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Anthony Ainley - The Man Behind the Master…

Anthony Ainley - The Man Behind the Master

by Karen Louise Hollis

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There are few figures as enigmatic in Doctor Who fandom as Anthony Ainley, the actor who played the Doctor's mortal enemy, the Master, from 1981 - 89. Although he participated in filmed and written interviews and attended conventions for over twenty years until his death in 2004, Ainley always appeared to be playing a persona for fans: genteel, friendly, a little stiff, and a little...strange. Although it isn't to fandom's credit that questions have always surrounded Ainley, it's hardly surprising - and, indeed, it's no surprise at all that a book like The Man Behind the Master would be seen as an opportunity to finally get some answers.

That there is no great, shocking revelation provided by this biography probably reveals the greatest truth of all: Ainley was simply a very, very private man. And as fans, it's probably time to simply respect that and move on. It's going to bother some readers that the book doesn't offer any real closure, but what bothers me a lot more - as a reader - is that the book is naturally, and probably unavoidably, impeded by a simple lack of data.

The author, Karen Louise Hollis, has done her very best to make use of her sources, and to her credit, she appears to have conducted thorough research and cited it carefully. As a fan completely unconnected with Ainley or his family, however, her resources are naturally limited. She has almost no access to any of Ainley's own words that weren't previously published, and she relies a great deal on other people's memoirs and interviews. Although she was able to conduct her own interviews with certain of Ainley's colleagues and acquaintances, their contributions are relatively limited, which again speaks just as much to Ainley's own private nature as anything else.

The result is an oddly fragmented book; everyone seems to have known Ainley only within a very specific "sphere," which greatly impacts the shape of the narrative. Most of Ainley's time on Doctor Who is documented through existing interviews with co-stars and crew, including Doctor Who Magazine interviews, DVD featurettes, and slightly distracting third-person snippets from Matthew Waterhouse's memoir Blue Box Boy. Ainley's passion for cricket is far more detailed, with obviously new remembrances and anecdotes from his fellow players. The most interesting portion of the book, for my money, attempts to describe his childhood at the Actors' Orphanage; because almost nothing exists to document his personal experiences, however, Hollis is left to speak in generalities about how the Orphanage was run at the time and what all of the children, including Ainley and his brother, would have experienced. Much of the detail is taken (and appropriately cited) from three existing memoirs by other men and women who grew up at the Orphanage. That's still quite interesting, but until the occasional interjection by Ainley's childhood friend, Jimmy Burke (one of the few really significant new interviews), the reader could be forgiven for forgetting they're reading about a specific individual.

There are also a couple of peculiar authorial choices that, in my opinion, reveal the lack of a strong editorial hand. Hollis has a habit of repeating information from chapter to chapter; sometimes the same quote is used two or three times (such as one describing Noel Coward's gifts to the Orphanage children for Christmas), while other details are repeated again and again throughout the book (we are told repeatedly that Ainley decided to change his surname to reflect his actor father's, while his brother did not). Hollis also has a reticence to summarize instead of quoting her sources directly, which can sometimes make for awkward and choppy sentences. Finally, there is unnecessary and distracting information: while this book is hardly alone in succumbing to the temptation to acknowledge every Doctor Who connection (particularly obvious in the section on Ainley's '60s and '70s screen work, which reads like a list of summaries and credits), some of the asides simply should have been trimmed or relegated to endnotes. No one needs to know within the main body that a certain series was released on DVD in 2001, or that co-star Olaf Pooley turned 100 in 2014. It's not disastrous, of course; it just feels unpolished. I've had this feeling before with other of Fantom Films' biographies, and I do wish someone would exert just a touch more editorial pride with their product.

Although this review may come over as harsh, I actually commend Hollis for creating what she could out of the material she was able to acquire. I do feel like I have more context, now, to explain a man I always thought seemed uncomfortable in interviews, and I actually feel bad for ever wondering or assuming things about him. (For years, I assumed Ainley was a closeted gay man - and although the book shows I was hardly alone in that assumption, it doesn't provide an answer one way or another.) It's a very quick read and I enjoyed the rare photographs that are included. Perhaps most importantly, it makes me want to watch and appreciate more of Ainley's performances. The Man Behind the Master is not a comprehensive biography - but it is, clearly, a loving tribute to a complicated and private man. ( )
  saroz | Dec 22, 2015 |
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