Sylvester McCoy interview: Doctor Who, Tiswas, fire, The Minister Of Chance & The Hobbit

Sylvester McCoy talks to us about The Minister Of Chance, burning TV backdrops, the anarchy of Tiswas and, of course, Doctor Who and The Hobbit...

I’m not the only one who thinks this, but Sylvester McCoy got a raw deal with Doctor Who. I’m a big fan of stories such as The Curse Of Fenric, Battlefield, Remembrance Of The Daleks and even The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, yet his tenure was cut short at a point where the show was in a rich vein of form.

Not that that stopped McCoy in his tracks. Far from it. Aside from enjoying the afterlife involved in playing the Doctor on TV, he’s been cast in The Hobbit, has a list of offers, and has now appeared in the terrific audio drama, The Minister Of Chance. And, starting with that, he spared us some time for a chat…

Let’s start with The Minister Of Chance. It’s a lovely project, and I love the ethos behind it. An audio drama that’s very fan-funded, and very close to the fans. Was that a major part of the appeal for you?

Yes. I thought it was a wonderful adventure, breaking new ground. Something very new. It’s getting rid of lots of middle men, and it gets you closer to the fans. They can fund it, by listening to it. That seems to me wonderful, not just for drama, but for other things. It’s a great experiment, and I hope it works!

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What I’m finding is that audio drama in particular is where there’s lots of risk taking and innovation going on.

Yeah. That always happens, really. I think back to my time in children’s television, back in the 1970s, and the amount of innovation that was going on then. Because the mass market wasn’t focused on it, so you had a freedom to do amazing things, like Vision On, and Tiswas. And in a way, again, with this type of thing, it’s not being focused on like television or film is. You can experiment. It’s not as expensive. If this works, just think what you could do with it!

I remember watching you in the late 80s, and you did a children’s TV show there called What’s Your Story, where children rang in to suggest the following day’s storyline. What I loved about that was the risk. Although I suspect most of the kids rang up wanting Doctor Who stories! The Minister Of Chance is just as bold, though, isn’t it? Because you really can tell the stories you want to tell, just without the checking process?

Absolutely. That particular one [What’s Your Story], I thought the first series was the most successful, but the BBC suddenly decided to bring a producer of drama in. It was never quite as good, the second series, although he was massively adventurous.

There was one point where I was talking directly to the camera, live, and the set behind me had caught fire. And they were trying to make me stretch. And my brain was breaking apart, my cells were coming out of my ears! And all I could do to spread was talk slowly, while they put the fire out! It was great fun.

So presumably, once the fire was out, you’re straight back to the set, and carrying on with the live broadcast?

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Oh yes, we just carried on! We had to, it was live! There were other times when we couldn’t get from one scene in the studio to the other in time, they signalled me because I was talking directly to the camera. Spread, or do something else. Keep it going, until we catch up!

I love projects that spring up when nobody’s looking. With The Minister Of Chance, you then face the flip side, though. That you can make it, but to make the fan funding model work, when it comes out you need to get the attention of lots and lots of people? It’s a double edged sword.

Yeah, and that’s what this is all about now. But also the Internet is such a fascinating means of communication. You can get to millions of people now instantly. If you can find a route into that, I think that makes it feasible.

Are you an Internet man yourself?

Not really, no! I use it to receive scripts, and send e-mails. But I prefer pigeon! They’re much more friendly, and you can talk to them as well!

When it came to the project itself is that, behind the new technology, it’s good old-fashioned storytelling at the heart of it. How did it come to you, and could you record it all together?

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Well, I did record with Paul McGann and Paul Darrow, so we could do those scenes together. The other actors, I only just met at the launch. And I found out what they looked like!

But also I had done, many years before, a story comes Death Comes To Time, with Stephen Fry and others. That, again, was a great adventure. We were trying out drama on the Internet for the first time, really. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we did it as an audio. But someone drew some pictures, and put them on the screen. It was like a comic.

And that, having worked with Dan on that, I admired what he did. His soundscapes are just astonishing. He’s proved again with this that the sound quality and the detail that he puts into the sound is really, really exciting.

When Dan sent me the CD for Death Comes To Time, there’s a friend of mine, an actor called Dave Hill, who was also in it. We decided to listen to it together, and I put it into my CD player, and I pressed the button. And we listened to it for an hour, and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. All over the place. We said we suppose this is avant garde, really breaking new ground. And we hoped that after ten minutes or so, it would make some sense. But it didn’t.

So I was on the phone to Dan, and I said to him “we can’t make head nor tail of this”, while standing next to my CD player. And I suddenly noticed that there was a button that said ‘Random’, and it played any old thing. And I’d pressed that! Eventually we discovered there was another button that put it out in the right order! It shows how advanced I am!

How much more have you got to do on The Minister Of Chance? Have you recorded all the episodes you’re going to do on it for the time being?

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Yes, I have. Because I’m going off to do something else, and I didn’t know what the dates were, they’ve done it so they can write me in or out of it.

You’re heading off to New Zealand to shoot The Hobbit, of course. But couldn’t you record your part in The Minister Of Chance remotely from there?

I don’t know. I would imagine you could do. Down in New Zealand, they’ve got all that technology at WETA!

Before I get to The Hobbit and Doctor Who, I’ve got to ask you about Tiswas. Sally James once said that her thought on the show looking back was that there wasn’t a risk assessment that that kind of programme would pass now. Can you give us a flavour of just how anarchic it was behind the scenes, too?

Well, it was extraordinary. And the only reason it was allowed to live was that ATV at the time didn’t have a children’s department. So there was no one there to look at it and say “my God, we can’t do that!”

We used to meet Friday night in the hotel in Birmingham, get rather drunk, and work out what we were going to do the next day on the back of a beermat. And we got up in the morning, still a bit drunk, and went and did the show. It was wonderful. The excitement of it was so astonishing.

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The very first time I did the show, I felt fear, I couldn’t believe what was happening. But then gradually I grew to love it. And when things went wrong, it was at its best. You’d be doing a sketch, and the cameraman would pull away to someone else, and you’d run over and grab the camera and drag it back. And then go over and throw a custard pie in a pop star’s face, and carry on with the rest of it.

It really was alive, so alive doing it. It was chaos, and it would never be allowed.

You’re heading off next to New Zealand to do The Hobbit, then! This must be the biggest adventure of all now?

I think it is, yeah. I think it’s a big one. I’ve had quite a lot of wonderful adventures in my life, and this one, I’m so excited.

Is it pinch yourself time? Because presumably, after coming so close to landing the role of Bilbo Baggins in Lord Of The Rings, this must be the one you thought had slipped away for good?

Yeah, yeah. I nearly got Bilbo, nearly got it, and it was down to two of us in the end. And, of course, Ian Holm got it. I was hugely honoured to be in his company, as it were, but I thought that was it, really. This one, I’m told by the producers and writers, is a better part.

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Is that the worst thing, knowing just how close you came? Is it tougher to deal with than thinking you’d come nowhere near?

No, actually. I was rather flattered. Wow. If Ian couldn’t have done those weeks, I would have got it. It would have been great. In acting quite a lot of the time you’re not the first choice. Usually, you’re second or third. And it can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened. You get used to that.

When did you first hear, then, that you were close to landing a part in The Hobbit? Because the rumour mill had been going for a while.

Well, last summer, Peter Jackson, Fran [Walsh] and Phillippa [Boyens] flew over, and invited me for tea. So they got me a car, and drove over for tea. I thought it was more auditioning, because I’d screentested for it. But when I got there, they said would you play the part? Would I? No! Of course not!

They knew you from before…

Well, they saw my screentest for Radagast The Brown, and Guillermo del Toro, who was going to direct it, he’d okayed it. He was keen that I play the part. I didn’t know this, but I got it from the screentest. It wasn’t until I went to see them for tea that I knew. They were asking my permission to be in it!

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Do they make good tea, too?

Oh yeah! The tea and biscuits were great!

There have been, of course, many times over the past year when it looked like The Hobbit films weren’t going to happen, what with del Toro leaving, and the budget collapsing at one point. Do you fear it might be doomed?

Yeah, but every actor is always prepared for the worst when it comes to work. I was pleased that I’d got it, so that would have made me pretty happy anyway if it hadn’t gone on. But this makes me even happier!

Doctor Who questions, then!

I’ve been talking to a couple of people about making television programmes for the BBC at the moment, and their comments reflect what you’ve said in the past about Doctor Who. In their case, even though the scale of productions has gone through the roof, it’s not budget they complain about, but time. That it’s the great unresolved problem in television.

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Yeah, yeah. I was surprised to hear, chatting to people, about the hours they’ve got to work to get anything half decent. The frustration they have with it.

Regarding the time constraints on Doctor Who, was there a story you ever felt was held back to a degree because of the brutality of the schedule?

Yeah. It’s a long time back, but the one where Ace arrived…


Yeah. In that, she was at the end of an episode, hanging off a cliff edge. That all made sense while we did it. But because of time, it got lost. Editing time was the big bugbear for Ghost Light. It made sense there while we did it, too, but when it came out, it didn’t.

Also, John Nathan Turner would agree a story, Survival I think it was, where he thought the BBC would accept four episodes, and they went for three. So all that was a big, big problem. Sometimes a story didn’t make as much sense as when we read them in a script, and that was frustrating.

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At the moment, with Doctor Who, the show is at a point where the BBC will give an extra ten minutes to an episode if it needs it. It’s interesting, though, that you say it’s the actual editing that was as much of the problem.

The one thing that always struck me, particularly about the later stories you did, was that there was a siege mentality. Particularly in that last series, scheduled against Coronation Street, where the stories were punching very much above their weight. It feels like a “look what we can do while nobody’s looking” thing again.

Yes. We just got on with it, really. There was a feeling of optimism in that third year, because the feedback we were getting from the fanbase and the magazine sales was that we were onto something that was working. And we were turning the corner. That’s what made it very exciting, and the thought of a fourth season.

My arm had been twisted to do the fourth season. I was only going to do three, because that’s what Patrick Troughton said and Peter Davison had said. But when they twisted my arm to do a fourth, and also 26 episodes, rather than 15, I was very excited.

I think we could have really taken off. But sadly, we were not allowed to do that.

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There was some exceptionally mature writing at that stage.

I agree with you. Rona Munro, she’s one of our top class playwrights now. I was very excited by the fact that it was a female writer writing for us. There weren’t too many of them around in TV at the time.

I look at something like The Curse Of Fenric. There’s a bit there where Sophie Aldred picks up the baby that I always felt had a real emotional wallop to it. And the great irony was that that’s what people were supposed to be watching Coronation Street to get, and it was on the other channel, while nobody was watching.

Yes [laughs]. Absolutely. And also, the monster in that was particularly wonderful. I thought it was the best we had. That face, it was so alive.

You talk about the fourth series, but the one thing I’m curious about was did you have your ending in mind? Because the show at that stage was going down some dark roads, and you would, presumably, have continued in that vein?

Yeah. The idea was to try and peel off an onion layer, and create a new mystery for the Doctor. To make him much more mysterious. And also, perhaps make him more dangerous and uncertain. You didn’t really know where you were with him. But at the same time, having a multi-facted character with a comic element as well, that was an exciting journey for all of us creatively, to try and achieve that.

The endgame, I’m not sure we got to think about that really. I think if we had done it, it might have taken off in a big way, and I might be Tom Baker now [laughs], and think I am the Doctor!

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Have you read his autobiography?

I have, yes. It’s wonderful!

You’re back doing Doctor Who now, of course. The great irony is that after the show was cancelled, you got the opportunity to explore the character more than any other Doctor has. Particularly the relationship with Sophie. And now you’re finally finishing Downtime!

Yeah, I’ve done the voice work for that. It’s going to be made into a cartoon. That’ll be fun, that’ll be interesting. Sophie just rang me trying to find out where the studio was, so she could go and do her voice stuff.

Finally, can we chat theatre? That’s your background. I remember once you’d finished Doctor Who, you went on tour in a play where you had no clothes on, that my dad wouldn’t let me go and see!

Oh yes! That was an Alan Bleasdale play!

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Which presumably was an anti-reaction to doing Doctor Who at that point anyway?

Yeah, it was. That was the idea, really.

The thing that strikes me with actors who have their grounding in theatre, particularly now when doing both high and low budget work, is demanding green screen work, is that imagination really is coming to the fore. And it’s in theatre where imagination tends to be paramount. Are you finding that? That your background is strengthening what you can do?

I think so, yes. I was chatting to our producer who was going on about working with British actors, and how they like working with British actors because they had a theatrical background. And that working with American actors, although they could be funny on the screen, there was something not there.

And it was to do with the fact that we were used to working in the theatre, and we had that imagination. I think that my imagination was highly polished, working in theatre and also in children’s television, with Tiswas, Eureka and Jigsaw, where you were given total freedom to let rip. You couldn’t get that on television nowadays.

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Leslie Phillips wrote in his autobiography that actors don’t retire, the phone stops ringing. For you, it doesn’t sound like that’s close to happening at all! What projects are you heading for post-Hobbit, or is that just eating up your year?

Well, The Hobbit is principally the highlight. I’m about to do a play on Liechtenstein, but because I’m off to do The Hobbit, they’re going to film me. This play is going to be on at the Riverside. I’ve been looking forward to that. And then I’ve just received a script for the Edinburgh Festival to do a play about Arthur Scargill, which I’m excited to look at. Things are happening, really! And I’m going to a Doctor Who convention in Barcelona!

Are you finding the people who cast you, as happened in Doctors, were fans of yours when growing up?

Yes. It’s lovely to realise that they’ve just been waiting since they were five to give you a job!

I suspect, then, you’ve got generations waiting to employ you right now!

I certainly hope so [laughs]!

Sylvester McCoy, thank you very much

Do consider supporting The Minister Of Chance. You can download the prologue for free right here

Minister Of Chance Sylvester McCoy pictures are (C) 2011 Radio Static/Ian Nolan