At first glance the Northumberland village of Allendale, with its pub and post office and random parking, is like hundreds of sleepy, charming villages across the UK. It’s the Dalek that suggests something out of the ordinary.
Behind the Dalek is a four-storey Georgian townhouse. In the cellar of the house is a remarkable and unlikely collection of more than 200 costumes, props and artwork telling classic sci-fi stories of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Marvel and many more.
Together they make up the collection of one of Britain’s most eccentric small museums, one of many to be effectively forced into hibernation because of the pandemic.
Most are run on a shoestring. Not all of them will reopen. But Neil Cole, a teacher and creator of the Museum of Classic Sci-Fi, is cheerfully optimistic about the future.
“The closure has allowed me to restructure the museum and create more space,” he says. “In a way it has been useful because it has given me time I don’t normally get.
“I’ve made the best of it. I don’t have a lot of money but I have got a lot of energy and I do everything myself.”
Cole’s determination to create a museum in his house dates back to childhood. “I remember being five and going to Blackpool and there on the front was a Tardis,” he said. “It was the BBC official exhibition.”
Inside were the monsters he’d seen on the TV, and it was fabulous. “It was like a blurring of reality and fiction. From that moment on, I just wanted to do something like it. That was the kick-off and it never left.”
Like many, Cole’s entry to sci-fi was watching Doctor Who. For him it was Jon Pertwee (just) and Tom Baker. Some of his earliest memories are “sitting down at Saturday teatime, waiting for the Grandstand titles to finish. Then there was Basil Brush, which was cool, but it was Doctor Who I was waiting for.”
He learned to read through Marvel comics, he said, and would scour local paper TV listings for any old sci-fi films on in the dead of night. “My dad was very good with that, he’d let me stay up.”
It took Cole about five years to convert a rotting, flooded cellar into a space suitable for a museum.
Every costume or prop or piece of memorabilia he has collected over the years has its own story. What looks like a drab, nothing-to-it, cheesecloth dress is actually hugely exciting and significant, Cole insisted, because it is a costume from the 1976 Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius.
It was worn by one of the main characters, Ohica, and was the first costume Cole bought. “I had a motorcycle which I was going to university on and I sold it to get that. I ended [up] having to get the bus but it was worth it … to me this was a bit of history, it has a bit of magic.”
He has many benefactors and supporters, pointing to a robot mummy’s head from the 1975 Doctor Who serial Pyramids of Mars, which in the highly specialised world of Doctor Who collecting is something of a zinger. It is the only surviving head and was donated to him because he would put it on display and not sell it. “I got it from the son of the milkman who was given it as the BBC were chucking it in a skip in the 1970s.”
Each object comes with detailed information which geeky visitors tend to appreciate. A costume from season four of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the Rasiinian ambassador Runepp was designed by a fan as a competition prize.
“They fabricated his design and the fan ended up on the set in his own costume,” said Cole. “How cool is that?”
The museum has become embedded in village life and has survived a run-in with county council planners who, in 2019, objected to Cole’s homemade Dalek standing proudly outside the museum.
The dispute came after Cole thought he had won everyone round. He had restored a ramshackle wreck of a building and was creating something different. “I said: ‘Look, I know it sounds mad but you are going to get new tourists. You’ve got your walkers, you’ve got your lead history buffs, you’ve got your cyclists. Now you’ll get your film buffs, your comic readers.’”
The story went around the world and the council backed down.
The museum recently had a grand reopening whose guests included Sophie Aldred, who played the Doctor’s companion Ace in the 1980s, and is filming a documentary about the museum. The whole weekend was a great occasion, said Cole. “The museum has brought so much into the village. We had [the Daleks’ fictional creator] Davros in the Co-op.”