Here’s Derek Jacobi, the Master back in 2007’s ‘Utopia’, talking about his career and how he ended up working on ‘Doctor Who’. It’s from a convention appearance he made a few months ago:
You were born just before the war?
Yes, in East London. I think some gene must have got in, the night of my conception, because from that moment of conception I wanted to be an actor. I don’t know where it came from, there was nothing in the family to suggest it. We were a typical lower middle-class family in East London, in Leytonstone… me and David Beckham. (laughs) But I never talked like him. I don’t know why, actually, which is strange. I’ve got various theories as to why I didn’t grow up with a Cockney accent, because both my parents had them. I did the usual things, playing in the street and dressing up in my parents’ clothes, and the wind changed and I stayed like it!
I lived in the world of imagination, and we made up stories, we played doctors and nurses and teachers and pupils on the street. I remember once, I was always ransacking my parents’ wardrobe for clothes to dress up in, and I found my mother’s wedding veil. And I put it on, and I ran down the street to my friends, and it caught on the privet and it was ripped to shreds. My mother being my mother, and I was an only child so I was adored, spoiled, my mother was wonderful about it. But I’ll never forget that, that torn veil. It’s kind of lived with me. People were always asking me if I was going to write my autobiography, and I kept sayin No, I’m not a writer, but I told them this story and they said Well, you’ve got the title – The Boy With the Veil.
How much attention do you pay to critics?
They’re very influential. No matter what any actor says, if you read them, you’re influenced by them. If they’re bad, you want to kill yourself. If they’re dismissive, if they ignore you, you feel dreadful. If they’re good, you feel fine, but sometimes you end up acting out the good bits, you end up not being able to do that. There’s a famous example when Harold Hobson, who was a famous critic for the Sunday Times, was talking about Peggy Ashcroft in a play that she was doing, and there was one line, he said ‘When she said this line, the heavens opened’, it was the most wonderful line, he said, and he went on, Sunday after Sunday, about this line. Even when he was reviewing other things, he’d go back to this line. Eventually she cut it. She couldn’t say it, because he’d given her such a thing about it.
I stopped reading critics when I did my first leading role with the National, in ‘Black Comedy’. It was only half the evening, it was Albert Finney and Maggie Smith doing ‘Miss Julie’ in the first half, and then ‘Black Comedy’ in the second half, and I was the lead in ‘Black Comedy’. At the same time, we were filming Olivier’s ‘Othello’, in which I was playing Cassio, so I was going from Chichester to Shepperton overnight. It was an exciting time, terrifying but very wonderful. But after the first night of ‘Black Comedy’, I went over to Shepperton and the next morning I went onto the set and Sir Laurence (Olivier) was sitting there in his canvas-backed chair and he had all the papers around him and I daren’t go anywhere near him, but he called me over and he sat me down, and he virtually said ‘I don’t care what the critics say, I thought you were wonderful’. It was… my heart sank, I thought I didn’t want to read what they said. That was a lesson that repeated itself from then on. The moment the critics come out the next day, after the press day, and you haven’t read them, within 24 hours you know roughly what they said, without reading it. People ring up and say ‘I don’t think the Times saw the same play that I did’, or ‘Congratulations on your review’. Don’t congratulate me on my review, congratulate me on my performance, but I gather from that whether the reviews were good or not. The way people talk about you, or drop their eyes or whatever, you know whether they’re good or bad. But you don’t have to actually read the word that they use. Nowadays they put stars! How many stars you get!
How did the part of the Master in Doctor Who come up?
Well, my agent called up and said ‘You’ve been offered a part in ‘Doctor Who’, an iconic series, and of course I wanted to do it so I said Yes, without knowing what the part was. They said they’d send the script. And the script came, I read it, and I thought it was great, very well written, a lovely character, but not being an afficianado of ‘Doctor Who’, I mean I grew up with it but not having seen it for years, I didn’t know the significance of what I was being offered. And about two days later, I went out to dinner with Michael Grandage and Christopher Orham (sp?), theatre people I’ve worked with… Christopher’s a designer, and he’s a huge ‘Doctor Who’ fan! I announced at dinner that I was going to do ‘Doctor Who’, he nearly fell off his seat! He said ‘What are you playing?’, and I said ‘It’s a character called Professor Yana, who becomes somebody called the Master’ – (screams) The apogee of my career. Forget knighthoods. And he said I had this iconic role in this fantastic, fantastic series, and then of course I became aware of the importance of it. No pressure! And I started, and I met David, who was wonderful – they’re all wonderful. I had a great time doing it, really lovely, and then as I was enjoying it and looking forward to my life as the Master, I was morphed into somebody younger! I was morphed into John Simm, because he wanted a younger model. So it was brief but glorious for me.
Did you look at any of Roger Delgado’s work as the Master?
No. I asked, actually, about the history of the Master, but they said they didn’t have time!
So what tips did you get from your friend, in terms of playing the Master?
He didn’t go any further, apart from wild enthusiasm and encouragement, and he put me in the picture, he said ‘You must believe that you are playing this seriously important role’. And I had played the Master on audio, but I hadn’t sort of connected them.
Were you amazed by the fandom, by the response of the fans?
Yes, extraordinary. Like being here today, amazing. And suddenly, having been around for many years as an actor, there was a whole new fan base. That’s the marvellous thing about being an actor, next year I’ll have been a professional actor for fifty years, and I’m playing grandfathers now, but you need never retire, you just go on until you drop. New things happen. I did the narration of a little children’s thing called ‘In the Night Garden’, there’s a whole generation of 2 to 4 year olds now whose parents get in touch. It’s a wonderful club to belong to, this acting lark, it’s a wonderful club.