Read by John Banks
Fantom Films/Spokenworld Audio, out now
The life and times of the 1980s Master…
Just as everyone has ‘their’ Doctor, people have ‘their’ Master. Mine is Anthony AInley and I remember his velvet jacketed, and voiced, Master with tremendous affection. There was always something jovial and disarming about him, not the desperately flamboyant charm of Harold Saxon but something colder. Ainley’s Master always seemed to be both tremendously intelligent and quietly incandescent with fury, and any time he was on screen he was the only thing you’d watch. Complex, mysterious and completely gripping.
This massively well researched biography of Ainley by Karen Louise Hollis and read by John Banks peels the layers of Ainley back and gives you a detailed look at the man behind the beard.
The first thing that strikes you is the polite tragedy that defined Ainley’s early life. The illegitimate son of renowned actor Henry Ainley, Antony was, despite both parents being alive, sent to The Actors’ Orphanage. This was an institution set up for the ‘inconvenient’ children of actors and actresses and it led to a positively Dickensian upbringing for Ainley and his brother. The early sections of the book detail the regime there and the difficulties that Ainley encountered during his childhood. The ‘orphanage’ gradually evolved into a children’s trust and the book references biographies by several other children living there to explore how it changed under the patronage of Noel Coward. The book also explores the revelatory effect being evacuated to America (and narrowly avoiding being killed by a convoy hunting U-Boat pack) had on the boys.
This incredibly difficult, at times horrific childhood gave Ainley a combination of incredible confidence and desperate hunger for stability, and the book doesn’t shy away from addressing that. Later chapters explore his success at RADA and his early career on TV and film. Again, there are contextual quotes from friends and colleagues and they combine to create a well rounded, nuanced sense of a complicated man. Gregarious, friendly and at the same time self-possessed and a little distant, Ainley comes across as a man teaching himself who he is through pretending to be other people. It’s a very honest portrayal of the man, unafraid to explore his less favourable qualities although equally unconcerned about explaining them.
That honest approach pays dividends again and again, and the book is full of some excellent anecdotes both from and about Ainley. His brief, disastrous audition for Bond (‘too short’ according to Cubby Broccoli) and his part in the unusually intelligent, ahead of its time police drama It’s Dark Outside are both standouts.
But, inevitably, it’s the Doctor Who material that people will be focused on and it doesn’t disappoint. Each Master story is given a detailed exploration and each makes for fascinating listening. Mark Strickson revealing that Ainley was an immensely awful horse rider in The King’s Demons is fun but the revelation that Ainley was perennially frightened of special effects is genuinely very sweet. The story of him running from an exploding polystyrene rock in The Five Doctor is as endearing as it is funny and it’s a lovely contrast between the eternally collected Master and the frequently mildly shocked Ainley. Even here the honesty shines through: Ainley’s good tempered, but very clear, grievances at having to share the spotlight with Kate O’Mara in The Mark of the Rani is particularly well explored.
His post Doctor Who career also makes for interesting listening. Ainley was an avid sportsman and played cricket up to the year before he died. There are some some wonderfully forthright comments about how Ainley’s occasional faults could be cured by ‘giving him a bowler to annoy’. His most famous role followed him onto the field too, with him being known as ‘Master’ to teammates and opponents alike, one rival team describing playing against Ainley as ‘intergalactic terror’. Ainley loved the sport so much he would even regularly turn down work in Summer so it wouldn’t get in the way of the cricket season.
Later chapters explore Ainley’s fondness for the convention circuit, his own approach towards acting and the tributes paid on his death. One of the oddest, and sweetest is the story of him sprinting down the track during a cricket match. It was a hot day and his cap, and wig, slid off as he ran. Faced with a choice between picking up the wig and being run out, or putting another run on the board for the team, he chose the latter. Flamboyant, certainly. Selfish, at times perhaps. But God help you if you got between him and cricket.
Verdict: This is a complex, dignified, funny book about a complex, dignified, funny man. Ainley was a defiant eccentric, a man who defined himself from the earliest age and never once let go of what he loved. Difficult, clever, funny and an actor who turned in a masterful performance in every way. Beautifully written by Karen Louise Hollis, and beautifully read by John Banks this is a must for any fan and a deserved celebration of a unique and much missed talent. 10/10