James Murphy is back, for a thrilling new assignment. Meeting the lovely Billie Piper. At a Comic-Con. In Birmingham..
‘This is the big one, James’. M slides the file across the desk and I scan read its contents. Code-name ‘MCM Comic Con’. Location of operation: Birmingham, UK National Exhibition Centre (aka ‘NEC’: a giant exhibition hall for trade shows and the like).
I had of course faced theoretically more dangerous missions. But this? In its way, a whole new level of scary. The enemy would be out in force. And many in disguise. Dressed as storm troopers, zombies, wizards, mutants, Disney princesses and the like.
Objective: Infiltration of the event. Integration and ingratiation with fellow guests. And somehow, amidst all that, go in and meet ‘her’ and retrieve an autographed photograph, via quick chat. I recognise the face; the world stopping beauty. Known to our unit as ‘Billie Piper’ but with aliases ranging from ‘Rose’ to ‘Belle’.
With some trepidation, I accept the mission and begin reconnaissance. The preparation is half the battle in most assignments but here it is especially perilous. I of course must look at the girl’s back catalogue of work to observe her methods.
I read the biography. Child star who came to prominence first with hit songs including ‘Because we Want To’ (an infectious ear worm that played in the background as I prepped my A Levels and Oxford examinations in a previous incarnation). Lads mag pin up. Then comes THAT show. DOCTOR WHO! One reason I have been selected for the mission is that I am of course impervious to that product’s lethal charms. Or so I thought!
One clip and I am indeed hooked. It begins with a quick browse of YouTube clips. The Doctor and Rose. Bad Wolf Bay. THAT farewell. THAT bittersweet reunion where he runs across a street to see her again, only to be shot by an enemy ‘Dalek’. It’s beautiful. As is she, Billie. And that leads me down the rabbit hole of Doctor Who addiction, falling off the sci-fi wagon: a man in his thirties, watching a show that is nominally ‘for kids’.
Except that with Billie on board, Doctor Who was never just ‘for kids’. It’s a kids’ show that adults can enjoy, because of its limitless imagination and mystery solving plots where sci-fi meets social comment and historical/action adventure set-piece.
The series’ renaissance in 2005 brought back FAMILY entertainment and edu-tainment to Saturday evenings in a way none could have predicted, save the brave architect of the show’s return, Russell T Davies. (side-note: I did meet Russell a few years back at the Cheltenham festival; and it was amazing chatting to him about everything from writing to romance to mutual memories of Oxford: a real-life Time Lord academy in its way).
But there is something romantic, sexy, powerful and timeless about the qualities that Billie, specifically brought to the Dr Who brand in her guise as Rose. Such a critical piece of casting, every bit as important as The Doctor, if not more so. Hers is a perfect ‘way in’ character, evolving with the Doctor and bringing an earthy reality to the fantastical time travel and space exploration. In one look, the girl can convey curiosity, fear, bravery, enchantment.
Of course, any actor, however successful, wishes to be recognised beyond one part. I remember that time I met Kenny Baker (RIP; R2D2) in a pub. I did not just talk Star Wars. I asked which theatrical show he was in town to perform. He looked up at his six similarly statured friends /colleagues and they all looked up at me. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: what do you think?’. Well, it’s the thought that counts. And in that spirit, I check out some of Ms Piper’s other works.
Belle Du Jour is not about sex. Yes there is some rather alluring ‘sex stuff’. But it’s a genuinely moving and funny piece of work that poignantly captures the struggles of the modern woman, whatever their career calling. That motif requires a tightrope walk between the most serious of dramatic acting and the more frivolous, glamorous and even comedic ends of the spectrum. So, once again, the charm and talent of Billie make the piece a success.
I investigate further and learn that Billie is a veteran of a show called Penny Dreadful. This was a gothic horror pulp series that also featured the legendary Shakespearean actor, Timothy Dalton. He of course crafted a career that fused stage to screen and Billie is clearly of similar ethos in her strategy (winning the WhatsOnStage and Critics Circle awards recently for her excellent turn in YERMA: soon to be streamed in cinemas).
It’s a small world. As it happens, I was privileged to see Dalton play Cornelius Melody in Eugene O’Neil’s play Touch of the Poet, back in 1988. I met him afterwards and he was a thoroughly nice man, answering all of my precocious yet earnest questions (I was 8).
And so began a lifelong love of Theatre for me, though sadly, in today’s world, one can no longer visit a stage door and meet actors post play with quite the ease of yesteryear. Granted, I was a child then, but even so; the sheer delight of being able to watch great craftspeople at work and tell them you love what they do? It’s a dying, if not dead, staple of civilised society and that is a terrible shame.
So it was in THAT spirit that I felt ‘ready’ to brave the comic convention and meet Billie. Could I somehow recapture that sense of innocent love for the acting craft? Is it still possible to just go up to a star and say ‘great work’, shake hands, ask a few questions, maybe pose for a pic and then move along?
Thrilled to say that the answer is an astounding ‘YES’. I did indeed brave the labyrinth of the National Exhibition Centre and its MCM Comic Convention. I mingled with fellow fans. They were nice, approachable and fun to meet; just loving their favourite shows and stars and embracing a spirit of community with that. Every stall was mesmeric; from Japanese Zoom magazine to the ‘AmazingMysteryBox’, via endless portals for every conceivable kind of trading card and comic book imaginable.
The highlight, and the objective, however, was of course meeting ‘her’. Rose. Belle. Billie. Her excellent assistant for the day, Scott, and his team at MCM, usher me through a queue and have briefed Billie in advance about who I am, what I do (and my offer of afternoon tea?). I choose a pic for Billie to sign and then I meet her. I do of course get slightly more time with Billie than anticipated but this is a pressurised environment; with big queues and the poor actress has been signing all day, for two days.
Plus: we are surrounded by kids. A bit like the eight year old that I was , all those years ago, discovering Theatre. And Billie is amazing with them. They get hugs and a maternal animation in her eyes. That, to me, is proof that yes, there IS still a world of meeting actors and learning about their craft, accessible to the next generation.
It’s a little more commercial and ‘chop chop’ and of course policed by seventeen kinds of security and time limits. But it’s still there! And real. And wonderful. Frankly, I don’t wish to interrupt any of that or monopolise the lady’s time any more than necessary.
I do murmur something about knowing her to be a champion of independent movies (a film with Riz ‘Rogue One’ Ahmed, called ‘City of Tiny Lights’ is out soon). I hint at my own screenplay being in development. And I finish up by complimenting her versatility as an actress. Billie rises from her seat and says ‘Aww that’s so sweet’.
Exit, stage right, James: feeling? Regenerated! A swing in my step and a sense of hope about the future of media in general. The ‘geek’ community is exactly that: a community. Warm, welcoming, inclusive. Marketing is pervasive but also friendly, with the MCM team efficient yet calm and accessible, all day.
The actors and autograph signers are all happy to be approached (I had a chat to Chris ‘Red Dwarf’ Barrie and told him his agent must lobby for his return in the new TOMB RAIDER reboot with Alicia Vikander; ‘I Like you!’, says Chris and frankly, feeling is mutual: lovely chap).
And yes, did I mention Billie Piper? She is a star, pure and simple. Charming. Warm. Courteous. Talented. And yes, dammit: beautiful. Now I know how Doctor Who felt after meeting Rose Tyler. Oh yes! Allonsy..
Mission: accomplished. Thank you, Ms Piper and to all the MCM staff and attendees who made the day such a success.