This is a transcript of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant at the Visions convention in the US in 1992. It’s a long one, but it covers a lot of ground, including the fan crusade against John Nathan-Turner, the bizarre attempt to sue the BBC for not making ‘Doctor Who’ in the 90’s (!) and the lack of interest some people on the show had for even the most basic matters of continuity.
Q: What have you been doing since ‘Doctor Who’?
CB: (laughs) Well I’ve been doing a lot of theatre. The only television was something I did for the Children’s Channel, which is a cable / satellite channel in the UK, but nobody’s seen it because nobody’s got cable / satellite in England. And I did one episode of ‘Casualty’, which is a sort of ‘Hill Street Blues’ in a hospital, but I’ve been doing theatre, seven or eight plays one after another. I did ‘Run For Your Wife’, I just finished ‘Death and the Maiden’, which is a 1992 Olivier Award winner, which is the same as your Tony awards here – not with me, the good ones left and they got me. It’s actually on stage right now in Wolverhampton with me in it. Tricky, that, isn’t it? But they have these things called understudies.
That play finishes tonight, so I then go back to England on Sunday night, Tuesday I drive up to Sunderland where I’m putting on a show as a production company, at the Sunderland Empire, presenting, trying to write, I’m doing all the linking stuff for it. That’s on next Thursday, to celebrate the fact that Sunderland’s now become a city, my company was asked to put a show on. Then on Sunday I start rehearsing for a pantomime, ‘Dick Whittington’ in Weymouth from the 9th of January, then I’m open to offers.
17th January we’re both filming with Bill Baggs to finish off the latest of his ‘Stranger’ films, that’s a trilogy. or a multi-gy, we hope, lots and lots of them. The BBC owns ‘Doctor Who’ so no-one else can make that, but Bill Baggs is a resourceful fellow and he’s written a series about a man called the Stranger, who travels through time and space with a lady called Ms. Brown, played by Nicola Bryant! And we battle evil people who happen not to be Daleks or Cybermen. It’s a very neat way of continuing without… It’s video only, it’s not broadcast.
Q: What about Nicola in the past five years?
NB: Um, what have I done?
CB: Well that’s enough about Nicola.
NB: Notice some things never change. The first thing I did after ‘Doctor Who’ was going to the West with a play with Patrick Macnee, called ‘Killing Jessica’, and it was originally a TV movie shown in the US called… (pause) I’ve forgotten, which is very clever of me. Anyway, so I did a West End show for about six months, then I went and did a season at Chester, a variety of roles, ‘Come on Jeeves’, upper-crust characters, a whole of things, then I did ‘Blackadder’, the Christmas special, then to the West End for a very political play about the Falklands, four characters stating their opinions about the war and none of them really budged on their opinoin, and the play didn’t fall on any particular side, so depending upon the politics of your audience on any particular night, you were either very popular or in a lot of trouble. I’ve done lots of other theatre, the most recent of which was a nine-month tour of ‘The Great Gatsby’, playing Daisy Buchanan, which was the first time that play had been done in England.
Q: How did you get the part in ‘Blackadder’?
NB: At the time I auditioned, I was playing Honey in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, and Honey has a particularly odd laugh, she just laughs hysterically from one crisis to the next, and when I went to the audition Ben Elton wasn’t there but he’d left a message with Richard Curtis that he wanted someone who could do a funny laugh. A lot of it was improvised during rehearsal, it wasn’t in the script. So I said I was playing Honey and I gave them Honey’s laugh, and they liked that. Then in one rehearsal Ben Elton came in and said ‘I’ve decided it should be something like a machine gun’ that you can’t switch off, you just press the button and it starts. He wanted something that would get on your nerves. I kept going off to the ladies’ loo and coming back, saying ‘How’s this one?’ and eventually I came back with this high-pitched soprano machine gun that he thought was right for the character, and he started writing bits about the ornaments falling off the shelves and things like that. A lot of that was improvised.
Q: Both of you have done mostly theatre since ‘Doctor Who’, is that because you’re typecast?
CB: (laughs) It’s entirely because I’m typecast. Typecasting isn’t anything to do with audiences, really. Audience, I find, will accept anybody in anything, they quite like seeing people in other things. What happens is producers don’t want their new piece prejudiced by preconceptions about whoever’s playing that part, so if you’ve played something very high profile on television, it tends to be qutie some time before you get any more television. And my Doctor was very specific, he wasn’t a kind of, well you wouldn’t fail to notice him… so the end result is I don’t get offered much television. Also unless you’re under contract, television tends to be quite short, a week or two, whereas theatre is often six months. As I have a young family to support, I have to go with that. That’s the reason. If you ask me which I prefer, I much prefer television. I know that’s not what actors normally say, they like to get the buzz of the live audience, well I like the buzz of going home at night and seeing my family. I enjoy working in television studios, I enjoy working on a bit and getting it right, or as right as you can, then moving on to the next bit.
NB: I had a lot of offers for screaming American teenagers when I left ‘Doctor Who’. Every part that had a screaming American teenager landed on my door. And I was very lucky to get ‘Blackadder’, because a lot of casting directors think I’m American, and it goes the other way because they might want an American but they go ‘No, we don’t want her, we’ve found out she’s English’, so you can get caught between that sort of problem and the fact that ‘Doctor Who’ is a rather strange show, in that they think it’s a children’s show, yet it’s under drama, and if you’ve made yourself a large-size character (laughs) it’s very difficult to break that image. These casting directors most of the time won’t take the time to meet you and discover you can do many other things. As Colin says, it’s not the audience’s fault, and it’s not the same in America. In England it’s ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve seen them before’. It’s a different attitude. I do love doing theatre, but I like doing something different every time, not just the character but the medium.
Q: Has it caused any regrets, doing the part in ‘Doctor Who’?
CB: No, I wouldn’t be asked to do all these plays if I was ‘Doctor Who’. I mean it’s a two-edged sword, it’s slowed down my rate of… before I did ‘Doctor Who’, I used to do television all the time, but as soon as you become identified with something then you’re stuck for a while. But soon I’ll be an unknown face again, which will be quite useful.
Q: Tell us about John Nathan-Turner, because there are these right-wing fanzines that blame him for all the problems with ‘Doctor Who’.
CB: Well I have extremely strong opinions about that, I feel very very sympathetic towards John because what he’s done for the programme is ten times what anyone else has done for it. There’s a tiny, tiny coterie of fans who are very frustrated because they’ve never been producer of the programme, they’re mainly in Britain, but there are two or three that I could name but won’t, in the UK, who have made it their lifetime job to do everything they can to sabotage John Nathan-Turner, and I think it’s miserable, petty, ghastly behaviour and I think they’re worms that ought to be trodden into the ground. (laughs) Don’t mess around, Colin, tell them what you really think.
But John was the producer for a very long time, and he’s responsible for it being over in the US and he came over and marketed it, he always cared about the fans, he always made sure people like myself and Nicola came to conventions when our first inclinations were that we weren’t too sure about it. He persuaded people like Pat Troughton, who never wanted to talk about the programme, who found out he loved it! And John kept the programme on the air in Britain, he was the only person fighting for it. Witness the fact that now he’s been ousted, there’s nobody in the BBC who’s waving the flag.
But those same people are still campaigning to get rid of the little bit that John’s still doing, he’s working on the videos and they’ve orchestrated a sort of hate campaign based on his choice of videos now! It’s so stupid, and it’s all jealousy, simple jealousy. I think the right-minded fan… it’s like all vocal minorities, they can swamp the majority, which covers a wide range of opinions, I’m not saying that everyone agrees with everything John’s done, of course he’s made mistakes, I’ve made mistakes, you’ve made mistakes. But they’ve said ‘Doctor Who has become a pantomime’. One article said that once. I don’t see men dressed up as women, that’s pantomime, I don’t see terrible jokes, apart from mine, and that’s my choice, not John’s. John is a friend and for a while he shrugged it off but now it’s beginning to get to him. If some people want to make someone unhappy, that’s up to them, but I think the rest of us should make sure that’s not allowed to continue. I rest my case.
Q: They seem to be unable to divorce personal opinions about the man from thoughts about the programme.
CB: Yes, and he’s set himself up, being involved with the programme for ten years, there’s an awful lot of stuff there to criticise, or to praise. Other producers came in for three years, didn’t give a hoot about the programme, and popped out again, and they’re kind of safe because they haven’t done anything controversial.
NB: He took all the risks.
CB: I think the fact that the BBC gets these very irritating letters from these fans less likely to bring the programme back rather than more likely.
Q: What do you think about this idea of them suing the BBC for not making ‘Doctor Who’?
CB: It’s ridiculous. You can’t sue an author for not writing a book you like, nor can you sue the BBC for not producing a programme you like. It’s a bizarre nonsense. It’s simply a matter of law, you can’t sue a company for not making a programme you like.
Q: Do you think the public stations in the US, and the Sci-Fi Channel and PBS and cable stations, could have any influence, by saying that the overseas sales are strong?
CB: No, sorry, I once had dinner with a nice man called Ray Kraft, alas no longer with us, who was president of Lionheart Films. He said to me, at the end, ‘Colin, when you go back to England could you tell Michael Grade we need more episodes? You’re making 22, we need at least 52’. I said ‘Hang on, I have no access to Michael Grade’. A lead actor in the US will probably know the guy in charge, that doesn’t work in the UK, actors are employees. I have no say with the top brass, and if I meet them it’s only for a nod at a cocktail party and they probably haven’t got a clue who I am.
If you bear in mind that the BBC is an organisation that annually has received more from ‘Doctor Who’ than it’s cost to make it, it’s got 28 years of product to sell, any other organisation would have a vested interest in keeping it going. But because the income doesn’t go back to the programme, it goes to the general BBC coffers and is spread very thinly, so the programme-making arm of the BBC has no incentive whatsoever to make more of it. You also have producers there who have projects, and if there are ten of them coming and saying ‘I want to make this’, and there’s no-one coming saying ‘I want to make Doctor Who’, then there’s no-one batting for it.
Q: Do you think the plans to make the Doctor a less likeable character might have been a mistake? And do you feel that during the hiatus, you were very vocal and you were ousted because of that?
CB: To be honest, I wasn’t that vocal, it’s one of those things that’s been perpetuated by fan magazines. I didn’t really speak out, maybe I should have done. Actually, I was quite careful not to criticise anyone for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be hampered with the baggage from that, so I don’t think that’s a reason. I think it’s more casual than that, I don’t think any attitude towards me caused any of the decisions anyhow. I don’t think they were aware of my existence!
I thought it was quite exciting to have a character who was a little inaccessible, a little enigmatic. I don’t know if you have this experience in your life, but I have it in mine, the people who are my best friends are the ones I didn’t like much at first. Some of them I loathed at first. There’s a book called ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I don’t know if you’ve read it, there’s a character in that called Mr. Darcy who for the first two thirds everyone thinks is the villain, they think he’s a deeply selfish swine because he doesn’t go around wearing his virtues on his sleeve. And I think those characters are very interesting, and I wanted to play the Doctor like that.
Q: I think a lot of people liked that in the character. Your Doctor seemed more personally violent at times, and I didn’t have a problem with that, but some fanzines did.
CB: If the character was just slightly different all the time, but basically the same, if you have twelve versions of yourself, as we discovered with the Valeyard, who’s a kind of interface between two versions we discovered, there are going to be different qualities. It’s more interesting.
Q: Isn’t it true that every new Doctor has a period when they have to be accepted?
CB: Oh yes, I mean the hardest job was poor old Peter after seven years of Tom. Tom being such a strong and particular Doctor, I mean every interview I get with non-fans has ‘Where’s your scarf?’, but Tom was the only one who wore a scarf. But the scarf’s so associated with a lot of peoples’ idea of what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. So Peter has a tough job there, actually, which is why he chose to play it totally different. You have to overcome, in that case it was a generation of children. A young child will have seen as his Doctor only Tom Baker for about six years, and suddenly it changes. Nobody likes change.
Q: A lot of channels, when they start showing ‘Doctor Who’, they start with Tom Baker.
CB: Well I suppose they thought they couldn’t start with black and white. You can’t start a show in black and white. They had seven years of Tom Baker to get the show started.
Q: Do you know anything about the lost season, in particular the unknown story of ‘Penecasata’?
CB: All I know is that I read ‘The Nightmare Fair’ and thought it was a damn good story. I knew there was an Autons in Singapore story. And that’s all I know!
Q: They’ve been novelised, some of them. But not ‘Penecasata’.
CB: (‘The Nightmare Fair’) got as far as a full script. I read the ‘Nightmare Fair’ novelisation and I enjoyed it, having been very excitied when I read the script for it.
Q: There have been comments that one of the problems with ‘Trial of a Timeload’ was that it was confusing for the actors. Was that true?
NB: No, it’s not confusing for the actors because we film in bits anyway. One day we’re filming a sequence where you go into the TARDIS, and the next day you’re shooting a scene that relates to something you shot two weeks earlier. As an actor you’re always working in bits, and it’s up to you to keep a track of the story. I think the only problem of making it bitty was that as a programme you’d just get into a drama sequence, then you’d get thrown back out again into the trial. Whether that was the best thing, I don’t know, but it definitely wasn’t confusing for the actors.
CB: I was very confused by it, but I had a very different problem, especially in ‘Mindwarp’ because there was a point when I said to Eric Saward, the script editor, ‘When I’m tying Peri to this rock and threatening to torture her, am I doing it for some subtle reason of my own, because I think I’m being watched or whatever, or because I’ve been affected by the mind probe, or is the Matrix lying?’. Those were the three alternatives as I saw it. He said ‘I don’t know, you’d better ask Philip Martin’, so I got in touch and gave him those three alternatives, he said ‘I don’t know, Eric wrote the trial stuff, all the Matrix stuff was added after, by Eric, you’d better ask him’. So I went to John Nathan-Turner, he said ‘Oh, whichever you like’. This is the level of involvement at the time. Eric was going through his own problems at the time, disagreeing with John Nathan-Turner on all sorts of things. I felt that was all very sloppy, it was all cobbled together a bit. The stories were written independently, and the trial theme was put on top. I felt it was the Matrix lying, so I really was torturing Peri. But it was very difficult. You expect the writers to know what’s happening, but that’s not always the case.
NB: It’s like finding out later that suddenly I ended up being married to Yrcanos, when we were never playing that. You think ‘I might have played a couple of scenes slightly differently if I’d known that was what was happening’, and it’s not the way the script was written, it’s not the way either of us were playing it.
Q: You can tell it’s hacked on the end.
CB: That was my fault. I said ‘No mention is made of whether what happened to Peri is true or false’, and they said ‘Well what do you want?’, I said ‘I want to know your intentions’, they asked me! And I said ‘Well I’d like Peri to survive because I like her and she can come back’!
Q: You said the other night that the BBC probably won’t bring back ‘Doctor Who’, but they’ll probably bring back something to replace it. How would you feel if that something was ‘The Stranger’?
CB: I think there’d be absolutely no point the BBC bringing back ‘The Stranger’, because if they’re going to do that, they might as well bring back ‘Doctor Who’. Whatever fiction we all put together for the purposes of avoiding litigation, the similarities are so close that they might as well use the property they’ve got. I wasn’t the one who said they’d bring back something to replace it, I think they’ll bring back ‘Doctor Who’ or something totally different.
NB: It’s like the attempt at ‘Star Cops’.
CB: Every now and then the BBC have dabbed in sci-fi. They did a series called ‘Moonbase’, they did two or three series of it, I never see it shown now.
Q: It was destroyed, that’s why.
CB: Oh was it?
Q: The BBC wiped it all. Speaking of development of the Doctor, how did you get the part in ‘The Ultimate Adventure’?
CB: Well I got the part because when they decided to do it, they approached all the Doctors, a kind of blanket approach, and I think at the time two of them said ‘Yes’, that was Jon Pertwee and myself, and because Terrence Dicks who wrote it had worked with Pertwee he was keener to write for Pertwee, so they went down the Pertwee path, as it were. But just as it was beginning, Jon said that three months was his maximum, and they wanted to get six months out of it, so they asked if I wanted to do the rest of it. I said ‘Yes, I would’, so I met up with Terrence Dicks, who asked me what alterations I’d like, and it struck me there was no point making any, if he could trust me to change a few lines here and there that were hyper-Pertwee, as it were. Things like ‘reversing the polarity of the neutron flow’, and even then I just changed it to ‘reversing the linearity of the proton flow’ as a little homage.
The only change I made was that I had all the lines that Pertwee had written all over the set rubbed out, because I could remember them. Sorry Jon. And I developed a different relationship with Zog, I think Jon felt that Zog was a little furry alien who was a companion, he was extremely cute, and I think Jon felt it was distracting from his charm as the Doctor so he tended to ignore it. But I thought there was potential for humour with Zog, so we built up a relationship.
Q: Nicola, as Peri you had a lot of screaming to do. How do you feel about Ms. Brown, is she more like the character you’d like to have been as Peri?
NB: When I first auditioned for Peri, the description was ‘tall, blonde, leggy Californian’, so I said ‘Yeah, I can play that!’ (laughs), but the character wasn’t very well formed and as the auditions went on over a few months I finally got to read the first draft of ‘Planet of Fire’. I thought she was obviously an intelligent young girl, extremely unhappy family background, young, naive, but a spunky little kid. So I thought there was a good chance of taking this somewhere, because (a) it was the beginning of her growth period mentally, and if she starts out as a courageous kid she’s obviously going to expand from that, and I liked the fact that in the very first story she was giving the Master what-for, and I thought ‘this is good’. And I expected the character to develop from that.
But by the time I got into my second season, they just harped on about the bickering between the two of us, and the language thing, and stories popped up like ‘Timelash’ and they seemed to forget where the character had come from. I was much happier with ‘Trial of a Timelord’ because at least they acknowledged that time had moved on and their relationship had changed, because if they’d gone on the way they were going they’d have killed each other, or she’d have said ‘for God’s sake, get me out of here’, or Colin would have said ‘get out’, because there was no reason for them to stay together. That seemed to get lost. But I would have taken her in a different direction if I’d been in the driving seat.
Q: And Ms. Brown in the Bill Baggs stories?
NB: Yes, it’s a little closer to what I would have done. Especially in the second story, she’s a little more intelligent, it’s not a case of… she’s dealing with situations herself and using the Doctor in a different capacity. And the story that we’re filming at the moment is extremely interesting, and I can’t reveal why, but it gives us a chance to form something new.
Q: You mentioned making script changes in stage productions. Did you have that power in ‘Doctor Who’?
CB & NB: No!
NB: I think I got about three words changed. I got ‘mincer’ changed to ‘meat grinder’, I remember that was a long saga, that took three weeks, I would say ‘I’m sorry but you don’t say mincer in the States, you say meat grinder’, and they said ‘no-one in England will know what a meat grinder is’, I said ‘Well cut the lines, I’ll say something else’, and it was like the whole thing about saying ‘cop’ when I’m American. And then there were times when we’d say ‘I can’t say this, because four stories ago we established that I never knew this’, so when he says ‘Shut the TARDIS door’, I can’t do it if I haven’t been shown. And most of the time they’d listen to you, but it was always ‘How annoying of you to remember that’.
CB: I remember once, at the beginning of ‘Trial of a Timelord’, being whipped into the court and I said to Eric Saward ‘last time we met the Timelords, the Doctor was the president of Gallifrey, wasn’t he?’, and he said ‘Was he?’, I said ‘Yes, I remember Peter being made president in The Five Doctors’. He said ‘So?’, I said ‘Well all he has to say is I’m the president of Gallifrey, sod off all of you’. So he said ‘We’ll put a line in if it makes you happy’, so they put a line in ‘You’ve been deposed’. But it happened by chance, I knew very little about the history of the programme, there should have been more thought going into it, I thought. I didn’t often get lines changed, but I got lines put in, most of them puns. It was agreed that my Doctor would be allowed to make awful puns.
NB: The only thing I got put in was something that came up in the BBC canteen at one point, we were talking about the budget and John Nathan-Turner said one of the things we got a lot of letters about was that it was very obvious that we built two corridors and ran between them. And I said ‘Well why don’t you stick a line in about it?’, and he said ‘Like what?’, I said ‘Well every time you go somewhere, the companion says All these corridors look the same to me’, and that way it was part of the story, that’s why they got lost!
Q: Did you also get very little input into your costumes?
CB: (laughs) No, Nicola chose hers.
NB: Madonna copied me years later. I was very happy in my first costume, it was very sensible. I was in cotton clothing, but the press made such a big to-do about me being in a bikini, big centre-spread in the ‘Daily Star’, and the ratings shot up and I think John Nathan-Turner thought he’d found a good thing so I didn’t get dressed again, really in ‘The Caves of Androzani’, which was ludicrous because there we were filming in Lanzarote in October, and then in November we’re filming the next series and it’s minus two or three, Peter’s in two layers of thermals and I caught pneumonia and got frost-bite. And I wasn’t happy running around in shorts all the time, because that had nothing to do with the character that I started out with. I imagined sneakers and jeans and sweatshirts and T-shirts, you know.
Q: Sophie seemed to do pretty well.
NB: Yeah, well I think we went through a sudden fashion change as well. Suddenly we went in for this much more masculine dressing for women. A whole change of fashion happened, so I think it was much easier to choose another young person and let her make a fashion statement. If the press had just ignored it, I think I would have gone into jeans and T-shirt. When I auditioned, that’s what I wore. Then when it came to the press release, John Nathan-Turner said ‘Wear something clingy and short’, I said ‘I don’t have anything like that’, and he said ‘Don’t you have anything that clings to you?’, I said ‘I’ve got a leotard’, he said ‘Wear that’! It was the only thing I had. So I wore that for the press release, and John very kindly handed me this bag as I went to get changed, it was cotton wool. He’d brought me a load of cotton wool to pad my bra out because he thought there was nothing there. Which was rather funny when I put the leotard on, gave him a surprise.
CB: I was asked what I’d like to wear, and I said I’d like something black, a bit austere, ruffled sleeves, long black coat, black trousers. They said ‘That’s the Master, really’. So then John said ‘I think it should be really tasteless’, and he kept coming up with these designs and it’s quite trick for a designe, because you want to do things that are tasteful. Poor Pat Godfrey kept coming up with design after design, and in the end this collection of clashing materials came together and that was chosen. I never cared for it very much, but I was on the inside looking out, I didn’t have to look at it, you did.