Mincing, bitching and The Masque of Mandragora (1976)

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There’s a word I’ve been searching for to describe The Masque of Mandragora, and here it is: fruity. Fruity as in overly theatrical. Deep voiced, round vowelled. Boldly proclaimed. It’s a RADA-trained, received pronounced, tighted, codpieced, heavily spiced fruitcake of a story. It’s as if the Doctor Who production team have seized their chance to take a month off from Gothic pastiche and obscene vegetable matter and go all Zeffirelli on us.

Atmospheric, sure. Stylish and Hinchcliffe slick, sure. But fruity. I mean after all, this is a story whose opening gambit – the TARDIS’s run in with intangible energy creature the Mandragora Helix – ends with a hearty villainous chuckle. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering that this is a story which centres on (and is named after) a costume party. This is a story with theatricality at its heart.

The cast have certainly noticed. Take Norman Jones, playing astrologer and old slyboots Hieronymous. He’s got a rich, deep voice and he plays each line with maximum portent. His eyes bulge with fanaticism and his beard sprouts in two unlikely prongs jutting towards camera. He doesn’t exactly chew Barry Newbery’s exotic scenery, but he certainly takes a nibble here and there, which in fact, suits the whole piece very well. Interestingly, he recalls Tom Baker’s performance as that other mad monk Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. Goodness knows what the big curly haired fella thought about that.

But there’s an even bigger performance by Jon Laurimore as the power hungry Count Federico. He sneers and snarls his way with aplomb through three episodes. He anchors plenty of scenes without the Doctor or Sarah or their alien foe, and in these you can momentarily believe you’re watching a 70s BBC classic serial, albeit a particularly florid one. He knows just how to deliver lines like ‘fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals’ and ‘say I’ve been stricken by an ague’ and pull them off. And not even a Prince Valiant wig can impede his acid wit. ‘You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot’, he snipes at Hieronymous. Hmm, there’s a vivid image.

It’s no surprise that the most entertaining scenes in this story are those between Federico and Hieronymous. And it’s not all murder and plotting; a lot of it is just plain old fashioned bitching like a couple of teenage girls. I particularly like this exchange about entering a room without knocking.

HIERONYMOUS: (mad brooding) The entire Earth, mine! (The Count enters) I did not say enter!

FEDERICO: In this palace I come and go as I please!

HIERONYMOUS: This is my private room!

FEDERICO: Whatever room you have here it is because I allow you to have it! Do not get above yourself. I’ve warned you before, Hieronymous.

HIERONYMOUS: I have studying to do. Is there something urgent you want?

FEDERICO: Yes, there is something urgent! I cannot wait till Mars or Saturn or whatever other nonsense it was you said.

HIERONYMOUS: It is not nonsense!

Seriously, change a few words here and there and it’s Neighbours. Next they’ll be fighting over who gets to take Sarah to the masque and debating what Giuliano actually means when he introduces that strapping redhead as ‘my companion, Marco’.

Giuliano is played with wide eyed enthusiasm by Gareth Armstrong. And while he’s very effective, but he has his scenes consistently stolen by Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco. Both strut confidently around in doublet and hose like any aspiring British actor should be able to, but Marco gets to hang around in the background, spoiling for a fight at every opportunity, glowering at any mention of the bad guys.

At some point, he gets kidnapped and tortured in a dungeon, giving him a great moment when he defiantly spits in Federico’s face. Such drama! But there’s a less flashy but more telling moment which shows this actor knows how to capture attention. It’s a moment where he has nothing to do but pour wine into some goblets. Piggott-Smith chooses a pose as perfectly composed as a Renaissance statue, but with face still to camera and decants at just the right angle. Here’s a guy who knows how to be part of a RSC tableau.

But we still haven’t got to my favourite performances in Masque. They come from two actors playing bit parts and only have four lines between them. They are two of Federico’s guards and they deliver their lines in thick, unadulterated Cockney.

SOLDIER 1: I swear ‘e came in ‘ere, and there’s no way out. ‘Ere, are we chasin’ a fantom?

SOLDIER 2: Or a worshippa of Demnos! Those devils know a ‘undred secret ways under the city.

SOLDIER 1: A passage? Quick, ven, let’s find the trick!

SOLDIER: No, I ain’t going in there, Geo Vahny! Not for all the gold in Rome!

There’s a famous bit in this story where Sarah asks the Doctor how she can understand everyone speaking when she can’t speak Italian. The fact that she’s asked now, and never before, means the Doctor twigs that she’s under the ‘fluence of Hieronymous. (It’s something of a insult to Sarah really; it’s as if he’s saying ‘you’d never have been able to come to that conclusion yourself without assistance. But well done!  Later on I might get you to do some simple sums for me’.) But our two Cockney Italians remind us that there’s never been an explanation for that other mysterious language convention – that even on alien planets or on Earth’s part or future, the ruling class are posh and the workers aren’t.

Naturally these two grunts don’t get invited to the main event, the Masque itself. It’s for bigwigs like the Duke of Milan, the Doge of Venice and Leonardo da Vinci, although they don’t actually turn up. As helpful plot-expounding Marco points out, the headline acts can sense something is up. They send various extras and dancers instead. They are no doubt thankful for their precognition when the powered up Brethren arrive and start zapping people. There’s a sense of the revenge tragedy with a shot of all those dead party goers littering the floor.

It doesn’t rain on Sarah’s parade though. Once the Doctor has saved the day, she and he head swiftly back to the TARDIS. Giuliano’s there to wave them off. When saying goodbye to him, Sarah adds ‘Hey, thanks for inviting me to the ball. Smashing!’. Come again, Sarah Jane? That ball where several people were ruthlessly murdered? That TARDIS translation protocol is good on Italian, but it obviously can’t help with tact.

THE DRINKING GAME OF MANDRAGORA: Have a shot when ever someone is insulted. Make it a double when the insult involves an animal. You inept clod.  You fox faced old blowhard. You dung head! (Our scatologically minded Count, again, if you couldn’t guess.)

LINK to Revelation of the Daleks. Catacombs! And baddies shooting electricity from their hands.

NEXT TIME… According to Bartholomew’s Planetary Gazetteer, it’s The Ribos Operation. You cringing cur!

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