The Man Behind The MasterBookmark and Share

Thursday, 24 September 2015 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
The Man Behind The Master (Credit: Fantom Publishing)
The Man Behind The Master - The biography of Anthony Ainley
Written by Karen Louise Hollis
Published by Fantom Publishing, September 2015
"I am usually referred to as the Master..."

In many ways we probably know more about the mysterious figure from the Doctor's past than we do of the man who played him throughout the 1980s, Anthony Ainley. A man who fiercely protected his privacy, we knew little of him other than the persona he chose to play at conventions and the like. In her biography of the actor, Karen Hollis attempts to bring us a better perspective of "The Man behind the Master".

With such a private man, this was always going to be quite a daunting task - for fandom, his own date of birth hadn't been confirmed for quite some time - other than it being the same day as his Doctor Who co-stars Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred - until it was realised that he had been registered under his mother's name and it wasn't until later in life that he adopted his famous father's surname. However, Hollis took on the challenge: "Using exhaustive interviews with friends and colleagues from every aspect of Anthony's life, including his best friend from school, fellow children from the Actor's Orphanage, cricketing friends, colleagues, and those who remained close to him until his death in 2004, this book aims to uncover the real Anthony Ainley."

As one might expect, his life is presented in broadly chronological order, forming some three phases: his childhood as Anthony Holmes in the Actor's Ophanage, evacuation to America in the Second World War and his own military service; into drama, and of course Doctor Who; and then his 'other' passion of sport and in particular, cricket.

However, what quickly becomes apparent is that even those who were close to him and might be called friends didn't seem to be able to pinpoint exactly what was going on inside the enigmatic Anthony, even as a child - in fact you'd be forgiven in thinking that the early part of the book was more about the likes of Granville Bantock and Judy Staber! What we really get here is context, the observations of those who were his contemporaries in the Orphanage of the life there, and on how Anthony would have fitted into those routines (or not!). This was par for the course for much of the book, as with the man himself keeping himself to himself we can only read anecdotal evidence of his life and ambitions.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to be said about Ainley. The book certainly serves to bring all the aspects of his life together in one volume, and whilst it might not be as in depth on the actor as I personally would have liked, it's testament to the reseach by Hollis that there is a lot I didn't know about his life to still discover, such as his pre-acting career, him knowing Tom Baker for a long time through his half-brother Richard, his relationships with Sarah Badel and Kate O'Mara, and the far-reaching influence of Noel Coward.

His acting career is also well-documented, though as one might expect Doctor Who dominates the book, and was his main passion thereafter - well, that and cricket! The book examines each of Ainley's stories and his interaction within them, and his later convention appearances and later return to the Master in the game Destiny Of the Doctors. In this area we are, of course, on firmer ground and so the chapters are far 'meatier' than the earlier ones. It's a shame in many ways that Hollis didn't draw more on his fan correspondence within the book - the author told me that she instead wanted to focus on friends, colleagues, and family, though she does reflect in the book that he did engage with a number of fans in this way, including herself! Fandom is of course covered in the book, and it was a nice surprise to find an unattributed quote of mine lurking within the text too!

As well as the prime "character" of the biography, his family are also covered, with his mother Clarice featuring quite prominently (he lived with her for much of his later life), plus a chapter devoted to his father, Henry (of which perhaps more is known than Anthony!).

The only real criticism of the book I have is that in many cases it seems like several pieces have been "cut'n'pasted" together rather than presenting a continuous narrative, for example where people's names can flick between full-, fore- or surname in consecutive paragraphs; there was also a case where the story over the Master/Tremas pseudonym becomes deja-vu as it is refered to again in consecutive paragraphs, an effect of the way quotes were presented. Having had to constantly re-assess, re-edit and reposition text in my literary efforts over time (including this review!), I know it is easy for things like these to get overlooked when ensuring that everything ends up where you want it to be, and it doesn't actually impact the facts being presented, only that I found it interrupted my own concentration when reading!

Overall, I think the book does a very reasonable job of patching together Ainley's life, and bringing the various facts and figures together. However, it does also hang a lot on the 'gossip' about him, which is the unfortunate effect of documenting somebody who took great pains not to be documented!