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.
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
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.
Because having each individual podcast listed is making my podcast page way too big I’m dismantling it but retaining the info here on my blog. There is a much better resource for this info, including links to all the charities, on Bog Finish’s page here. Thanks to Ian Atkins for doing such a sterling job on it that makes my poor effort redundant. Click on the Episode number to get to its download page.
Apologies for the lack of photos but my Mac isn’t playing ball at the moment.
Episode 25 – Doreen James This lady dressed to impress: but it was others she was putting the clothes on, providing distinctive costumes for two stunningly good Tom Baker stories. So we get the goss on a bespoke housecoat, a companion who wore clothes particularly well, and possibly the finest hat in Doctor Who‘s history. All that and a chat about Dobbin from Rentaghost too. Chosen charity: Medical Aid For Palestinians (MAP).
Episode 26 – Viktors Ritelis A rare interview with a man whose directing credits stretch from Colditz to Home And Away, but who was even further behind-the-scenes on 1960s Doctor Who when he was right hand man to the prolific and acclaimed Douglas Camfield. He discusses winning over William Hartnell, shaving an actress and the differences between working in Australia and the UK. Chosen charity: The Heart Foundation.
Episode 27 – Ray Lonnen and Tara Ward Another husband and wife – one who appeared with Jon Pertwee and the other with Peter Davison. Between them they have hundreds of credits but diversity too : Tara is a best selling writer, whilst Ray has played the lead character in some seminal TV. Ray and tara talk about falling in love at the right time, being animal lovers and, oh no, The Myrka! I am still in touch with Tara and saw them both again after this – Ray sadly lost his battle with cancer in 2014 and it was a sad duty but an honour to write his obituary for The Guardian. Chosen Charity: Cancer Research and PDSA.
Episode 28 – Peter Straker Destiny Of The Daleks had already been done but who cares? Peter has never done an interview about Doctor Who before and has a terrific time over a bottle of wine (or two) discussing singing, wearing a dress for Freddie Mercury, and not being available for a second visit to Doctor Who‘s universe. Chosen charity: MacMillan Nurses.
Episode 29 – Bob Mills He didn’t do an awful lot in Doctor Who but his memories are pretty detailed. Beyond that though, Bob has plenty to talk about as he gives us an insight into the life of a walk-on, then his completely unrelated move into stand-up as the alternative circuit blossomed. Topics include his Dad’s near miss with stardom, running the wrong way in battle, and the strangest comedians you’ve never head of. Chosen Charity: Make A Wish Foundation.
Episode 30 – Zoe Wanamaker A relatively quick chat with one of the country’s leading actresses, but there is still time for plenty of chuckles from her as she discusses cosmetic surgery, the Globe Theatre and unfulfilled ambitions. And there’s even space to squeeze in a very cheeky message for the fans. Definitely my most nervous contribution to the Who’s Round oeuvre. Chosen charity: The Globe Theatre.
Episode 31 – Vernon Dobtcheff If you could distill Essence Of Actor into one human being, then this prolific performer (“the patron saint of the profession” – Rupert Everett) would be the result. He discusses a career in several languages, always being the 29th choice for a role, and suddenly having access to “senior parts”. A wonderful addition to the canon and a most enjoyable conversation with a delightful man. Chosen charity: Unicef.
Episode 32 – Simon Fisher-Becker A one scene cameo was successful enough to make this man become a popular returning character. Simon, who has embraced the Doctor Who Universe, regales us with tales about always seeing the same faces at auditions and does a tour de force of a message to Doctor Who fans in the first Who’s Round to be conducted in front of a (very small) audience. Chosen Charity: Parkinson’s Society, St Christopher’s Hospice and Compaid.
Episode 33 – David Weston A true man of the theatre who worked with Doctors One and Four in the show but recently brushed with Seven on stage all over the world. Topics for discussion include acting being a “rather sad” profession, Julian Fellowes and going on for Derek Jacobi with no help from a director whatsoever. Chosen charity: Crohn’s Disease.
Episode 34 – Ben Peyton A vocal contribution only, and no credit, yet this open and friendly actor was the lead villain in a Matt Smith episode. He was also a regular in The Bill and talks candidly about his demise in the infamous Sun Hill fire, plus auditioning for an ever shrinking part in Band Of Brothers, acting with Paris Hilton, and retiring in his 30s. Chosen charity: The Meningitis Trust.
Episode 35 – Dan Starkey Everyone’s favourite Sontaran sidekick, Dan Starkey has moved from guest actor to much loved semi-regular, appearing in a number of key New Series episodes. There’s more to him than Sontar-Ha though, as this talented mimic talks phonetics, tongue action (or lack of) and being a fan of the series he became a star of. Chosen charity: Leonard Cheshire Disability and Compaid.
A key contributor to a story who didn’t appear on its DVD release,this villainous fellow turns out to be charming, chatty and slightly eccentric – and all the more interesting for it.
My friend Peter and I drove to the coast in order to spend a windsweptafternoon over a pint or two with this gent whose career has taken him to Canada and back, via three iconic entertainment stands : Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and James Bond.
So big thanks to Peter for putting the miles in, and thanks too to Mark Wright or facilitating an introduction.Have a listen to this latest episode here.