Behind the Sofa

by Henry Farrell on June 29, 2006

“Jenny Turner”: in the latest issue of the _London Review of Books_ (or, to be more precise, the latest issue to arrive in print on my doorstep).

bq. ‘All lazy writing about Doctor Who,’ Kim Newman writes in his ‘critical reading’ of what he calls ‘the franchise’, ‘trades on the stereotypes of children watching “from behind the sofa”’ – exactly what I remember doing, though in our house we called it the settee. So do I really remember it, or do I just think I do, because I want to join in? Newman confesses that he can ‘confirm the authenticity’ of the sofa stereotype in his own case; so culturally embedded has the trope become that when the now defunct Museum of the Moving Image curated a Doctor Who exhibition in the 1990s, they called it Behind the Sofa

Me too! I remember the specific episode (if not its name) – it involved Cybermen and a back-and-forth between Earth and Mars where the two light minutes between the planets proved to be a crucial point in the plot. I dove behind the sofa, and refused to come out until my parents told me that the scary part was over. We were living in Darlington for a year and I was six – I then went back to Ireland, escaping the reach of BBC forever (you could get it on the East coast, but not in the wilds of Tipperary). I haven’t been exposed to Dr. Who culture or to Dr. Who itself since, so I don’t think that this can be a false memory. Is this one of those experiences that people from a particular generation share, but don’t necessarily talk about?

(and speaking of cybermen, Michael Bérubé can be “vewy, vewy cwuel”:

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Kieran Healy 06.29.06 at 9:01 pm

The Incredible Hulk filled this role for me. There was something about that stock transmutation sequence (the eye closeup, etc) that sent me fleeing behind the settee every time.


nick s 06.29.06 at 9:20 pm

Is this one of those experiences that people from a particular generation share, but don’t necessarily talk about?

I think it was understood among those of my generation (Baker-Davison) that the place to retreat when things got scary was behind the settee. Therefore, it was self-perpetuating. Not a false memory, but one done with tacit authority, rather than spontaneously.


DonBoy 06.29.06 at 9:44 pm

I believe the American cliche equivalent is covering your eyes and peeking between the fingers, but it doesn’t have a set phrase like Behind the Sofa.


jim 06.29.06 at 9:46 pm

Not, I think, my generation. But I was already a teenager when the thing started and thought the music the best thing about it. Still do.


Alan 06.29.06 at 10:07 pm

Spent sections of the Jon Pertwee era behind our old
sofa. Much easier than getting under the coffee table.


Doctor Memory 06.29.06 at 10:23 pm

I’m pretty sure that the episode you’re thinking of was “Pyramids of Mars”, and had no cybermen in it, although plenty of mummies in equally bad costumes.

(Yes, I am a dork.)


KCinDC 06.30.06 at 12:08 am

My brother would leave the room when the Wicked Witch of the West was on screen during the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. I think our sofas were always against the wall, so there wasn’t room to get behind them.

I can’t remember hiding from anything on TV, but I really didn’t like not being able to watch through the end of a monster movie, when the giant scorpion or whatever was destroyed and thus couldn’t threaten me anymore. It was scary to have to go to bed in the middle, when the monster was still around.


anand sarwate 06.30.06 at 12:31 am

I remember watching “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” behind a couch of some sort. I was definitely too young to be up that late. That episode still gives me nightmares, terrible racist stereotypes notwithstanding.


anand sarwate 06.30.06 at 12:50 am

Er, that shouldn’t have been “notwithstanding.” Normally I discount terrible racist stereotypes as somewhat laughable, but that episode would probably still scare the bejeezus out of me.


Chris Williams 06.30.06 at 4:38 am

With me it was the pyramids of Mars too. I seem to remember that this series was characterised by harsh synth sounds, lots of flashes of blue light and some spiders. To this day, I find it hard to deal with spiders on 80s nights in Egyptian-themed nightclubs.


carnegie 06.30.06 at 4:47 am

Never hid behind the sofa but when the going got tough I absolutely had to have my feet up off the ground – in case something came out and grabbed my ankle, obv.

The new Doctor Who is very charming and occasionally quite scary.

(Sorry to hear you were bereft of BBC for part of your childhood. The very concept of Two Channel Land scared me as a child.)


Brett 06.30.06 at 6:59 am

Spiders and blue lights sounds like Planet of the Spiders, Chris. The one that scared me the most was Planet of Evil — though I don’t remember actually hiding behind the couch/sofa/settee (I probably just dug myself deeper into the beanbag). Though I nearly came close with one of the Ecclestone stories, The Empty Child. “Are you my mummy?” Eeep!


Phil 06.30.06 at 9:46 am

I’ve got a letter in the current LRB about Dr Who, but they cut a bit out. And here it is:

I was amused to read that, while Kim Newman pours scorn on the ‘behind the sofa’ stereotype, he nevertheless remembers hiding behind a sofa himself, as does Jenny Turner. I’ve done this myself; more recently, so has my daughter, who was five at the time. Perhaps the stereotypes regenerate too.


Henry 06.30.06 at 10:15 am

doctor memory – you’re absolutely right – The Pyramids of Mars it was. Aargh. It’s all coming back. The mummies! The mummies!


Michael Sullivan 06.30.06 at 10:18 am

I definitely don’t remember Doctor Who as being especially scary, but I only got to see it a few times when it made Canada in reruns as a 10 year old, and then even later in the US (80s).

Oddly, I don’t remember ever having real fear over anything on the TV that would cause me to go behind the sofa or cover my eyes or [insert meme here]. I think by the time I was old enough to understand danger and have fear at all (6 or so), I was pretty clear on the concept of fiction and didn’t let movies or tv bother me much. Except that one movie in the cinesphere when I was 8 (pre-IMAX but similar idea). That was freakish and bizzare.


Ian 06.30.06 at 10:42 am

I always thought “Pyramids of Mars” was one of the better stories of that period of the show; there was something very chilling about the villain who’s immobilized but still powerful, and bent on destruction for its own sake. It was the only story where hiding behind the couch made any sense, since the rest of the time the show seemed too silly. I remember that at one point Sutekh/Set says to the Doctor or someone, “Your evil is my good.” It sticks in my memory because my father was walking through the room and noted the reference to Paradise Lost.
Another high point of those years was the story with Skaroth, last of the Jaggaroth, which was hilarious.


Dimitrios 06.30.06 at 12:57 pm

Brett, “Planet of Evil” gave me the willies, too. The dark mysterious pool in the forest (and what rises out of it, the geiger counters going off whenever the monster approached had the same effect in racking up the tension as the motion sensors in “Aliens”. If I remember correctly, at one point the Doctor had to make his way through a dark, abandoned spacecraft to his police box, dodging spooky ghost-things that could turn you into a dessicated corpse in seconds. Extremely creepy and “gothic” (despite the space age setting).

All good stuff, and a standing rebuke to Newman. If the writing and acting wasn’t good, why did theshow have that effect on so many? Was it the expensive special effects:)


Dimitrios 06.30.06 at 1:04 pm

Oops, my mistake due to sloppy reading. I hadn’t realised that THAT Kim Newman was being quoted, the great admirer of Doctor Who. Lazy reading, in this case.


Brendan 06.30.06 at 4:35 pm

Er….does anyone remember the Tomorrow People? And does anyone remember the bit where the people’s plastic clothes starting creeping over their faces and taking over their personalities? Scared the SHIT out of me when i was mumble mumble very young. It was very similar to the autons on Dr Who.


Doctor Memory 06.30.06 at 7:09 pm

Brendan: back before they got bought out by MTV and started producing their own programming, Nickelodeon spent most of their time airing old ITV childrens’ shows for their diminishingly small audience in the US. (Ie: anyone with cable TV in the early 1980s) The Tomorrow People was one of them, so a surprising number of people in the states have seen the show.


Phil 07.01.06 at 4:50 am

Brendan – that reminds me of the other great Dr Who childhood rite, the nightmare: at the beginning of the new Dr Who, one of the points Russell T. Davies insisted on was that there would be nightmares. It was the Autons that gave me nightmares* – symmetrically enough, my daughter says the same. Apart from the Daleks, the Autons were the only old monsters to be brought back in the first series – I wonder if that was why.

*Assisted, I’ve always thought, by a promo clip for the Kinks’ “Plastic man” which was shown on Junior Points of View (Sarah Ward**, where are you now?) – but it looks as if there was a year between the two, so I may be misremembering. Further reports needed.

**No connection with the more famous Lalla.


Phil 07.01.06 at 4:51 am

Oops. Top tip – don’t use a single leading asterisk to introduce a footnote. Sorry about that.


harry b 07.01.06 at 10:08 am

Brendan — long and elaborate post about the Tomorrow People is ready to go — will post when I get back to a computer I know how to use (sometime late next week!).


serial catowner 07.01.06 at 12:22 pm

Bah, young people. When I was a kid we didn’t use artificial substitutes to get scared, we had Curtis LeMay and the A-bomb.

But some of the space opera broadcast on the radio by the Ovaltine company came close.

As did the farm report, if you had a television of the time.


Brendan 07.01.06 at 12:58 pm

‘long and elaborate post about the Tomorrow People is ready to go’. Woo hoo!


John S Costello 07.02.06 at 9:48 am

I spent Destiny of the Daleks behind my neighbors couch — we didn’t want to pay the television tax, so we didn’t have one. They weren’t very enthusiastic about inviting me back, though I did get to see Logopolis there.

The Daleks were freakin’ scary! (They still are, but I’ve sublimated the fright reaction and I also find them freakin’ hilarious as well.)


Nick 07.02.06 at 1:44 pm

I have a distinct memory of spending most of the Zarbees-versus-the-Menoptera story (The Web Planet???) behind the settee. Skaroth & the Jaggeroth (much later) was great fun though – John Cleese & Eleanor Bron as art-pseuds admiring the Tardis-as-gallery-installation, and the current Mrs Dawkins dressed up in, ahem, school uniform . .


HK 07.03.06 at 11:11 am

I still can’t eat licquorice allsorts after watching ‘The Happiness Patrol’ at the tender age of 5. Now I find out the episode was partially intended as a satire on Thatcherism, so there are still terrors to be had from Doctor Who in old age.

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