Here’s an extract from John Leeson’s ‘Mythmakers’ video, in which he talks about his early career and his time playing the voice of K9.
Q: Do you have a theatrical background of any description?
A: I don’t suppose I do, really. All my family were in the church, my father was a clergyman, my godfather was a bishop, my uncle is a clergyman, and I’m an actor!
Q: Did you leave school and go straight into acting?
A: No, I didn’t, I left school under a black cloud, which probably disappointed my parents a lot. I then went out into the big bad world doing what other people do, I worked in a bookshop for a while, in Leicester, then I worked in a hospital. I worked in the Leicester Royal Infirmary as a hospital porter. I think my father was instrumental in that, because he wanted me to get my feet on the ground a bit, so I spent a fair bit of time portering, carting people about from ward to ward, and the mortuary porter went sick for four months just after I landed at Leicester Royal Infirmary, and a young porter named John was deputed to take his place. It was a very quiet job, but again it was very good experience.
Q: Why didn’t you go straight into acting at this point?
A: Again, because I still hadn’t got my act together. I still didn’t know where I was going, what I wanted to do, or anything. I had vague notions of wanting to become an actor, but they were very vague. I joined the Leicester Dramatic Society, which was very good, but I hadn’t really got the courage to take the plunge until one day I suddenly I decided I would audition for RADA. They had, I think, thirty places to fill and I discovered, just having auditioned, that there were only 450 audition applicants. I did what must have been the worst audition I’ve ever done in my life, but a fortnight later I had a very nice letter saying that I’d been accepted! I couldn’t believe it.
About a year after I went to RADA, I started to get my act together by means of Restoration drama. We had a teacher called Eddie Gray, he was marvellous. He was a Restoration comedic figure himself, I think he wouldn’t mind me saying that… marvellous style, and size. He taught me, and most of us, the art of being on stage and striking twelve, and not having any fears about making our point, which was super. And I think after that point I started to realise that this really was for me.
Q: Do you think, with generations of your family having been in the church, that you were a disappointment to your family?
A: Well I don’t know, my father was very philosophical about this, he said ‘After all, it’s the same job’, in the sense that he as a clergyman with a congregation, there’s an element of theatre, with a stage and an audience. But there’s another similarity, which is that it’s a priest’s function to stand between the realm of ideas, and Earth, and so an actor, in sort of symbolic way, I suppose does the same sort of thing. He stands on a stage and is the medium through which ideas pass to the audience.
Q: So then you went to the London stage?
A: Yes, I had little forays onto the London stage. I did a pantomime for the Westminster theatre, and I did ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ – in fact, I met my wife while I was understudying Mole, (who was played by) a wonderful actor, Richard Goulden, he fell into the pit on the opening night, which was very alarming. The manager of the theatre phoned me, said ‘Do you know the lines?’, and I said ‘Of course’, but of course Richard was the kind of actor who was never off stage.
Q: And you were getting married three times in a week?
A: Eight times a week, including matinees. Yes, I was playing a bridegroom in ‘Plaze Suite’, a Neil Simon play that was then running concurrently in Broadway. It was three plays, and in the third of these a guy is fetched to the house of the bride, who has locked herself in the bathroom and can’t go through with the wedding, and the bride’s father creates mayhem.
Q: But you got married three times?
A: Yes, you keep coming back to this. Yes, my wedding day fell on a Saturday, then there was a matinee, then an evening show. I got married in the morning, I think at eleven, the matinee was at five, and the evening show was at eight. And we had a very short honeymoon because we had to be back on Monday.
Q: So how did you get into television?
A: (pause) I don’t know! How does anyone get into television? It’s a very good question. Um… I really don’t know, I did a religious play for the BBC called ‘The Wedding Feast’, when I was a very hungry actor and there was food in it and I thought that was good. The first television play of any note that I was in was ‘The Spanish Farm’, by R.H. Mottram, it’s a good novel, all about the First World War. I played a young solider who was in the trenches and couldn’t take it, I did my schooldays again, I did a flip, and he eventually gets shot and it was a very nice introduction to television. But the sort of weight I am, the sort of build I am, I tended to do situation comedy. ‘Dad’s Army’, I did, years ago, and I was livid because they gave me an army haircut, a real basin job, and then of course put me in a balaclava and a tin hat, so nobody could see the hair anyway, but it was in the contract, you had to have an army haircut to play the part.
Q: You were a bear as well, weren’t you, in ‘Rainbow’?
A: I was, yes, I confess, I was a bear. I went up to Thames Television for this show, ‘Rainbow’, and I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. The costume hadn’t been made for this bear, this creature. The producer said they wanted a jolly, cuddly figure, then had me fitted for this amazing bear suit. No-one could see any expressions on my face at all, it was all voice acting, inside this incredibly hot bear suit. I was really ill inside this bear suit, because if you spent all day in this hot bear suit in a small studio, you were in trouble. So I was poured out of this costume every evening, into a taxi, and I kept taking the money. It was useful, because I could do a lot of voiceover work, where nobody ever saw me. I did a lot of freelancing for the BBC, and it was a meal ticket because Judy was no longer working because we were expecting our son, who duly arrived. That year I did on it (‘Rainbow’) was a very good cushion to sit on, a stepping stone.
Q: You were also setting questions on ‘Mastermind’, weren’t you?
A: Yes, that was a fluke. If you consider my school record, I had no business setting questions on ‘Mastermind’, I had no business setting questions on anything. But a very good friend of mine was a researcher on ‘Mastermind’ at the time, and she said ‘John, you should set the questions, one of our question setters is on a sabbatical, and you’ve got a mind like an old bag of tricks, full of rubbish, send twenty questions to the producer and see if he likes them’. So I sent twenty questions, and he liked them, and after about twenty thousand I’d had enough, been squeezed like a lemon. You found out the most ridiculous things, because you had to not only set the question, you also had to provide notes on it, but I found out things like, for example, I set a question on royal fish, heraldic symbols, but if fish are landed in territorial water they become the property of the queen. But all questions about this are handled by the ministry of transport! Ludicrous!
Q: How did you land the role of K9?
A: Well you don’t leave RADA hoping to get the part of K9. It’s one of those really weird jobs that comes up. A friend of mine, a director I’d worked with years ago in rep in the North of England, was in a local pub and I was there too. He was doing ‘Z Cars’ or something at the BBC at the time, and we chatted and he said ‘I may have something for you’. A week later, my agent called me up and said ‘John, I’ve just had the BBC on the line, they’d like you to play a tin dog, and they’d like you to play a virus in ‘Doctor Who’. What do you think?’. I thought, well, I’d been asked to do some strange things in my time, I had nothing to lose, except my dignity, my sanity and my family, so I did it.
I went to see Graham Williams, who was then producing ‘Doctor Who’. He showed me the blueprints for K9, for which a voice was required, and asked if I’d think up some voices and put them on tape, which I did. And then there was a call from his office saying ‘John, have you accepted the job? We’re waiting to hear from you’, because I didn’t realise it had actually been offered to me. So I said ‘Yes, fine’, and lo and behold I found myself being K9!
Q: And how did you come up with the voice of K9? You said you’d recorded several…
A: Well, yes, the idea was to have this machine that was omniscient and could churn out data at the press of a button, and then suddenly uttered it with a tiny little voice, as if it came out of a tiny little speaker on a transister radio. So I just took the voice up a register or two, and clipped it a bit. One of the ideas I had was from a Len Deighton film called ‘Billion Dollar Brain’, where there was a computer that spat words out, totally detached from any other words in the sentence. I had a go at that a bit, but it wasn’t very successful, you couldn’t modulate it and carry on a dialogue with the other actors.
I think the way of working with K9 contributed to his success. I was actually in the rehearsals, running around on all fours, being the dog. He was only in for one story, as far as I was concerned, so I might as well go for broke. It provided an eyeline for the other actors, it amused Tom Baker immensely and it kept me out of trouble. They put the voice through a ring modulator, with a microphone, and I couldn’t be near the other actors or their voices would also come through the ring modulator, I suppose. So come recording time, I’d be stuck away somewhere with a monitor in front of me, a screen to watch, a pair of headphones, and a micrphone, and try to reproduce what had happened in rehearsals.
But the first time that K9 appeared, the electronic signals being sent to K9 to make him move around, were on the same frequency as the signals being sent to the cameras. So whenever K9 appeared, the cameras slowed up and K9 just careered around into the furniture. And I’d rehearsed it for two weeks, but I thought the BBC would never employ me again when this wretched thing couldn’t do as it was told So there were two voices, there was the virus as well, but the virus was this immense prawn-like creature made out of fibreglass, which a very small actor called John Scott-Martin put on. He clamboured into this thing, and it wasn’t possible for him to have his voice relayed from this. So I had to have this very plummy voice, that I don’t have naturally.
But after a while of playing K9 I found I got more into the character, and we needed less and less of the fuzz on the voice. Very worrying. We had a situation in Oxfordshire once, when the BBC had taken a video unit out, a great big van with big scanners, and Tom Baker was doing a scene a couple of miles down the road but my voice was coming from – I was sitting in the van, in the driver’s seat, and I could hear what was going on, I had headphones. But what I didn’t realise was, during a break Tom got out his paper to do the Times crossword, because we tried to do it every day and we usually got about a third of it finished. And Tom said ‘John, have you got your crossword with you?’, and I said I did, so we started solving it, and of course all the locals who’d been to watch the filming saw K9 on the grass verge and Tom Baker with his Times, and they were both doing the Times crossword.
Q: You left for a year, didn’t you?
A: Yes, I left for a year, with no intention of going back, because being out of vision for a year is no place for a career actor to be. You need to get your face around, and it was purely for that reason, no other at all. The character of K9 had been well-established, there wasn’t much more that could be done with it. One of the difficulties of the K9 character was that it wasn’t a dynamic character, it couldn’t move very fast for a start, and if you consider that the Doctor is a plus factor, his companions are a plus factor, and you don’t want too many plusses in the mix, you want some baddies, Daleks and Sontarans and so on. Also, if you have a computer playing a part that is capable of solving any problem in a microsecond, it’s fine on page seven of part one, but then you might as well pack up and go home because the story could be well wrapped up by then. You know, if K9 was actually allowed full reign. So he was always having flat batteries, he couldn’t go out onto swampy planets because he hadn’t been under-sealed. Even in the special, he couldn’t be the lead, he needed Sarah-Jane Smith to carry the heroic thrust of the story.
Q: So why did you go back?
A: Well there’s been a producer change. John Nathan-Turner was the producer now, he suddenly phoned up and said ‘Would you be interested in coming back, K9 will probably be phased out, we’re not sure, maybe, maybe not, would you consider coming back an seeing him out properly?’. So I talked to my agent, and my bank manager, looked at my watch and said ‘Alright’ and stayed with ‘Doctor Who’ for another year.
Q: How did people react to K9 on the set? Did people like him?
A: Some did and some didn’t. Some felt the character had overstayed his welcome, but I think that’s partly the problem that I’ve indicated in the writing, if you haven’t got enough for the character to do, he’s spare weight. If he can be seen to be earning his crust, in terms of the story, then there’s a very good reason for him to be there, and he’d be welcomed. But there were certain people who didn’t like him. In his last season, he was always getting kicked about. Bill Fraser kicked his head off! He became a lame duck, a lame dog, so to speak.
Q: Were there any spin-offs from doing the K9 voice?
A: We had a pilot for a hopeful series that never came to anything, called ‘K9 and Company’, where another ‘Doctor Who’ character, Liz Sladen, found K9 in her attic, or her auntie’s attic or something, as a present from the Doctor. An unlikely thing to happen, but it was quite fun, a black magic story. But unfortunately I think the money ran out, or there was a change in the regime at the BBC, so what was agreed in the first place ended when the money ran out.
Q: And K9 turned up in things like ‘The Generation Game’…
A: Yes. Well I always used to think that K9 was never a dog, he was a computer, and the dog thing was entirely incidental, he just happened to be that kind of dog shape. I was rather keen on letting the rather pedantic side of my nature come through in his voice.
Q: And you did Longleat?
A: Yes, the big twentieth anniversary celebration. I was asked to do the public address system, so K9’s voice boomed out across the Wiltshire countryside. But the crowds were such that on the second day, and so few could get in because it was vastly oversubscribed, I had to do it in my own voice, which was more commanding. But I was also the person to complain to, so I spent the day being a sort of public relations officer!