Rodney Bennett RIP – Tom Baker era director dies aged 81

RODNEY BENNETT, classic Doctor Who director, has died.

The director Rodney Bennett, who was behind three memorable early Tom Baker stories and whose work outside of the show included many classic dramas has died peacefully aged 81.

Rodney Bennett at home in Bath in 2013
Rodney Bennett at home in Bath in 2013

Bennett was brought on board at a time during which the show underwent a great stylistic change. Tom Baker’s debut, Robot (1975) was very much a continuation of Jon Pertwee’s era in terms of look and personnel but the very next story The Ark in Space (1975) found the show embracing a gutsier approach, one not afraid of the horrific and psychologically terrifying. Shot on stark, white, clinical sets it concerns the survivors of a futuristic society – who have abandoned the Earth due to the threat of solar flares – under threat from the Wirrn. These deadly wasp-like creatures bury their eggs in cryogenically suspended humans and infect the space ark’s commander Noah. One scene, in which Noah – mid-transformation into a Wirrn – begs his lover Vira to kill him, was cut by producer Philip Hinchcliffe prior to transmission as he deemed it too unsettling. The Ark in Space is generally acknowledged as one of the show’s true classics (both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have sung its praises) and, in one scene – shot from above – in which the Doctor celebrates mankind‘s indomitability, provides the fourth Doctor with one of his defining moments. “I wish we could have got a camera even higher because then it would have been like killing two birds with the same stone – Tom taking on the human race and conveying the size [of the Ark]. But because of the lighting rig higher than that we couldn’t go,” Rodney lamented when I visited him and his lovely wife Jill at their home in Bath in 2013. Despite the restrictions of the studio the scene is still one of the series’ finest.

The Sontaran Experiment (1975), Baker’s third story, was actually shot before The Ark in Space, entirely in location and – unusually for exterior work – on videotape. Disaster struck when the leading man broke his collarbone but the show went on. The bleak locale makes from a suitably post apocalyptic setting and the decision to give the surviving humans South African accents is a smart one which provides plausibility and verisimilitude. Even though Baker was in pain because of his injury the director was a great fan of his leading man describing him as “A wonderful mixture of Burt Lancaster and Harpo Marx – the physical size and strength of Burt Lancaster and then that wonderful smile and childlike aspect of Harpo Marx – which seemed to me a wonderful polarity, or duality, of Tom’s Doctor Who.”

The Masque of Mandragora was an impressive and action packed period production, much admired by its producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
The Masque of Mandragora was an impressive and action packed period production, much admired by its producer Philip Hinchcliffe.

Rodney’s final story The Masque of Mandragora (1976) also features Tom Baker and his sidekick Elisabeth Sladen.  “Elisabeth Sladen was amongst the gamest actors I ever worked with. I think she was absolutely lovely and a perfect foil for the Doctor”. The Masque of Mandragora is a gorgeous period drama with a fine cast (the young Tim Pigott- Smith makes a good account of himself and Jon Laurimore has a fine times as the villainous Count Federico) with the Welsh village of Portmerion standing in for Renaissance Italy. “There was so much experience and talent [at the BBC at the time]: the costumes that Jim Acheson put together would grace any feature film. And the wigs were very good too.”

Having done student theatre whilst studying at Cambridge, Rodney Bennett started at the BBC in radio – producing material for the World Service and the Third Programme. When BBC 2 he applied for an attachment to the schools’ department and began to learn the craft of directing with a camera. Some years later he moved to the plays department he got a break directing Z-Cars when the scheduled director fell ill and Rodney happened to be around. He acquitted himself well and stayed with the Serials Department for another 6 months, doing more Z-Cars and some plays for Innes Lloyd’s 30 Minute Theatre. After that Bennett decided to take the plunge and go freelance – a risk which paid off as he enjoyed success on both major channels.

When the BBC embarked upon their major series of every Shakespeare play, it was Bennett to whom they entrusted the key production of Hamlet (1980) in which he cast Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart and Lalla Ward (fresh from playing Romana). “I interviewed lots of young actresses for that role. I was very keen at one stage on Zoe Wanamaker. But Lalla was charming.”

His eye for casting  would have an even more enduring impact when he met “lots of very nice actresses” for a vital role in his production of The Darling Buds of May (1993). “I decided I would look through the whole of Spotlight from beginning to end including the quarter pages [the cheaper end pages at the back with smaller pictures]. I began at the As at about 9 o’clock and at about 6.30/7, there among the Zs I saw what looked like a holiday snap of a very pretty girl. It too a bit of convincing the producers that she was the one for the part because I don’t think she’d done much television”. But convinced they are and the young woman languishing in the Zs – who was called Catherine Zeta Jones – became a star over night in the ratings hit which also starred David Jason and Pam Ferris.

Leo McKern, Rodney Bennett, Graham Greene, Alec Guinness and Christopher Neame during the filming of Monsignor Quixote.
Leo McKern, Rodney Bennett, Graham Greene, Alec Guinness and producer Christopher Neame during the filming of Monsignor Quixote.

The production he enjoyed making the most was Monsignor Quixote (1987), filming in Spain with a fine cast headed by Alec Guinness and Leo McKern. The Lost Boys, about JM Barrie, was a less comfortable production to make but one in which Ian Holm gave “an extraordinary performance”. It was a complicated production but he was very happy with the end result (which won awards internationally).

His other productions included North and South (BBC 1975), Madame Bovary (BBC 1976), The Legend of King Arthur (Maureen O’Brien was Morgan Le Fay, 1979), Sense and Sensibility (a981), Dombey and Son (with Julian Glover 1983), and episodes of such favourites as Rumple of the Bailey (1987), The House of Elliott (1991), Soldier Soldier (1993, 93) and Dr Finlay (1996).

When I visited him he faced his mobility difficulties with a quiet stoicism, and he and Jill were extremely hospitable. He was gentle and charming and blessed with that perfect diction of the old school. He was still friends with Maureen O’Brien whom I contacted when I learned of his death: “Darling Rodney. Such a lovely man and such a sensitive and responsive and kind director,” she told me. “He went on writing his kids’ adventure stories right to the end, you know? Such courage and determination in a man who seemed too gentle for such persistence. Quiet, very English people like Rodney of such special talent can get easily overlooked.”

Two BAFTA nominations (for Monsignor Quixote and The Legend of King Arthur) and three top tier Doctor Who stories will hopefully mean that Rodney and his work will be remembered for a long time to come.  And so will the fact that he was a very nice fellow indeed.

He is survived by Jill, their children Adam and Kate, and four grandchildren, Ben, Hannah, Max and Aurelia.

Rodney Bennett, Television director, born March 1935, died January 2017.

Thanks to Richard Bignell, Kate Pinsent and Maureen O’Brien

You can listen to my interview with Rodney here.

My tribute to those from the world of Doctor Who who left us in 2016 is here.

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, both much admired by their director, relax whilst making one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, The Ark in Space - the first to be helmed by the late Rodney Bennett
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, both much admired by their director, relax whilst making one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, The Ark in Space – the first to be helmed by the late Rodney Bennett

Doctor Who In Memoriam 2016

Doctor Who In Memoriam Video 2016

_76881435_yeti13At the end of the year I always to a video tribute to those people from the Doctor Who universe who have left us. I had trouble uploading this so it didn’t go up on New Year’s Eve as hoped. Anyway, it is here now, and I hope it does its job.

 

 

Terence Bayler 1930-2016 RIP

TERENCE BAYLERimages

I was very saddened to learn of the death of Terence Bayler. He was a fine actor: tall, handsome, with soulful eyes and a slight warble to his voice which could suggest plummy aristocracy or a hint of melancholy. He often played upper class toffs or British officers so I was shocked to discover, when I was invited to his home in 2013,  that he retained the kiwi twang which gave away his working class New Zealand roots. I spent a delightful afternoon with him and his lovely wife Valerie, herself a talented actress (who also makes very nice muffins).

He was of course best known for his brilliantly funny contributions to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and for the key role of Macduff in Polanski’s bloody take on Macbeth (1971). He appeared in everything from Rutland Weekend Television (1975/76) to Lipstick On Your Collar (1993) via Upstairs Downstairs (1975) and had an enviable stage career too. He also told me my favourite Cyril Shaps anecdote ever.

He was nothing like most of the parts he played – he was extremely self effacing, down-to-earth and softly spoken. Unfailingly polite too – always ringing to thank one for an encounter or card or note. His approach to the profession was interesting too – he wasn’t an actor for any reason other than he figured that he could earn a living doing it. He was as happy in the garden or making things out of odds and ends as he was anywhere else.

Terry as Major Barrington in The War Games
Terry as Major Barrington in The War Games

I liked him a lot. I had contacted him because he played twice in Doctor Who,  as a slave  who met a sticky end (he was amused that a fan wrote to him about playing “the doomed Yendom”) in 1966’s The Ark opposite William Hartnell and as Major Barrington, one of his many military characters, exuding decency and stiff-upper-lipped resolve with just the right level of pathos in The War Games (1969). Both characters don’t get past a single episode but both performances are good and it’s nice to have him pass through the show playing such different roles.

I have gone into further detail in my Guardian obituary here, but there is no place for the more personal reminiscences in such a piece.  I found Terry to be such a kind and gentle man : I was extremely touched to see him and Val waiting outside the Garrick theatre after my performance there. I’m blessed and flattered to have had such encounters with people whose work I have admired over the years – though it makes moments like this all the sadder. My condolences to Val and to his family (his daughter Lucy is an actress who had a four month stint in Eastenders as Elizabeth Beale in 1988 – and popped up again recently as a different character).

RIP Terry.

My 2013 interview with Terry can be downloaded for free from Big Finish here.

With Terry at his home in 2013
With Terry at his home in 2013

Thought for the Day

First they came for the Socialists, and I Tweeted my disapproval.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I linked to a clever article by someone else that I had skim read.

Then they came for the Jews, and I posted a video on my Facebook page and attached a furious emoji.

Then they came for me—and no one gave a toss because, well, funny cat video!

PSORIASIS SHOUT OUT 2016

PSORIASIS SHOUT OUT 2016

a7821f03887f0e7fbb64e1e8758bee74I’m up to all sorts during this year’s Psoriasis Shout Out. I’ll be giving short talks at a couple of seminars in Manchester and London where people far more qualified than I will be on hand to provide credible testimony and scientific insight. I’ll be giving the patient perspective which is basically “Ow. Itch. Bloody Hell.” I might tell a joke though. There’s even talk of me taking part in a fashion show which I seem to have agreed to do without actually agreeing to do it.

I will definitely be doing that on June 19th at an extra XS Malarkey night – it’s a charity gig to coincide with the shout out and all profits will go to the Psoriasis Association. The line-up is damn good – Ben Lawes returns to the club for the first time in a while, and he is joined by John Cooper, the brilliant Newcastle comic who did a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe about our sister skin condition, eczema. Topping the bill is simply the best one-liner merchant in the business, the critically acclaimed Gary Delaney who has appeared on 8 Out Of 10 Cats and Mock The Week among many others.

The Shout Out was very successful last time: I got feedback from lots of people who – until they attended – didn’t know (a) much about the condition’s links to mental health problems (b) that there was more treatment available than time consuming and relatively ineffective creams, and (c) that They Are Not Alone. So if you know someone who has it who wants some proper insight into the condition (or wants to demonstrate such insight to their friends and loved ones – equally important) then point them in the direction of the Psoriasis Shout Out website (linked in the first paragraph of this post) for details of what’s going on.

Tickets for the comedy night are £5 and £3 and are only available on the door one the night. The show starts at 8pm.

More details at the XS Malarkey website.

The Psoriasis Shout Out is 18th-24th June.

 

WHO’S ROUND 164

WHO’S ROUND 164

Ian DowIt’s been very actor heavy of late so it’s time to delve behind-the-scenes to an era rather under-represented in the Who’s Round lexicon : the 7th Doctor’s. So there are plenty of stories about that turbulent time on the show, the regular cast who were extremely popular with the crew, and making space and time against the clock and for tuppence ha’penny.

This fellow has also worked on many other landmark BBC productions, as we only touch on those because his Doctor Who memories are so legion and detailed. It’s nice to have someone shedding light on these particular stories.