Ron Jones directed a number of classic 80’s stories, including ‘Black Orchid’, ‘Arc of Infinity’ and ‘Vengeance on Varos’. Here, he talks to DWM about finding a body double for Sarah Sutton, taking the show to film on location in Amsterdam, and why the Plasmatons in ‘Time Flight’ didn’t quite work.
“Black Orchid was a very good script and looking back, I often think I’d like to go back and do it all over again. Although my experience as a production manager was useful, it was my first show and I always think of the studio as being like a juggernaut – once it starts rolling, you can only hope that you are the driver and that you’re taking it in the right direction. I found the really important thing after working out all the technical stuff was not to forget that you need to get the right performance from the actors.
“Black Orchid was supposed to take place in the height of summer, and we were filming in October trying to avoid rain and other horrors like that. The actors were understandably very cold! We had a lot of trouble actually finding the location because we needed to combine the house with an old-fashioned railway station. We found the station in Buckinghamshire, but the house was a real problem. We needed a terrace suitable for dancing, a cricket ground with a pavillion, and a roof for the final scenes. John suggested a house that might be sufficient after filming ‘Castrovalva’ in the grounds, but at first the owners weren’t keen on us using it – they thought it would become identified as a result. We managed to persuade them on the grounds that our story was a total fiction, but even then we had to construct a second, smaller roof on top of the house to enable us to film up there.
“It was an amazing problem finding a double for Sarah Sutton, someone who was the right height and also the right build. The girl we got, Vanessa Paine, was used for some scenes, but for others it proved to be an exercise in concentration for Sarah. In the studio, we used the split screen technique, recording only one half of the picture and then remounting the scene with Sarah playing it all over again to nothing except her own recorded voice, being played back via some speakers. It was extremely time-consuming, but I was helped by it being the main technical requirement of the script. Apart from that, there were the stunts, but there we were working with experts, so any risk was minimised.
“We had a minor dispute with our technicians over lighting in the studio, and so we never got the lighting exactly as I wanted it. There is basic lighting and fine lighting, and in the event we only had the basic, so the drawing room and hall sets weren’t picked out as well as I wanted. It’s the kind of thing I expect we, as a production, agonise over more than the viewer would.
“Quite a lot of nice stuff had to be cut. Breathing moments, like all the stuff I shot of the vintage car for instance, is always the first to go, simply because it’s not ultimately essential to the story.
“Time Flight’ was pretty demanding. I think the main obstacle was the filming factor. I think at one time we would probably have liked to have done all that heath stuff on location, but it would have required at least two weeks filming, which was out of the question. That said, to recreate an entire heath in the studio is very difficult. We had a perspective set, to try to give some idea of scale, but that meant that the actors were limite in their movement and the overall impression was too static. I tried to be a bit more interesting by using that rocky outcrop and setting some scenes up against it, some slightly away from it and so on.
“The Plasmatons came out of our pre-planning meeting, when we all agreed the problem with monsters was that because you usually have a man inside, it’s difficult to get away from the basic human shape. As a kind of amorphous glob, the Plasmatons were a desire to break away from that, although unfortunately I don’t think they worked as well as they could have done had they been more mobile.
“Time Flight actually broke a bit of new ground as far as Heathrow was concerned. They had more or less banned drama filming at the airport, because apart from being inundated with requests, I think they’d had bad experiences. We approached them early on, and British Airways were quite keen for us to use Concorde, but it all rested with the British Airports Authority, who said ‘Okay, we’ll give it a try’ – I think because they had a ‘Doctor Who’ fan there!
“It didn’t really fit to have all that snow there, but we had absolutely no way around it. What would have been our alternative? Filming in Terminal One was great fun, and interesting for the reactions of travellers as they saw the TARDIS and then Janet wandering around followed by a film camera. We used some stock footage because we had no alternative. It was difficult because it had to blend with our models and it was a very tricky opereation. If there had been any other way, I would gladly have used it.
“Kalid had to collapse to the floor and dissolve slightly. We used a double to save time, so that Anthony Ainley could go off and get changed for the rest of the scene, and also so that visual effects could set up the mask with the fluid pipes. We started to record it and in the gallery we all thought it looked very effective. After taking quite a long time, I said ‘Cut!’ and I shall never forget our poor double saying ‘My God, I nearly drowned!’. He’d fallen in such a way that some of the fluid was going up his nose and into his mouth. Later, in editing, I wasn’t allowed to forget the incident – it was preserved on tape to make me feel guilty.
“Anthony Ainley was very thoughtful and dedicated when it came to discussing his interpretation of Kalid. We gave it a lot of consideration, and that paid off with the pleasing result we achieved in the end.
“I said to a friend at the time ‘I did it as technically and as capably as I could, which is not to say someone else couldn’t have done it better’ I found the physical restrictions swamped us, rather. You always have an initial gut reaction to a story, and with ‘Time Flight’ I kew it was going to be tough to realise from the beginning.
“My theory is that you put your resources into what you can do best. ‘Frontios’ was written on this vast scale with the huge colony ship, and we were supposed to relate that to the street below. It was a major headache to realise that in a studio, with no pre-filming. Sometimes I’ll re-locate scenes to get the best visual impact out of them.
“I’m sure Johnny Byrne won’t mind me saying this – I virtually plotted the whole of the end action for ‘Arc of Infinity’. With a week’s filming, we wanted to get some sort of value out of it, and a chase on foot has to be very carefully constructed to make it exciting. I added things like the bridge being pulled up just as they wanted to cross it, as a way not only of prolonging the suspense but also of saying ‘Look, this is the locate at its most dramatic’. My locating of the final moments on the lock gates was another slight change from the original script. I thought it pointed our rather nicely that Omega had nowhere to run to anymore.
“Having got the script, I went to Amsterdam with John and our production manager, where we got in touch with the tourist board, who are very good at looking after visiting film crews. We told them what we wanted and they then pointed us in the right direction, so to speak. Indeed, the filming at the airport there was easier than it had been in the UK for ‘Time Flight’. The main location we used, although very central, was actually untypical of most of Holland, but it suited our purposes exactly. It was all kept in as close a vicinity as possible simply because if you’re travelling, you’re losing filming time.
“I cast Colin Baker in ‘Arc of Infinity’ because I liked him as an actor, and as a person he has a tremendous sense of humour. He’s a very intelligent guy and he’s bringing a lot of himself to the part, especially in the form of this dry wit.
“I read the script for ‘Vengeance on Varos’ and thought at once ‘This is very exciting’. If you remember ‘Gangsters’, it was in the same way a mix of toughness and humour. It fitted quite comfortably in the studio and I was quite happy for it to be that way. I hope it has that type of ‘no escape’ claustrophobia to it. I thought the sets were most effective, and they were fairly flexible. For that one mortuary fight scene, we had to construct an entire water tank in the corner of the studio.
“We were lucky in our cast. Jason Connery is very up and coming, and Nabil Shaban was exactly right as Sil. I wanted him to appear as slimy as possible, and Nabil gave a lovely performance of eye-rolling evil. The voice was designed to be quite sinister as well. Of course it’s very hot in all our monster costumes, and after takes Nabil had to be kept cool with face fans.”