In 1988, the BBC screened three episodes of Doctor Who about cottaging, entrapment, homophobic bullying, gay teen suicide, gay pride, and drag queens. As The Happiness Patrol is released on DVD for the first time, we take a look beneath its chipped gloss enamel surface...
"ON TERRA ALPHA, bright fluorescent lights and garish candy-striped colours abound. The population constantly display happy smiles. There's no sadness on Terra Alpha. Anyone feeling remotely glum disappears. Quickly. Having heard the disturbing rumours, the Doctor and Ace arrive to topple the entire regime overnight. But they haven't reckoned upon the varied punitive measures enforced by colony leader Helen A. There are many delicious ways to vanish on Terra Alpha - you can be hunted down by the omnipresent Happiness Patrol or mauled by Helen A's ravenous pet, Fifi. But an especially unlucky few will find themselves in the sweetie factory manned by Helen A's psychotic henchman - the Kandy Man. This time, happiness will prevail..."
Original and subversive, The Happiness Patrol couldn't be any more of a turn-off for that kind of Doctor Who fan for whom Hammer Horror rip-offs are the ideal. But here's an even bigger turn-off: The Happiness Patrol is all about being gay.
The first, brutal scene is all about cottaging, and entrapment. It's a theme that's expanded upon later on, when Happiness Patrol bully Priscilla P tells Ace: "We worked the night shift. I liked working at night... Night time is when they come out. We got them. All of them." When Ace asks her how she lives with herself, Priscilla responds, "I am what I am." A direct quote from an iconic gay anthem (from La Cage aux Folles) clearly signposts what this show is about.
Priscilla P later says of Happiness Patrol out(ed)cast Susan Q, "She never joined in. She wasn't part of the team." And Susan Q tells Ace: "I woke up one morning... Suddenly something was very clear. I couldn't go on... Smiling and trying to pretend I'm something I'm not... Better to let it end." Susan Q's is a narrative about homophobic bullying, the pressure of being trapped in the closet, and gay teen suicide.
The Happiness Patrol (a death squad for whom you audition - how gay is that?!) is populated by women of a certain age, caked in slap. Or well-preserved drag queens, if you like. Happiness Patrol matriarch Helen A (Margaret Thatcher in a red wig) has a tiny dog, whom she pores over, like a certain kind of gay man (we all know one).
The Kandy Man's sweets are so good they kill people: that's gay men and drugs, in case you've led a sheltered life. His relationship with his assistant Gilbert M is very odd: basically, they're a bickering old couple. When Gilbert M first appears on screen, the Kandy Man spins around and yells, "What time do you call this?" Gilbert M later complains, "They don't know his moods. He's terrible when he's roused." When the Kandy Man is killed, Gilbert M runs off with Helen A's husband.
In this topsy-turvy world, the gay men are the oppressors. Witness the two pretty boy snipers in pink, tasked with picking off killjoys from the demonstration, or the boy with the nice arms whom the Doctor taps on the ass with his spoons in a deleted scene (of which there's nearly half an hour's worth. One such scene sees the Kandy Man bent over his counter, chopping, only to hack off one of his Kandy fingers. He says, "Drat," and immediately sticks it back on. I nearly passed out laughing).
There's talk of the killjoys (or gays, if you like) meeting in secret (Mattachine Society, anyone?). The Doctor and Ace try to get themselves arrested (civil disobedience). The man executed by the Happiness Patrol in the first episode is (as noted in The Discontinuity Guide) "every inch the proud gay man, wearing, as he does, a pink triangle"). There's demonstrations by the oppressed minority. And the TARDIS is painted pink.
I have adored - no, revered - the crumbling dystopia so expertly depicted in The Happiness Patrol, since I first saw it as kid, back in 1988. If it does have any faults, they're superficial (the go-carts that barely move). So most Doctor Who fans hate The Happiness Patrol. They hate its beautifully designed monster, the Kandy Man (presumably, they'd rather have an extra in a rubber suit, looking like some sort of sub-Alien reptile: yawn). They hate the faded glamour of the deliberately stagey sets, and they even hate the title. These are your straight, white male "convention" fans, the so-called anoraks who like the screaming girl in the short skirt.
Those '70s serials, so cherished by fans, don't really have much going on beneath the surface. That's why it was The Happiness Patrol that recently popped up on the BBC's flagship current affairs show, Newsnight, 25 years after it was first broadcast (someone at the BBC had worked out that Sheila Hancock had played Helen A as Margaret Thatcher, and so decided that '80s Doctor Who was a leftwing propaganda machine. Thank God for slow news days.)
Those serials aren't mentioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who referred to The Happiness Patrol in his 2011 Easter Sermon. Really.
This brilliant, dark, fairytale (the Kandy Man and his kitchen recall Hansel and Gretel) is, perhaps, even more relevant today than it was in 1988. The Happiness Patrol can be viewed as a sharp riposte to David Cameron's laughable "we're all in this together" rhetoric. (The Discontinuity Guide points out that "the Kandyman is capitalism itself, killing with sweeties, the power behind the throne.") Cut, slash, burn. Austerity. Take your share of the pain. Never mind. Happy faces on, chaps, on we go...
If David Cameron is Helen A in a suit, Nick Clegg must surely be the Kandy Man, shamelessly propping up the whole brutal regime, the "nice guy" benignly doling out the bad medicine we need - all for our own good, of course: "For the good of the majority. For the ones that wanted to be happy," as Helen A says in the serial's final, devastating confrontation.
This nameless city on Terra Alpha is an intoxicating place. Beautifully scored (the music - complete with some lovely blues, and creepy fairground music for the Kandy Man - is some of the best Doctor Who's ever had), and packed with a superb ensemble cast, The Happiness Patrol is the smartest, angriest, and most of all, gayest Doctor Who ever to reach our screens.