Published on September 30th, 2013 | by Dave Rudin4
Archive Interview: Nicholas Courtney
In August of 1987, I traveled to the UK from my home in New York City to attend the Leisure Hive convention in Swindon. In addition to the weekend spent there, I also spent nearly two weeks in London. I went to the theater a dozen times, and each show that I saw had at least one actor who had appeared in Doctor Who including Tom Baker, William Russell, Wendy Padbury, Honor Blackman and Kate O’Mara.
Another was Nicholas Courtney, who was appearing as Major Metcalf in the long running (it opened in 1952 and has played non-stop since – Ed) hit show, The Mousetrap . I had written to Mr. Courtney ahead of time and he had graciously agreed to permit me to interview him for my club newsletter. A friend and I met him in August 1987 in his dressing room at the St Martin’s Theatre in London’s West End following one performance, and we talked about topics ranging from Doctor Who to Ronald Reagan. The result of that interview follows.
Nicholas Courtney was a gentlemen – a “nice chap,” as the Brigadier would say – and the world of Doctor Who is poorer now that he’s gone.
Dave: Tell us how you got started in acting.
Nick: When I was in school, the first part I ever played was in a piece called The Pied Piper Of Hamelin. I played the little lame boy – I was seven years old and I was behaving very badly and they threatened to take the part away from me–so I became good as gold quick, very quick! Then while I was at school in Egypt, I enjoyed the school plays [and] wanted to be in them. And so I wanted to be an actor But it was in the blood because my grandfather was in the business and my sister went to drama school, and I went off to drama school. I’ve been doing everything. I’ve done everything, you name it.
Dave: Your first touch with Doctor Who came with The Crusade, and I think all of your things were directed by the late Douglas Camfield. Had you worked with him before?
Nick: No I just met him at my first interview when I went up to see him about this episode about The Crusade. He interviewed me for Richard Coeur de Leon – I didn’t get that part, but he remembered me from that interview and then when he came along with The Dalek Master Plan he asked me if I wanted to do that and that’s how ot started. I worked with Douglas [on] other things than Doctor Who. I worked on a show called Watch The Birdies, which was a thriller I was playing a very sexy photographer.
Those were the days!
Dave: Do you remember anything from The Dalek Master Plan? I think only two episodes exist now.
Nick: I had four episodes in that, I remember, and then I got killed off by Jean Marsh, who was my sister I don’t know what you say–fratricide? Or sister-cide? I was quite a hero in that. What do I remember about it?
Not very much, except I remember enjoying it very much. That was at Lime Grove I think. We had very small studios, and Douglas Camfield always had great ingenuity in picking out sets. In fact going on to another story with Patrick Troughton, which was The Invasion - or was it… no beg your pardon it was the Yeti story The Web of Fear, that’s right.
Dave: The one that took place in the London Underground.
Nick: That’s right Douglas was so clever. When it was shown on television London Transport rang up and said, “How dare you film in the London Underground without our permission?” He hadn’t done that at all! By clever use of his camera and his angles he created the same piece of London Underground system… He was a brilliant photographer, Douglas Camfield, he really knew his subject there. Very nice man, too; very sadly missed
Dave: Speaking of sadly missed, you worked with Mr. Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. How would you contrast the two?
Nick: I usually contrast them by the way they played the Doctor I would describe William Hartnell’s Doctor as very tetchy and Patrick Troughton as impish. If you want to go any further I’ll tell you that Jon Pertwee was elegant and Tom Baker was arrogant and Peter Davison was amiable and I haven’t got to work with Colin Baker.
I’ll let you know when I meet Sylvester!
Dave: You were originally to play Captain Knight, and Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart was first cast for David Langdon, [but he] got a job in Z Cars - and then you got a promotion.
Nick: That’s right I was going to play Captain Knight and then Douglas rang up and said “Sorry do you mind playing Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart?” I said “now I know the money’s going to be the same down at the BBC but it was a promotion in Army terms and so of course I’ll play the Colonel; it’s a better part anyway”. The rest is history. If [David Langdon] hadn’t got that, job there would have been no Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Well, probably not…
Dave: When you took on the role of the Colonel, you probably had no idea that it was going to be a long-term thing.
Dave: When you got promoted to Brigadier with The Invasion was there any idea then that it was going to be a regular role?
Nick: Yes, because that was a dummy run. Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, the producers at the time said “Look we want to see if it works the idea cause there’s going to be a new Doctor who will be Jon Pertwee and we’re going to have him earthbound to help the story line and we liked what you came out with in Web of Fear; would you like to sign a two-year contract?” And I said. “You bet your sweet bippy.” And so I did!
Dave: Do you know why they went earthbound? Was that for financial reasons?
Nick: No, no it was the idea how the thing was going to evolve.They decided that it mignt be fun to do a lot of stories on Earth I think they worked very well on Earth… It’s more of a fright to see all these aliens on Earth; it s more immediate. You know the storyline was that the Doctor was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords for being a naughty boy So that was his punishment He kept trying to leave but I wouldn’t let him, or I’d try not to let him.
Dave: It seems like every few stories, UNIT had a different headquarters. In The Invasion it was a C130 Hercules transport plane. In Jon Pertwee’s Spearhead from Space it was an underground parking garage, and Derek Sherwin, the producer, was the attendant at the gate. Did that seem a bit odd to your being in a different place every time?
Nick: No, not really, because that’s what they call the exigencies of location shooting. First [was] that great transporter plane; then when we did the first one in the Underground, the reason we did that was because there was a strike on at the BBC at the time and they couldn’t do any filming in the studio because [of the] industrial dispute So we had to go and do it at a place called Evesham, which is a BBC training centre And it was all done, the whole thing, on location; no studio work at all.
Dave: That’s why Spearhead from Space was totally done on film.
Nick: Absolutely, well, most of it was, I know. But it was a long time ago; you’d better check. I think I’ve got my facts right.
Dave: Had you ever worked with Jon Pertwee before?
Nick: Never met him before no I met his ex-wife before Jean Marsh [in The Daleks' Master Plan]. No I’d never met Jon before that.
Dave: And you got on famously from the start?
Nick: Not from the start no, it took us about six weeks.
Dave: That first season [had] Caroline John as Elizabeth Shaw, and she only lasted far a year. Were you disappointed when she left?
Nick: Well I think she wanted to go back to the theatre, really, which she preferred. It was her decision. Then lovely Katy arrives.
Dave: The uniforms changed from those beige ones to the regular green army uniforms. Was that at your bidding?
Nick: It was at my bidding, because I hated that first uniform I had. I thought I looked a nerd, frankly it was too close-fitting, and I never got the beret right. That’s why I asked them to give me a peaked cap
Dave: I noticed in the later Pertwee episodes and the Tom Baker ones that your hair was longer then.
Nick: Yes, it used to get long, didn’t it sometimes? Except when Douglas Camfield was directing! He was very strict, a very Army man. He wouldn’t let me.
But at a friend’s house in America, I was looking at a couple of the old shows, and it did vary a lot my hair, didn’t it? It was just by chance, really. Maybe it should have been short.
Dave: With the entrance of Roger Delgado, even though some people say that the UNIT “family” started back then, I’ve always thought that the heyday of UNIT was before he arrived, because before that it was UNIT versus whatever, and the Doctor was on UNIT’s side, and after that it was the Master against the Doctor.
Nick: Yes, I think it’s probably right to say that the heyday was before the Master arrived. The Master added another dimension, which was fine – the Doctor and UNIT were still allies… I’m not sure on second thought whether you’re entirely right because I think one of the best stories was The Daemons. It was well filmed, very well filmed a lot of that was on location, too, but some was in the studio. Oh, it was a wonderful show. The story was good, all the actors were so good, I mean all the visiting actors.
You’ve got Damaris Hayman, you’ve got Stephen Thorne, “Big Steve,” who I still see a lot of, who played Azal. And, you know, the idea of Bok and a lot of other people in it. It was just a cracking good yarn – it’s one of my favourite episodes!
Dave: That’s the only episode where we get to see the Brigadier in his full dress uniform because you were going off to some fancy dinner when your helicopter gets stolen.
Nick: That’s right.
Dave: I understand that one of your favorites was the previous year, Inferno.
Nick: Yes, that was lovely for me I had two parts to play, you know, the Brigadier we hope you love and the fascist pig. I had that great dueling scar, the eye patch. It took about an hour and a half [to do the] makeup every morning. Imagine what was under the eye patch! I can’t think; something pretty horrid.
Dave: You didn’t have a moustache.
Nick: No I had to contrast with the Brigadier in World 1 and the other world. In those days it was a false moustache I had anyway. That was a great mistake I should have listened to Jon Pertwee and grown my own like I’ve got now
Dave: Did you do that eventually?
Nick: It wasn’t until The Five Doctors that I grew my own. Before that they were all false. The reason I didn’t originally was because I thought well, mine doesn’t grow military enough.
Dave: You have a history of playing military parts. Is it just accident?
Nick: Pure accident! Long before the Brigadier I was playing captains; I’ve played so many Army people I have no idea [why]. It may have rubbed off because my father was a professional soldier as well as being a diplomat. When I did my service In the Army I was just a private. That’s why I’m playing all these officers: making up for only being a private in real life.
Dave: Did real Army officers ever contact you about how they liked you as the Brigadier?
Nick: They did once. It was a Pat Troughton story; Barry Letts was producing, it was The Invasion story. Douglas, who liked authenticity, managed to get a whole regiment of real troops to be my troops. One day we piled onto the bus to film in the morning and all the soldiers said to their real officer “Do we salute him sir?” looking at me.
They weren’t quite sure! I’d got them in awe, make them believe I’m a real Brigadier And apparently when we rang up the War Office for military advice some people at the War Office were kind enough to say that “You know, that chap who plays the Brigadier is absolutely like our chaps.” Which was very nice of them, because they didn’t have to say that.
Dave: Do you have any fond remembrances of Roger Delgado?
Nick: Oh yes. Just that he was such a gentle person. He was always playing villains on screen. He was the most gentle man I ever saw–a gentleman, a real gentleman. I remember going to dinner with him, and he was very much what I call a pipe-and-slippers man. You could see him at home with the kids, maybe, and his wife, and he had his slippers. A quiet guy, and a wonderful host. A very nice man. Very, very admired, respected and liked.
Dave: And as for Katy Manning. I understand that she was practically blind as a bat without her eyeglasses. Were there any incidents with her?
Nick: I believe in Terror of the Autons she had quite a job running over some terrain with Jon Pertwee and had a few stumbles, but I was not on location on that occasion. But I think she had her glasses on when she sat on my knee in rehearsal once
Dave: For those first two Pertwee years you were involved in [the stories]. Then the UNIT thing started petering out…
Nick: Then you got to the Zygons one which was the last appearance virtually for the UNIT characters as such. Or my last appearance, I thought, forever. I was being phased out by my friend Ian Marter.
Dave: With Day of the Daleks, I think they had only three working Daleks and one of them was just a dummy Dalek. They just didn’t have enough of them to create a small army.
Nick: That may be. It’s like the Brigadier’s army: the Brigadier, a captain and a sergeant. Amazing army, that is.
Dave: After playing for Jon Pertwee for so long, was it a bit difficult adjusting to Tom Baker?
Nick: No, it was just a different actor, you know. You switch from one to the other. The Brigadier gets more resigned as he sees him changing all the time: “Oh, here we go again,” and “Oh, another one” “Oh,you’re…” “Oh, I see” You have to accept the story after the initial shock; you know: ”What are you doing with a new face like that? Come on, man!”
Dave: In Terror of the Zygons you have the line “Prime Minister… Ma’am…?” Whose idea was that?
Nick: That was Douglas Camfield’s idea. He had in mind a politician we have in this country by the name of Shirley Williams, who is a very big-wig in the SDP party. We all thought, “Oh, let’s have the idea of a woman Prime Minister.” But he had Shirley Williams very much in mind about who the woman might be. And she’d probably make a very good Prime Minister, which I would like more than the present lady Prime Minister [the late Lady Thatcher], who I don’t care for at all.
However, I think you know the Brigadier: he didn’t like politicians very much, and I think a woman politician would have really driven him ‘round the bend. The present real Prime Minister, she would have driven him ‘round the bend.
Dave: [About another] woman, there was that story that you had been given a watch from “Doris” – did anybody ever tell you who Doris was?
Nick: Why I knew who Doris was. She was my bit on the side in Brighton. Not a word to Fiona–that was the Brigadier’s wife. It never came out in the story, but I know it. When I write this book, which I shall be doing…
Dave: You’re writing a book? Can you tell us anything about it?
Nick: I haven’t started it yet… I’m going to start it over the next couple of weeks. It’s fun. It’ll be called “Whatever Happened To The Brigadier?” I shall try and write a book; maybe I’ll put it that way.
Dave: Have you ever written anything else?
A Yes, I’ve written a lot of unpublished stuff.
Dave: After Robot and Terror of the Zygons, there were two more UNIT stories. In one, Patrick Newell was a colonel and there was a major. Were you asked to be in that?
Nick: Yes, I was asked to be in that, but I couldn’t because I had an offer of a stage play. They asked me too late, you see, and I have to work, and so the stage play took precedence; it was a very good part.
Dave: And then it was several years and maybe you thought you’d never be on Doctor Who again, until Mawdryn Undead.
Nick: Until Mawdryn Undead yeah. That’s when John Nathan-Turner said, “Would you like to come back on the program?” and explained the format of the story. Again, I was playing two Brigadiers. But it was more difficult than the first time, because they were both the same character [four years apart], and four years is not very much apart, you see.
So you couldn’t differentiate it… I never understood that story, by the way. I read it again, I’ve looked at it again, and I still don’t understand it!
Dave: How did they work that filming? That must have been a paste-on moustache.
Nick: Yes it was. They did all my stuff in the studio, all the stuff as Brigadier 1 on one day and then they did Brigadier 2 on another day.
Dave: And you worked with Peter Davison then. Had you ever met him?
Nick: No… Yes, of course, I had I met him in All Creatures Great And Small, and I did Sink Or Swim with him, another comedy.
Dave: Did they frequently film out of order?
Nick: They’re always out of order. For technical reasons, they have to be. You’d have to do a run-through in story order and then a run-through in technical order, and always keep in back of your mind the memory of the story as it’s going on.
Dave: Has there been any talk about you coming back again?
Nick: No, there’s been no talk about it
Dave: Would you be interested?
Nick: Certainly, if it could work. But it depends on the way the new program’s going to go. Of course I’m interested. I’d love to come back.
Dave: We’re trying to put together a memorial for Patrick Troughton from people who worked with him. Could you give us a few words?
Nick: He was wonderful to work with. He was so loved, respected. He had such a lovely sense of humour. He was a very fine actor. Indeed, some of his work, leaving aside Doctor Who totally for the moment – he’s given some wonderful performances in other shows and he was such a dear, dear man to work with. He was a delight to work with right from the word go.
Dave: And you were back with him in The Five Doctors.
Nick: I enjoyed that wonderfully well. He will be very very sadly missed by a lot of us. He’s missed, and that’s two in the space of six months. Because, don’t forget, Ian Marter was even closer to me than Patrick Troughton was. He was a very, very dear friend of mine I miss him a hell of a lot, I’ll tell you. Because we were great buddies. We only got to know each other in 1983 when we’d come to America, because although we’d met in the early ‘70s in the show, we never got to know each other when we started. When we came across to America [to do] conventions, we got to know each other very well.
Dave: He was a much younger man too.
Nick: Oh yes, he was only 40, 40-odd years. Tragic.