The Den of Geek interview: Terry ‘Davros’ Molloy

Before Julian Bleach, Davros was Terry Molloy. Here he talks to us about Doctor Who, The Scarifyers, The Archers and working on, er, Beadle's Out!

Terry Molloy was the man behind the mask of Davros for in Resurrection, Revelation and Remembrance of the Daleks. His career has also taken in a long-running role in The Archers, and put him frequently in the firing line on Beadle’s About. And he managed, fortunately, to squeeze in time for a chat with us…

Is it right that you started off as a vocal impressionist?

No, not really! I suppose as a kid I was always very good at doing voices. Back in the 50s, I used to memorise The Goon Show, and replay them to the family. I was very good at doing voices like that. But I’ve always had a facility for accents and dialects.

In fact I wanted to be a vet when I was at school, that was my ambition! But my ‘O’ level results proved that wasn’t going to be the case, as I didn’t get any science subjects, and it took me three goes to get Maths! So I decided to go in a different direction.

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Actually I studied music in Liverpool back in the 60s, and played in a soul band, played at the Cavern Club. Very nearly got lured into the world of pop music by the time I’d finished there. But decided there was slightly more security and more fun to be had and less hard work I thought in being an actor!

You’re the first person I’ve ever spoken to who chose acting because it was more secure…

I think so! Being an actor you’ve got to have a thirst for insecurity! Actually, I’m not sure I had a thirst for insecurity, but I certainly had a thirst for the lack of mundane!

And has that carried on with everything you’ve done since?

Oh yes! I’ve got an extremely low boredom threshold. If I get fed up with something, I’d go and do something different.

Has that affected some of the choices you’ve made, then?

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I supposed it might have had subconsciously, only in so far as if I’ve done a musical I wouldn’t immediately go to do another musical. That sort of thing helps as an actor, because if you’ve got lots of irons in the fire, you’re not stuck if one of those irons goes cold. Which can happen if people put all their eggs in one particular basket. I’ve always jumped shipped a lot throughout my career.

And yet the one constant has been The Archers?

Yes, yes! I suppose the one constant in my whole career has been radio. And that’s where I’ve done the majority of my work, and in fact some of my best work. I’ve always enjoyed that media, probably more than any other. It’s the media where I think the actor has got the most control over the finished product. And it doesn’t matter what you look like. I can still play a 20 or 30-year old guy, six foot four, 180 pounds of muscle, which I could never do on stage or on the television any more! Does your love of radio also tie in to the boredom threshold thing? Is it the speed of radio that appeals?

I like the speed of radio, and I actually like the lack of pressure. I find other media like in theatre and television, the closest we came to seeing it was in the canteen at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. And looking around I said you can spot the radio actors and the television actors. The radio actors were the ones all sitting around together in a big group, killing themselves laughing and having a really relaxed, chilled out time. The television actors were the ones who were cruising around like sharks, making sure their best side would be facing any producer or director that happened to be in the room!

You think, oh God. Life should be more fun than that!

So when you did television work, did you find yourself slipping into that pressured mindset?

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I don’t think you can help but take on board the pressure of a production in some respects. You have to be very, very disciplined to step back from it. I did learn very early on from an actor I worked with, who said if you have downtime on a television shoot, go and lie down and sleep. It’s an incredibly good thing to do, because it’s so easy to burn emotional energy off throughout the course of a day, and not be used, so when it gets to those few moments on a set where they say come on then let’s do it, you’re wiped out! You can’t give what you should be giving.

There’s kind of a buzz of pressure on a television or film set which is there all the time, due to all sorts of financial constraints, time constraints. And nine times out of ten, when it’s technically correct, that’s the one they take, regardless of how good or bad you happen to be at that moment. And unless you are the major star of the piece, and can say no I want to do that again, then forget it.

In radio you can sometimes say “I felt a bit fluffy” or whatever, “can we run that again”? And they just say yeah, and they do. There’s that lack of pressure in radio.

So where does Davros fit in? Coming back to your boredom threshold again, presumably that’s a role that involved an awful lot of patience for the television productions? It was physically an incredibly demanding role. But I never got bored of Davros actually, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was also quite bizarre, because playing Davros on television is a bit like doing it on radio, because you’re behind that mask. Nowadays they’ve got such wonderful prosthetics, but in those days, I was sitting with my head encased pretty much in a very large sponge, and trying to drag myself around on a supermarket trolley. You were kind of distanced from what was going on around you, and whatever you were producing, you were producing from within that large block of foam rubber that was on your head. Which wasn’t very mobile.

I didn’t get bored doing Davros, because it was a fairly hectic schedule when we were in the studio, and he was a delightful character to play.

Rewinding slightly, when you were offered the role in the first place, how aware were you of the show and of Davros?

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I hadn’t seen Davros at all. I grew up with Pat Troughton, he was my Doctor. So I drifted away from Doctor Who by the time it got to Jon Pertwee. I’d seen the Daleks from previous episodes, William Hartnell episodes and things like that. So I knew who the Daleks were, but I’d never actually come across Davros. I’d heard about him. But I didn’t follow it.

When Matthew Robinson asked if I knew about the programme, I said yeah, I knew about the programme. Do you know about the Daleks? Yeah. Do you know about Davros? Not really, I’d heard the name and that was about it.

And he said would you like to come down and have a look at these tapes? So he sat me down and ran the tapes. And he said do you think that you can reproduce that. Like any actor worth his salt, I said absolutely not [laughs]. I said yeah, yeah, no problem. As one does. And I did. I thought this would be an interesting challenge.

But I suppose my life has been somewhat dogged, or in fact blessed, by taking on things from other people. A director said to me at one point, and I’m not sure if it was a back-handed complement, he said you know Terry, you’re the last person I think of when I’m casting a role. But you’re the first person I think of when I’m in the shit, and I need someone to dig me out of a hole!

I said, well thanks! There we go! That, in a sense, was what I went into the profession for. My mum, bless her, used to be a variety artist back in the 20s and 30s, she was a dancer and played the halls. All the variety stars of the time. She married my father and settled down. That was in my blood, and she said to me when I first started, what’s your ambition? Do you want to be a star? No, no. I just want to be a working actor who is doing lots of different and interesting things. In those days that was people like Bernard Hepton, and Leonard Rossiter. Good, strong character actors who worked in all sorts of different media. Not just being lumped into one thing.

You said that you took on roles that other people had taken before. Do you do a clean break, or do you talk to the people who have tackled the part before?

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It depends on the profile of it really. I took over the role in a Shakespeare production of As You Like It once, and I did it my way basically. I didn’t have much time to think otherwise. And I thought I’ve just got to make this mine.

With other characters, something like Davros, you’re following in a tradition of a character who is already established, visually and aurally, and you have to match that. You do that a bit as well. You’ve got to be true to the character and true to yourself as an actor. Otherwise it just becomes a pastiche, a cartoon of what somebody else has done. That then blows the reality of a character out of the water, especially if it’s a character that has to be taken seriously. I will always look at it from my perspective, and take into account anything that needs taking into account, from whoever played it before. I loved in the offer letter you had for Doctor Who that you put on your website the sentence “Doctor Who is a show of peculiar complexities and idiosyncracies”. In hindsight, do you agree with that?

Yeah, very much so. It’s very unqiue as a show as well. Not just in the subject matter it takes, but also in the actors that it attracts. We’re seeing it again in the new series, but certainly in the time that I was doing it, there were very well known names queuing up to be in Doctor Who. And it wasn’t a kind of kitsch thing, they enjoyed and took seriously the drama that we did. You look at it now and laugh at some of the wobbly sets and rubber costumes, but in those days it had the same impact as the new series has today.

We’re dealing with whole different generations of technical facilities. Now we’re seeing very well known faces appearing in Doctor Who, people like Bernard Cribbins, well known people who want to be in the show. It’s got that peculiarity of attraction. I don’t know whether it’s a particularly British thing, I always feel it as a Biggles kind of thing, the Doctor always solves things with some Sellotape or ceiling wax, rather than something incredibly technical. I know they’ve got the sonic screwdriver, which seems to solve every problem under the sun now, but it used to be that the Doctor would make do. That’s a very British, and particularly English, way of approaching problems.

It seemed to underpin the production of the time. You were sat in an Emperor Dalek shell waving a torch around in Remembrance of the Daleks?

Yeah, yeah! It was like last minute, they think oh my God! The Emperor Dalek ought to have an eye, like all the other Daleks. We haven’t got one! All we’ve got is this plastic panel. Well, we’ve got to have a light behind. Oh damn, we’ve also got to flip up the lid. Terry, can you wave this torch around in front? And if you look carefully, the eye fades out before I flip the lid up.

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You just roll with those, you know. Nowadays there would probably be a two day stoppage while everyone goes away and talks. Hopefully they would have pre-planned that a lot more. But in those days, I wouldn’t say it was thrown together, but technically, lots of things happened on the day that had to happen for whatever reason.

The classic example is Revelation of the Daleks, where they put me in the fish bowl. And the idea was that I was meant to rotate on this revolving chair, so it looked as if the head was swinging around. Which eventually we did manage to do. But what they’d done was they made a major construction out of great steel uprights, within which I sat. What they hadn’t bothered to do was measure me! So when I sat on the chair and tried to turn left or right, I was virtually taking my kneecaps off!

The only way round that was to tie my legs up underneath the chair, and I pulled myself round by my hands. And I ended up getting a crick in my legs. Graeme [Harper, director], bless him, worked out what was going on, and shot all my scenes, most of them in one take. We did all the stuff in the fish tank in about 45 minutes.

But again, we did it on the day. And I’m sure it still happens, that you come up against problems and find your way round them actually on the floor.

The chair you were in looked horribly tricky to control. Was it, and how did it evolve as you returned to the role?

The chair never evolved! It stayed the same monstrous equipment made out of four by two timber with two 12V car batteries inside, which I had to drag around by my toes. It was based on the framework of a bad tempered supermarket trolley, which went in one direction when you wanted it to go in the other. It was very difficult. It didn’t evolve, they just took it away, and tarted it up when it came to the next time.

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The mask we did several times. The stuff they used to make the mask didn’t stand up to the rigours of being a couple of years up in Blackpool before it was brought out again. So first of all they made a completely new head for me, and then obviously they remade from that mould a new mask each time, and changed it slightly to make it more mobile. That was the idea.

They tried to make the mask more mobile each time, so however hard I worked behind it with the facial expressions, some of that might be able to get through the rubber to the outside. It did sort of work, but not totally. But nowadays they’ve got the prosthetics for that to happen with ease. You mentioned on your website the reaction of your five year old at the time, to seeing his Dad as an evil maniac scientist. Were your kids ever scared of you?

They got quite hooked into it, and they watched it while it was on. There were one or two that they found a bit spooky. Two years on, when my son was seven, he was in the studio with me doing The Archers! He’d got himself a job on the show. So the whole concept of filming was less mysterious to them, because they saw things happening backstage.

I always remember taking my daughter Hannah down with me to film The Devil Of Winterborne, which was a video with Peter Davison and Caroline John, and Mark Gatiss had written it. It was early days, way before League Of Gentlemen, and it was a very spooky piece about this satanic school. And Hannah was around seven, and was backstage, but she couldn’t watch it when it came out, she found it really scary. You said when Doctor Who came back, you gave an interview where you said that “this is not a new series for the fans. This is a new drama series called Doctor Who, and let’s start from there”. Is that still your feeling on the revived show, and are you a fan of it?

I’m a great fan of it. I think, like most fans of the original, or people who have been in the original, one looks at the new Doctor Who with some degree of trepidation: what’s going to happen with this thing? But what the production team, very cleverly, carefully and lovingly, did was to initially pay enough of a homage to the old series for the fans who were already there, who could say oh yes, it’s as it was. They did things we did in the original. The stories are based on character, they’re based on good stories and good characters within those stories.

And then they used the advance in technological facilities that they’ve got now, and they used it in a way that enhanced and not overpowered the piece. Which is sometimes what happened with a number of American TV sci-fi shows, that they’re so overpowered with technical innovation, that there’s no story or plot to get your teeth into. And for that I thought, yeah, great.

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But then Russell T, Phil and all that lot, they were all fans anyway. They were going to treat it with love and care, and take it in a direction that it needed to go.

At the same time, they also reintroduced the Doctor, and it was good that they didn’t actually have the Doctor regenerating. They reintroduced who the Doctor was to a whole new generation of younger kids who hadn’t really grown up with him, but who are now revisiting the old, classic series. The number of times I go to events where there are seven year olds, eight year olds saying “I thought you were great in Revelation”. And I’m like, “you’ve seen it”?! And they’ve got the old DVDs out and are looking at those! It has taken it on, and I love to watch it, and try not to miss an episode.

How do you feel about the revival of the Davros character?

I think for the fans it’s fantastic, absolutely brilliant. And I think it had to happen. There’s no way, from the moment the Daleks arrived, that they could not eventually bring Davros back. And I don’t know – I really don’t know! – what the story is.

Julie Gardner rang me up and told me that they were going to do it, and they were going in a slightly different direction. But I don’t know what that direction is.

What we did in the interim between the classic and the new series, and it’s something I know they’re very grateful to, is that we actually filled in a lot of the gaps of Davros with the Big Finish audios. It bridged the gap between the old and the new series, which has enabled them to bring Davros back with the same degree of interest that he would have had if we’d been back in ’89, ’90 and carried on doing it then. I will be fascinated to see what happens with it.

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Julian Bleach is a terrific actor, some of the stuff he’s done, you know. I have no problem in handing that mantel over to him, because I’m sure he’ll make a tremendous fist of it. And I hope that they give Davros a story that he deserves when he returns. I took over the mantel from Michael Wisher, and Julian is now going to carry it on, and that’s fantastic.

Have you spoken to him about him?

No, I’ve not spoken to him or met him. I’ve no doubt that at some point in time I will. In fact, I only met Michael Wisher once, sadly only just before he died. And then I only actually met Dave Gooderson two years ago, which is amazing really as we both do a vast amount of radio. We met up for the first time at a convention. David not only had to take over the character from Michael, but also had to use Michael’s mask! Which didn’t really fit him. And it was a very strange story where Tom Baker I think managed to blow the credibility of the Daleks for many years by, you know, all this climbing up ladders and making them look silly. Which I thought was a shame.

They came back much harder when Davros came back with me. There are people who go on the rants of Davros, and yeah, there were rants in there. There had to be. But also there were a few moments of cold menace.

But what makes Davros work really well is his relationship with the Doctor. That I’ll be interested in seeing how it comes through. For me, Davros and the Doctor are almost equals, and intellectually they realise they are equals. They are both alone. In a sense that loneliness and intellectual equality is the one thing that draws them together. You mentioned the Big Finish work, and it seems that there’s a lovely old Doctor Who network that never goes away. And it’s brought you to your audio work on The Scarifyers too?

Yeah, that’s been great. There were many years before I got into doing Davros on the Big Finish thing, and only really when Gary, Russell and I realised we were talking the same ideas was when we saw different articles in the same magazine. And they rang up and said do you want to do a Davros, but without the Daleks. I said yeah, that’d be interesting. And that was the germination that led us into doing I, Davros, and doing the whole back catalogue of who Davros was, and what that journey was from young lad to the ‘monster’ in Genesis.

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And then it’s great doing Scarifyers, it came out of left field. I’d never worked with Nick Courtney before, not on Doctor Who. Our paths never crossed. Yet we met at conventions and got on really well. Simon put together this idea of a cross between Dick Barton and The X Files, and a lot of lantern jaw acting, and I love that pastiche without it being caricature. And they put together extremely good and funny scripts which have been a delight to do. They’re hopefully going to be doing another one.

This is one that will run and run, hopefully until myself and Nick drop off the edge. But they’re a lovely couple of characters. They keep coming up with suitably bizarre stories for us, because they’re characters that can fit into all sorts of situations. The one I loved the most so far has been the Devil Of Grange Marsh, which is a straight steal of The Wicker Man, to the point where we had The Wicker Fish. It’s just great when you’re echoing back to other things that touch on people’s consciousness of science fiction or whatever it may be. It’s been great fun.

They don’t sound like the kind of things where you turn up and do a job. That and Big Finish seem to be the kind of productions where people get more involved with them?

Yeah, yeah. I think partly to do with the relaxed atmosphere of working in those situations. And I think a lot of people who are in those are very competent and good actors who worked a lot on radio and know the medium, and know how to use them in terms of putting characters across. It is fun to do, it’s great fun.

The studios get hot, though! I remember when we did I, Davros, and we could only stay in the studio for ten minutes before we had to come out. It was right in the middle of that hot summer we had, and we were all melting at a vast rate of knots. That aside it’s great fun. It’s always good to see. It’s like you see on the floor, too. Suddenly there’s the character of the vicar who hasn’t been cast, so I end up playing the vicar as well. I was talking to myself. But if you’ve got a group of people who are creative enough to do that without being phased, then fantastic. You get a real buzz from doing it as well. Not many people know that you also played the friendly man from the council on Beadle’s Out?

Yes, I was! Telling people they had a nuclear power station in their back garden! “Was it the colour you didn’t like”? I did several series of that!

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I can’t think of a scarier thing to do!

It was scary, because we had no script. We had a scenario, but you didn’t know what was going to happen when that person turned up. The early ones that we did were incredibly well researched, and the ones that worked best were the ones with a back storyline, that you didn’t even have to worry about. Because when that guy turned up, with the gas board digging up his garden, you knew exactly what the scenario was. He’d already had four years of stopping the real gas board from digging up his garden. I didn’t have to say we’ve come to do this today, he knew exactly what I was there for!

They were immediately at boil point. But the trick of Beadle’s About was always keeping people just on the edge of boil. Don’t let them boil over, else it becomes very unpleasant. It could end up in violence. And don’t let them simmer down, because if they simmer down, they start to look around and realise there’s something not quite kosher about the situation.

And did you have both of those experiences? Someone who twigged it and someone who got very het up?

They’d all twig it. Every one of them would twig it at some point. At some point in the shooting, they’d go hang on a minute, this is Beadle’s About isn’t it? I recognise you off the telly. Expecting you to go gosh, you sussed us! But of course, you don’t. You just hit back even harder. “I’m sorry, can we not prat around when I’m requiring £850 from you now? What are you going to do about it?” And they snap back a bit and say hang on a minute, no. All you see on the telly is two minutes. We were there for an hour and a half!

We had an occasion once where one of the guys who was playing one of the officials actually had a clipboard. And on it he’d put the call sheet for the day on the clipboard. One guy just grabbed the clipboard off him and looked at it, but he didn’t actually read it! All he was doing was trying to give himself thinking time!

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It was flying by the seat of the pants a lot. You really didn’t know what was going to happen.

Did you enjoy it?

I did in the early days. Towards the end I got disillusioned with it. When it got to the point where you had people just coming in and getting them to stand on the spot and then just dump beans on top of them, because it looked funny, I thought no. There’s no skill, there’s no subtlety. People would have a debate about whether there was any subtlety in Beadle’s About, but there was a skill in running a scam. The great thing was about a good scenario was that you could take it to a different level at each stage.

Once you’ve got somebody hooked into the supposed reality of the situation, you could then move it further. There were things we did at the airport where we had a couple going off on holiday, just about to fly out to Morocco, and we were telling them that it was because of the religious status of the country they wouldn’t allow unmarried people to take off. So we’ll put your girlfriend into this hotel, and you’ll have to be 20 miles down the coast!

The only way to get round it would be to get married now! So you’d conduct this ridiculous ceremony at the airport, and they’d go along with it. Then you’d charge them for doing it! And if they hadn’t got the money, you’d take things out of their bags! And you’d say actually, you can pay this back if you’re willing to mop out the camel stables for two days, and they’d say yeah, fine. Then you hit them at the very end, when you say you do realise that this is now illegal. If you don’t want to be married, you’ll have to get a divorce when you come back. The guy’s going yeah, we’ll do that, and the girlfriend is going what! You could layer it each time depending on how much people bought into the reality of it.

I saw on your credits that you did 30 episodes of Jupiter Moon as well, which has a small groundswell of enthusiasm for it online.

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Has it?! [laughs] He said incredulously!

They’ve put it on DVDs, and it pops up on web discussions boards quite often.

It was BSkyB. I spent my life being a hologram! It was one of those very bizarre shows. When I joined it, the average age was around 12! There were two of us grown ups in the cast, hoping to hell that another would join us. All the conversations were about what Golf GTi to buy, and whether they were going out with their boyfriend that night!

You’re also the driving force behind The Archers fan club, and you have an extensive website that you’ve clearly spent a lot of time on. Is interaction with the audience very important to you?

I think it’s vital. I do get cross with people who say “oh I don’t want to talk about that”, notably there are one or two people within the community of Doctor Who who can get a bit shirty about being in it. And I think it’s the fans that make the programme, and one of the reasons for setting up The Archers fan club, Archers Addicts, was to service even more fully those who listen to the programme. Some of them may not want it, but at least you can offer a service where they get a newsletter of what’s happening, information on what the cast are doing outside of Ambridge, or they can if they want to physically interact with the cast go on a cruise or convention. They can do that. I find there’s quite a similarity between The Archers and Doctor Who in that respect, in the fandom base.

In relation to the programme, they look on it with great fondness, as do the fans of Doctor Who. They talk about it as if they were part of a giant extended family who were in it. It’s the same with The Archers.

And I think it’s only right and proper, provided you make it clear that I am not Davros, I am not Mike Tucker, I am Terry Molloy who happens who happens to play them, so we’re not slipping into the realms of extreme reality and sensory deprivation in terms of who we really are. A lot of The Archers fans come to conventions with their tongues planted very firmly in their cheeks. The same thing happens with Doctor Who conventions. Some take it extremely seriously too, I know, but it is a family feel to it. I think it’s part of an active responsibility if you’re part of that kind of thing not to say it’s not to do with me, I’m too grand for that. You’re not too grand to take the job. So interact! And I know that some actors have difficulty interacting with the fans. Personally, I don’t go round telling people who I am at all, and that’s the great thing for me, that because I spent my life behind a microphone or a mask, people don’t know what I look like most of the time.

And does that suit you?

Oh yeah! I can go up to the supermarket, get on the bus, get on the train, whatever, and nobody knows who I am, really. Even when I speak they don’t know who I am, because I tend to use different voices. The anonymity that I can slip behind!

What are you up to next?

I’ve got this ongoing project playing Charles Darwin at the moment, which I did last year, and we did a few showcases. And in February we were invited out to Harvard, to deliver the show there. Next year, 2009, will be the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. It’ll be 150 years since The Origin Of The Species was published. So it’ll be a big year for Darwin.

We’ve been doing this show, which is basically a conversation through letters that he had, with a botanist at Harvard called Asa Gray, who was the leading botanist in the States. And Asa Gray took on board Darwin’s theories and championed them, without saying I believe these implicitly, because he was a staunch Christian. But he said I think there is a way of having religion and science in this argument. So throughout their life they had a long, long correspondence, not just about The Origin Of The Species, but also about collecting for children, to all kinds of gardening, everything.

And this piece, it isn’t terribly long, about an hour and a half which will be extended slightly next year with the full production we’re going to do of it. It’s really their relationship over that span of years of their lives, and how they relate it to each other. What you basically have two guys who were, at that point in time, really at the cutting edge of scientific, philosophical and theological debate. Pushing the envelope, both of them, in different ways. So it’s fascinating from that perspective, but also who they were as people. And when you read Darwin’s letters, he’s actually an incredibly funny guy!

That’s an ongoing thing which we’re moving towards, with a production here, and we’ve been invited back to the States again. In the interim I’ve got a large series of conventions in the States to go to this year, and an Archers cruise in July. And The Archers rolls on of course!

We wish you the best of luck with it all. Terry Molloy, thank you!

Terry Molloy appeared with Nicholas Courtney (who we interviewed here) in The Scaryfiers, which you can find here.

The Archers Addicts fan club can be found here.

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