Published on April 3rd, 2005 | by Anthony Dry
Andrew Skilleter: Interview
There is no doubt Andrew Skilleter is THE Doctor Who artist. His range of work has spanned across nearly three decades and has appeared on numerous media, from the Target range of novels, the BBC videos, BBC Doctor Who exhibitions, posters and postcards just to name a few!
He was the creator of Who Dares publishing in the 1980′s which produced a fine range of Doctor Who merchandise some of which I still have lurking about to this day (thanks Dad)! Here he kindly talks to us in his first interview for ten years.
Andrew, what first got you interested in art, when did you realise that this was the type of career you wished to pursue?
It was in the genes on the maternal side. My maternal grandmother was a natural artist. She painted oils and was creative in all sorts of ways. And my Mother was a naturally gifted artist doing wonderful figurative work in her teens & excellent copies too. She still paints well today. I must have picked up an ability for copying images that I’ve used in all my genre work including Doctor Who, from both of them. I always wanted to be an illustrator as far back as I can remember producing my own in house magazines as a child; it was a vocation for me. Nothing else would ever do. I always wanted to be an illustrator.
What courses/qualifications did you undertake and at which university?
You flatter me! I scraped together enough ‘O’ levels to get to art college in Bournemouth, did a Foundation Course of one year then graduated to a three year Graphic Design course, all pre-computers of course. I tried, we all tried to get in elsewhere (I went for an interview for an illustration course in Bristol) but nobody would have us. I believe the Graphic Design course was set up for us otherwise it was the salt mines. I still can’t recall if I ever did get a qualification but I saw the course through – I’ve never been interested in qualifications; just pursuing my goals. Now, with Photoshop, Illustrator etc. I guess qualifications & training must be really important.
What was your first artistic job upon leaving university or college?
I just pursued my ambition doing any freelance illustration work wherever I could get it. Learning on the job. I think my first job was for some London based magazine like the Economist – I just can’t recall the name – well known, anyway & then due to my influences at the time I started, wrongly in retrospect, to pursue children’s illustration. It was very patchy not helped by the fact that I have a tendency to disappear up cul-de-sacs and realise too late where I should have been! I got by in the early years by living at home, fortunate enough to have a large room in a nice house as bedroom/studio and tolerant parents. Of course, now everyone lives at home for ever!
What are your influences, artistically and generally?
So, so numerous; anything visually interesting that I came across that could pull me like a magnet. I was visually promiscuous; it was a real problem for me – a bit like Toad in Wind & the Willows – one day the gypsy caravan would be his passion, the next he’d see a car and go for that! But it meant, means, I’m always up to try this & that, always happy to have a new challenge. Very much the hare & not the tortoise (I hope you are understanding all these analogies, boys & girls!). More specifically my early influences were all the great British picture strip illustrators and artists but in terms of the single greatest early influence on my technique and materials, it has to be the late Ron Embleton whose work impressed me so much as a child. I later discovered when at art college that he lived nearby! How’s that for serendipity! We became friends and he was my role model at the beginning. Of course my influences broadened and I was always looking at what else was going on in illustration and I was also, for example, influenced at one stage by Renaissance paintings. There was/is always a tension between stylisation and a naturalistic approach and this applied to what influence me too.
When did your interest in Doctor Who begin?
It was regular viewing – I’m pretty sure the first TV set and the start of Who were about the same time. But I remember little of watching the very early years. But of course it really came into focus when W H Allen asked me to do the covers.
At the time of your first brief for Doctor Who, where you a fan of the show?
Always a tricky one to answer as I was never a ‘fan’ in the true sense of the word. We’d all watch it enthusiastically and in particular the Tom Baker years. I felt very comfortable watching it, very in tune with it whereas I didn’t feel the same about other similar shows. Just part of Saturdays. An institution.
Did you have a favourite story or villain or particular character you admired? Were there any characters or stories you felt could have been better?
I enjoyed a lot of the Tom Baker stories but then the early ones with Hartnell & Troughton had tons of atmosphere – if I studied the listings I’d arrive at many others. So I’m going to cop out on this one – it’s an interview in its own right!
Where did the idea of Who Dares come from, and what drove you to put the company into production, bearing in mind there was a lot of Doctor Who merchandising around at the time?
It was a combination of boredom, (sitting at home doing my day to day commissions weren’t enough for a young Scorpio!), the fact that my brother had formed a publishing venture with a partner, I was involved with a new small company who got me involved in Star Wars art and the frustration that W H Allen were not going to do anything involving me for the 20th anniversary year. As far as other merchandising was concerned, despite the appearance, there was a real lull as I remember it – certainly it was the BBC Merchandising’s view – they were desperate to see anything ‘out there’ to the extent I was able to start with out having to pay anything up front. Just a tad different these days.
Who Dares was a great success, how closely did you work with John Nathan Turner during this period?
Well, it was in many ways but I’m still not ready yet to tell the whole story. But for both good & ill it changed my, our, lives for ever and it’s repercussions still roll on. As for JNT, he was very hands on (in the nicest possible way) and everything I did was discussed and seen by him. I would try and get up to London personally with the art and/or ideas to show him. I was not as up front as I am today which was a shame as I think I could have forged an even closer professional relationship with him. But I could still be focused and go for it if I wanted to achieve something.
What was he like? Was he open to ideas or was he pretty stringent when he was dealing with the identity of Doctor Who?
Always charming and pleasant to me and very open to new ideas and anything that would promote the show. I think he liked me but I must have been in awe of him in the sense that he was the bloody producer of Doctor Who, and I but a humble artist! But he loved the visual and and my art; I suspect he liked having creative people around him. But I was never one, to my disadvantage sometimes, to become part of a clique. And Doctor Who & cliques seem to go together, mores the pity. I was a professional enjoying myself and I supposed I always kept a little distance.
Was ‘The Tardis inside out’ his idea?
Does no-one read Blacklight anymore? I devoted a whole chapter to it! Actually the idea came from Brenda Gardner, a charismatic Canadian who was the Doctor Who & Children’s Editor at W H Allen when I first started doing Target covers. She left and eventually went on to form Piccadilly Press which is still going strong – she & it are much respected in the publishing industry and she is a rare independent in a world of publishing corporations. We’d worked together since the W H Allen days and she dreamed up the idea of bringing JNT & I together to do a book. I was the enabler, the go-between. As I said, for the full story buy/borrow a copy of Blacklight, wherever you can find it these days! It’s in many libraries. As for it.
In my opinion, one of the best Doctor Who books to be produced ever, was Cybermen, a collaboration between yourself and David Banks. How much planning had to go into that title?
Well that opinion does seem to be shared by others given a recent DWM poll putting it as one of the best Who books of any category, ever. That’s a pretty pleasing accolade. Loads of planning and as usual reality meant I couldn’t realise all we wanted. But we did pretty well. The project took ages to get going – it almost became a myth before it was published!
Was Cybermen a personal project or were you/Who Dares approached over the concept?
Very personal. Started as a notion in my head, received an agreement from the BBC that I could do it and then I had to enlist help. Again Blacklight tells the whole story but in a nutshell a chance meeting at a Brighton Who convention with David Banks meant it took a whole new direction and without him it would never have happened. We remain great friends today and in fact I’m more in touch with him than ever these days and of course we’ve just recently revisited his Doctor Interviews that we released as tapes about 15 years ago, now on CD, marketed by 10th Planet.
Did you ever meet any of the series lead actors, and did they ever give you any time for material in any particular pieces of illustration?
Quite a few – I met Troughton, Pertwee who looked at my paintings, Davison, Colin Baker who was extremely approachable, as was Sylvester McCoy. Colin of course had to pass all my illustrations of him and once I did this personally in his London theatre dressing room. Sylvester kindly posed for me on location and the portrait for the Who Dares 1990 calendar that never appeared (but was reproduced in Blacklight) was based on a photograph I took of him. Dear Don Henderson was so taken with the calendar painting of him as Gavrok, he bought a load of calendars and the original!
Did any of the leads question their likeness in your illustrations, for example i know Peter Davison had an issue about how he was portrayed by other artists who worked on the novel covers resulting in several photographic covers for Target books?
I’m sure privately this may have happened on occasions – I think I’ve read of this elsewhere many years afterwards, but as my portraits were nearly all pretty good likenesses, there were few problems. Strangely, it was a very small Colin Baker face that caused some problems and I had to amend. It’s easier working large with a likeness.
Was there anyone associated with Doctor Who that really impressed you, whether it was someone involved in the TV show, DWM or the merchandising industry in general?
This is a difficult one after all this time. There were so many that helped me and were just so supportive. Chris Crouch at BBC Merchandising who made it possible for Who Dares to make a start, Julie Jones at BBC Exhibitions, Sarah (then) Andrews at BBC Video and of course JNT himself. David Banks made an immediate impact – he is just an impressive human being! I had a lot to do with DWM over the years and a succession of editors all, to this day, supportive.
Do you have a favourite piece of work associated with Doctor Who?
One favourite is impossible – The Deadly Assassin video cover, as an original, still impresses me. But there are other pieces than I like for differing reasons.
Which Doctor do you favour drawing?
I think Tom Baker, Troughton, Hartnell but again it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the others!
Do you have any Who-related image in your head that you have been unable to realise?
I certainly did have when I was in the thick of it. Now it’s all a different ball game and I have to see. Of course the new Doctor now demands my attention ASAP!
How did you feel when the show ended in 1989 and did you worry that it might affect you professionally?
It obviously did effect things but remember I was always a general illustrator. I wasn’t sorry to see the show go – because of the pantomime content I just couldn’t watch a lot of last year or so.
Which artist do you currently admire and what was the last piece of work you saw that inspired you to work?
Actually, there is no-one in particular now. I mean where are the artists now? The illustration industry is decimated, Photoshop reigns supreme, the designers have all the work! There really is no career for most people as a dedicated illustrator in the UK. So names I might pluck out like Jim Burns, an exact contemporary, are artists I respected years & years ago. Of course there are artists out there but I don’t see their work – Pete Wallbank keeps the flame burning but I only occasionally see his work because we keep in contact.
What are your expectations of the new series and what do you think of the casting choices?
Hands up, I should have answered this before the series was aired! I knew it must be good on some levels given the amount of build up. But like most people, I’ll have to watch a few to get into to it all. It is after all not produced for people like me! The most shocking thing that I find incomprehensible professionally, is that Ecclestone has quit already. But the second show was a bit of a roller coaster, a lot of fun and impressive to watch but a whole new ball game.
Do you think the new series should retain continuity from the show or shy away as much as possible?
This is down to the BBC, the executive producers and Russell T. This is for a new generation and the continuity is less important than before. By the way, it is compulsory to have ‘T’ in your name to be a Who producer?
With the rejuvenation of the new series, have you found commissions based on Doctor Who work have increased?
I still do private Who commissions and certainly in general I’m experiencing a greater interest in my work now but not necessarily because of the new series. But now it’s on, I’m running with it! I welcome private commissions as it keeps me painting traditionally.
What are your plans for the future? Is there anything exciting in the pipeline?
It’s all up for grabs. I could go this way or that, traditional or digital. Mix it. A little too much choice. It’s really a question of external dynamics and the time I have outside commissioned work that comes in. I’ve certainly some career decisions to make, some to execute. I’m keeping extremely busy at present and it’s the most lively time for years but largely still punching below my weight creatively. I have to refocus, reinvent my career. I’m still creatively alive and now have the digital world at my fingertips.
If any further of David Banks ArcHive CDs are released by BBC Audio, I’ll be doing the covers which will be good. I was filmed last year in London for inclusion in a BBC DVD feature but have just learnt I’ve been cut. Ouch! But there may be another bigger opportunity in that area later this year.
It is the right time now for a sequel to Blacklight – another art book. So if anyone can help, contact me now! There are new Who pieces already and growing but I’d like to widen it to incorporate other of my SF and Fantasy work.
And then there’s the writing that I never get enough time for. This is not Doctor Who but various novel ideas I have in progress. You see, I was a natural writer as at school – exceptional, I now realise. But I was set on being an illustrator and the writing kind of got lost over the years but keeps trying to resurface. I need to do it but when ones instincts are to work to external deadlines, it’s hard to write 50.000 words plus purely in a vacuum! I’ve other projects on the go too.
Certainly the new Doctor Who show opens up new opportunities for me and I’ve enlisted help in this direction as I’m always full of ideas but with so little time to realise them. So this could be interesting and should lead to exciting possibilities. It would be great to hear from Russell T. – he must have ‘consumed’ my work in earlier years!
I have to re-do and re-launch the website too when I can and to do it properly this time. I must apologise to all those who have visited it earlier on that I’ve been literally unable to add to it, to realise my ambitions for it. I want it as a major live site and it will happen. I have the help to hand now to make sure that it will be properly registered and linked to ensure it becomes a well visited site. Anyway, thanks to everyone who’s bothered to visit it to date.