In this 1996 interview (you can hear the original here), Sylvester McCoy discusses the Paul McGann TV movie, British theatre and the reasons why the show was cancelled back in 1989, as well as his thoughts on ‘Search Out Science’ and ‘Dimensions in Time’.
Q: What’s your opinion of British theatre? Do you think British theatre deserves a lot more credit than it gets at the moment?
A: Well, yes, I mean it’s the perennial cry, British theatre is, in Britain, very successful in its own terms, and much loved. It depends on which government’s in power, it’s a bit like PBS over here. If you’ve got Republicans in power, goodbye PBS; if you’ve got Democrats, they might be able to scrape a little money together to keep it going. It’s the same with theatre in Britain, although because we have this long and wonderful tradition with theatre, they haven’t killed it off and they never will, really.
Q: What’s more difficult to do, classical Greek tragedy or panto?
A: Well they’re not difficult, I mean if acting is difficult then they’re all difficult, but if it’s not… They all require different skills. So pantomime you give as much, you have to give energy, high energy, because you’ve got to directly entertain the audience, you can’t relax. You need many skills to do it, it’s not an easy thing to do. When you’re doing tragedy or more concentrated theatre, the skills there are deep concentration and communication, being able to tell the story. But both… I don’t differentiate between the great classics, which I’ve been lucky to do, and the pantomimes, which I suppose a lot of people in the US think of pantomime as Marcel Marceau, but in England…
Q: More like ‘Oh no he isn’t', ‘Oh yes he is’?
A: Yes. A whole different skill’s involved.
Q: Do you think William Shakespeare’s resurrected British film, with Kenneth Branagh?
A: Well I suppose if William Shakespeare were alive he’d be working out here as a hack in Hollywood. It’s wonderful that Kenneth Branagh, well it’s Kenneth Branagh who’s helped to revive the British film industry, a bit. Again, with a change of government and a bit of sensible tax adjustments, as they’ve done in Ireland, we’d have a very good film industry. The problem is because we’re an English-speaking country we have to compete with other English-speaking countries that make films, and one of those is Hollywood. So it needs help. I think most likely in Hollywood help is given in tax breaks to people, but they don’t do that in Britain at all. We’re not playing on a level field.
Q: Speaking of doing great things on low budgets, what are your thoughts on continuing to work with people like Bill Baggs and Nick Briggs?
A: Well yes, I was very pleased, Sophie was the one who advised me to go and work with them, because she’s done them before. The first one I did, more because it meant working with Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker and Peter Davison, I just wanted to have at least worked with a few of the other Doctors. That was the main reason I did that. Then the second time, the chance to play such an interesting villain, because he starts off not as a villain and then develops. So just in purely selfish terms, the parts were really nice that I was given.
Q: Speaking of traditions and other Doctors, tell me about Paul McGann?
A: Well Paul McGann has been a friend, I’ve known him for quite a few years, he’s a marvellous actor. What he’ll bring to it is a sense of danger, he has a wonderful sense of danger. As a film actor, he’s a bit like Laurence Olivier, in the sense that when you went to see Olivier you were never quite sure what he was going to do it. I mean, he might just explode in front of you into something amazing, and Paul McGann’s got that, like any minute now something amazing might happen, something terrible might happen. And he’s very good at comedy, he can jump back and forth. So I think he’ll be a very good actor to play Dr. Who because of those facets, he’s got lots of things he can play around with.
Q: How does it feel to pass the baton? Your Doctor’s been around longer than Tom Baker’s.
A: Well I’m absolutely delighted to be involved in this transformation, because it finished for me about six years ago and I carried on doing whatever I’ve been doing for the rest of the time, having a merry time, and I’ve had a merry time. I gave up being the Doctor. I mean I enjoyed the conventions and the other side of the ‘Doctor Who’ world, or should I say universe, so when the phone call came I was delighted to learn that it was being revived. Because I’ve got to know a lot of fans and I know it’s what they want. And for purely selfish reasons, it’ll revive interest in the earlier Doctors. So I think it’s a very good thing. So I with delight and great pride pass on the baton to a great actor who I think will be marvellous. I think I’m blessed that the other actors gave up with sadness – apart from Peter Davison – but I get to pass the baton in this way, and in such an exotic location.
Q: With things like ‘Search Out Science’ and ‘Dimensions in Time’, did you feel it was a case of the BBC leading the fans on, saying ‘We’ll bring the Doctor out when it’s convenient for us’, until about six months ago?
A: Not really, no. I mean the BBC’s a vast organisation, and within there were people who were trying to keep it alive, and I think what they were doing was trying to keep it going. It wasn’t any kind of Machiavellian plan by the people at the top. I’m a great believer in the cock-up theory, the reason why ‘Doctor Who’ finished was it was a complete cock-up by management, so those things that you mentioned weren’t in any devious way, someone just thought ‘It’d be good to have the Doctor doing this’, and I think the one we did for ‘Children in Need’ they thought might revive interest in the show within the BBC, but it didn’t.