Against the Almighty:
Interview with Gabriel Woolf
Fiona Moore talks to Gabriel Woolf about Satan, Sutekh, Faction Paradox and a man with a dog on his head.
How did you get into acting?
Well, it probably had something to do with my contrary nature. I didn't want to follow my father's profession, he was a lawyer, and I remember seeing a little photograph in the Evening Standard about somebody who'd just won a gold medal at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and as RADA was just a six penny bus ride from where I lived, I thought that would be a good idea. However, when I suggested it to my family, everybody went up in arms to such a degree that I thought there must be something in it. It wasn't as if, at the time, acting was something I particularly wanted to do. I knew what I didn't want to do, but I still don't know what I really want to do, even today. In fact, I don't think of myself as an actor, really. I'm a reader, who does acting from time to time. And if RADA hadn't been just down the road, and if everybody hadn't been so against it, then maybe I wouldn't have bothered. If they'd said, “it's a very sensible profession. It's a laudable idea and educational too”, I might have thought that it was boring and gone away, but they didn't, so I did it, and went to RADA. I enjoyed that, actually. That's one of the best times, I think, being a student. I always enjoyed the rehearsing and going round to coffee bars with the other students, and that sort of thing, but I hated performing and I was terrified of performance. I'd forget my lines, or when a character said, “there he comes!” I'd still be up in the dressing room. Basically, I just didn't want to make a fool of myself. But one didn't do many performances, and it was mostly rehearsal, so I enjoyed that.
You say you see yourself as a reader rather than an actor. Where would you say the distinction is?
The distinction is quite simple really, because the actor says basically, “look at me!” However much he disguises it, he's saying that, and the reader says, “listen to this! Isn't this wonderful?” He's once removed, and what he wants to do is share something with you. I mean it's the material that is important, and sets him off, and not the self-indulgence of a performance. You'll gather that I don't get on with actors very much. I like musicians much better.
How did your part as Sutekh in Doctor Who come about?
I have very slim memories of the whole thing, to be honest, because I only did two days in a studio 35 years ago, and so it wasn't like I was with the company for three weeks and did all the location stuff and all that, so in a way it's a question to ask the director, Paddy Russell, but as I understand it she was looking for a voice and she must had heard of me from somewhere. I was always winning all sorts of audience awards for radio, for golden voices and all that, and I did an enormous amount of radio. I had done television in the '60s, so I had appeared as an actor, but basically I was even happier when they told me it would be just my voice.
But you did actually appear in “Pyramids of Mars”, albeit inside a mask.
Yeah, but I was hidden, so it was all right, it was great, and all that was left was to promote the character through the voice and that for me was the challenge, and that's what I do normally in radio and what I do in reading literature, public readings, you know, and you have to light the audience up with the words, and that's it. So it's good.
How did you get on with the director, Paddy Russell; I've heard she can be a bit ferocious?
Well, you see, I don't think I'd recognise her if I saw her, because my memory is that she was up in the cubicle and things got passed sort of down through an ASM or whatever they were called-- a studio floor manager-- so I don't remember her.
Now, Tom Baker--
I do remember him, yes.
Talking of reputations, generally, either he ignored you or he was your best friend. How did you find him?
I'm not an easy person, and he's obviously not an easy person, either, and we were both opposite ends of the spectrum. He has self-confidence bordering on conceit, shall we say, and is an enormous extrovert, and I'm an introvert and I'm a bit quiet, so we were bound not to get on, and we didn't. But, I mean, I could never watch enough of the scene in which Sutekh sprays his rays of light on to him, and Tom squirms and yelps on the floor-- it was really quite nice that. I enjoyed that bit.
What did you think of the script?
I remember thinking that some of the things were going to be difficult to get across without making them sound ridiculously melodramatic. But I was allowed to be quiet and intense, and I think that helped. I thought it was a good storyline. I didn't criticize as I did with other scripts. I have a tendency to say, “but you can't say that, I mean he couldn't have been there... This doesn't make sense!” So if I didn't complain about it, it must have been pretty good.
How did you see the character of Sutekh?
Through a glass darkly (laughs). Well, as the personification of evil, I did think that it had to be kind of smooth and creamy rather than “Rrrahhhhrrr” and big and shouty and all that, but I just played it straight, as me really, because I am the personification of evil.
Are you really?
Yes, I am. In every respect. That's all I'm going to say. I just did it line by line. I mean, you take every character and you make him believable and the only way you can make him believable is to believe temporarily in everything he says from his point o f view. And, you know, you don't comment on it, actors do tend to do that sometimes, saying “I'm playing a nasty part, but really, deep down inside I'm a nice person,” oh, I'm digging my own grave here.
You also did the voice of Horus, his brother. How did that come about?
I suppose because they'd forgotten that they needed another voice, and hadn't booked anyone for it. I don't know, actually. I didn't think it was a terribly brilliant idea because I was already playing his brother, and when I watch it back, it sounds clear that it's me doing the voice.
I thought you sounded quite different when doing the voice of Horus.
You did? Oh, right, you're a good person (laughs).
Was there anything special you did to try and make it different from Sutekh's?
No, I mean I don't remember doing anything special. Maybe they put a different echo on it; maybe it was because I was out of the mask at that point and so I was able to speak louder. I don't remember.
When you were sitting in the chair, could you see out of the mask at all?
Oh, yes, yes, I think they did all the rays and lighting separately, so they took it off and rigged it up. When I was given the chance to try it on again years later, it sat very far down so I was right up inside the top, and it had to be stuffed with scrunched-up newspapers so that it would balance high enough so that I could see out, but I do remember sitting there hour after hour watching as they tried to explode the egg-- what we called the egg, it was the Eye of Horus really, and it just, you know, 10,9,8,7,6, 5,4,3,2,1! “it didn't work. It didn't work... Stop. Try again!” And it went on for ages. I also remember it was quite hot in that mask.
What did you think of the costume and mask?
Well I was inside it, you see, and so it was sort of um... I saw it from a different perspective from other people. And it was only when I saw the final product that I could say, “well, that seems to work”.
I found it quite disturbing.
It's amazing to me, I have to admit, and it's lovely that you've all grown up and reached the stage when it's all come round again. But, no, I must say, objectively, I thought Bernard Archard, who was the villain, was far more brilliant and wonderfully sinister, a wonderful performance, and the mummies were ghastly, sort of movement and blind and actually they were far more frighting than I was, I don't know what it was that made Sutekh particularly frightening.
Well, if you say so (laughs).
Was there a mike inside it?
As far as I remember, there was. We did it all on the day. Although I was supposed to keep absolutely still because I was under this spell for all those years, I could see that when I was speaking there was movement, so I was there and speaking the lines and reacting to the other performers. In some ways it would have been cheaper for them to have just sat the costume there and I could have done a voiceover, but they didn't think of that so... Of course it did have to move in the end. I did stand up, and of course, I had to turn my head as well.
What’s the real story behind the hand on the seat?
(laughs) Yes, people come up to me, sometimes even after literary recitals, and say, “what about this hand?” And I would say, “well, I don't know anything about this hand, I've never seen it” and eventually I had to get a copy of the video and have a look and see and apparently there was somebody behind. I wonder whether I in retrospect asked for a cushion because I'd sat on this wooden throne for hours and my bottom was sore. Or Sutekh's bottom became sore, after seven thousand years, or so on. I don't know whether he was keeping the cushion from flying up as I stood, or trying to pull it out of shot, but either way unfortunately he didn't realize that he was in shot, but why they didn't retake it, I don't know.
They could have been running out of time.
Or they just didn't notice. It's only, I think, when people watched it again and again and again that they noticed. I haven't watched the DVD, but there was talk of airbrushing the hand out; I don't know if they did, but I suppose if they did then everyone would have said, “But the hand's gone!”
Whose idea was the “Oh Mummy” sketch?
There were these two guys, Matt West and Robert Hammond, and they are such nice people and they're very clever and it's such a brilliant idea. And they produced this shooting script, and I think this is the extraordinary thing, the BBC sent it to me and asked if I would like to do the voice, and I said “fine”, and so when I had an interview for the DVD they stayed on and recorded my voice, and these two guys went off with the head and did the shooting. Completely separately. I said at the recording “I can't see that it's likely to match” but it matched up absolutely brilliantly. It was a very funny idea, and I hope they do others.
You do realise that your scene with Neil the rabbit has totally ruined the “kneel before the might of Sutekh” line for me now, don’t you?
Oh, sorry about that. There is this strong belief that you shouldn't do parodies. I always remember this wonderful story about Tennyson who could be a bit sensitive, and he had this wonderful line about “The earliest pipe of half awakened bird” and it's about death and all that, and he was on board this ship off the Hebrides and he used to smoke a pipe from dawn to dusk, and he was up on deck and this doctor came up and said, “ah, the earliest pipe of half awakened bard!” And he went mad, saying “you should never do that! This is a great line and you've ruined it”, but I don't think it was that great a line.
And Tennyson has been much parodied without his knowledge.
Yes, I think it's somewhat flattering. It has to be really good or loved to be parodied, and the parody had to be very good to be remembered. I love parody.
When did you become aware that “Pyramids of Mars” was so highly regarded?
There's been this trickle, trickle since the time it went out and then about twenty years later someone told me that there had been this poll deciding which have been the best episodes of Doctor Who and “Pyramids of Mars” was third, or something like that, and then they told me that there were conventions, and it all began to grow, but really, it's only been in the last two or three years since I was found alive as President of FOSL-- which is Friends of Seaford Library, which I've sort of supported-- and somebody found me on the website. And I was resurrected and brought out blinking into the light again. And I thought the only thing I could possibly do, because I could have been anybody, without the head, was to do the lines again, and the silence and the indrawn breath at these conventions, and then the burst of “Wow”after I've finished, which is really quite extraordinary, but it was a nice thing to have done.
I thought it would be quite interesting. At first I really was a bit doubtful as to whether they could kind of reproduce the character in terms of the dialogue, but I think they are terrific scripts by Lawrence Miles. I really do. Yes, I think Lawrence has handled the character very well. I didn't know if I could do longer speeches, because I thought that Sutekh is a god of few words, but it worked very well. And the production values are tremendous.
How was it working with Julian Glover?
Wow, that was fantastic. All my recording on the day was with him, where some of the other actors were cut in later. But Julian, I've worked with him once or twice on radio, and he's great, and I mean really great, but I'm just Sutekh (laughs). I have a professional life that a few people of his age and calibre know of; I've done literary readings with Dame Judi Dench and so people like that know me, and know of my work and Julian knows, but the vast majority don't because I'm not in the theatre and I'm not on television, I do my literary reading shows to an audience of three hundred, or whatever it is, whereas he is a star. He's done feature films and he's really well known.
You have your own company doing audio productions; how did that come about?
Well, I suppose the answer to that is that I waited to be asked and it never happened. I specialized in radio in reading books, and so people did ask me at recitals if I've got anything on tape that they could have, and I hadn't, and although there are a lot of companies that do audio recordings no one had asked me to do some, so I thought, I'll do it myself. I started off selling them through Keats' House in London, and then through Keats' House in Rome, recordings of me reading Keats' poetry, and it's typical that Keats's House in Rome sells twenty-five to everyone that they sell in London because, he's not a prophet in his own country, and it's foreigners who buy it all out there. And so in Rome they said “have you got a Shelley, and have you got a Byron...” and I said “hang on a minute and I will,” and so I went back and recorded a programme about Byron and another about Shelley. Afterwards I wanted to do something by Arthur Ransome, who wrote the children's books Swallows and Amazons; there was this newly formed society which was two thousand members strong, and they were a bit dubious about doing an abridged version of the books, but I showed them what I was going to do and they loved it. And to these I've added one for the Houseman's Society-- that's a wonderful, marvellous tape-- and Dickens, as I was president of the Dickens Fellowship for a couple of years, and so I have a Dickens tape. His life in one year, which is worth taking. And George Elliot. I've got a list of about twenty different tapes. I sell them mainly through the societies, though the Arthur Ransome ones are sold in shops. I don't go out and offer them; they find me somehow, and it's become a sort of cottage industry. I put them together, and mail them out, or take them to the shops or museums. It has been very good and keeps me occupied, and it's nice to feel that they're loved and wanted and I'm involved in it all.
How did you get involved with the new Doctor Who series, in the episodes "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit"?
Apparently Russell T. Davies had wanted to do a story about a god, and it was the producer Phil Collinson who remembered that I was still alive, and suggested me for the part of Satan. I don't know whether it was the Faction Paradox audios, or the “Pyramids of Mars” DVD that told him that my voice hadn't conked out and I was still compos mentis, but, anyway, Russell thought it would be a good idea, so the next minute someone from the BBC was phoning up the Walter Savage Landor Society, of whom there are seven members, and asking the woman who runs it if they could get in touch with Gabriel Woolf, as they were casting for Doctor Who.
So the message was eventually passed on to me via various people, and my first reaction was that it was somebody having a joke, but it wasn't. So I said, “I'm on the BBC's list, as I do broadcasts and that sort of thing, so why didn't you contact me using that?” and he said, “I'm freelance and I was going to try that next.” Apparently he'd Googled me and found that I was due to attend that particular event. Not many people have heard of Walter Savage Landor, but I do have a tape about him and it's called The Man Who Had a Dog on His Head, because he did. He had a dog, a Pomeranian, and it used to sit on his head. And it's quite unusual, but not as unusual as doing Doctor Who.
So, what happened then?
Well, they didn't give me an enormous amount of time warning, it was like three weeks before it goes out. And I kept saying, “what does he look like?”, and they said, “we don't know, we haven't finished it yet,” because of CGI work, so I had no idea what I looked like and I had no idea what they were going to do with the voice either. Yes, I had a script and that sort of thing to work from, and yes, I'd seen a cut of what they filmed in February, but of course it's just David Tennant looking suitably terrified at a sheet of plasterboard, so it was quite interesting to see the finished episodes.
The director was very nice and I got on well with him, he was easy and appreciative, and now and then he was even right (laughs). When we came to record it, I was very keen to underplay the lines, because I have this theory that if you are going to say things like, “I'm going to boil you in oil”, something like that, you don't actually need to overplay it, because if you say it with total conviction, the words carry the conviction without overloading it. So I tend to underplay things. I think the director wanted it bigger, and I could see what he was getting at, and I did it a bit more each time he asked, a bit stronger, or whatever, but it wasn't until I finally saw the episodes that I found out which version of the lines they finally went with, and I'm happy to say they went with my versions. The only thing I don't go for was the manic laughter that came out of the pit at the end of part one. I didn't think that was a terribly good idea, “I'm free.. ha... ha... ha” it was a bit too melodramatic, a bit too trapdoor and gaslight. I think the farewell scream was good though. The director was quite right on how to do that.
I think the problem with it for me is that although I have two scenes with the Doctor which compare, in a way, with the famous one to one between the Doctor and Sutekh, they are not quite as effective because when I'm talking about all the members of the crew, and where their weaknesses lie, there isn't a focus because I can't be seen, as I'm down in the bowels of the earth, and my voice is instead being superimposed on various pictures of Oods, and things like that. I find that a bit less concentrated than it might be. Then when I have to confront the Doctor visually, my mind has been transferred to someone else, therefore I can't speak.
I recorded all my lines in a darkened studio in one session, in London. Not at the BBC but in a studio up in Hampstead. It was quite difficult because some of it is lipsync stuff with the actor who plays Toby, but I was also pleased to be on my own because if I'd had to do it all with David Tennant and Billie Piper I'd probably have sunk without trace, because however nice they are, they've been together now for umptyfour episodes, and I'd have been the outsider coming in. But doing it alone in a studio, we were three hours solid doing it and it was over, finished.
So the character you're playing, it's no relation to Sutekh, is it?
No. No, I play it in the same way because I can only play one thing (laughs), the characterisation's not quite as subtle as it was in the old days. I didn't find it at all threatening, but people say they found it very threatening, so there you are. But, no it isn't Sutekh, except that, if you like, Sutekh was the evil god of the Egyptians and, I suppose, this is the evil god of many other civilizations.
I think the confusion came about because the Doctor in “Pyramids of Mars” referred to Sutekh as Satan.
Yes, I see, but no, it's a completely different idea really. This one was buried in the middle of an impossible planet, not under a pyramid (laughs). I've been told that there is a panel the BBC use to assess the fear element on a scale of 1 to 5, and these two episodes have had a fear factor of six! So there you go. I am now officially terrifying.
Gabriel Woolf, thank you.
This interview has previously appeared in in Celestial Toyroom Issue 339/340
Gabriel Woolf's website can be found at www.gabrielwoolf.co.uk.
Images courtesy of Robert Hammond and Fiona Moore (copyright 2006)