This is a transcript of part of the ‘Myth Makers’ interview with Mark Strickson. He talks about how he got the part of Turlough, and about the difficulties of fitting the character in to most of the stories.
Q: How did you go about getting into acting?
A: I did the National Youth Theatre for two years, and then I applied for RADA. I think something like 4,000 people applied for 20 places, and who can tell which are the most talented 20? I was lucky to get in. It was great training. From RADA, I then joined a theatre company that works on narrow boats, and we toured on the narrow boat, I did that for two and a half years, and from that I went into ‘Angels’ and then ‘Doctor Who’.
Q: How did you get the job on ‘Doctor Who’?
A: I’d been working on ‘Angels’, which was a hospital soap opera set in Birmingham, and I played a Brummie ambulance guy. John Nathan-Turner’s partner Gary Downie was working as a production manager on ‘Angels’, and I went from ‘Angels’ to ‘Juliet Bravo’. The guy who had the lead in ‘Angels’ happened to get ill, and ‘Angels’ wanted met to take the lead. Like any actor, it’s wonderful to be offered a regular job in a soap opera, but it’s a big decision to make and I thought ‘Well I’ll have a cast around’ and I rang my agent and she said ‘You’re up for a regular part in Doctor Who’, so I took my life into my own hands, knocked on John Nathan-Turner’s door and read for John, he said ‘I can’t promise you anything, but we’ve very interested’. It’s never happened to me before, it’ll never happen to me again, but on the same day I was having to choose between two regular parts, in ‘Angels’ and ‘Doctor Who’.
Q: Why did you choose ‘Doctor Who’?
A: Well, I felt the part in ‘Doctor Who’ was nearer to me. Peter, to take an example, Peter Davison, when he got his breaks in television, he was playing himself, people like you to be yourself, and he’s very relaxed. If you can be yourself, you come across better. And I thought the character of Turlough, well he wasn’t like me, he was an evil sod, but he was more like me than playing Teddy (in ‘Angels’).
Q: So you got the job. What did you do?
A: I did a ‘Juliet Bravo’ in between and then I turned up on the first day of the shoot in North London for my first episode. I’d been out with the wardrobe lady and chosen my costume. I realised soon after getting the job that it wasn’t going to be just another television job. The publicity involved was enormous. I hadn’t realised – I hadn’t watched ‘Doctor Who’ as a child because I didn’t have a television, I watched some episodes of Pat Troughton – I realised very soon after getting the job that it was a cult thing. John had said to me ‘You’ll have to go to the States a lot to publicise the programme’. So yes, I was nervous, but people often ask ‘Did you enjoy working with Doctor Who?’, I got on very well with John and Eric Saward in the office, and I thought ‘This is a really nice cast’.
Q: How would you sum up that first story?
A: It was great, when I got the script, because I had lots of lines! The more lines you’ve got, the easier it is to be good. It’s much easier to settle into something. I remember John Nathan-Turner says to me, because I was masquerading as a public school boy, and in general I’ve got quite a Midlands voice, and John said ‘Do you think you can sound a bit posher, Mark?’, but I don’t think I ever managed it. That was a problem on the first day, but John was very good about it. I had a great time.
Q: Up next is ‘Terminus’.
A: A very depressing story. Ghastly. Poor old Sarah Sutton, her last story. Very worthy stuff, Florence Nightingale stuff. Grey sets. I think that was the one where I spent a hell of a lot of time with Janet, crawling around. I wore through the knees on my trousers.
Q: You were playing this terrible traitor, really. Did you start to realise you were going to spend a lot of time staring into a glowing crystal?
A: Yes, I did. I also realised that the crystal burnt my hand after twenty seconds. In order to make the crystal work in the studio, it had to be very strong light, it had to be on a wire, tiny little thing, down my sleeve, down my leg and it was attached to a car battery, with a chap running round with me with a car battery. After about twenty seconds it used to get so hot. So get your stopwatches out and time the longest I hold that cube in my hand.
Q: Following that, ‘Enlightenment’.
A: Yes, yes, this is memorable for one particular reason. Great cast, wonderful to work with. But there was one occasion where I throw myself off the ship. You use a company called Kirby Wire, and it’s Kirby Wire’s insurance, I presume, they strap you into a think like Peter Pan and you trust them. You throw yourself off into space and hope for the best, so I dutifully threw myself into space off this ship going through the universe, and half the harness broke. It was a bit like jumping onto a brick wall with your legs apart from twenty feet. Any man will be able to appreciate what that was like. It was terrible, I couldn’t walk. There were some shots scheduled from after that, I don’t know if there are any out-takes from that, but I almost blacked out from pain. If you look in that story, you’ll see there are certain scenes in which I don’t move, and those are scenes shot after that. I’m remarkably stationary. Fortunately there was no permanent damage. There was regional swelling.
Q: A lot of people who’ve played companions complain about the quality of the scripts, and the way their characters decline. Did you feel that?
A: Not the quality of the scripts, I think the quality of the scripts was very good when I was in ‘Doctor Who’, but the problem for me, I’d been the villain for eight episodes, now I had to travel with the Doctor, there are only a certain number of occasions that the Doctor can be stupid enough not to notice someone trying to kill him. Turlough had a brain, he could go off and have another plot, and that would have been fine if there’d been time, but in the context of four twenty-five minute episodes, you set the plot up, and then it was very hard to put another sub-plot in, there wasn’t time for Turlough. I understood that. I never went to John and complained. I could see they had a problem, I’m sure they were applying their brains to it. Turlough worked well when he was intrinsic to the plot, and when he wasn’t you had to lock him up.
Q: Moving on to ‘The King’s Demons’, was that problem surfacing there?
A: Very much so. ‘The King’s Demons’ is memorable because it rained on location. Watch it and have a look. For anybody who hasn’t worked on television, rain is hardly ever picked up by the camera, if you want it to look like it’s raining, it’s very hard. So try and spot it in ‘The King’s Demons’, there’s torrential rain. I’d never worked with horses before, and there was a horse in that and Anthony Ainley rides it, Jasper, and Anthony couldn’t ride at all. And Jasper was a trooper, a mountainous horse, and it would do whatever the chap told it. The problem is he wouldn’t do more than one take. Highly intelligent animal. In the jousting scenes, he smiled at the camera! But if you wanted to do another take, he wouldn’t do it. That was a complete revelation to me, and great fun to watch because I didn’t have much to do.
Q: In ‘The Five Doctors’, there are so many characters…
A: How could any character have a decent slice of the cake in ‘The Five Doctors’? You knew you’d get a little bit. The great thing about that was working with so all those people. I met Pat Troughton for the first time, who had been my Doctor when I was a child. It was great to watch them work. We did all my stuff, and I went on holiday all around Wales, and there was a hair on the gate and they needed to film the whole thing again. So we had to go back and shoot quite a lot again. It was absolutely perishing cold, which was often the case in ‘Doctor Who’.
Q: What about ‘Warriors of the Deep’?
A: I think people think television is more complicated than it is. In TC1, Television Centre 1, you had to finish by ten o’clock, there was a chap somewhere who pulled the plug on all the lights, you had to finish by ten and if that was your last day in the studio, it was disaster if you had to set it up again next time you came into the studio. No director wanted to do that. On this occasion, we were running well to schedule, but about five to six minutes before we finished they realised they’d got lots of shots of the Sea Devils being gassed, but they didn’t have them dying and falling over, as cut-aways. So at the last minute, all the Sea Devils rushed back onto the set, and the production manager was shouting ‘Sea Devils, Sea Devils, Sea Devils! Die! Die! Die! Now go over there! Die! Die! Die!’. These people were madly running everywhere, and dying and getting up.
Q: The Myrka was a joke, wasn’t it?
A: We’d done all this stuff with the guys in rehearsal, and we got in there and all the Myrka could do… It wasn’t even dry when it got into the studio! It was lack of budget, everyone was working as hard as they could. And you have to pretend you’re running for your life, ‘Oh my goodness, Doctor, it’s the Myrka!’. In one of the first scenes, Janet had to kick the Myrka, and she fell over and got paint all over her.
Q: The next story was ‘The Awakening’.
A: What was Turlough doing? He got locked up. I watched it last night and it was twice as good as I remember it being. It was a nice script, visually very nice, lovely weather. I was reminded that when I break out of the shed, that sort of SAS stuff and I say ‘Stiff upper lip, old boy’, I couldn’t get through that door. I was throwing myself at that door. And then when I did, when you watch it, I made a gap in it, I had to do two huge ones, when I came out of there I had a huge bruise on my door. Explosions have a big part in ‘Doctor Who’, and Peter’s examining a box on a hill in ‘Mawdryn Undead’, they cleared a big area, stopped people walking their dogs, but during I think ‘Terminus’ there was a character who had to put a piece of gel in a corridor, it was Liza Goddard, and Dominic Goddard was playing the sidekick or whatever, and the explosion was massive, it destroyed half the set. Liza Goddard shouted ‘What the fuck was that?’. And on the news that night, the news was being broadcast live, and there was an explosion in the background and I think the newsreader thought it was the IRA. They had to dub over Liza Goddard’s lines.
Q: You did some dribbling in ‘Frontios’?
A: It’s quite strange when you get a script in the post, you read in over breakfast, you get to ‘Turlough is writing on the floor, screaming “Tractators! Tractators! Tractators!” He is frothing at the mouth’. Then you get to the studio, and the production manager says ‘Okay Mark, this is the scene where you froth at the mouth’, you go ‘Okay’, you get on the floor, you writhe, you froth at the mouth. I did this, thought it was rather good, I’d given it my all. John came over and said ‘Mark, that was fantastic, but you spat on the camera lens’!
Q: ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ must have had higher production values?
A: I loved working with the Daleks, they were fantastic. What happens is, first day of rehearsal they ring up whoever plays the Daleks, and the six old guys, they ring up and say ‘Is that Dalek 2, could you be at the rehearsal room in North Acton next week?’. They sit in wheelchairs, then you get on location, they put the Dalek on them, and they frighten you! I was frightened. The Daleks are great because, unlike any other monsters, they can move fast, they can go where they want to. Also, the actor in the Dalek doesn’t have to think about the voice. You can actually interact with the Daleks, and I think that was unique among the monsters.
Q: Janet left in that story. Did you know you were going to leave?
A: I think so. I think I made the wrong decision. After I left, they went through a period of longer stories, and with that Turlough would have had a chance. I think the combination of Nicola, Colin and Turlough could have worked. With Colin, they’d taken on board the fact that they needed more humour. I think it was time for Janet to leave, it was time for her to move on. I agreed with her that she should leave. I don’t remember her saying to me whether or not I should or should not, I think Peter probably agreed with me.
Q: You went to Lanzarote for ‘Planet of Fire’.
A: The only joy of foreign filming, it’s a nightmare, you work from the moment you step off the plane to the moment you get on it, the only joy – we had to get up so early, you know that story about Germans putting towels on all the deckchairs? We were up so early the first day, we managed to put towels on all the seats round the swimming pool and I wish I’d been there at five in the morning when the two Germans came down, and nobody sat on those towels all day round.
Q: And you had to carry Nicola Bryant out of the sea?
Whoever did the recce, I think stood on the beach and thought ‘Lovely sea, lovely sky’, but unfortunately what you can’t see is that the shore was incredibly sharp with rocks. So it was like trying to carry a beautifully proportioned but not feather-light row of needles. I just couldn’t do it. I kept stumbling. There’s a nudist beach just round from where we were filming, so Nicola’s out there in the water, screaming, this chap runs across the sharp rocks, dives in and tries to save her. I’ve just arrived at Nicola and I’m trying to explain that we’re making a film, and there’s this totally naked German guy wrapping himself around Nicola, trying to save her.
Q: What did you think of what came up in that story about Turlough’s origins?
A: Pretty desperate, wasn’t it? It worked. Just. But I’m sure the White Guardian was supposed to come back, but he didn’t.
Q: Were you sad to leave?
A: Yes, I was. I felt it had been a very nice part of my life, I’d made very good friends.