boring and not adding much to the tale.

      Just checking now I can see that there’s one for sale on eBay (they say it’s 1965 and so presume they’re right, it is the first annual though) and it’s for sale for £12.29. I’m not going to retire off this am I? On the other hand the 1966 annual (which I think they were also selling for £10 and I didn’t buy) is going now on eBay bidded up to £45!

      A tale I did cut from this is my purchase of a rarer Patrick Troughton 1970 annual for £25. My parents were shocked at the price, I thought it was worth fifty. I only bought it (eventually) because of the rarity. That’s now selling for £35/£66/£230 on three eBay auctions. Only the lower-priced one has bidders on it though. The bottom has fallen out of the market.

  3. Reblogged this on msamba.

  4. After googleling my way passed Steve Lyons the racially insensitive ex-baseball player turned ex-sportscaster, Steve Lyons the Weather Channel meteorologist, Steve Lyons the wedding photographer, and – according to LinkedIn – 25 other professionals named Steve Lyons, I came across Steve Lyons the British Writer. Cool! Maybe you should have spoke with him….

    • I feel that someone who knew a “racially insensitive ex-baseball player turned ex-sportscaster” has a very different story to tell! Definitely not him. Maybe I should have said hello, but I was with other music people, and what would I have said? I imagine I’ve changed a bit from 14 to thirty-something… possibly… so it might’ve taken some explaining. I couldn’t even explain the above in under a thousand words!

  5. I was on a photoshoot in Miami once and one of the boy Child models asked me if we still had Blue Police Boxes in England. I looked at him and said”…you a fan of the good Doctor…?” Yes he was. I told him I had abig colour book a history of Dr Who. I said I would send it to him. he didn’t believ me. But did. I got it in a car boot sale somewhere. It was signed by Patrick Trougthon. This was just before ebay and th resurgence of the Dr Cult. I wish he’d send it back.

    He sent me a very cute thank you note. I considered putting that on ebay but didn’t bother.

    • You know they do still have a few police boxes here and there, although I’ve never seen one. Earls Count station according to Wikipedia, the one in Scarborough has its own guttering and drain pipe, and I think there’s a lot in Scotland although some appear to be red. Interestingly there was a court battle a few years ago over the copyright of the design and the police lost to the BBC!

      You are definitely a kind person and even though I don’t know what the book was to have it signed by Patrick Troughton… Wow. If it makes you feel any better, looking on eBay, there’s a couple of his autographs on sale for £5, which looks dubious to my eye though. The best accidental autograph I’ve received is a graphic novel I bought cheaply (£2.25) and found it was signed by the writer Neil Gaiman.

    • I’m glad I looked that up now as they made reference to the Earls Court Police Box in the programme on Saturday. I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. Even if I did spell it Earls Count.

  6. This could be a television drama; sweet and funny. Write it!

  7. sarahinguangzhou on said:

    I sold my old Dr Who annual on e-bay a while back; I was always very girly and not much interested and it had sat gathering dust for 40 odd years. It went for 1.20. I was pissed that I’d been too mean to pay for a reserve price and then it went so cheap.

    • You know the vast majority of them are pretty worthless and it was only really some of the late sixties/early seventies ones that were sought after. As I’ve mentioned above somewhere I think the bottom has fallen out of the old-Who market since nu-Who took over. So don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve not got my head around eBay selling, still, but I’m surprised you found a buyer at all!

  8. Paul Cornell!He wrote my favourite Nu Who, Human Nature. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but my Who connections are these:

    Being a southerner, it meant that I remember a school fete opened by Jon Pertwee and ‘Jo’ (it wasn’t Katy Manning it was a stand in – I might have been 5 but you couldn’t get that one past me) riding in Bessie, which I managed to sit in after making a lot of noise.

    Tom baker came to sign Target books at our local John Menzies about a year or two later. In full costume. You could tell he was loving it and hating it at the same time. I saluted him after I got my autograph. Not sure why – childish enthusiasm?

    Around this time Walls Ice Cream bought out a lolly called Dalek Death Ray, and one of our neighbours won a real movie Dalek prop (same as the TV version but with Mickey Mouse ears and sitting on a bumper car) and our suburban idyll was transformed into an eerie, surreal scene from the greatest science fiction show ever. I was in infant school, and I would run into their garage and play-fight with the towering fibreglass dummy. Then my parents would be called and once again I’d be led home. Once, I was allowed to sit inside the Dalek after making a lot of noise, and left there. For a long time.

    Bizarrely, in secondary school, I got placed next to a new boy who bragged that his father had directed both the Doctor Who movies (from whence the Dalek prop had come), so I tested him and the name was correct. I made sure we became best of friends and before long I was dining with Gordon Flemyng and his family on a regular basis.

    Poor Mr Flemyng didn’t share my irritating enthusiasm for his work, and he passed away before he got to see the classic status his movies have recently acquired.

    I once had a gin and tonic with Russell T Davies, who let slip that Rose was leaving and we raved together about the wonders of Billie Piper. Oh and Phil Collinson was outside my new flat in Chorlton the other night. I didn’t know he cared!

    Here endeth my dropped names.

    • Great stuff, you’ve certainly not told me that before. You sure do make a lot of noise. Well I can tell you that of the 61 novels referred to above the episodes ‘Human Nature’ and ‘The Family of Blood’ were adapted from one of these which was Cornell’s own novel ‘Human Nature’. It was very different in the end, but the central idea was what it was all about. So I’m not saying they were all duffers, by a long shot, but some of them were very turgid.

      I like the idea of trying to pull the wool over kids eyes with a fake Jo Grant! And I have had the honour of getting Tom baker’s autograph in a very long queue where I’m pretty sure he insisted on doing all comers. I agree with what you say about how he seemed to have mixed emotions. He’s a trooper.

      I think the closest I came to Daleks as a child were at the Blackpool exhibition (still not found the photos from that) or the Illuminations. I recently discovered a photo of me and my brothers at some sort of Liverpool garden festival (1984) where we’re stood in front of a Dalek battle field with the TARDIS in the middle! I was impressed as I have no memory of it.

      And I would like to meet Russell T Davies and my first question would be did he attend the Manchester and Salford Local Group? As at the time he was a fan and in Manchester, so I’ve often wondered.

      And I managed to get into a talk last year with Phil Collinson about the TV industry and was sat a metre away from him on the front row… I think he got a bit miffed how I was (naturally) overhearing his private conversations before he started. Very informative though (the lecture, not the conversations).

  9. Haha, I’m old enough to remember watching the birth of Dr Who (William Hartnell) on a black-and-white TV screen, as a kid, late one Saturday afternoon in the ’60s ;). Great blog, by the way…I’ll be back sometime…

    • Well you may be interested to know that as party of the “golden anniversary” the BBC have made a 90 minute docu-drama about the origins of Doctor Who which covers (as far as I’m aware) the first three years 1963-1966 and they’re recreated a lot of the key scenes which includes the opening junk yards in Totters lane as well as the Daleks crossing Westminster bridge. David Bradley out of the Harry Potter films is playing the late William Hartnell. It should be out in November, I guess.

  10. Hey! Where are you ? Have you painted the windows white and are hiding under the bed again? I’m missing your posts, come on FM, even if you don’t feel like it, just start writing. You know what Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’m actually going backwards and have actually had another Spring clean and deleted some more. I started feeling the heat when someone looked me up as “Manchester writer blog Costa local characters”. I do have several posts on the go which include “The Poster of My Life”, “Money” (although I fear that one might be a little crazy), one – possibly indescribable – about Pigeons, and one about my Mum taking on the world… if I dare.

      Saying all that I once made a list on here of posts I was working on and they never all got to see the light of day, so you never know. I deprived the world of the promised “Kate Middleton’s Breasts” as the provocative title, playing with what was in the news, really wasn’t worth my effort for what would have been a simple punch line after a whole load of set up.

      We will wait and see.

  11. Giles Kendrick on said:

    I was also an MSCT regular and produced the monthly newsletter for us all at The Mitre (after scouring Compuserve for new material each month, back when the internet was still clockwork). Happy times. Such a shame that they bombed the place. Manchester doesn’t seem to want to know you these days unless you have a thing for pricey fashion labels 😦

    • Hello, I went to two of the Manopticon conventions (the first shortly after I started attending The Mitre, and the last for which I came back from university especially I think) and see you got a mention in the brochure for the latter. I don’t know then if I attended the MSLG earlier than you. Despite what I said above I wasn’t there until the end, never left, but drifted away when it changed over to a Cult TV society. I see you did call it the MSCT! I don’t know how it “ended” but always assumed that the IRA bomb did for them if it lasted until then.

      If you were responsible for the monthly booklet (I forget what it was called, and very sadly no longer have them, was it Castrovalva?) back then I apologise for stealing your thunder, but it was always Steve Lyons I saw as the front man and it was him always appealing for contributions. As I remember it, it was more humorous writing than news. How you found Doctor Who news back then in the nineties, off the internet back then, I do not know!

      Can you confirm then: Did Paul Cornell attend? I also wonder why Russell T. Davies didn’t – perhaps he did, I don’t know – as he was in Manchester at the time.

      Manchester has definitely changed. The Corn Exchange next door is certainly testament to this as it used to be an emporium of the occult, dangerous weapons, and old Sci Fi toys, but it’s now The Triangle (?) with fancy shops and a floating coffee shop.

      My other related MSLG story on here is the life-changing experience I received during Manopticon 1. Took twenty years to resolve that, it did.


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