After a few months off during which I have slept and stuff, Who’s Round is back… and it’s about time (etc etc).
It’s certainly about time we had a Doctor.Most Doctors have been interviewed loads, so of course I have gone for one with a unique claim to the Gallifreyan throne. He’s actually been involved in the programme in practically every medium possible, this fellow, and has worked with more than one of the “other” Doctors. Oh, and Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellan and the bloke who played Varan in The Mutants. They’re all here, in the 200th edition (blimey) of this ridiculously time consuming podcast. These will be back to their weekly release schedule and there’s a fantastic mix of familiar faces and hitherto un-interviewed folk from the history of Doctor Who, all of whom have fascinating stories about their times with and without our favourite programme.
Peter Thomas – actor from missing William Hartnell story The Savages – dies.
Peter Thomas, who played Captain Edal in The Savages, has died at the age of 80.He had worked with Christopher Barry prior to the making of the story and so was in the director’s mind when it came to casting the chief of the security forces on the unnamed planet where all is not what it seems. With Frederick Jaegar, ostensibly the story’s lead villain, spending much of the action impersonating William Hartnell’s Doctor it is Thomas who provides most of the thuggishness. He’s the enforcer and easily the story’s most unpleasant character – and unusually, he survives at the end, in a story which has no fatalities. Thomas had to undergo golden facial make-up but that wasn’t his biggest problem on the show: “Bill Hartnell and I did not get on that well in The Army Game – I fell out with him during rehearsals. He used to shout, and if you forgot a line or miscued him he would tell you! Literally in our last episode of Doctor Who I think he forgave me: in the final scene, owing to the pressure of work instead of “Grab him and strap him to the trolley” I said “Strab him and grap him to the trolley” – but it did get a laugh even from Bill Hartnell.” The finished result wss good though – the audience research report for The Savages finds the viewers singling out the performances of Hartnell and Thomas for the most praise.
Thomas trained at LAMDA from 1952 and upon graduation did a short stint in rep at Lancaster before National Service (the RAF) intervened. Having done his duty (and performed onstage in RAF variety shows and stage productions while he was doing so) he returned to the theatre and then broke into television where he made something of a career of playing bad guys. His TV roles included Probation Officer (1959), Walk A Crooked Mile (1961), Z-Cars (1962), No Hiding Place (4 different characters 1962/65), The Plane Makers (1963), No Cloak, No Dagger (1963), The Avengers (three times – 1966/67/68) and Big Breadwinner Hog (1969) with Peter Egan, whom he had encouraged to become an actor when Egan was a young lad. In this excellent but very violent series Thomas is unmissable as a leather clad thug with a teddy boy quiff and a flick knife.
After the film Tales From The Crypt (1972) and an episode of Crown Court (1976) he disappeared from the acting profession for about thirty years due to the unfortunate illness of his wife. Having established himself as an onstage comedy stooge (he worked with Hancock, Benny Hill, Graham Stark and Jimmy Jewel) he had to turn down 35 weeks touring alongside Bob Monkhouse – such a commitment was impractical with two young children and a terminally ill partner and so he made the difficult decision to sever ties with his agent and accept no more offers.
In the early 80s he started a production company, and he kept his hand in the performance side of things when he provided the voice overs and the occasional presentation spot for the corporate videos that they made. Approaching the age at which most people retire, and with his children now grown up, he began to work professionally as an actor again and was very proactive in getting his own work – doing short films and modelling shoots whenever he could, and creating a character called Mr Grumpy.
In 2013 his face adorned the London underground as part of the Turn2US charity campaign, one of many posters he featured on in recent years (he also showed up for the NHS carers recruitment campaign and the Oxford Hearing Centre). He also contributed to advertising campaigns for Heineken (a James Bond/Skyfall tie in) and French Netflix. This sort of work was a callback to the 60s when he had a high old time appearing in adverts for all sorts including Don Carlos Cigars, Remington Razors, Rich Tea Biscuits, Black & Greens Tea, Guinness and Bilslands Bread. He was also an able guitarist and folk singer.
He was happy to be associated with Doctor Who, and kept up with it over the years:“It was caught the atmosphere of the 60s – and when they brought it back years later it was an instant success. One of my favourite Doctor Whos was Jon Pertwee and in the newer versions it has to be David Tennant. It was a good show”. Peter recently joined me and Kay Patrick to discuss The Savages for one of Fantom Films’ forthcoming Who Talk releases: he was sprightly and full of memories so the news of his passing was as surprising as it was saddening..
With thanks to Paul Dunn.
Peter Thomas took part in a Who’s Round which you can listen to here.
You can see my video of the Doctor Who names we lost in 2016 here.
RODNEY BENNETT, classic Doctor Who director, has died.
The director Rodney Bennett, who was behind three memorable early Tom Baker storiesand whose work outside of the show included many classic dramas has died peacefully aged 81.
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.”
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.
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 includedNorth 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
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.
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 obituaryhere, 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).
My 2013 interview with Terry can be downloaded for free from Big Finishhere.
It’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.
This one was a long time coming, as I had already visited the gentleman once. On that occasion he asked not to be recorded as he felt his voice was weak. We then chatted for 3 hours after which he said “Oh, we should have recorded that!” Still, it meant I got to visit him all over again and that was an absolute pleasure because he has great recall and the most exquisite manners.
He has probably worked with all the major UK comedians of the 20th century.He also has more than a little tie with the Fifth Doctor’s favourite sport. His Doctor, however, was the first. His brush with an alien invasion wasn’t his only connection to Doctor Who and he tells us about encountering a script editor in rep, a drunken Odysseus turning nasty and considering oneself lucky to have worked on such a variety of different things.