I was rather saddened to recently learn of the death of the actor Richard Shaw. When I first saw the brilliant Quatermass and the Pit many years ago, I was captivated by it, and thrilled at what a complex and sumptuous production it was. I was also taken by many of the performances, but one that really stuck out was that of Richard Shaw as the beleaguered workman Sladden. Initially brought in to do a hush-hush drilling job to get into the hull of the mysterious object buried in Hobbs Lane, he is initially a typical, chirpy, working class character. As the story unfolds, however, he becomes pivotal, being the first to completely succumb to the baleful influence of the Martian inheritance dormant within us all. In a sequence even my Mum remembered from watching all those years ago, he assumes the gait and posture of one of the creatures, as all about him the pit goes haywire. Eventually seeking solace in a churchyard, he collapses to the ground and the gravel beneath him begins to move. Later, under cross examination by Quatermass, he has a vision of life on Mars five million years previously. So many aspects of Shaw’s performance could well have been hokey, and yet he pulled off every one brilliantly. Actors now are well versed in the tropes of science fiction, not so then. It is a performance well ahead of its time, by a largely jobbing character actor who merrily filled the screen both big and small, in roles which similarly filled the spectrum (he has one line in A Night To Remember, and none in The Dirty Dozen, but bigger roles in 633 Squadron and the Doctor Who story The Space Museum in which he was the lead villain). I enjoyed his performance in Quatermass so much that I entered into a correspondence with him. He was the first actor to whom I had plucked up the courage to do this, and the fact that he replied encouraged me to contact more people, and so a teenage pastime was born, which has of course, been greatly useful to me in later life.
As none of my Quatermass archive has been published (bar the use of my photographic collection on the BBC DVD release – in the gallery and booklet), it seems fitting that the original contribution to it should be the first to hit the public domain.
Richard was deeply flattered to have been contacted about his role in the show – “you bring back long lost memories, where have all the years gone?” he asked. Rudolph Cartier had seen him in a play called The Schirmer Inheritance and offered Richard the role of Sladden. “When I read the script I realised it was a very important part and I quote, said thank you, and took the part.” He had fond memories of the cast, and as for producer Rudolph Cartier: “He was the finest director at the BBC, a very hard task master who was a joy to work for and in fact I did eight other plays for him.”
“Sladden was very difficult to play, trying to sustain the level of being twisted and torn by the Martians was very wearing – in those days everything we did was live, though we did do a little on film. During one of my runs through the flying objects I did break my toe. To say it was painful is putting in mildly but I had to keep shooting.” Original Quatermass monster actor Duncan Lamont played Richard’s role in the subsequent feature film, because “I was asked to play it originally but was already committed to another film with Ray Milland so had to say ‘Sorry, I can’t do it’”.
Richard, a humble, charming man, was not one to overplay his importance in the show, and was very happy to be reminded of his work on it, and proud of the serial itself. “I am very aware that I seem to be remembered for my performance in Quatermass, people still come up to me and I am very touched by it. It is gratifying to know my work is appreciated.”
After Quatermass, Richard continued to work over the next few decades, notching up three performances in Doctor Who. His biggest role was in The Space Museum. “Bill Hartnell was a long standing friend and we had worked together many times. When I played Lobos I sustained a severe blow to my left eye which caused some problems for the first episodes but we had to carry on.”
The late Bernard Wilkie recalled that Richard had been extremely co-operative and a joy to work with on his difficult, effects heavy scenes. Patrick Connor (also no longer with us, alas), who played a policeman in the series, also remembered Richard; “He was, to my knowledge, the only actor in the cast to have had only TV and film experience (i.e. none on the live stage). The number of actors without theatre experience had started to grow, and to some degree they were slightly looked down upon by theatre actors. Most of them were a bit aggressive and had a bit of a chip on their shoulder – but I got on with Richard fine”.
Very much one of those “I know the face but…” actors, despite a five decade career in some major productions, it is unlikely that Richard’s passing in April, aged 90, will get the acknowledgement it deserves, so I hope this little corner of the internet serves as some sort of tribute to the man and his work.
Richard Shaw 1920 – 2010, RIP.