Michael E. Briant directed some classic Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker stories, including ‘The Sea Devils’ and ‘The Robots of Death’. He also directed a couple of stories – ‘Death to the Daleks’ and ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ – that aren’t terribly popular, but which I loved when I got them on VHS years and years ago. These extracts from a DWM interview include memories of semi-drowned Sea Devils, rubbish polystyrene cities and ghosts in Wookey Hole.
“The very first thing I insisted on was those string vests for the Sea Devils – I positively refused to work with nude monsters! Naval intelligence had given us posters of nuclear submarines with ridiculous propellers on the end of them. When the visual effects designer Peter Day and I were talking about it, I said ‘Look, this is Mickey Mouse. There’s no way we’re using those propellers’. So we stuck another one in and ended up getting quite close to the real thing – they came right down on top of me and wanted to know where we’d got out information from!
“With the music, I was trying for something new. I think Malcolm Clarke would agree that it wasn’t altogether successful. I asked too much of him – I was pushing too hard or too much music, and I relied on it too heavily. It didn’t worry me at all, until I began to realise that other people found it jarring and discordant – which are reasons why I’d like it originally anyway! I do any show for myself, hoping my tastes will please enough people to make the show successful – ‘The Sea Devils’ music was a mistake perhaps, but that’s the way I have to work.
“The Sea Devils walking out of the sea was the hardest scene to orchestrate in the whole story. It had to be done at high water, because at low water the shelving was so gradual they couldn’t actually get under the waterline. On the day we wanted to film, high water was six o’clock in the morning but we compromised and said seven o’clock. That meant most of us getting up at five to set up, or for costume and make-up to do their job – quite an undertaking in itself. It was half-past seven before we could begin. Then they discovered that the helmets filled with air, and they couldn’t get them under the water, othen than by bending right over, which let all the water in. They ended up nearly drowning themselves – especially as they couldn’t hear when I shouted ‘Action!’. That said, we did it in two takes.
“We couldn’t go to an oil rig as we’d originally planned, because the authorities refused permission, so we had to use these forts. I went out to see them in a little boat with my designer, and we both found them terrifying – I’d hate to spend a night in one of them. All we had to do was reproduce that feeling in the studios – hence the weird angles and echoes. For the scene where Jon and Katy climb up the side of the sea fort, we had a Royal Marine Commando abseiling team – a big guy and a little guy. The big guy was a private – dressed as Jon – and the little guy was the officer, dressed as Katy, with a blonde wig. Of course he got sent up something rotten. That scene was spoilt several times by sun getting into the lens, or by fog, or because it was raining. We had to do the whole thing about five times!
“When I first started on ‘The Green Death’, someone said ‘Please see Katy’s fella for a part’. I said ‘No. This is a business. I’m not into doing favours, and I don’t want to be in the embarrassing position of saying no, so it’s best I don’t see the guy’. I then interviewed five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five people but I couldn’t find anybody right. I was tearing my hair out until somebody suggested Stewart Bevan. I hadn’t seen him, he came in and was absolutely perfect. When he’d read his stuff, he said ‘Actually, I have to tell you, I’m Katy’s fiancee’. He got the part because he was a good actor, but I had to laugh at what I’d gone through to find him.
“There was this hillside that was supposed to be bombed by a squadron of Phantoms or something. There was no way the Air Force could come up with it; they just weren’t available. We could have use stock material, but I didn’t like the idea, so we ended up with a two-seater helicopter. Then, of course, we couldn’t afford the bombs, so our visual effects designer said ‘Lavatory cisterns’. I said ‘I beg your pardon?’, and he said ‘Ballcocks’. ‘Yes, quite,’ I replied, totally confused. ‘Ballcocks look like bombs, don’t they?’ he explained. ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got seventy-five ballcocks from another show. How about sticking a sort of little fin in them and ditching those?’. I said ‘Great!’.
“It would have been sad for Jon and Katy to be splitting up anyway, but with Stewart there it became almost like Stewart taking Katy from the show in real life as well as in the story. Some of the rehearsals became quite tense and everyone got quite weepy. There were times in the canteen where one was pussyfooting around the whole issue, trying to be tactful and separate people’s emotions from their work. But it was all there in the script – even down to having Jon drive off into the sunset. I worked terribly hard to get that – I wanted the shot of Bessie silhouetted on the skyline against the sunset. I filmed it about half-past six one evening, but it looked like a night shot, because I wanted it shot straight into the sun, so the light had to be filtered righ the way down.
“Death to the Daleks was really feature film material. We were being asked to do impossibilities. I think the city guard worked, though – you just didn’t see the wires holding it up. We built a scaffolding tower on the side of a cliff location and for most of the shots it moved around suspended from a hoist. It was difficult and had to be done a lot of times, but it was worth it in the end. For other shots, we used CSO in the studio. The polystyrene city, though, didn’t work. Time is ultimately the thing – with time you can do anything, even with a ‘Doctor Who’ budget. My ‘Doctor Who’ city didn’t work, so when I had to realise one for ‘Blake’s 7’, I approached it in a different way. It’s all a learning process, you see.
“Making ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ was more dramatic than what eventually appeared on screen. I always go to locations beforehand and spend a few days virtually by myself, just thinking and setting out all the options. I wanted to spend about a day in the Wookey Hole caves where we were going to film, but the authorities weren’t keen on me being down there while they were showing guided tours around. They asked if I would mind going down after closing time, about seven o’clock. I said ‘fine’, but pointed out that I’d have to be there to midnight at least. They agreed, saying that they’d lock both entrances as normal, giving me a key. With my wife, I duly set off into the caverns and after about two hours of wandering about, taking notes, somebody came up. I thought at first he was a security guy but then I saw he was dressed in a wet suit. I asked him how he had got in and he said ‘Oh, I always come in. Can I borrow your torch?’. I refused because I needed it to see with, and the man said ‘Right you are’ before going off into the gloom. Shortly afterwards, we heard a little Irish tune whistling from the shadows and both my wife and I began to feel a bit scared. I decided to call it a night, even though I hadn’t finished, but first I asked the caretaker who the man had been and why he had been let in. I was told, ‘We didn’t let anyone in. He was an Irishman who died down there pot-holing, three years ago’. Of course I couldn’t tell anyone, because my film unit would never have worked there.
“We had also been warned not to make fun of the Witch of Wookey Hole, which is a natural rock formation that resembles a witch. We all took it a bit tongue in cheek and towards the end of filming, a couple of our electricians dressed the Witch up in a black cloak and broomstick as a bit of fun. Five minutes later, Lis Sladen fell off a powerboat and nearly drowned. Terry Walsh rescued her, but they were both very shaken and indeed, Terry had to go up to the surface where he was desperately ill. A quarter of an hour later, I was setting up another shot when one of the electricians fell from a rock and broke his leg. The message is clear – don’t mock the Witch of Wookey Hole.
“I was happy about the Cybermen, I thought we did them quite well. The main problem in the studio was the Cybermats. I tried to do thte same thing I’d done with the maggots in ‘The Green Death’, but it wasn’t as successful. I tried doing them in different ways – some were CSO, some like puppets, and some were hand-animated. I had looked at the old ones but I decided they were a bit too cute, although in retrospect I have to admit that mine weren’t that wonderful either. I really wanted them to look reptilian and snakelike, but they didn’t come off.
“For the sets, I was working with somebody else’s designer, though, which proved rather limiting, not very enjoyable – and considering the sets were rather cheap, not that marvellous. Then there was that terrible revolving planet at the end. There was a line in that scene where Lis had to turn to Tom as the planet grew bigger and bigger on screen and say ‘Doctor, we’re heading for the biggest bang in history’. You can imagine the reaction that produced when it came to record it.
“Tom was still really finding his feet. I was terribly nervous. As an actor, he was trying to do his own thing but the script wasn’t stylistically verydifferent. As director, I was caught in a chicken and egg situation – on the one hand there’s Tom being terribly successful in fights a la Jon Pertwee, and there’s Tom saying ‘But I don’t want to do it like this’. I would ask him how he wanted to do it and he would say ‘I’d rather not’. In the end, we would compromise and he would win – but only just. I could balance the changes. Everything grew very quickly in rehearsal and it was my job to nurture that growing. When things were patently lousy, I dropped them.
“I had a terribly good designer on ‘The Robots of Death’, Ken Sharp. When we saw the script, we said ‘Oh my God, not more robots!’. The leader of the robots had been written by Chris Boucher as this great big butch type, so I cast a little Scottish actor without letting Philip Hinchcliffe know until it was too late! Chris didn’t mind the changes – it’s what it’s all about, and I didn’t want to go into the cliche of silver sets and giant robots. Ken and I went down to see open-cast mining operations in Cornwall to get an idea of how it was done and how our mining ship would move. Sitting in the aeroplane, we said ‘What are we going to do?’. I suggested that maybe in a future society, we’ll be able to redecorate our offices instantly by pressing a button. I said ‘Why don’t we have every room in different historical styles?’. Ken then suggested the whole ship being art deco. To fit in with this, and solve our cliche problem, I suggested art deco robots.”