November 24 marks a very special occasion – exactly 40 years since the first-ever DWCA event in 1979.
To mark to occasion the DWCA have an upcoming Day Event on the weekend just after the 40-year milestone on December 1. The event will be held at Club Burwood in Sydney.
In preparation for the celebration, we’re sharing here Ashley Tuchin’s article Unconventional: A History of The ADWFC’s Doctor Who Parties which first appeared in Zerinza Volume 1. Zerinza Volumes 1 and 2 are both still available through the DWCA store.
Unconventional: A History of The ADWFC’s Doctor Who Parties
By Ashley Tuchin
In the beginning, there was nothing. Fast forward a few million millennia and there was something, but it was still rather boring. Skip forward a bit further and there was finally something worth talking about. That something was called Doctor Who. Nowhere was this charming little television series loved more than in our strange and far away land of Australia. Perhaps it was because our country so resembles a strange and alien world, complete with bizarre life-forms, that it resonated so strongly with many of our youth. In 1976, some of those plucky youths came together to form a club: The Australasian Doctor Who Fan-Club (ADWFC). Now, the whole point of a club is usually to socialise and fraternise with other like-minded people, celebrating or honouring a particular thing that serves as a common point of interest. It makes sense then, that the ADWFC eventually set about organising little get-togethers or “parties”, for members of the club to come together and celebrate all things Who. These were smaller affairs than the average convention – even by the standards of the day – and the club could not, at the time, afford to bring out any guests, hence the quieter, more intimate term, party was used. Although, just because the club couldn’t afford to bring out any guests, that didn’t mean that they weren’t able to secure some over the years. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning.
For the first few years of the club’s existence, it didn’t really host any social events or functions at all. The main focus of the club in its first three years was its magazine – Zerinza – so membership to the club essentially just meant a subscription to Zerinza and vice versa. The reason for this was that any event organised by the club would inevitably be Sydney-based, which was deemed to be pretty unfair to the majority of the club’s membership, who were from rural areas or even inter-state. A magazine, on the other hand, knows no such discrimination and was equally accessible to all members of the club. On top of this, the Sydney University Science Fiction Association (SUSFA) already had their own events and get-togethers and there was a large degree of crossover between the members of both groups (they even shared the same President). It was therefore deemed unnecessary for the ADWFC to have its own social outings as well. This viewpoint didn’t change until Tom Baker’s visit in early 1979 which “breathed life into a LOT of fan clubs all around Australia”, according to ADWFC founding member and original president, Antony Howe. It was around this time that Antony started looking at the club in a different light, due in part to the fact that other interstate groups were becoming more active, so he felt that he had to start doing something more with the club.
This led to the first ADWFC Doctor Who Party, held on Saturday the 24th of November 1979, from 12 to 6 pm, just one day after the show’s 16th anniversary. This party was organised by Antony, aided by some friends from SUSFA. Since he was a student at the time, he couldn’t afford to fly a guest out from overseas, for risk of the event running at a loss. There was, however, an initial attempt to circumvent this problem by coordinating with another fan group in Melbourne. The idea was that they would host a weekend-long convention, between both cities. That way they could pool their resources to bring out an international guest and have them appear in Sydney on one day and Melbourne, the next. Unfortunately, though, money still proved the biggest issue with, once again, nobody involved having the income to guarantee the costs, should they run at a loss. Compounding the issues with this idea, the Melbourne club’s facilities were, in the words of Mr Howe, “restrictive”. He and Dallas Jones, another club founder and eventual President, did make a test run down to Melbourne, to check the validity of this plan, but in the end it was labelled a failure and the whole thing was scrapped.
Thus, with the idea of an intercity, weekend-long event featuring a special guest now thoroughly scrapped, Antony turned to organising a smaller-scale and more cost-effective event. It also has to be remembered that at this time, most of the fans who attended these events were children which provided just another reason why costs had to be kept low. So, Mr Howe found himself faced with the task of organising an event that would be cost-effective for both the club and attendees, while also being entertaining and suitably exciting enough to attract a crowd. The result was a charming yet exciting affair, held at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) Hall in Clarence Street, that featured: a market that sold various Doctor Who goodies (monthlies and weeklies, Target novelisations, dolls, jewellery, stickers, photo stills from the series, and various other bits and pieces), a raffle (prizes included old issues of Zerinza and a tape-recording of Tom Baker’s interview with the club), a slide-show, discussions about the series, a replay of interviews from Tom Baker’s visit to Australia (which happened earlier in 1979) and a masquerade competition (back in the days before the word ‘cosplay’ had entered common parlance), suitably named ‘The Masquerade of Mandragora’ (if you don’t get that reference then you’d best Google it immediately or risk losing your Doctor Who fan card). Remember also that this was a time when Doctor Who merchandise was a lot harder to come by. There was no ABC Shop, nor JB-Hi-Fi or Amazon or online retailers of any kind (mainly due to, you know, the lack of internet). The first Doctor Who home videos (kind of like DVDs, but more rectangular) didn’t even start coming out in Australia until 1987, so the opportunity to buy Who merchandise of any kind must have been a dream come true for most fans.
The second party was where things were really kicked up a notch. Held in mid-1980, this was the first party to be held at Sydney Uni’s Stephen Roberts Theatre, which would become home to the club’s parties for many years to come. Even more importantly though, this was the first party to have a special guest from the show, and who did they get, you may ask? Oh, only Jon “Third Doctor” Pertwee! That’s right, the master of Venusian Aikido himself, U.N.I.T’s very own Scientific Advisor, was in attendance at the ADWFC’s second ever party. You see, it was all a matter of perfect timing, or some might even say fate. Jon was in Australia, touring with his cabaret show and very graciously agreed to appear at the party, free of charge! Then on the day of the party he stayed back several hours more than agreed, to finish signing autographs and graciously talk to fans. On top of that, he even went to Antony Howe’s place for a special dinner with everyone involved in organising the party, again free of charge and completely in his own time. Now, how many celebrities would do that? Seriously? This wasn’t the first time that a Doctor had been to Australia – as mentioned before, Tom Baker had come Down Under the previous year – but it was the first time that a Doctor had attended a locally run and organised fan event. Fortunately for us though, he wouldn’t be the last.
Now, unfortunately, this didn’t start a trend of big-name guests showing up at every club party for free, though it sure would have been nice if it had. For the most part, ADWFC parties were low key affairs more in the vein of the first one. Party number three followed this model, as did number four. Party number five, however, was another one for the history books.
The ADWFC’s fifth Doctor Who Party was held on the 19th of September 1981, once more at the Stephen Roberts Theatre, and featured the ever-lovely Katy Manning as the guest of honour. Katy, of course, played Jo Grant alongside Jon Pertwee’s Doctor between 1971 and 1973 and is not only the DWCA’s patron but also lived in our fair country for a number of years. This visit, however, was before her emigration and gave Aussie fans their first chance to meet Jo in person. It’s only a shame that she and Jon could not have attended a party together; their chemistry was legendary.
As with most of these early instances of having overseas guests at parties, Katy was already in the country, taking a look at the lay of the land, with the intention of moving here eventually. After some initial difficulties in contacting her, communication was eventually established and she agreed rather enthusiastically to attend.
The party kicked off at 2 pm with the usual festivities and decorations as well as the Doctor Who theme music playing throughout the theatre. For the first few hours, fans mingled, browsed and shopped as they inspected the market stalls, eagerly awaiting their special guest. When she did arrive, she was met with warm applause from a fan-base that very much adored her. She took to the stage immediately and was interviewed by Antony Howe, before answering questions from the audience. Just like Jon Pertwee, she was kind and friendly, answering questions with warmth and supplying an endless number of anecdotes about her time on the show. Once the question and answer session reached its conclusion, it was time for the autographs as Katy spent more than an hour signing away and chatting to her fans. As the autographing, and the party, came to an end, fans would no doubt have felt a sense of amazement and disbelief: two huge guests just over a year apart, surely it couldn’t get better than this. Could it?
The sixth party was another quiet, more standard affair, but fans didn’t have to wait too much longer before being treated to more special guests. 1983 was coming and it would be a year to remember for the ADWFC, taking their parties to new heights and shattering the expectations which had originally been held for them.
Starting off this amazing year was party number seven, held on the 10th of April 1983. This was the second party to feature a Doctor as a special guest – Peter Davison. Excitingly, Davison was still the incumbent Doctor at the time and he brought his wife – Sandra Dickinson – with him, who most Who fans would have known as Trillian from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series. So, it was essentially a two guests for the price of one situation since there’s a great deal of crossover between Who and Hitchhiker fans.
They were lucky to get them at all though, seeing as the club had a great deal of trouble with Myer, who were the ones who had actually brought Peter out here. They were having their own signing tour, with Peter travelling around the country to several of their stores. Unfortunately though, Myer’s representatives proved difficult to work with and quite unsympathetic to the club. It was so bad that Antony had to actually call Peter’s agent in London, just to get an answer as to whether he would even be willing to attend the party. Fortunately, he proved to be much more helpful and confirmed that Peter would be delighted to attend.
The problems didn’t stop there though, as the party had to be organised in a very short period of time, all the while battling against Myer and their ever-changing schedule. You see, by the time they’d finally received confirmation of Davison’s attendance, the club were left with only two weeks to prepare and organise the party. One of the biggest problems was promotion, as Myer had done very little in that regard other than some in-store promotion. Therefore, it fell upon the ADWFC to advertise not only the party, but the Myer tour as well, hoping to draw in as many fans from outside of the club as possible. With so many hurdles placed before them, it’s amazing to think that they managed to get the party off the ground at all. But against all odds, they did. “Brave heart” and all that.
When the day finally came, the party kicked off much like any other club party, and I’m not just referring to the fact that it started late. Held once again in the Stephen Roberts Theatre, it had the usual array of market stalls and the venue was adorned with a litter of decorations; posters, wall-hangings and Dalek cut outs. Guests spent the early part of the day mingling, enjoying the market and attending a special screening in the nearby Carslaw building, which was also suitably decorated, including wall paintings of a Dalek and a Terileptil. The big man himself arrived at two o’clock, accompanied by his wife and the lady from Myer – Leora Cohen. Unfortunately, they’d been placed on a very strict two hour time limit by Myer, which Ms Cohen refused to extend. This meant that at the conclusion of the two hour interview and question and answer session, the Doctor and Trillian were whisked away, back into the TARDIS. Well, a Saab.
Unfortunately, this meant that Peter did not get to sign autographs or mingle with fans, as Jon Pertwee had. But he was still a friendly and charming man who enthralled all of those in attendance as he spoke and answered questions about his career, the making of the show and the like. Likewise, Sandra was friendly and graciously answered all of the questions directed at her, despite only having arrived in the country that morning. The whole experience would have been rather like Peter Capaldi’s trips to Australia over the last two years, for the Doctor Who Festival and Doctor Who World Tour. The current Doctor, named Peter, came to Australia and spoke to fans, but was unable to sign autographs or mingle (although, the Davison party was certainly a lot cheaper than either of those more recent events!).
As mentioned before, 1983 was quite a big year for the ADWFC parties. They managed to have not one, not two, but three in the one year – all with special guests! More than that, this second party came less than two months after the Peter Davison party and featured his on-screen companion, Janet Fielding, a.k.a. Tegan. That’s right – the current Doctor and one of his companions, less than two months apart! When the club had found out that Janet would be in Australia, they had to make the quick decision whether or not to throw a party in her honour, given that they were still recovering from the Davison party. They eventually decided to go ahead with it because Janet would be in Australia for a decent length of time and thus they could hold the party towards the end of her stay. Janet agreed quite happily to attend, although there were some minor hiccups. Upon contacting her a second time, it was discovered that she’d got the dates mixed up and thought that the party was one month earlier than it actually was. Fortunately, this was sorted out fairly easily, but then she told them that she would have to leave an hour earlier than originally planned, meaning she could only attend from 12 to 3 pm, not 12 to 4 pm. However, Janet very kindly offered to arrive an hour earlier to make up for her early departure. It did cause a lot of trouble for Antony Howe’s mother, Rosemary, though as she had to keep re-writing the program for the day.
The party was held on the 29th of May 1983 at the Stephen Roberts Theatre, which by now had well and truly become the unofficial home of the ADWFC parties. It kicked off a little earlier than most, staring at 10:30 am due to Janet’s need to leave early to catch her flight back to Brisbane. It’s heart-warming to see just how dedicated and caring she was towards her fans, taking time out from her own holiday to essentially pop down to Sydney just to say hello. The same can be said for all of these party guests. It seems almost unthinkable in this day and age, where conventions are big business and actors’ time is worth quite a bit of cash.
About 270 people attended the party, some of which came from as far away as Tamworth, Brisbane and Adelaide. This was a much bigger turn-out than the Davison party, which could probably be attributed to three things: the longer publicity time, the fact that this was Janet’s only appearance in Australia, and the availability of autographs. The party followed the traditional mould, with the usual decorations on display and goodies available at the market for the first hour and a half. The guest of honour herself arrived at 11 am and immediately started signing autographs.
Unfortunately, due to Janet’s time constraints, there had to be a limit of only one item signed per attendee, which I’m sure that some found disappointing and also conflicting as they had to choose which of their beloved items would be marked for posterity (again, compare this to modern conventions, where you have to pay per item to be signed, usually around the forty to sixty dollar mark per item). Janet, thoughtful as she was, also brought along a stack of postcards of herself for attendees to get signed, if they didn’t have a personal item (something that has since become standard practice at most modern conventions). At the end of the signing session, everyone managed to walk away with something signed, which is the main thing.
Following the autographs, it was time for the masquerade competition. Initially, there had been one planned for the Peter Davison party, but it was eventually scrapped due to the troubles with Myer and the organisational problems that it created. The competition had a massive fifteen competitors, including three Masters, two Doctors, a Dalek, a Cyberman, a Nimon, Davros, Turlough, the Brigadier, Victoria, Jo and a partridge in a pear-tree. The competition was judged by Antony Howe, Kerrie Dougherty and David Wraight, while Ian Craddy and Karen Lewis were the MCs for the day. The lucky winners were Michael Crocker for the overall winner – dressed as the Fifth Doctor in his Black Orchid harlequin costume – and Chris Guest for the best juvenile award – dressed as an Earthshock Cyberman (Cyber-boy? Cyber-tot?). Both of the lucky guys were awarded their prizes by Janet herself.
The final item of the day was the cherry on top of the cake: an interview with Janet, conducted by Stephen Collins and David Wraight, which was also opened up to questions from the audience. The whole of which lasted a staggering two hours! Given that these days most Q&A sessions at conventions last fifty minutes to an hour, this is mind-boggling. One would think that the well of questions would dry up long before that, but clearly not. Clearly there were 270 people in that room with burning questions that only Janet could answer. Perhaps those who have grown up with the internet, such as myself, can never truly appreciate a time when a fan’s questions could not easily be answered; a time when besides Doctor Who Magazine or conversations with other fans who were in the know, the only real way to find out behind-the-scenes titbits was to hear them from the horse’s mouth? Today you can find answers from DVD special features or watch interviews online and there’s a good chance that when you hear a question asked at a Q&A, you may very well already know the answer. Not that it isn’t still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask a star a question directly, but maybe my generation can never truly grasp just how much more special it was once upon a time? Anyway, just a thought.
With that, the ADWFC’s eighth party drew to a close and Tegan, I mean Janet, took off on her journey back to Brisbane. The day was a brilliant success, with a large turn-out and another friendly and engaging guest. But there would still be one more party to be held before 1983 came to an end. Unfortunately, the club was unable to complete the hat-trick and round out the then-current TARDIS team by getting Mark Strickson. That would have been quite the feat indeed. But fans still had a lot to look forward to at the next party, which saw the return of a previous guest who was not only hugely popular, but would become quite a friend to the club over the years.
After the whirlwind couple of months that had encompassed the Peter Davison and Janet Fielding parties, it was realised that the club had to yet to host the annual Mastermind trivia competition for the year. Additionally, the show’s 20th anniversary was fast approaching, which meant that the club would have to organise another party, but it was decided to give everyone some breathing room by leaving it to as late a date as possible. Trying to leave it until after uni exams, but with enough time before Christmas, it was decided that somewhere in the first two weeks of December would be the magic spot.
In the end, the ninth ADWFC party was held on the 11th of December 1983, just a few weeks after the show’s 20th anniversary and the accompanying special – The Five Doctors – aired in the UK. Fortuitously, the ABC announced that they’d be airing the special on the following Tuesday, meaning that interest in Doctor Who would be heightened. After the spectacular year they’d had thus far, and in keeping with the celebratory nature of the party, it was decided that a guest was needed and so an invitation was sent out to Katy Manning, who was living in Australia by that point, hoping that she’d be up for a return after two years. She had been forced to cancel an appearance with the South Australian Doctor Who Fan Club due to work commitments, but that club was able to help the ADWFC get in touch with her. She agreed to attend, work permitting, from 3 to 6pm and would be willing to stay longer if necessary. She also agreed to be a judge for the masquerade competition, which was being held again after the success of the previous one.
With more time to prepare than with the previous two parties, a great deal more publicity was possible. The biggest boost came from an interview that Antony did with the Sydney Morning Herald’s TV guide, during which he was able to promote the party. It was also during this time that Kerrie Dougherty was able to secure a second guest, Dr. John Tulloch, author of Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, who agreed to give a brief talk on his book.
Things seemed to be going smoothly when everyone arrived at the Stephen Roberts Theatre at around 11:30am to set up. But, as per tradition, Murphy’s Law was soon in full effect as it was realised that the float for the merchandise had been forgotten. This necessitated a last-minute change to the program so that it could be retrieved. This meant that the Mastermind competition had to become the first item on the agenda, rather than the usual market and the necessary set-up time resulted in the doors opening fifteen minutes late, at 1:15pm. When the doors finally did open, they were hit by an unexpectedly long line of people, with around three-hundred and forty people in attendance! This was a staggering number and more than a hundred more than had been anticipated; there weren’t even enough programs and membership cards to go around!
This created another logistical problem as everybody involved had flashbacks of the Janet Fielding party and the autographing nightmare that entailed. Discussions needed to be had on how to deal with autographs for such a high volume of people and it was eventually decided to ask Katy if she could stay back after her interview, to finish off the autographs. Katy, being the lovely person that she is, very graciously agreed.
Katy was picked up from her house and arrived at 3:30pm, when she immediately began signing away, working through the sea of fans, patiently waiting their turn. This first bout of autographs lasted half an hour, with the occasional pause for a photo or a chat with a fan, before a short break so that she could refresh herself and meet some of the people involved in organising the party. With so many people still awaiting autographs, it was decided to make another change to the program, lest the party should finish sometime after 8pm. They asked Dr. Tulloch politely whether he’d mind starting his talk at 4:50pm, while the autographing was still winding down. The masquerade then followed the talk, rather than the other way around, as originally intended.
This masquerade was even more successful than the previous one, with the contestants including: three Fourth Doctors, one Second Doctor, one Third Doctor, one Fifth Doctor, two Time Lords, Adric, the First Master, Sutekh and Magnus Greel. The top prize went to Mathew Crocker as the Time-Lord, Zorac from Arc of Infinity, while two juvenile prizes were awarded to Clive Parkin as Sutekh and Bill Wodrow as the Fifth Doctor. Katy also gave special mention to Karsten John, the only Third Doctor that she had ever seen (apart from Jon, of course), and Anthony Martin who was dressed as a Time-Lord Archivist and whom Katy thought gave an excellent speech.
Once the prizes were handed out for the masquerade, as well as the Mastermind competition, Katy left for another short break. She returned to the stage a little later for the final activity of the day: her interview. She was her usual, dazzling self and kept the audience enthralled and enamoured as she answered their questions and regaled them with stories and anecdotes. The interview and indeed, the whole day, came to an end at about 7:20pm. After getting off to a shaky start, the party had managed to correct itself and wound up being an enjoyable, albeit exhausting, day for all involved. The ADWFC had managed to celebrate the Doctor’s 20th anniversary in style, with a record crowd that held promises of more good times to come in the future.
The ADWFC would continue to hold parties once or twice a year, well into the late eighties, before fading out and being replaced by (regenerating into?) Whovention. But the parties hold a very special place in the club’s history as well as the history of Australian Who fandom. From their initial conception as an inexpensive social gathering for fans to meet other fans, shop and engage in activities, they soon grew into something so much more. They quickly expanded beyond their own mission statement, to become one of the only events in the country to allow fans to meet the stars of the show. What’s more, they did it in a way that maintained the close, intimate and inexpensive atmosphere that Antony had originally envisioned, creating a type of event that is difficult to imagine in the age of Supanova and Oz Comic-Con. But even when they weren’t able to host big guests, they were still fun, engaging and important events for the fans who attended them. They allowed people to see Doctor Who serials, new and old, in a time before home media; they gave fans access to merchandise that they couldn’t get elsewhere; but most importantly, they allowed fans to come together and just bask in the glory of Doctor Who with other like-minded people.
Unfortunately, those parties are now relics of a bygone era that we are unlikely to relive again. With geek culture now achieving a popularity that was never before felt possible, conventions and other fan events have become a business enterprise and a profitable one at that. This means that while big, weekend-long conventions with high-level guests are pretty commonplace, smaller, more intimate conventions are severely endangered. Not that there’s anything wrong with larger conventions – they have the resources to bring out dozens of high profile guests at a time, which provides some amazing opportunities for fans. But it also means that stars are now less likely to attend smaller events that can’t offer convention-level money.
I suppose that’s why it’s important for us to look back at these early parties, to be reminded of a simpler time when you could meet Jon Pertwee for a few dollars and get an autograph or photo for free. It was a time when the ADWFC, and Australian fandom, was still finding its feet and without those parties, we couldn’t have the club or the events that we have today. Now that’s something that we should be truly thankful for.