This is a very Blake-centric account, and therefore it leaves out much of what was on offer at this excellent convention. What is worse, it then rabbits on for pages and pages about three women's valiant efforts to get home again before the USA gets a new president. If you don't want to read this inspiring and largely true account of our courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, stop after page 10.
Travelling from the North East to the South West on Virgin trains is inadvisable at the best of times. Travelling in the wake of the Hatfield crash seemed downright foolhardy but it's too far to drive comfortably, and who wants to spend an entire day on a National Express coach? My sainted husband gave me a lift to Darlington station in case the earlier connecting Northern Spirit train from Middlesbrough failed to show up. We got there at 9.00am and the Torquay train was due in at 9.10. It eventually turned up around 10.30, so nothing unusual there.
My friend and room-mate Janet joined it at Birmingham, carrying a hefty travel bag, our traditional emergency rations of cream crackers, cheese and fruit, a big bag of tomatoes, and a large chocolate muffin for me in case I hadn't had any lunch. Ms. Hordley is a kind and thoughtful human being. Unbelievably, we had forgotten to bring any wine but we were able to remedy this during a wait for a connecting train in Newton Abbot. ( If anyone else is ever in a similar predicament, please note there is an off-licence a quarter of a mile into the town, but you may need to sprint. Unlike Pressure Point, there will be no explosions)
Newton Abbot is only a short distance from Torquay. We were mildly surprised to discover that the railway line ran along the coast for the last few miles; the waves crashing down only yards from the track looked very dramatic. Maybe on the way back on Monday we could have a camera ready. By the time we got to the venue, Barton Hall Holiday Village on the outskirts of the town, dinner was about to be served. All meals were included in the convention fee which meant they were only available at the set times so we hastily dumped our bags and joined the queue.
The menu looked surprisingly ambitious, three courses with three choices each, but alas! There were nowhere near enough servers to cover the tables. The young man looking after our table, nervous but poised for action, was doing his utmost to be in several places at once. The tomato soup was red and liquid but the chef had forgotten to add the tomatoes, the roast potatoes tasted as if they had been left over from Christmas 1999 and re-heated at least twice... Nevertheless, I personally don't go to conventions for the high standard of catering, and I get bored with the diet of burgers and chilli that are the usual staple foods at conventions, so I wasn't all that bothered. We had our cheese and biscuits and I hadn't eaten my muffin yet.
Our convention name badges came as a surprise. According to mine I had undergone a sex change without noticing. My membership form had evidently dropped into a black hole so I had been given a badge saying "Mr Blenkarn" - I really must start signing myself Christine. Janet's read "Friend of Mr Blenkarn," which is rather more accurate as she is after all a friend of him indoors.
We collected our keys from reception and set off into the night clutching a misleading map and assorted bags. I have one of those half size ones on wheels that wobble from side to side when hauled over rough ground, or indeed any ground. I think of it as R2D2. Given that I am tall and tend to witter over trifles, I suppose that makes me C3PO. Janet's bag was weighted down more than usual with our costumes for the Adam Adamant disco and her hair curlers. She has a strong emotional attachment to these and is liable to become stressed if parted from them.
Barton Hall comprises the handsome original building we had just left, a modern block down a leaf-strewn slope which was the main indoor leisure area, and several blocks of chalets. I had requested a room in a quiet area so naturally we found ourselves, after an unplanned scenic detour around the chalets, in a room directly above the ballroom where the discos were to take place. Oh well, we'd probably be up for most of them, not to worry.
A nice warm bath, a glass of Newton Abbot Blanc and a trawl through the promising programme seemed a more enticing option after hours of travelling than the Welcome and Review of the Year, not that we wouldn't have attended if we hadn't been so late. We had of course missed the first few hours and the first timers session but there looked to be plenty of good stuff to come. The programme seemed dominated by people whose names I recognised, which meant they must be largely from series of yesteryear. Hurrah for Danger Man. Hurrah for The Avengers, the Saint, and the Goodies, but save us please from the horrors of Jason King. The only disappointment was that Stephen Greif's talk was scheduled for Monday morning, just as Janet would be leaving to catch her train home to Shrewsbury.
Below us the disco had got under way, but the volume was quite low even with the window open. Excellent. Around nine we set off to locate the main bar. We passed a trolley laden with bed linen and dirty plates - evidently Barton Hall was short of cleaners as well as servers - and continued through the largely deserted disco and into the windy night. The main bar was down a slippery slope in the nearby Harlequin building, and opened into the main sound stage where the guest talks were being held. It was named the Winchester Club but there was no Arthur Daley trying to unload a job lot of remaindered Captain Kirk figurines or whatever.
Alexis Kanner was being interviewed but we met up with various B7 persons in the bar so only caught a few minutes of his talk. Earlier I'd thought about going to listen because my sister had had a huge crush on Mr Kanner when she was twelve. It would have been fun to tell her how he had developed in the intervening thirty or so years, but then I forgot.
Contrary to our usual custom, we decided to skip that night's disco - theme 1989 - and get to bed by 1am. With two other discos to come we needed to build up our stamina, and anyway we couldn't remember what we were wearing in 1989. Walking back through the now crowded disco we noticed the volume had been turned up. Back in the room we shut the window, but Manfred Mann still pounded through the floor. It did at least give me hope that I might be able to dance to something I liked the following night.
Status Quo cut in as we finished reading and put the light out. The disco still had two hours to run. Perhaps we should have stayed up and gone to watch Mr White goes to Westminster. I haven't a clue what this is, but it stars Bill Paterson so it would do. The original series Star Trek bloopers followed but I don't think I could stomach James T. Kirk at 3.00am. Isn't that one of the favourite hours for suicide?
The first guest talk of the day was Mark Eden, whom you may know as an inhabitant of Coronation Street but to me he will always be Marco Polo in an early Doctor Who episode. Somewhere in the attic there may still be the autographed photo he sent me way back when I was 13-ish and deeply in love with him for a week or two. I'd intended going to listen, but we were late having breakfast and found ourselves instead in the Dealers Room, as you do.
It was a dark, cavernous room under the Soundstage, but full of delectable things to buy, quite apart from the B7 stuff. I was delighted to see a copy of the Bonanza board game I had asked Santa Claus for but never received when I was young and gullible. There they all were, Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe, seated around the table playing Happy Families and not a drop of hard liquor or a hand gun in sight. Hurrah for the wild west.
While my back was turned, Janet was overdosing on zines. I had a slight cash flow problem so I had persuaded myself to wait until after Christmas, and after I had sold my current zine stockpile, before indulging. I contented myself with a single fridge magnet (Fawlty Towers, seeing that we were in Torquay). I had sworn not to buy any more photos but there was this one of Vila, you see, looking wide-eyed and soulful and resistance, as we know, is useless. Janet also bought a large picture of Liberator which was going to be the devil to pack flat in a soft bag, but Love will find a Way.
We could now have gone to find the as yet unlocated video room and watch Lost in Space - the Great Vegetable Rebellion (????) but Mr Thomas was due to give a talk so we made our way to the Soundstage. If we'd gone to the introductory session we might have found out what those kangaroos were doing on the stage, but to begin with all eyes were on the screen where examples of Gareth's early oeuvre flashed before our eyes. The revulsion shown by the youthful Gareth on seeing the nasty he uncovered in Quatermass, was as nothing beside his on stage response to Star Maidens. (The following night a couple of episodes were shown but somehow we missed them.)
The interview ranged over familiar themes, and was no less enjoyable for that. Frank Maher, who did some stunt work on Blake's 7 as well as acting as Patrick McGoohan's stunt double in The Prisoner, had given the previous talk and was in the audience to give support and encouragement. Assorted explosions, Vere Lorrimer's penchant for hurling himself around sets, the exploding loo, Kismet Birkby, his appearance as Blake at Wolf 359, having Patrick Stewart turn up while he was splaying in the West End - Picard and Blake together. More seriously, his feelings on finishing Morgan's Boy.
Back to base to attack the cheese and biscuits. Outside the staff were busy sweeping up the sodden leaves, it was not pleasant weather. Walking along the corridor to our room, water was dripping slowly from ceiling. The abandoned trolley was still abandoned by the lift, so we took the opportunity in passing to remove a couple of pillows for extra comfort.
We were missing a talk by the delightful Graydon Gould, who had managed the unusual combination of being the voice of Mike Mercury and acting in Emmerdale Farm, but hunger is hunger and we wanted to be back for Bill Oddie's talk at 2pm. In the event his train was late and we spent the intervening hour wandering back and to from the bar and the Dealers Room, which was becoming noticeably chilly, especially for the dealers imprisoned there. The Redemption contingent used a lull in sales to rehearse their Prisoner cabaret sketch, probably in an attempt to keep warm. Steve was being threatened by a large ball, no, a space hopper. Where had it come from? Should we be worried? After all, we had all been given numbers and this was a village.......
A little gem of a promotional film was showing in the Rainbow room. Roger Moore and Tony Curtis sat at a café table and told viewers in various languages what a good programme The Persuaders was. At least, Roger Moore told them. Mr Curtis was game, but fell short of perfection in the Dutch and French versions, besides being prone to giggling.
Bill Oddie bounced in and was wonderful. He inadvertently managed a role reversal when his mobile phone went off, interrupting a question. The film clips were gems from the Goodies and included the Ecky Thump sketch, bless its heart. I can't remember what he talked about but it was huge fun. Let's all do the Funky Gibbon, yeh! What a shame he was never in B7. He could have been an unusually large Decima, or played piano at Krantor's place, or been relief jester for the Goths.
There were Brussels sprouts for dinner, my favourite but nobody else's so I I got to eat most of them. The chicken was excellent but the soup lived down to the previous evening's offering;it might have been mushroom but not as we know it. After dinner we thought about going to see Rough Magik but sloth intervened, so the next event for us was the Awards Ceremony. We had bought our memberships too late to vote, but our thoughts were with Travis in his bid to be Best Villain, given that Nogbad the Bad wasn't listed. Speaking of quality villains, does anyone else remember The Voice, Garry Halliday's arch enemy? No? I didn't think you would.
I didn't know a lot of the shortlisted characters/programmes as I am an unregenerate one-show fan, but the clips were well-chosen and it was great fun to watch. WI didn't quite understand why Mulder and Scully kissing each other was nominated for the Golden Moment 200 award? And I feel sure Brian the Spider of Kairos could have walked Worst Special effect had he been nominated.
Time to get dressed for the disco. The theme was Casinos/'Tecs, Spies and Private Eyes. I had spent the previous weekend unsuccessfully trawling charity shops for something suitably over the top but not too ludicrous - I like a laugh but I have my pride.I think they were holding back all the black frocks for the pre-Christmas rush. Instead I wore a sparkly silver top and black skirt that would be acceptable at a staff Christmas dinner, which isn't quite in the spirit of things. It was saved from total normality by the addition of an appropriate pair of lucky dice earrings, which Lorna B., with uncanny prescience, had just sent to me all the way from Mississippi.
Janet, on the other hand was resplendent in a full length gown in dull gold. We had a bit of a problem at first deciding which way the straps were supposed to cross; it's hard work being glamorous. It also hurts when you mistake nail varnish for sparkly face stuff and start spraying it onto your cheeks, but at least you won't look pale. Downstairs in the ballroom the casino tables were doing a roaring trade. We didn't know the rules but as we couldn't get near a table that didn't really matter.
From time to time the disco actually included some records I knew, which is a pleasant change, though I waited in vain for last night's Status Quo. I've been a Quo fan since 1964 but have only recently come out. On the sad B7-related trivia front, I am pretty sure the English Shakespeare Company's 1980's production of Henry 1V, the cast of which included Gareth as Fluellen, used Quo's "You're in the army now" as Pistol and co. went off to war. Not many people know that, even fewer care. Probably.
Back to the dance floor. Why turgid stuff like "I will survive" is so popular completely escapes me, but admittedly I fell into the generation gap a long time ago. I quite like "Feel like a woman" but it needs further verses on the subject - PMT, morning sickness, pelvic floor exercises....... Still, the wine wasn't too expensive.
Janet's camera had died, which is another convention tradition, and she needed a new battery. Would we have to go right into Torquay to buy one, or squelch across the golf course to Sainsbury's? The receptionist suggested we go to the site shop. What site shop? We hadn't noticed anything shop-like, but lo!, behind the room with the arcade game next to the bar there was a indeed a shop. It sold newspapers, though the only ones left were tabloids full of drivel about Ryan Giggs and a lap dancer, and hidden behind the counter, batteries. The saleswoman said we were a quieter crowd than the netballers they'd had the previous week. On Monday afternoon they were expecting a religious group whose organisers had ordained that none of the bars were to be open. Either they'd be quieter than us or there'd be a riot on Monday night.
The sun was shining and we went for stroll. Torquay looked attractive in the distance, glistening white roofs and a shining sea. Bumping into other fans, it seemed we had got off quite lightly on the bedroom front. Other people had leaking roofs or a load of dead flies to keep them company, ugh. We went back to trawl the dealers' room. The Bonanza game was still there and I briefly thought of getting it for my sister, seeing that I had missed Alexis Kanner. Until I saw the price, that is. Back in the olden days she was in love with Hoss, at least that's how I remember it. As the older sister I had already allocated Little Joe to myself.
Who else remembers Little Joe? If you are old enough to remember the Prisoner you probably do. If not, you'll have to go back before Ilya Kuryakin. Little Joe often got the girl but he could never quite keep hold of her. When his ladies weren't dying from consumption they were already Betrothed to Another, or turned out to be his previously unknown sister or got themselves shot dead, though I don't think any were ever abducted by aliens. Avon was more straightforward - man meets woman, man loses woman, man gets woman back, man shoots woman.
With noon approaching the Winchester bar was still shut, and the room piled with glasses from the previous night. Perhaps some Terry McCann clone had told them to Leave it out! so they had. A workshop was on with the intriguing title "Sooty ungloved" but it was time for a coffee, then more cheese and crackers before David Croft's talk. Janet thought I should abandon my muffin because it was two days old but being a peasant I refused.
We both phoned home. Nobody was home in Middlesbrough but Janet got totally unexpected news from Shrewsbury. The Severn was rising fast and it looked as if Shrewsbury Marine, the boatyard and chandlers shop she runs with other family members, was likely to be flooded later that night. They have been flooded several times in recent years which doesn't make the experience any less stressful. There was absolutely nothing Janet could do to help but that doesn't stop you worrying.
Consequently we missed most of Mr Croft but went to see Hattie Hayridge who began by recalling several Christmases spent at Butlins with her widowed mother - I wonder if they had smoked haddock? She left secretarial work to study political science at university, where she specialised in the politics of the Soviet Union and graduated just as it fell apart. So back to secretarial work, until fuelled by four double vodkas she did an impromptu stand-up routine in a comedy club on what a terrible life secretaries have, and a dysfunctional computer was born.
At this point I noticed a dolphin resting along the back of the sofa. Had it been there all along? What did it mean? Was it a close personal friend of the kangaroos? We should have gone to the first timers session. Ms Hayridge also told us about being hassled on stage in Millwall, where the local tough guys took her side and duffed up the offending heckler, and of course about her role as Holly. Norman Lovett was a great Holly, but my favourite Red Dwarf scene is still when Hayridge says during a red alert, "This is not a daffodil! This is not a daffodil."
Has anyone written an Orac/Holly story?
Rumour had it that Stephen Greif was to be signing autographs shortly, and that Jacqueline Pearce was likely to join him and Gareth. We went down to the Dealers room to buy something for them to sign, but all the photos had gone over to the signing session in the Rainbow room, where we now followed them. We took our place in the autograph queue but got temporally side-tracked because the B7 Blooper tape was running, and you just never really get tired of it, do you? Mr Greif had a bad cold and was therefore sporting a fetching red scarf. He still managed to look spectacularly like his younger self; is it diet, luck, or has he got a picture hidden in his attic? The stunning Ms Pearce was next with Gareth on her far side.
Having completed the set we withdrew upstairs and attacked the remaining bottle of wine. I thought briefly of going to see an episode of MacGyver, only because it is the favourite programme of Homer Simpson's sisters-in-law and I was curious to see how awful it was, but the weather was getting worse all the time so we stayed put and watched some rugby on the tv instead until dinner. Was the sauce in the mushroom veggie option made from last night's left over soup?
The meal was quickly followed by Famous for three minutes, the fans' turn to have a go. Blake s7 was to the fore as the first offering gave Zen an ear bashing. The second was the Prisoner sketch performed by the Redemption contingent. ( It was, as we were to find out the following morning, strangely apt).
"You will not leave Barton Hall," snarls number two (aka Judith in a braided jacket) . "But I am a free fan!!!!!" protests the Prisoner (Steve in a braided jacket and a terrible line in puns). But there is no escape tonight. He is surrounded by six people who bludgeon him into submission with their terrifying bright yellow space hopper (aka the Prisoner's big ball - no offence).
Steve (Photo by Anne Wells)
It was a dark and stormy night, as the fan saying goes. The wind and the rain were really getting going as we ran back for the Adam Adamant disco. Anyone who'd opted to go as John Steed would do well to keep his umbrella furled. To quote Bette Davis in All about Eve, "fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night." Inside the ballroom quite a few people were about but none in Victorian costume. We made a mutual decision to hang about until someone braver than us took the plunge. Some time later a lady entered dressed in a magnificent black evening dress, so we went upstairs to get changed. In the corridor the drips from the ceiling were larger and more frequent. "Raindrops are falling on my head" or as Orac might put it, "Precipitation is affecting my cerebral regions."
Chris, Anne Wells and Janet
We had our photos taken, which was rather alarming, but the blackmail note hasn't arrived yet. Sadly we missed the opportunity to pose with the interesting alien over on the dance floor. You don't get many pictures of the Borg dancing with Eliza Doolittle. We didn't, or rather couldn't, do much dancing, our costumes not lending themselves to movement. Anyway I don't know the movements to Bohemian Rhapsody et al, and we'd have looked daft bopping sedately to songs about sex machines. Instead we sat and conversed like ladies and got other people to go to the bar for us until it was time to retire.
Switching on the TV we were engulfed by a wave of reports about storm damage and flooding. Our first thought was obviously to check the transport situation. Unsurprisingly there were no trains whatsoever running in the south west, and furthermore the motorways were flooded, many minor roads impassable with floods and fallen trees. Houses had been badly damaged, and the police were issuing the usual warnings not to travel unless it's essential. It was job for the teleport, or failing that (and it often did fail), International Rescue. What we needed was that little amphibious pod thing that Virgil Tracy used to carry in Thunderbird 2. But alas, Thunderbirds are gone!
We watched the same images for over an hour - saturation coverage - people saying Something must be done, swimming dogs, local MPs being forceful and dynamic in hastily borrowed wellies. The waters were still rising in Shrewsbury. We didn't need to phone to find that out, we could see it on the screen. I thought better of making a feeble joke about Blakes 7 - Up, SevernUp. The flood tidings were occasionally interspersed with the really serious news - Plymouth Town had a new football manager, and racing at Exeter might have to be called off - so we thought we might as well get some breakfast. The corridor was strewn with buckets, and in the ballroom large lumps of ceiling and more buckets were scattered across the floor. Outside the grounds were similarly littered was littered with debris and dazed attendees wondering how they were going to get home. I half expected to see Arthur Dent wandering around in his dressing gown. Ironically it was now a beautifully sunny morning.
In the face of adversity we reverted to the full breakfast; it looked as if it might be a long day. Janet got an update from Shrewsbury, where the water was set to rise to the roof. The highest it had ever come before was the ceiling. Then we walked over to hear Stephen Grief's talk which she would have missed if things had gone to plan - it's an ill wind etc.. I wondered whether we could prevail upon him to recite a few lines of Shakespeare appropriate to the occasion, something about being Taken at the Flood, perhaps.....
Stephen was still wearing his red scarf, but huskiness only made his voice all the more attractive. (For shame, woman, remember you're a Vila fan). Why don't we mortals sound like that when we have sore throats? The introductory film clips of Stephen bore much witness to his years of telly villainy, either as a east European terrorist, loveable crook or Space Commander Travis (the real one).
When asked why he first chose acting, he described how his mother had early fired his imagination by relating bedtime stories in different accents. Though he couldn't - not surprisingly - remember much about long ago appearances in Danger Man and other 60s series, he did tell us about his episode of The Persuaders where guest star Terry-Thomas had Tony Curtis, a youthful favourite of Stephen's, utterly perplexed. He also spoke about filming in the south of France, his preferred film location; well it would be, wouldn't it?
Stephen had read for the role of Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra but was considered too young and the role went to Tom Baker. Tom then left the National Theatre and Stephen joined it and got his role - don't you just love a happy ending?
Travis? Stephen described again how Paul had told him about this great role - an inter galactic Jack Palance complete with leather gear and eyepatch. How could he resist? In fact, he decided after series one that there was nowhere for Travis to run, sorry, develop, so he took up his other option of doing a further series of Citizen Smith. He thought that the BBC would have been wiser to create a new villain for the second series rather than completely re-invent the character of Travis. Brian Croucher, he thought, had been unnecessarily hampered and would have been better served had he been given a completely new character to play. This opinion was echoed by Jacqueline Pearce who now joined him on the stage.
She told some anecdotes about filming at home and abroad, in particular her episode of the Two Doctors with Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker, which seemed to involve a lot of relaxing by the pool. She also described her latest work in the theatre, and her recent experiences of working with seriously ill people which had led her to consider hospice work as a new career. One of the film clips shown was her famous kiss with Avon in episode ermm, I forget - you should know by now I am not an Avon fan. I had never noticed before the inference that can be drawn from his line as he clutches her passionately to his manly bosom " I'm ready to come up now." Jacqueline said, "He did, too" and she was close enough to know. She must be exhilarating to work with if you can stand the pace.
Following an inconclusive discussion on what the actors would say if they came face to face with their B7 counterparts - in Sainsbury's perhaps, suggested Jacqueline, though I'd have thought Harrods more in Servalan's line - we had to re-gather in the Rainbow room where Gareth presented Stephen with his well-deserved award for Best Villain.
After that Janet and I went back to our room for a coffee and hopefully a transport update. The television showed the same pictures as before as the BBC had been unable to find any silver-haired old ladies urgently needing rescue and John Prescott had yet to turn up in one of his Jaguars and give a statement.(late that week the DETR issued a press release saying the flood issue needed to be studied in depth). There were not going to be any trains north today evidently. What should we do?
(Some geographical information for the benefit of non-English people. My home near Darlington is in the north east, so I had to travel from the bottom left hand corner of England to the top right corner. Janet had to go the same way as I until we reached Birmingham which is roughly half way between, then Shrewsbury is up a bit and slightly to the left, but stop well before you reach north Wales.)
Although it would be a very long way round we thought about making a run for it to London, if we could get a lift, for as far as we could discover trains were running on the Midlands and East Coast lines. However we decided against it. Given Railtrack's existing problems, and the fact that the dreadful weather was moving east, we'd be quite likely to get stranded there, which would be even more expensive. There was Nowhere to Run, folks. Now if Janet had brought her jet skis we could have shot off round the coast just as long as she didn't mind my clinging to her all the way in sheer blind terror.
Lots of attendees were milling around trying to arrange their escape. Rumours about travel conditions were rife. Someone had heard on the grapevine (or if you're Orac, had been made cognisant of the situation by a vitis vinifera) that the motorway to London was closed, another said the opposite. I wondered if there was a Dad's Army contingent around to shriek Don't Panic, or We're Doomed, Doomed. The organisers were making a list of people needing lifts and people willing to give them, and had arranged with Barton Hall for anyone who needed accommodation to stay a further night. The cost was a mere £15.00 but as WC Fields said, on the whole I'd rather be in Philadelphia, or at any rate, central Torquay.
It was paddle your own canoe time. An extra day's stay seemed the sensible choice. Some trains at least would be running again tomorrow, wouldn't they? We had surely seen the worst of it now? A pity we were having to pay for another night's accommodation; until recently I had had friends living in Newton Abbot but with a sad lack of foresight they had moved away to Rutland. We packed our bags. Mysteriously, although we could only remember buying three zines, a fridge magnet, and a picture of Liberator, we couldn't get everything in. We ended up with an additional three carrier bags. One held the costumes and was easy to identify because the red feather kept trying to take flight, the second held the Liberator picture lest it got creased, and the third held our remaining food stockpile, including the muffin which I was saving for a rainy day.
We caught the shuttle bus down to Torquay in company with Anne Wells, who also lives in the North East and like me had travelled by train. The bus driver dropped the three of us at the National Express bus station so we could checking the timetable. The only north bound one that afternoon was already fully booked. Across the road was a bike shop with a huge sign - "Do you need wheels?"
We got a taxi to the tourist information bureau. It was now well past noon so we stopped to eat at the café opposite, which was terrific value, should you be in Torquay. The sauce sachets were in French and English, there's posh. Its' not Brown Sauce but Sauce Piquante. I told the woman in the tourist office that we were on foot and carrying heavy bags, and would prefer a cheap bed and breakfast close by, to save on taxi fares. She suggested a cheap but good guest house and assured us it was merely a short walk away. To reach it we could either go up the hill and turn left, then left again, or walk along the seafront and turn right, then right again.
It was a sunny if breezy day still, so we chose the seafront. A quarter of an hour later we stopped to catch our breath and peer into the distance for the promised right turn. Oh for a teleport. There was indeed another road some way in front - a hell of a long way in front if you are carrying a suitcase each, a shoulder bag, another bag with a red ostrich feather trying to fly away, a bag of fruit, and a picture of Liberator. Admittedly two of the suitcases were on wheels - are these the greatest invention of the 20th century or is it the Wonderbra?- but they are a pain to steer and you have to carry them up steps.
We struggled on, not having much choice in the matter. The wind was brisk, the storm clouds gathering across the bay. Teleport now!!!!!!! At last we reached the right turn, cursing Torquay Info. To get across the carriageway we had to climb one of those elegant curving footbridges that look beautiful but require you to walk twice the distance a more utilitarian bridge would take. We clambered up and over to attempt a very, very steep road. Moreover, the expected second right turn was not in sight.
If there is one thing that years of watching British sci-fi teaches us, it is this. Whenever a small group of people is unexpectedly marooned - well it may be unexpected to them but we viewers have been through this plot before - in a strange place, one of them shall march off purposefully into the unknown while the others stay with the damaged space craft/Tardis or on our case, luggage. So that's what we did. Anne and I stayed put while Janet, rising to the occasion as fast as the River Severn, went off to make sure we were on the right road. She'd be back in two minutes. She vanished round the corner. We made jokes and light conversation, because we're British, dammit, and that's what you do in a crisis. Liberator was flapping madly in the wind. I hoped it wouldn't get creased. The view across the bay was quite magnificent. All those dramatic black clouds.
Being stuck on a hill in Torquay in high winds may not sound like very daunting crisis but it was beginning to feel like one. Which Liberator crew would you choose to have with you in such a situation? Avon's gauntlets would have come in handy for hands made sore by gripping heavy suitcases. Cally would be good at tracking elusive guest houses. Vila would have a bottle of brandy, stolen from a passing St Bernard probably. We could have sheltered underneath Gan, for now it began to rain. I crouched down by the wall with the Liberator. I could not but notice the birds wheeling above rather in the manner of vultures.
Janet had been gone around twenty minutes. Where was she? Captured by aliens? Or is the white slave trade still active in Torquay? Not in late October, surely. Now in the sci-fi scenario, what should happen next is that a second member of the party gets impatient and decides to go and investigate the disappearance of the first. This is NEVER a good idea as she immediately meets a hideous fate.
So we waited a bit more. Most likely Janet had found the correct road, seen that number 13 was at the far end, and had decided to walk along to it and book us in. After another ten minutes or so, I remembered that we both had a mobile phone. So I phoned her up.
Thus we got to the guest house. Anne very sensibly decided to sleep for an hour, while Janet and I ventured forth again in search of a cash machine. Our hosts told us the town centre was just a few minutes walk down the hill, past the Samaritans. They were right. The Tourist Info Office was very close, and I toyed with the idea of going to point out the error of her ways to the witless bimbo within, but I hadn't got a gun. Where is Avon when you need him? What is it Servalan recommends? Evisceration with a blunt instrument?
Torquay offered some excellent charity shops and I occupied myself quite happily trying on clothes while Janet located a cash machine that wasn't going to charge a three figure sum in commission. Then she frog marched me out of the British Heart Foundation before I could attempt to get into a very nice Dolce and Gabbana shirt at only £4.50. We bought some wine, paracetomol, and a packet of herbal teabags, which covered all the evening's likely eventualities, and climbed back up the hill in time for the early evening news.
More MPs, councillors and assorted self publicists stood around looking awkward in waders to show their sympathy . I daresay had we stayed watching long enough, Elizabeth Hurley would have put in an appearance in designer oilskins. The MPs and councillors pledged their support to beleaguered residents and expressed their determination to take steps and put in place measures which would ensure blah blah blah.... Off the Channel islands a ship was in difficulties. The crew were safe but French vessels were gathered in case it spilt oil on troubled waters.
Things looked worse than they had done this morning, now that more detail was available. So far, there was no story of a pregnant woman having to be airlifted from a remote hill farm, or giving birth on a roof, but the tv companies made do with the evacuation of a very small baby in a Moses basket. Very appropriate, as the rescuing fireman noted. Shrewsbury looked a disaster, though the focus of Severn broadcasts was moving to Bewdley. There were pictures of towns and villages getting prepared for the onslaught right across the country. If this kind of weather becomes the norm, I'm taking out shares in a company supplying sandbags. There was no announcement from Virgin about what might happen tomorrow. Ominous.
What do you do when you don't know the answer? Ask the audience? No, phone a husband. Janet's mobile was dying, mine had expired the previous evening, but I got through to Rob and asked him to check online and phone us back. We went down to breakfast, and how nice to eat edible sausage again. We became quite musty-eyed with recollections of breakfasts we have known and loved. Anne was rhapsodising about the cheese scones she gets at work when Rob phoned to say there was no information whatsoever about Virgin's south west services, but they were running some trains north from Birmingham.
There seemed no point in wasting time traipsing to Torquay station as our hosts assured us there was a land slip at nearby Taunton and the track had been washed away. Barring expensive car hire, the only option was National Express. Had Dorian turned up we'd have considered using his services. Hell, had the Scarlet Pimpernel turned up with a haycart we would have snapped that up. We needed to get to the National Express office and book seats, but not before I'd finished Janet's sausage - I hate waste. Janet had another urgent phone conversation with the family; just because the water was up to the ceiling didn't mean they should forget to eat proper meals or iron school uniforms.
We got seats, no problem, except Anne cut her finger on her Avon key-ring, but what can you expect from him? Having bought some sandwiches from Marks and Spencer - have you ever eaten National Express food? - we got a taxi to the coach station. It was another beautiful day. I bought some ludicrously overpriced Spring water from the shop over the road. The label said thrillingly that it had been discovered deep in the Canadian Shield then bottled in Quebec, at 5.01pm on 25 August. Wow! Fancy bringing water all that way when we had so much of the stuff right here.
The coach came in bang on time and had plenty of room for all our bags. It was my turn to look after Liberator, which I placed tenderly on the floor. We were going to Bristol, where we would change to the Birmingham coach. If it was on time, then Anne and I would be able to catch a train home to Teesside, and Janet to Shrewsbury, that night. The drive up through Devon and Somerset was exceedingly lovely, if rather damp. The coach passed a few houses that looked as it they once had a conservatory attached, and somewhere north of Taunton a field containing two statues - a camel, and a large man with out flung arms. Honestly, I'm not making this up, Anne saw them too.
Bristol coach station was a typical urban coach terminus, dark, dirty, smelly, and plastered with notices warning of thieves. It compounded its general unloveliness by having a single working telephone, the others being unusable or ripped out, and charging ten pence to use the toilets. Furthermore its café menu advertised chilli con carni instead of carne, and sloppy spelling brings out my Victor Meldrew side like nothing else.
Much to our surprise, the Birmingham coach pulled in ahead of time, but it turned out to be relief coach taking only passengers who had a coach connection there. Those of us for whom Birmingham was the final destination were told the regular coach would be arriving shortly. Fair enough. We stood around our little pile of luggage with Liberator carefully positioned on top, reflecting on the advantages of being late. For example, it wouldn't be us who'd have to spend the evening - it was Hallow E'en - answering the doorbell and handing out Smarties. Janet said the journey so far was an improvement on her previous experience of long distance coach travel, a trip to Paris many years ago on which the coach broke down on the M5 and the driver was taken away by the police for taking drugs.
Thirty minutes went by. No bus materialised. Had it been seized by the Thaarn for scrap metal? Incorporated into the Core? Hi-jacked by Amagons? A passing National Express person said he would go and ask at the office about what had happened. He never came back. Our optimism over getting home that night was somewhat dampened. Passengers went off at intervals to enquire of the staff on the National Express desk where the bus might be. The staff felt quite unable to help. They didn't know, they could only guess, maybe half an hour, maybe an hour, they couldn't contact the coach, oh no, there was absolutely no way modern technology could track it down, and they couldn't help the weather, ..... Quite what the automated map on their wall with its little moving flashing lights signified was a mystery to them.
Plaxton - built coaches came and went. Two had the town of Wells displayed, and given Anne's name is Wells I wondered if we could commandeer it and tell the driver to take us home directly. Or, why not just give up on Birmingham and go to Aberystwyth or Portsmouth or somewhere, anywhere, instead. We took turns having a little walk through the petrol fumes. Janet found a plaque on a pub just outside commemorating a local murder around 1600. The plaque said it was a family affair but I reckon it was carried out by someone who went mad waiting for the stage coach. If only one of us had a PSV licence.
For two and a half hours we waiting passengers practised wartime spirit and took turns to try and prise some information out of the most surly, unhelpful load of service (sic) providers you could wish never to meet. This lot sorely needed training in customer relations, but their need for a punch in the mouth was greater still. Alternatively, they could be imprisoned somewhere - not Portmeirion, it's too good for them - treated as mere numbers, told nothing, and be unable ever to escape. Cygnus Alpha would do. Our coach turned up eventually, just as we were debating the value of PSV licences - are they really necessary? Surely it can't be difficult to drive a coach as long as you take care not to bump into anything bigger than you are? It was driven by a courteous and tired driver who told us it had broken down and had to have a new water pump fitted. There's nothing quite like a continuing motif, is there?
We duly arrived in Birmingham and got a taxi to New Street railway station, which was strangely bereft of human beings. The last train to the North East had long since gone. It looked as though Janet was to have the pleasure of putting her flagging travelling companions up for the night, always providing we could get to Shrewsbury. Well now, if you will live in a large house that was once an orphanage, you should expect to shelter orphans from the storm.
What? Where? As we galloped past the departures board I took a fleeting upward look. There was definitely nothing there about Shrewsbury. On platform 9 - New Street's platforms are underground - two or three other lost souls stood disconsolately in the stygian darkness. Everyone asked each other if there was truly a train to Shrewsbury and we quite were taken aback when the promised train drew in. Everyone got on but we all hung about the door, in case we heard an announcement that actually it was going to Torquay. But no. We sat down thankfully. Janet almost sat on the bag containing my muffin but I stopped her just in time.
A small child sat in our carriage happily singing "the wheels on the bus go round and round." That's what you think, kid. At 9.30-ish we drew thankfully into Shrewsbury station. Janet's elder daughter had drawn the short straw and kindly came to pick us up. We had a bizarre scenic tour of the city as she drove to the house through what few streets were not awash, stopping at an off-licence - medical emergency, ladies under stress. Very soon we were sitting around the kitchen table wolfing cheese on toast and attacking a large bottle of hock. Having eaten here before I couldn't help noticing that Vila was no longer among the fridge magnets. Janet explained that he had had so much tea slopped upon him by uncaring members of the household that he had disintegrated and had to be thrown out of the airlock. Blake would be following shortly by the look of him.
The train left on time though minus a buffet car crew. Waving goodbye we lumbered off towards Derby and Janet returned to Shrewsbury to see if the roof of her shop had emerged from the waters yet. There were very few people on the train so we had a carriage almost to ourselves. Nevertheless a woman got on in Chesterfield and peered earnestly at the number of the seat I had taken at random, as she had booked it on an Apex. I offered to move if she had her heart set on it, but she noticed in time there were another fifty or so to choose from. Thus we travelled without incident through the watery fields of Yorkshire arriving only half an hour late at dear old Darlington.
Just before that, the guard came along to check our tickets and hand out a complaints form. He asked had we come up thus far by coach? Yes, we said, National Express. Oh, he said, but Virgin have been running a bus service from Exeter since late Monday, didn't you know?
Aargh!!!!!! We could have got home the previous night had we known, and saved ourselves thirty quid or more in coach and taxi fares, and not had to use up an extra day's precious holiday entitlement. Why the Hell hadn't Virgin announced this earlier? We were not impressed. The complaints form was nowhere near big enough to contain all the words I was going to include.
As far as the weather is concerned, I wish I could say it was all water under the bridge, but it isn't. Shrewsbury and many other places are still mopping up, and the railway system is still not operating fully in the North East.
I'll tell you this, I'm bringing my wellies to Redemption, and I mean to ask Janet if she can pack a dinghy.
The cult tv web site.
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