Peter Purves is known to Doctor Who fans the world over as Steven Taylor, companion to the First Doctor Who for 44 episodes. He is most famously known as a member of the Blue Peter team from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, appearing in 860 editions during the period recognised as the show’s “Golden Age”. He also known to a generation of British males of a certain age as the host of the super trials bike show Kick Start. Peter kindly took some time out to speak to us…
Peter, when did you first enter acting and how did that come about?
I have always wanted to be an actor since I was very small, growing up in Blackpool which was the Mecca of entertainment in the UK from the end of the nineteenth Century up until the end of the 60’s. I first played leading parts in school plays from the age of nine, and really got the bug. I was never going to be anything but an actor (or at least a performer) and got my first professional part at the age of 18 in 1957 after auditioning during the school holidays at my local repertory theatre in Barrow-in-Furness. Three years later I rejoined that theatre on a full-time basis as an actor, and have never had a proper job since.
The role of Steven was in a sense a replacement for William Russell’s character Ian Chesterton. Was there any sense or feeling that you were stepping into big shoes?
I guess so, but I was too much concerned with getting my work right that I never really considered the difficulty of replacing such popular characters as Russ and Jacquie. I had met Russ before, playing cricket, and Jaqueline Hill was the wife of director Alvin Rakoff who had cast and directed me in the TV Armchair Theatre play (Girl in the Picture), which was seen by director Richard Martin – to whom I am forever indebted – and which was directly responsible for me getting the role of Steven.
What level of press attention did you get while appearing in Doctor Who?
Minimal – in fact the press was non-intrusive in those days, and I don’t recall any press interest in me until I joined Blue Peter in 1967.
We often hear that William Hartnell was difficult to work with, but how did this side of him reflect the man himself?
Like most actors, I think Bill was pretty insecure, and also suffered from the fact that many of his contemporaries had better fortune than he – I think he had quite a lot of bitterness about that. He was also beginning to be ill, and that affected his memory, so as he got more and more lines wrong, he got more and more crotchety. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but I must say he was always very friendly to me, and tried to act as a kind of mentor. Many times he bought me lunch at the famed Bertorelli’s restaurant on Shepherd’s Bush Green (sadly no longer there), where he taught me to appreciate “Blue” fillet steak amongst other things. I really enjoyed working with him, but could see why others found him less pleasant.
If I may present this scenario: you’re enjoying breakfast, the letterbox pops open, a script lands on the floor. It’s “The Celestial Toymaker” – did you ever at any point reading the script stop yourself and think “What the – ?!”?
I thought it was a great script and that it looked really good fun, as it was. The casting was excellent, Michael Gough was wonderful, and Carmen, Campbell and Peter were delightful Add Jackie Lane to that and with Bill on holiday, we had a wonderful time.
I had forgotten most of the missing stories until Mark Ayres approached me to read the linking commentaries on the latest audio CD’s, so I came to them quite fresh. I thought the scripts were great – and have always said that apart from the wonderful creation that was Bill’s Doctor, the stories were script rather than character led. On revisiting the Massacre, I was overwhelmed by the quality of the writing. This was top class TV drama. And the Myth Makers was another favourite of mine. The two you name were the poorest of the scripts, I felt, but it was a pleasure to remake them for an audience that can no longer see them. I think they make excellent radio plays.
You recorded Doctor Who “as live”. What level of pressure were you under to learn lines, record scenes in single takes, etc?
There was probably less pressure on me than on many of the other actors who played in the show. I had spent two years in weekly rep (a new play every week) and could learn lines very quickly. Something that stood me in good stead when I moved on to Blue Peter where we had no autocue, had to learn a complete script twice a week, usually only receiving it late on the evening prior to transmission. And don’t forget, that was always broadcast “live”.
Can you recall at the time, your feelings about the show and what you could contribute to it? Could you envisage the show carrying on, bearing in mind William Hartnell’s age as the leading role in the show?
I had all the arrogance that a 25 year old actor would have, and thought I was probably god’s gift to TV. The truth is that I looked on it as a job with great prospects, and set about doing the best I could in the role. But I don’t think any of us could have foreseen the huge continuing popularity of the show. I am still astonished when I attend the very few conventions that I do, how many people attend, over and over. They even know the lines of the show. I could not believe it the first time someone asked the question beginning “In The Time Meddler, what did you mean when you said…” And to be honest I had no recollection of what they were talking about.
Have you worked as an actor since leaving Doctor Who?
I played a crook, a couple of times in Z-Cars, and was in a serial called The Girl in the Black Bikini, (like so many Doctor Who’s, wiped by the BBC). I also appeared in Douglas Camfield’s Director’s Colour course, where I played Ross (in Terence Rattigan’s Play of the same name). But that is all.
It seems quite common for actors to move into television presenting nowadays. You must have been one of the first – what is it that makes presenting interesting for an actor?
I’d rather say what makes it hard, rather then interesting. The big problem an actor has is that he is trained, is indoctrinated, and has learned to immerse himself in the character he is playing. It is make-believe, pretence if you like. A presenter must be as natural and as much himself/herself as possible, otherwise the performance comes across as false. He must learn NOT to act. I found this very difficult at first. But after about six months I began to feel comfortable as myself, with no character to hide behind!
As a presenter on Blue Peter, you famously interviewed Jon Pertwee with his Whomobile. The two of you appear totally engrossed in the machine, but by modern standards it looks quite clumsy – would you have driven one on the road given the chance?
Do you know, I can remember the event taking place, but have no recollection of any detail of it at all. But I guess the old vehicle was pretty sound. Jon, whom I knew socially as well as professionally, was a good mechanic, and I doubt if he would have driven it if it had been unsafe.
And did you ever complete a course on Kickstart, and if so how did you rate compared to the competitors?
I just loved Kickstart, but I was no expert on a trials bike. I had completed the Royal Signals Course at Catterick whilst on Blue Peter (that’s why I was asked to present Kickstart) and I still have the diploma and the honorary White Helmet I was awarded. Funnily enough the helmet wouldn’t pass modern safety standards. I must say I fell of quite a lot when doing that course, but not as much as I would have fallen doing the Kickstart courses. I have ridded (and fallen off) most of the Junior Kickstart obstacles, but the senior stuff was truly awesome, and got harder each year. It was a great shame that the promoter dropped the Senior event (he couldn’t make it pay) because that was the best competition ever. But interestingly, many of the Juniors went on to great success at Senior level. Steven Colley, who won Junior Kickstart twice, has been runner up in the world Championships several times, whilst Dougie Lampkin, who never actually won our event, was World Champion six years in succession. You may have seen him in the Arena trials on Satellite TV.
So, what did you think of the new Doctor Who?
I only saw one and a half episodes, but it looked fine. I think that the historical stories were the best, and I always liked the idea that the Tardis was broken and the Doctor never had any idea where he was going to end up. But I guess things have to move on. Try analyzing Eastenders to see if there are any incongruities there. Say no more!
How do you place Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal with regards to past Doctors, in particular William Hartnell’s?
For me there is only one Doctor, the man who created the part.
As a companion yourself, how important do you think the role is?
The companions were important to allow the stories to have a number of strands – there were always two of us, boy and girl, and that gave such a lot of options
Do you think David Tennant can be more successful as the Doctor than Christopher Eccleston has been?
I guess so, and I wish him luck. But I really wish they had asked me. I reckon I would have made a great Doctor.
You have worked (it seems) constantly for over 40 years in broadcasting in one form or another. You’ve edited magazines and bred dogs, you’ve been splashed with mud and peed on by elephants, played golf and made corporate videos and speak after dinner. Yet you’re happy to remain be associated with a show that you appeared in 40 years ago even to the extent of recording the excellent narration on CDs of missing stories such as The Daleks’ Masterplan. For you, what has Doctor Who got that most shows haven’t?
I touched on this earlier – the scripts were the thing at the commencement of the series, and for the first five years or so. After that I thought it got bogged down with silly repetition (I could never be bothered with UNIT). The endless changing of the Doctor I didn’t like, and I am still surprised to discover that Tom Baker was the longest serving Doctor. Believe it or not, I thought that Sylvester was the nearest anyone got to Bill – I could imagine his character growing into Bill as he got older (apart from the accent of course). Actually, I suppose there was a greater similarity to Bill with Patrick Troughton, but he had the unenviable task of being Bill’s immediate replacement. If Pat hadn’t been such a good actor, I think the series could have died there and then.
Peter Purves, thanks very much!
For more information on Peter’s long career and his current work, visit www.peterpurves.net