Sylvester McCoy interview: The Hobbit, Doctor Who and more

Interview Simon Brew 2 Apr 2013 - 06:30

Sylvester McCoy chats to us about working with Richard Briers, The Hobbit, Doctor Who and more...

The fates didn't seem to be with us when we called up Sylvester McCoy for a brief chat primarily about his work in The Hobbit, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today. A bad line plagued the call, sadly, but we did still manage to talk Doctor Who, The Hobbit and Richard Briers. Here's how we got on..

Shall we get the inevitable Doctor Who question done first! I figure everyone asks you, but do you have any involvement in the 50th anniversary at any level?

No! Somebody mentioned something that the BBC is running on the weekend when it goes out. Big Finish have done us proud, they're coming out with something really exciting. The BBC, we've heard nothing though.

One Doctor Who thing I did want to ask you. You worked with the wonderful Richard Briers on the show, who we sadly lost a few weeks ago. Can you just tell us a little about working with him?

It was great working with him. He made me laugh, and I've really happy and proud to say that I made him laugh. We got on really well, and I remember him once saying to me 'you're one of us'. Oh, I was so proud. I was a huge admirer of him, and his comic timing, and his lightness of touch.  His amazing humour. For him to say that to me was wonderful.

You always said when working on Doctor Who that the biggest enemy was never money, it was time. On The Hobbit, money didn't seem to be in that short a supply. Did you still feel the same deadline pressure though?

Well, there's always pressure on filming. There's the weather, people, various different technical problems. There's always pressure! And there's never really enough time for anything, really!

The time pressure sounds a little more relaxed than Doctor Who, though?

Time can be a constraint. But then constraint can sometimes be a good thing I've found. 

I read David Weston's book, Covering McKellen, about your year-long RSC experience touring King Lear. It gave a real sense of the camaraderie of a company of actors on a theatrical tour. Does a big ensemble movie like The Hobbit have that same kind of feel to it?

Yes it does actually. I mean, I don't really approve of David Weston's book, because what goes on tour stays on tour. That's by-the-by, but you can mention the fact that I disliked that he did it. It's a good question though. There is a wonderful feeling of camaraderie, yes. I wasn't there all the time, I was back and forth. Five times I came back, every time I went back, you could see the wonderful friendships, all the dwarves, Ian, everyone. I was allowed to dip in and out of it. It was very much like that camaraderie.

Did you get a feel of being part of it then, considering you were dipping in and out?

I did, I did, yes. Very much so, because they were very welcoming.

This does look like a real adventure, and a fun job. A big journey to the other side of the world, filming such an iconic book, and then filming it with Peter Jackson?

Yes. The thing is, I'm a gypsy, I love travelling! The chance to go there. What I would try and do is go two weeks before and stop off, an so on my unexpected journey, I've been to India, to China, Hong Kong, Japan, to the South Sea Islands. America. Australia. So I've had a great adventure in my own life, going off to do this other, wonderful adventure in film. 

Back in your Doctor Who days, you were touring around Britain too, and for those of us who didn't live in London or New York, touring productions were always very much appreciated. You've always struck me as a theatre person first?

You're quite right. I do actually like performing to a live audience. I like the response. I do a lot of Doctor Who conventions now, and the reason that I do them is that there is a live audience I can get to directly. Physically, too, as I get off the stage and harangue them from close up! I do like it.

But I also enjoy film. It's very, very different from theatre. Theatre is like broad brush painting, where you can go anywhere with your brush. But film is like painting with one of those little, pointy brushes, a stroke here and a stroke there. I love that as well. You have to internalise everything and get it right deep inside. And when you feel you get it right, it's almost orgasmic! It's a lovely experience.

It's often said that film is 100 hours of preparation for one minute of perfection?

Indeed, yeah.

Film has been a surprisingly small part of your acting life though. You've done so many different, varied things, but not too much film?

I suppose it has in a way. I haven't done enough really.

Is that by your own design, or down to the offers that have come your way?

I've never planned my career really. It just comes along, and I do whatever comes next!

So in the immediate future, I'm guessing your work on The Hobbit isn't quite done yet?

I can't say! 

I thought you might say that! You seem to be having a great deal of fun with the character from what we saw though. All the better, given that I read you'd had your hips done not too long ago!

Yeah, it was great fun. And once you've got your hips done, then hopefully they're alright for a bit! I'm this old hippy with new hips!

An odd question, then. Are you glad you got this now? I've spoken to some actors who landed a very, very major film much earlier in their career, and it's clearly diverted their choices as a consequence of that. Was this right for you at this point though?

Well, I suppose in a way I wish it had happened ten years earlier when I was up for Bilbo Baggins. But then, this is a better part than Bilbo Baggins.

You've never sounded in the slightest bit downbeat about what happened ten years ago though (when Sylvester was down to the final two for the role of Bilbo, that ultimately went to Ian Holm)? You've said before that you took it all as a compliment?

Oh it was, it was. To be in the company of Ian Holm was wonderful.

Going forward then, is your planned Arthur Scargill play still happening?

Ah no, it's not managed to go ahead. The problem is that films and such forth have got in the way of it all.

And you're staying close to The Minister Of Chance too?

Yes! I'm playing a villain in that. It's great!

Anything else on the horizon?

I'm making a film at the moment, and I'm just going off after this call to go and make a thing called The Christmas Candle. I'm playing a candle maker in a Victorian village. And there's this miraculous candle that brings miracles every now and then. It's got Susan Boyle in it too.

Sylvester McCoy, thank you very much!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. More details on The Minister Of Chance can be found here.

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It's a shame the BBC have let this last chance to get all the surviving Doctors together to celebrate the show slip past, but at least Big Finish are giving us a proper reunion.

I could almost cry. Everything I've feared about the Anniversary Special is coming true before my eyes. :(

....Or it might be misdirection by the BBC so they can announce them all in the special later as a surprise. Remember only a couple of weeks ago David Tennant was saying he had 'given up hope, about being asked' and was strongly suggesting that he wouldn't show up in the special...and of course over the weekend we got the news that he would be returning along with Billie Piper (who also said she didn't she would be returning when asked.)
That isn't to say that we should take their denials as confirmation that they will be appearing, but in the case of the 50th with all the non-disclosure agreements they have to sign we will only know for sure who will appear when the episode airs!

The only way that there would be any chance of their roles staying secret until the episode airs would be if their roles weren't very big at all. I'd rather not relegate the old Doctors to tiny cameos while Tennant and Smith hog the limelight.

I'm sure if they are in the episode they will be announced before the episode's actual air date, but if they were only shooting for a week or so (on a televion schedule that'll mean small roles, but slightly more than cameo) and all their stuff was onset rather than location they could keep it secret for quite awhile...Alot speculation seems to be that they announced Tennant so early because he has to do some location shooting outside the Powell Estate early on in filming (which would have been next to impossible to keep quiet.)

In anycase the wording of the press release announcing Tennant's return with 'and more special guests to be annouced' would certainly suggest we are not just going to get Tennant and Smith as the only 2 Doctor's!

I'm just going to throw in my opinion that I always found the anniversary specials with multiple Doctor's are naff even when I was a boy. I mean I know it's tradition that they try to hoover up as many surviving Doctors as possible butI don't particularly mind the idea of it just being Tennant and Smith, Eccleston at a push. I don't really think I can take the idea of McCoy, Davison and the Bakers running down corridors to overload and inappropriately placed music scores while gushing about humanity being amazing and timey wimey stuff. That said, it would be a lovely gesture if they at least tried to incorporate some of the show's legacy in some regard.

Stan and Glasgow guy...what can I say. I loved the Anniversery specials...well the first 2 anyway. And I was a kid when I saw them. I saw the three Doctors years later and I thought it was great, because it was a proper normal Doctor Who story that had all 3 of the past Doctors in it. And I just thought Patrick Troughton was wonderful in all his scenes with Jon Pertwee. He had such a good time going back to do this one story, he said years later that he had made a mistake in leaving too soon and was only two happy to go back for the 5 Doctors and the 2 Doctors with Colin etc.

The Five Doctors was great..just such good fun and everyone involved got something to do somewhere. The Raston Warrior Robot with the Cybermen is a stand out moment from the classic run. Seeing Pertwee again with Sarah Jane, The Brig etc...it was good fun and a great celebration for the show.

There is also the fact that it had a long running time in its favour to give everyone screen time and enough plot. That's not the case these days sadly. One problem with the modern Who is time. And too many characters. 45 minutes is not enough to give - The Doctor, Amy, Rory, River and then the monster of the week plus the extras something to do. It just isn't. The last season of Amy Rory and the Doctor hardly had much Doctor in it. It was all about Amy and Rory.

Anyway Tennant and Smith will be good, along with Zygons and what looks like an ancient setting. However if its only going to be 60 minutes as they keep saying, its going to be hard to give everyone lots to do. If they make it longer and are trying to keep it a secret then that would be even better, we will just have to wait and see.

I think what I was trying to get at was that McCoy, Davison and the Bakers are from a different era and a different show and while it would be nice if the BBC would acknowledge the legacy of these fine actors it's not so essential to incorporate them in way that the anniversary specials traditionally did with it's guest star Doctors . No offense to Mr McCoy but, for better or worse, Doctor Who is an awfully young show these days with the NuWho as a whole more manic and more energetic than their predecessors even in their day. That said, it wold be nice if they popped up in some respect or were at least asked to join in. I'm fairly ambivalent about the inclusion of the Old Who Doctors you could say.

Rule number one: The Doctor lies...

The Hobbit out next week according to Amazon. Which retailers are selling it today please?

Nice interview. Thanks for this. I thought McCoy was brilliant in The Hobbit, and it reminded me just how good his Doctor actually was, however handicapped he might initially have been by poor scripts, a naff companion and BBC hostility. The last season before it was axed had some really excellent stories, ones which now seem like harbingers of what was to come after the show was revived. Shrink Ghost Light down to 45 minutes, and you are almost in new era territory! (I also liked him for shunning a slashy wide-boy south east accent - why not a Scottish doctor?)

I know. I know what you mean exactly. However its just not going to happen, no matter how much we want it. Sadly the original live Doctors now look way too old, and way too fat and bald etc to get away with it, or look anything like what they did. Its sad, but true.

Then there is the fact that the general public does not want to see anyone over the age of 40 on Tv anymore. Or the powers that be / managers think that no one wants to see them. Could you imagine a 51 year old playing the Doctor again like Jon Pertwee? With big white hair? Its not going to happen.

Then there is the fact that it will only be an hour long. So it will be dashing around, shouting , Sonic waving, and I am sure Sonic comparing, arguing, pratting about, showing off, Zygons, then dead Zygons. With a bit of history of the show in there and nods to the other Doctors, if we are lucky. There wont be time for anything else in an hour. And because of that there wont be room for other Doctors. If you come to brass tacks look at it like this -

60 minutes long = The following screen time for each person / part

10 minutes for Mat Smith
10 minutes for D Tennant
10 minutes for Billie Piper
10 minutes for Jenna Louise C
10 minutes for cast extras, plot setup, location intro etc
10 minutes for Zygons

If you add any other Doctors in there, then screen time for the others goes down. Add in River Song, Add in Captain Jack, etc and that takes time from the others, so you can re introduce Captain Jack say, and cover what he has been / is doing and where he is. That's how it works.

Its one of the reasons I am VERY glad its back to just the Doctor and 1 Companion now, because in 45 minutes of episode there is not a lot of time. Rory, Amy, River then the Doctor hardly gets a look in. It did not matter in the classic series when you got four or six parters as there was plenty of time to give everyone something to do and build up characters. And nowadays you cant do that.

Its also a big part of the reason I am starting to prefer the classic show to the new one as I get older.

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