It was announced today that the actor Maggie Stables died on Friday night after a long illness.
She was not a household name — she was only ever really known for one part — but she was wonderful in that one role. Between 2000 and 2011 she played Dr. Evelyn Smythe, the Sixth Doctor’s companion, in twenty-one Doctor Who audio dramas and one webcast cartoon, all produced by Big Finish.
Evelyn is my very favourite Doctor Who companion, and not just mine — she’s the favourite, it seems, of almost everyone who’s familiar with the audios in which she appears. And while much of that is, of course, down to the writers of the stories (and while there are some clunkers, the quality of the writing on the stories she’s in, particularly those before about 2006, is very strong, with people like Jacqueline Rayner, Rob Shearman, and Steven Hall, all among Big Finish’s better writers), a lot of it is down to Stables’ performance.
The character of Evelyn is interesting enough in conception — she’s an elderly lecturer, more at home wearing a cardigan and drinking cocoa while marking her students’ essays than running from Daleks in a miniskirt, which is a welcome change from almost every other companion the Doctor has had, and she’s clearly positioned as the Doctor’s intellectual match (she is, after all, Doctor Evelyn Smythe) and in some ways his moral superior. But all too often a Doctor Who companion that’s looked good on paper has been let down by sub-par performances — especially in Big Finish, who are not always able to cast the very best actors.
Stables, on the other hand, lifted even weaker scripts (and there were a few, in her later years in the role, which coincided with a dip in the general quality of their output) with her gentle, wise, funny performance. In her hands, Evelyn Smythe, with her no-nonsense attitude, strong moral centre, wit, and basic human decency, became the perfect foil for Colin Baker’s bumptious, loud, obnoxious, Sixth Doctor, slowly rounding off his sharp edges until in their later stories they sound like an old married couple, with a huge amount of affection for each other. The Sixth Doctor is a better person for knowing her.
Evelyn is one of a very, very small number of fictional characters for whom I feel something akin to the affection I feel for real people (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Jill Swinburne from the Beiderbecke trilogy) — it’s probably no coincidence that I have such an affection for the character, since her relationship with the Doctor seems rather like my relationship with my own wife (I often joke that she’s Peri, because she’s American, but we both know she’s really Evelyn — and I am DEFINITELY the Sixth Doctor; Colin Baker’s performance in my favourite programme as a very small child clearly influenced me in more ways than I’d like to admit). Evelyn is a real person, thanks to Stables’ portrayal, and while the character already died, in 2010’s A Death In The Family, I feel in many ways like I’ve lost a friend, even though I never met Stables herself.
If you’ve never heard Stables’ performances as Evelyn Smythe, here are her five best stories — and the first three in the list are only £2.99.
The Marian Conspiracy, by Jac Rayner, is Big Finish’s first pure historical story, and Evelyn’s debut. It was the first sign that Big Finish were going to do more than just pastiche the TV show, and is a hugely enjoyable story of political and religious in-fighting in Tudor England.
Jubilee, by Rob Shearman, is often thought of as the single best Big Finish story ever (I’d put it third, myself). It was the basis of the TV story Dalek, but is infinitely more complex and rewarding, with a lot to say about nostalgia, royalism, the place of World War II in Britain’s national myth, the place of nostalgia in Doctor Who fandom, and systems of control. It’s also both hilariously funny and bitterly sad, and has wonderful performances from Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres as well as the two central performers.
Doctor Who And The Pirates, by Jac Rayner is the actual best Big Finish story ever. A musical, in which Evelyn has the central role, playing Scheharazade to a student whose suicide note she’d received, this also has Bill Oddie as a pirate, the second-best cliffhanger in all of Big Finish’s history, and great songs.
A Death In The Family by Steven Hall is one of the two or three best stories Big Finish have done in the last five years, and is the story in which Evelyn dies, saving reality, and reconciles with the Doctor after their estrangement. Sadly, it requires having heard a number of other audios to get the full effect, but if you’re up on Big Finish continuity, it’s definitely worth it.
And A Town Called Fortune by Paul Sutton is not one of her best stories, but it’s a near-solo performance by Stables from her last sessions with Big Finish, before she became too ill to continue in the part. It possibly gives the best idea of her skills as a pure performer.
Maggie Stables never had the recognition she deserved — she was good enough to be a major star, but other than her Big Finish performances mostly appeared in theatrical rep. In playing Evelyn, though, she managed to create something truly great. She’ll be missed.
Ever since he was a child, Brian Wilson had been fascinated by the concept of ESP. David Marks’ mother had claimed psychic powers, and impressed many of the people in their community, including the Wilsons, when Brian was growing up. But when he came to write a song about it, he didn’t think of Marks’ mother, but of his own. He had asked her, when he was a child, why dogs seemed to like some people and be angry at others, seemingly with no reason, and she had told him that dogs picked up “vibrations” from people — some good, some bad.
So when in February 1966, Brian went into the studio to record a song about ESP, the obvious title was Good, Good, Good Vibrations, especially since he was currently recording an album that would end with dogs barking and that was titled Pet Sounds — because sounds are, of course, a type of vibration too.
But the track he cut wasn’t quite right — it had the basic structure of a decent pop song, somewhere in between God Only Knows and Here Today from the album he was working on, and with the electro-theremin he’d used on I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, but slightly funkier than any of those. But that’s all it was, a decent pop song.
What Brian Wilson had in his head was something more complex than that — not just a pop song, but a “pocket symphony”, a piece of music that would be at least as complex and interesting as Rhapsody In Blue, with distinct movements and changes, but in a three minute span.
He worked at it intermittently over the next few months, going into the studio every few weeks to cut a new version of his track, with different permutations of instruments — maybe a Hammond organ instead of the harpsichord? Maybe a bass harmonica? — but never getting the sound he wanted.
He put it aside for a while, eventually convinced that he just couldn’t get the record out of his head and onto vinyl, and considered offering it to an R&B artist like Wilson Pickett, whom he thought the song might suit — presumably thinking that the two-chord shuffle of the chorus as it was originally conceived (although even in the earlier versions, the song goes up a tone halfway through the chorus, a trick Wilson reused from California Girls), which was clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness?, would better suit Pickett’s stye than the Beach Boys’. However, a few months later Wilson’s friend David Anderle asked if he could have the song for Danny Hutton, a new singer with whom he had been working. Persuaded of the song’s commercial possibilities, Wilson returned to it.
But there was a problem. He needed a set of lyrics for the song. Tony Asher, the lyricist for much of Pet Sounds, had come up with a set of lyrics for him to sing to get a feel for the track, but those lyrics (“she’s already working on my brain/I only look in her eyes, but I pick up something I just can’t explain”) were only scratch lyrics, far too on the nose, and Asher had never got round to finishing them before going back to his advertising job.
Around this time, Wilson encountered Van Dyke Parks, a young session musician and arranger. Parks was younger than Wilson, but he had already had a rather extraordinary life — among other things, he had played music with Albert Einstein as a child, had appeared as Tommy Manicotti in The Honeymooners [FOOTNOTE: He was one of multiple actors to play the role, and isn't the actor in the surviving episodes, but definitely appeared in at least one episode, and probably more.], and had been the arranger on The Bare Necessities for the Disney film The Jungle Book.
Parks was a hyper-intelligent, astonishingly talented man, and he and Wilson quickly hit it off and began writing new, experimental, songs that were wildly different from anything the Beach Boys had done before, with allusive stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Parks refused to write new lyrics for Good Vibrations — he didn’t want to get involved in a song that had already had seven months’ studio time, off and on, and thought it best that it be completed without him — but he did suggest the final missing element for the song. Carl Wilson had already suggested a cello be used in the choruses, but Parks’ suggestion that the cello be playing fast triplets gave the chorus the rhythmic impetus it needed.
Wilson eventually edited together an instrumental track using bits of five different sessions — the verses from the very first session in February, the quiet organ bridge from a session in September, and so on — and rather amazingly, it all came together perfectly. The result was a perfect mixture of psychedelia, R&B, and sunshine pop, a glorious, euphoric rush, but evoking almost religious feelings in the extended bridge section, and with a strange, haunting, eeriness in the chorus. It’s a perfectly-structured song, and a lesson in dynamics that puts Phil Spector to shame.
It still needed lyrics, however, and Mike Love eventually came to the rescue, writing the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio for the final vocal session. Love’s lyrics are far, far cleverer than they’re normally given credit for, grounding the listener in the real, sensory world in the first verse, talking about how the woman in the song looks (“the colourful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”), sounds (“the sound of a gentle word”) and smells (“the wind that lifts her perfume through the air”), before the chorus and its extra-sensory concerns, and the altogether stranger second verse. It’s still a boy/girl love song, but it’s infinitely more well-crafted than the original, clunky, lyrics. Love is not always the most original lyricist, but when given really good material he can rise to the challenge, and this is his finest moment, and every bit the triumph for him as it is for Wilson.
Carl Wilson took the lead beautifully (with Brian dropping in the phrases “I hear the sound of a” and “when I look”, which go out of Carl’s comfortable range — luckily at this point the two brothers were practically indistinguishable vocally, and most people can’t hear the edit until it’s pointed out to them), and Love’s doo-wop bass vocal part instantly became one of the most memorable hooks of the Beach Boys’ career.
The song became their third US number one, and their biggest hit to date. To this day it often tops critics’ lists of the best singles of all time. The Beach Boys were on top of the world, and with these new songs Brian and Van Dyke had been writing, things could only get better…
Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may have, for example, only played on the choruses on a take where only the verses were used) Brian Wilson (vocals, tack piano, Carl Wilson (vocals, Fender bass, rhythm guitar, percussion), Dennis Wilson (vocals, organ), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, Bill Pitman, Jimmy Bond, and Arthur Wright (bass), Larry Knechtel, Don Randi, Al de Lory, and Mike Melvoin (keyboards), Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon (drums, percussion), Frank Capp, Tony Asher, Terry Melcher, and Gary Coleman (percussion), Paul Tanner (electro-theremin), Plas Johnson, Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas, Jim Horn, and Bill Green (woodwinds), Tommy Morgan (harmonica, bass, harmonica, jew’s harp), Jesse Erlich (cello), Emil Richards (vibraphone)
Original release: Good Vibrations/Let’s Go Away For A While, The Beach Boys, Capitol 5676
Currently available on: Smiley Smile UMG CD, plus innumerable compilations.