Chris Tranchell Interview
Tranchell talks to Alan Stevens about Survivors,
and appearing with everything from villainous
vegetables in Doctor Who
to Egyptian gods in Faction
How did you get into acting?
When I was about fourteen, I was attracted to gangster films, and originally I thought, 'well, gangsters have probably the best life, with that sort of adventure.' But then I realised that it was lethally dangerous, because they kept getting shot in these American gangster films, but then I thought, 'actually they're only actors doing it, aren't they?' That's the surface level of it. If you want me to go deeper, I will.
Okay, go deeper.
I came from a loving family, but there wasn't a lot of communication. My mother liked the theatre, she'd been taken as a kid, and she used to take us. And I think I realised, watching the actors on stage, that there was such a clear level of exchange between these people, which never happens in my life. So there was this extraordinary attraction to finding a level of communication that seemed much more like sharing and like how I imagined real life should be, because real life felt a bit stunted and not very rich. So I decided to become an actor, and, as things turned out, I actually found it was a more satisfying and fulfilling experience than almost any other form of activity. It's wonderful to be able to explore extreme emotions that you can't do in ordinary life, and although the essence of good theatre is spontaneity, you also have the knowledge that something bloody awful isn't going to happen, as you know how it's going to go. And funnily enough, quite often on stage you can feel more secure than off, because you do know what's happening, when so often in life you don't.
How did your role in the original 1970s Survivors come about?
I knew director Gerald Blake, who I had a happy experience of working with for 18 months in repertory at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln. We had a lot of things in common, I mean we loved the whole Method school, the impact it was having on films. In Survivors I played a character called Paul Pitman. At the time there were a lot of people who were hippies, they would drop out, and it was, you know, it was not even recreation or even a hobby, it was something deeper than that, more significant to them. So there was that move back to, what do you call it, an alternative society.
Back to the land?
Yeah. It wasn't quite itinerant, but it was like an alternative community, I think he had lived in a commune at one point.
So really, when the Death happened, it was right up his street, just what he was looking for?
That's exactly it, it was indeed. He was made for the catastrophe that had happened. You could almost say that for him it was good news, because he found he was there in a community all the time. Not necessarily the sort of people he would have chosen to be with, and of course, there was the crazy class divide, because although he was probably educated, he wasn't anything like the class of the other people. I was just sort of generally 'lower case,' not lower class; my own background was rather middle class, and I didn't think he came from a middle class family. I remember particularly severe comments, with people saying it was only the middle class people who survived, and I think that was a problem, but then that would be; we were right on the brink of coming out of that era of English films where everyone spoke immaculately, and if you didn't they'd think something had gone wrong, we were only just emerging from that, and we're going back thousands of years, with Survivors (laughs).
Well, there were the complaints about Survivors that everyone who had a regional accent was a criminal or a villain of some sort. And the main protagonists were all middle class--
Yes, but it was a hard thing to get out of, cause you had the whole genre and culture of films about the war, where the ruling class were all very well behaved. It wasn't until you got the Method and Marlon Brando and people being dirty and scratching and not coherent, that theatre moves into the mainstream of reflecting life, and then the whole thing with kitchen sink dramas, you almost went too far the other way, so you were thinking 'oh, Christ, not another dirty grotty kitchen on stage,' but it was essential that it went through that barrier.
Were you instructed to do RP?
No, no, I wasn't. But it was also my relationship with Gerald Blake, I could probably have got away with making him more, I mean, I may have been using a bit more of my own accent, so you get that strange border between almost Cockney and West Country, because I’m actually from the middle of the New Forest.
Your character unfortunately died of a mutant version of bubonic plague.
It was nicely contrived, that in order to get necessary medicine, I had to go to a hospital which meant going to a contaminated area of Birmingham. It's not Birmingham's fault, it's just the nearest major city. I could have been shot though, I suppose.
Did you have a choice, did they say 'You could be shot or strangled...'
No, they offered this and I quite liked it, I mean I asked to leave, partly because I'd been so thrilled with the relevance of the theme of it initially, I mean when it went out people still thought that the three minute warning could come, so it rang extraordinarily well with people, 'something like this could happen to me.' And then when the writers began to deviate from what would really happen if people were left like this, and they became, well, like any group of people anywhere, they began to have conflicts and maybe a bit of a soap opera, it disappointed me because I was hoping they would make it like a sociological study, would you revert, or would you develop into something different, an opportunity to explore all sorts of things-- that was resisted, or they didn't have the time to do the sort of progression that would have been more authentic given the wonderful premise Terry Nation had set up.
Carolyn Seymour, who played Abby Grant, left because she wasn't happy with producer Terence Dudley and the direction the show and her character were going in, but you weren't really involved with that?
No, I wasn't really, I didn't think I had the clout to say 'why don't we hang on to the premise we were given?' So I didn't leave because of any conflict, it was just that I'd had enough, because of my disappointment. So I can't really complain, I had a wonderful time and enjoyed the whole series, so it was a great experience for me really.
So is that why you agreed to come back for another couple of episodes and finish the character off?
That's right, because I don't think there was hardly any break after working on the first series, we just kept going, even though we knew we'd finished the first belt.
I think as far as I know your contract ended at the end of season 1, and then you had to renegotiate to do a few episodes more. So you remained on because you were happy for your character to come to a natural end...
Oh yes, I didn't want to get out, you're right I was quite happy to stay in. I hadn't lost the bluebird, so that was OK.The bluebird?
The earring. Come on, you can't tell me you've forgotten the earring?
It's been ten years since I last watched it!
I mean, who am I talking to here? Someone who doesn't remember Paul's earring?
Yes, I'm a complete amateur! So go on then.
Well I had a minute bluebird in my right ear, which of course I didn't wear in the street.
Where did you get it from, did you buy it yourself?
I can't remember! It was a very modest thing in terms of the hippie culture of the time, I think he had beads too and...
He had a hat, didn't he? And curly hair. Curly hair was a huge thing for leading men in the 70s.
Ah, right, I could have been the real survivor! I mean it was unheard of later, to actually ask to leave a television series and them not asking you to go, I suppose work wasn't so hard to come by then.
You appeared on Survivors with a guitar, and that was how you got your Play School job?
Yes. I had a lovely Buddy Holly number, it was an entertainment for the rest of the community, and they must have caught that episode, and they then invited me, 'would you come and see about doing some Play School?' And I said, 'All right, what do you want me to do?' And they said 'you see, Play School is different,' and they meant that they wanted you to be... sort of yourself, you were meant to be somewhere between a clown and a father figure, they didn't necessarily want a performance, so they gave me a script and I went away and came back and I did a story to camera, and a 'make' item, of course that's quite difficult technically, because your hands are concentrating on the thing you're making but the camera may well be at about 60 degrees over your shoulder, so you have to look like it was quite natural to talk at that angle while meddling with something you can't quite see. And they had lots of people ask to do it, and they would give them a go, and they were inclined to drop out, because if you hadn't had theatre experience, or even regular television experience, where they say 'no, go again, we missed it that time,' the people who were great the first time, when you said 'could you do it again, just after the middle,' it was just too difficult for them. I suppose I did it fairly naturally, but for some people it seemed so unnatural that even though they really wanted to do it, they just couldn't.
I remember watching a BBC blooper reel, a Christmas tape, of you throwing Hamble out or something, 'I can't work with these…'
Doing a drop-kick on camera, wasn't it? (laughs)
I remember you saying once that when Ian McCulloch heard you'd got a part on Play School, he realised he wanted a part on Play School, and he kept appearing with guitars from there on!
No comment really, it's far too deep to go into. It's a Bottom complex, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 'No, let me play the lion,' you know, let me play whatever, and I suppose most actors have that to a degree.
So how come you ended up playing the guitar in Survivors? Did they say to you, 'Can you play the guitar? Good, we'll write a bit in,' or...
No, no, I think it was there in the script and I said, 'That's fine'.
Going way back now, you were in 'The Massacre'? Or whatever it's called-- what did you know it as?
I'm pretty sure it was 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve,' I seem to think that was what was on the front page of the script, and I hadn't got a clue till I researched the history what it was about.
You researched the history before you did the script?
Well, when you get a script that has a reference on it, you do.
Wow! Some people just read their own lines, you know. So you appeared with William Hartnell who was playing the Abbot of Amboise; was he different to how he was when he played the Doctor?
He had in his mind something very different and was quite insistent on it, and I remember some intense conversations like 'the Doctor would do that, but he wouldn't,' but I didn't really notice a difference.
What was he like to work with?
He just seemed very professional, a good actor, a good worker really.
You played Roger Colbert, who was a Frenchman. Were you asked to do a French accent?
(Laughing) No, I don't think I was! I was a very fine swordsman in any case; I had played D'Artagnan on the stage for quite some time.
How did your involvement in 'The Massacre' come about? Paddy Russell was director on it, so was it through association with her?
No, I think that she must have seen me do other things, I didn't really know her before.
How did your role in 'The Faceless Ones' come about, where you played an immigration officer called Stephen Jenkins?
I think it's just a part I went up for and got, I can't even remember who the director was.
You had a couple of scenes with Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines, how did you get on with them?
They were good, both very welcoming, I mean it can be very difficult when you come into a series that's been going for a long time, the people who are in it know it off pat and they just want to get on with it, but I didn't feel that at all.
You originally thought it was called 'Doctor Who and the Cabbagemen,' didn't you?
(Laughs) 'The Cabbage Heads'. Because the public was so alarmed, me lying there in a comatose state, and then before their very eyes, my head became what looked like a cabbage.
Your kids were quite upset--
My kids were very young at the time and they were very alarmed that their father should have this experience. I don't know why, I was sitting there with them, so they didn't need to worry, but they did, well, it's part of the experience of Doctor Who, that you are sort of genuinely scared, and then there's nothing to be scared of.
Actually the aliens with the cabbage heads had taken on your character's identity. I think Pauline Collins finds the real you in the back of a car and takes your armband, that linked you with the alien duplicate, off, because if the alien remains as you for long enough...
Can I see this story?
No, unfortunately most of it's been wiped.
Because it's gone from my mind! (laughs).
But you can hear it on CD soundtrack, with narration: 'he's turning into a cabbage...'
He's looking a little green around the gills...
Not in black and white he isn't. It was filmed at Gatwick Airport, did you do any work at Gatwick?
No, it was all in studio for me.
There's a line where your character says 'I live in Wimbledon with my parents,' but you didn't, did you?
No, I didn't. It wasn't an in-gag, or anything. I have no experience of living in Wimbledon.
Your next Doctor Who story was with Tom Baker and called 'The Invasion of Time'. Were you upset at all about missing out on the Jon Pertwee era?
Yes, it would have been nice to have done one, so I could say I've worked with four Doctors, but then, it's nice getting three. And particularly three such distinguished Doctor Whos. It would have been nice to work with Jon Pertwee, because I remember he was very good in radio comedy, a good performer.
You got that part again through being a friend of Gerald Blake?
I suppose so, yes.
So what was Tom Baker like?
What was Tom Baker like? Well, he's eccentric... (laughs) highly intelligent, quite proud of it too, and I think also, he did create a persona which was very special for the Doctor, it was a hard thing to do I think, to take over after so many people had done it, it was so familiar, to make it your own was extremely enhancing to the whole thing I thought, cause he gave it that extra flair, by adding those quick witticisms which were very much his own. He literally wrote them, they weren't scripted, and that gave it another level, so it was nice to have a change in the right way.
What was it like working with K9?
He was a very special actor, John Leeson, because he was so considerate, he would be there at rehearsals saying his lines even though his was all going to be recorded and dubbed in, but he was so concerned because he thought 'If I was going to be playing one of those parts, I'd want to know what was coming back to me,' so in rehearsal, if we were going to be talking to the dog, and even on a take I think, he might have done it. He didn't have to do that, it was way beyond the call of duty, really remarkable.
The monsters who appeared in that story were called Sontarans--
The potato heads! You see, I've done some cabbage heads, and potato heads... it's a remarkable career, isn't it?
Yes, they have been called 'potato heads' in the series...
Have they? I didn't know that. I thought it was only off camera we called them 'potato heads'.
Had you ever worked with Derek Deadman before, who played the lead Sontaran?
No, he was great, I got on very well with him. Gerald had worked with him before, but whether it was on televison or stage work he'd done I don't know.
How about Milton Johns?
Yes, well, he was treasurer of British Equity at the time, so we were all very respectful of Milton. He did a wonderful job, not overdoing it but making a very believable smarmy character. I think it was very good work and it was nice to be part of that.
You ended up marrying Leela.
Well, she stayed with me, certainly.
You reckon she's still married to Andred then?
Well, it was made in heaven, wasn't it? You don't get better than that!
Now did you know you were going to be marrying her, because my understanding was that the producers wanted to keep the actress on, but she said, 'no, I want to leave at the end of this story,' so eventually they said 'okey, we're going to have to marry you off here.'
Yes, I think it's unfortunate, because if they'd known before, we might have had more of an intimate exchange, more between us to indicate, as it was it was very slight, well there was a lovely scene of trying on clothes, that's very much a partner or husband and wife relationship, you know, that looks great. So that was the only giveaway that anything was going on there.
You said you watched it back recently, for the DVD release. What did you think?
I was surprised how it did move on. Because I've seen other things I did back then and they really do creak. But even where it creaks, it creaks in the right way, it's got a lot of appeal.
Have you seen any of the new Doctor Who?
Yes I have, I've enjoyed that, there again they've moved it on and taken it to another level again. This time the writing, the whole concept has moved on, whereas Tom's take on the Doctor was a very specific change, now the whole thing has moved on.
Very little really. The brief stuff I've done on radio was as a result of a writer who asked for me. It's a very difficult thing to break into, I don't know how you do it.
How do you see the character of Mortega?
In a way it's a sort of mature Andred, there, he's someone who is representative, and a level of being somehow official and having a status to represent, but he is of course more knowing and more able, because what he is confronted with, although strange to him, he expects it to be, whereas Andred, it was a real surprise to him that the Doctor was there and behaving the way he is, whereas Mortega is up for it.
Having heard two of the CDs and read two of the scripts, what do you think of the series?
Well, I'm very impressed, and the quality of the production and sound effects is amazing. And also it's a great adventure, this sort of Boy's Own Ripping Yarn element, but the fact that you then scatter it in space, with such sophisticated scene-setting of quality and accuracy, that identifies the location and gives the right sound relationship, it's impressive work.
Chris Tranchell, thank you very much.