The Den Of Geek interview: Nicholas Courtney
It's the Brig! Talking to Den Of Geek! Doctor Who veteran Nicholas Courtney joins us for a chat...
Nicholas Courtney has been involved in Doctor Who since his first appearance in the William Hartnell adventure The Daleks’ Master Plan in 1965. Nicholas returned to the show in 1968 as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, going on to become the time-lord’s confidante on a vast series of adventures, though the bulk of the Brig’s appearances come in the ‘UNIT years’, 1969-74.
The Brigadier’s forty-odd years in Doctor Who are recounted, along with Courtney’s life and times, in the autobiographical works Five Rounds Rapid and Still Getting Away With It, and Courtney continues his association with the Brigadier via audio work, and with Davros actor Terry Molloy through their adventures on Cosmic Hobo Productions’ Scarifiers audio CDs.
We had a chat with Nicholas shortly after the broadcast of the closing episode of the series 4 Sontaran adventure, ‘The Poison Sky’, where Tennant referred to the Brigadier, who was – according to the new UNIT – ‘stranded in Peru’…
Haha! Peru! Very amusing. I was told about that. I think the next issue of the Doctor Who magazine is going to put a little cartoon of me looking at a map of Peru. Quite what the Brigadier’s doing in Peru, I don’t know. Abandoned, maybe. Stranded, or something.
Fans of the Brigadier are naturally hoping that this Peruvian announcement presages an appearance from you in the series…?
Well, who knows? No-one’s told me anything. They really haven’t! It does seem odd that they mentioned the name. Maybe they are thinking of giving me a special some time or other. A one-off… I don’t know.
Is that something you’d be interested in doing?
Oh I think so, yes. I think I put that in the Radio Times, actually. Yes, I wouldn’t mind coming back, if the script was all right, which I’m sure it would be.
What do you think of the new UNIT in Doctor Who, with their amazing new technology and floating platforms…?
Well, there you are. Technology, you see – we didn’t have that in my day. We had to make do and make do and mend; very Heath-Robinson, ordinary. It is wonderful technology, and it’s wonderful in the whole programme, the special effects that they can do, absolutely mind-boggling. But the same amount of my squaddies seem to get mown down as were mown down before.
These alien civilisations were all very hushed-up in the Brigadier’s heyday. What do you think of the world knowing about aliens in the new Who?
That’s a good question. I don’t know…it was all very confidential. I don’t know what to say, that never occurred to me! The programme’s very very different from what it used to be anyway.
It’s all a bit rushed sometimes. It’s a heck of a lot to get in in three quarters of an hour, the whole story. In the old days, it used to be half an hour every Saturday for four Saturdays, or six Saturdays, so it does all seem to be a bit of a rush. In fact, it leaves me rather gasping for breath sometimes.
Is it not an advantage that they pack more into each show?
Well, I don’t know, I think I preferred it when it was a little more leisurely [laughs], but that’s just a personal thing. I think it’s probably right for 2008. I think people’s attention span is more limited than it used to be. Sometimes I find it hard to follow, though it’s not surprising with the last one [The Poison Sky], because I didn’t see the first episode, so I can’t really comment. I think the Sontarans looked rather good. I like Catherine Tate too, she’s good.
I was going to ask you…you presided over Lust In Space in 1998 to determine if Doctor Who was sexist or not…?
Oh, I remember that!
Do you think the Doctor would get off scot-free now?
I don’t know. She’s quiet a self-possessed woman, Catherine Tate. I don’t know, that was quite a spoof program, about it being sexist. I think it’s only because the older Doctors used to do most of the thinking and the girls were to keep the fathers happy watching.
Your experience with Doctor Who is, I believe, more extensive than anyone else who’s been regularly associated with it –
Well, it’s very long, I must say [laughs]. 1965 was the first one I did, with William Hartnell. That character got killed off and I was resurrected as the Brigadier in 68-69…and they haven’t got rid of me yet! [laughs]. They will do at some point.
Would you find it hard to take direction in the role of the Brigadier now?
Oh no! No, I like direction. I don’t find it hard to take direction at all.
Tom Baker was legendary for feeling, perhaps rightly, that he knew more about the character than a director who had come on board for one story…?
That’s possible, yes, but Tom is Tom and I’m me. Unless it’s something I’d violently disagree with, then I’d say something, but I’m very receptive to direction.
It’s true, I do know my character. Anyone who would direct it these days must have been watching [Doctor Who] over the years, and would probably know what sort of bloke the Brigadier was. But I’m pretty emollient, pretty easy [laughs].
The Brigadier’s temperament changed quite a lot over the course of Doctor Who. Were you always trying to steer the character towards a particular type of personality?
No, I think I established him early on. I tried to get, in the scripts, the humour out of the man. Not that I played him for laughs, I didn’t, but the fact that he got so many things wrong sometimes, like imagining that some planet was chroba – I wrote that line myself, actually. I wanted to get the humour in. So when he sees the Doctor changing from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, I thought I’d better say ‘Here we go again’, because he’s already seen it happen once or twice, just to get that humour in.
But I played it for real, not for laughs, I think .
Was there ever a risk in the 70s that the Brig might become a Monty Python-type caricature of a martial personality?
Never. I always played it for real – I didn’t think it would work unless I did. Although I was only a private when I was in the army, my father was an army man, so maybe some of that rubbed off. And of course, when I did my national service it gave me a chance to observe some of the officers – some of the ones that you would follow into battle.
I was wondering if your father was a major influence on Lethbridge-Stewart?
No, not really. It just emerged when I was asked to play it. Originally I was going to play a character that got killed, but then the actor who was booked for Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart – David Langton – bowed out or couldn’t do it, or something. So I was asked to take over the Colonel, and I found that it came rather naturally – I don’t know why.
So it wasn’t based necessarily on my father, who actually fought in the first world war, but in the second world war he was in the diplomatic service.
One of the functions of Lethbridge-Stewart has been to highlight the Doctor’s pacifism, hence the ‘five rounds rapid’ saying. Was he too trigger-happy sometimes?
No, I think he played it the way he had to do. He was in charge of security and who could blame him. I think he acted according to his own lights. He disagreed with the Doctor about the Silurians – he couldn’t go on having people killed, so he had to blow ‘em all up [laughs]. I think it’s the military solution. I don’t think he was trigger-happy necessarily.
Was there a lot of debate as to which Doctor you’d be assigned to in The Five Doctors?
Yes! Originally, when Tom Baker might have been doing it, but didn’t, they had to rearrange it. I think originally Liz Sladen was going to be with Tom. I’m not quite sure how it worked out that I had all my stuff with Patrick Troughton, but it was lovely. I liked working with him very much, because he was great fun to be with, and those scenes with him worked very well, I think.
Were you aware of any slight rivalries between The Five Doctors, on the set? They only share the one scene at the end…
No, that’s just the way the story was developed, when they all finally met. Then the Brigadier comes and sees the Jon Pertwee Doctor, and he thought he’d never see him again, so he’s rather overwhelmed and taken aback.
In fact, on the first day that we recorded, I completely dried up on the first take! [laughs] The emotion took over in the part. I enjoyed doing The Five Doctors – I thought it all worked rather well. Liked the Rastan robot…
Yes! Do you think it would have been possible to recreate the symbiosis between you and the Doctor in the Tom Baker era?
I’m sure it would. I only did two stories with Tom – the first one, where he took over from John, Robot, and then the Zygons a bit later. I imagine so, but by that time they’d done a lot of stuff on Earth, so the Brigadier was phased out as they went round the galaxy again, to different planets.
I get on very well with Tom now. I see him from time to time. He’s a wonderful character.
Is the evolution of Lethbridge-Stewart still very clear to you, given the cross-pollination between TV, audio and books?
Yes. The character I made to suit myself. Some of the writers, particularly Terrance Dicks, were very good with the character and write for me very well; I didn’t need to change lines or anything, as the character was very firmly established and has been established, I suppose. As you say, I’ve done a lot of audio ones as well…
The only reason I mention it is that the Doctor mentioned ‘the Brigadier’ on Saturday [in The Poison Sky], to general understanding of who he was referring to, but I believe Lethbridge-Stewart is now a general…? Yes, he is a general. We’d done an audio-story which I think was called Time Heals…it was a UNIT story with Big Finish. He manages to sort the situation out and he gets his knighthood and promoted to a general, I believe. I’d quite like to keep him as the Brigadier. I wouldn’t mind him being a lord. If they want to put him in the House Of Lords, that’s quite fun…
So fans are never able to catch you out with their exhaustive knowledge of the Brig at conventions?
No! [laughs] Unless they made up something themselves. Certainly they can remember things better than I can sometimes, and they’ll say ‘Why, when this happened on such-and-such a story…?’. And that was eight years ago, but they’ve remembered it…
What can you tell us about your role in The Scarifyers?
I think that he people who wrote it, Simon Bernard and Paul Morris, rather liked the idea of me playing this inspector, this rather straightforward inspector, but there’s something of Lethbridge-Stewart about him probably. [laughs] I’m the same actor! But he’s much more direct, and I think it works quite well. So far the four stories that we’ve had deal with the occult in some way or another, so there are echoes of Doctor Who there.
When they first wrote it, Simon Bernard told me that he’d written it with me in mind, which is very nice – I like that. And Terry Molloy’s great as my sidekick, the professor.
Are you happy to be so associated with science-fiction?
It’s funny, because I’ve never been interested in science-fiction, particularly. History’s more my subject, which is rather why I wish that in some of my Doctor Who stories I’d gone to visit different centuries, because the history of it would have interested me.
I’m pretty ignorant about science-fiction, I think, but that’s why [Lethbridge-Stewart] makes a good foil for the Doctor. He’s a good guy, the Brigadier, but his knowledge of science-fiction isn’t, I should think, very extensive [laughs].
Was there ever a period where you resisted your association with the role?
No, but I wondered…I think it was when Barry Letts was leaving and I suddenly went up to [the new producer] and said ‘Look, you don’t have to be…if you want to get rid of me, kill me off, give me a good ending to go out on’, and he said ‘No, we don’t want to kill you off’, and so they never did.
Years later I did Battlefield with Sylvester McCoy. John Nathan-Turner said ‘Look, we’re thinking of killing you off. Do you mind?’. I said ‘No, give me a good send-off…’. But there again they delayed it and it didn’t happen, they didn’t kill him off.
You seem to be stuck with it by now!
I think I am now [laughs]. It’s been a long time. I don’t mind. I’m rather fond of the old boy.
Looking back over your body of work, you always seem to have played doctors, bank managers and very—
Did you ever fancy playing villains, low-lifes…?
Oh yes! I like playing nasties. On the stage I used to play many more, a number of villains. And, indeed, in my early TV career, in The Saint and The Champions and one or two others where I played rather doubtful characters, if I remember rightly. They’re very good parts, usually.
Would you like to have done more comedy?
I did a lot of comedy on stage, actually, in my first ten years in the business, in the old days of repertory, where you used to get through a hell of a lot of plays. I learnt a lot about comedy then, though of course it’s different onstage than on television. But I enjoy all forms really, though I particularly like to do radio, which I did a lot of in the 1980s when I was on the BBC drama company, which was great fun. I like doing comedy, yes. Particularly on stage, where you get a very good audience rapport that comes back.
What was your experience of working with Frankie Howerd?
Oh yes, in Then Churchill Said To Me. That was very good. I liked Frankie very much. He was very unselfish. He didn’t mind about other people getting the laughs at all. He was always rather concerned about the scripts; he spent a lot of time changing them – rather too much, actually. But I got on very well with Frankie. I always found him a very funny man, from way back. He was very generous, and took us all out after the series, to the White City or something, to dinner. I’m a great admirer of his.
Do you consider the most important body of your work to have been done in the theatre?
Well, I’ve done some serious work on TV as well. That is the background it gave me, the days of weekly rep, where you had to really think fast. It’s a great background, and it’s a shame it doesn’t exist for more young actors these days, because it gives you a tremendous rapport and broadens the range of parts that you can play.
It was good to play so many different types of part, which you wouldn’t be cast for now, because you might not be right for the part. But in those days of rep, when you had to be in the company, you played all sorts of parts. It gave you a very good background, and I’m very grateful for it. I do enjoy the theatre very much. I enjoy radio also. I think that’s a wonderful medium.
What’s the particular appeal of radio and audio work?
Well, one of the first things is that you don’t actually have to learn the lines. That’s wonderful [laughs]! You have to do your homework of course. You have to have your background and work out how you’re going to play it, but the actual learning of the lines, which is what I call the donkey-work of acting, the chore, you don’t actually have to do that. So that’s the attraction of radio, anyway [laughs].
What can you tell us about Incendiary?
Well, I play the arch-bishop of Canterbury, no less [laughs]! Rowan Williams, in fact, the present arch-bishop. It’s a very small part. It’s about people blowing each other up in London, and on one occasion the family comes to the church for a sermon and I have to utter some words of condolence to them, from the pulpit. That’s about all, actually. I’ve played quite a few men of the church in my time.
More authoritarian figures.
[Laughs] Yes. And yet I’m not a very authoritarian person, quite the contrary. I don’t know about leading men into battle. I think I can lead them astray…
Nicholas Courtney, thank you very much!
Check out Nicholas Courtney’s official website at http://www.greyhoundleader.com/