Man of Steel
Peter Miles talks to Alan Stevens about strangling Nicholas Courtney, coshing Tom Baker, and getting away with murder in Kaldor City. That's what we wanted to know...
"I think Doctor Lawrence was quite a nasty piece of work," says Peter Miles, reminiscing on his star turn in the season seven Jon Pertwee story, Doctor Who and the Silurians. "He was so unsympathetic, wasn't he? He objected to nearly everybody and had this arrogance which says, 'I'm an important guy, I know what I'm doing. There is no trouble here in my atomic research laboratories, therefore, get off my territory.' Yes, he was a very cold fish indeed."
Peter Miles, he of the memorably sinister aspect, started out as an amateur actor before joining the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the mid-1960s, and successfully broke into television a few years later.
"Getting into television is bloody difficult," says Peter with feeling. "I think it's very much a case of who you know and who will put a word in for you. Luckily, I was very friendly with Ruth Caleb, who is now a famous BBC producer. When I first knew her she was an assistant stage manager in fringe theatre; we used to play tennis together and got on very well, so when she became an ASM at BBC Television Centre she recommended me to somebody for a small part in a play. That was my first telly for the BBC, up until then my agent had managed to get me into what used to be ABC television, and I did a few TV parts there including Armchair Theatre. Today it's all casting directors, but back then you could actually meet a director and if they liked you, they would keep using you and recommend you to other directors in turn. So it spread from there to me eventually being approached by director Timothy Combe to do a Doctor Who and playing Doctor Lawrence."
As it turned out, Peter also ended up doing a bit of casting himself. "I remember Timothy Combe coming up to me and saying, 'We're a bit stuck. We need somebody who is exactly six foot two,' and I said, 'Well, I know the very person because I've just finished a tour with him, and he'll do it in a flash!' So they rang him up, and that's how Nigel Johns came to play the young Silurian."
I asked Peter what he thought of the reptilian monsters that appeared in the show. "Watching it back now, I do find the Silurians tremendously funny, what with their big feet and all that head-bobbing. But then I do have quite a warped sense of humour, which came about through listening to The Goon Show once a week for twenty years. I'm sure that some of the blood in my veins was spilt out of Spike Milligan's wrist."
Peter was also fond of another radio series, The Navy Lark, which featured Jon Pertwee. "Working with Jon Pertwee on Doctor Who was a great experience for me," he says. "I know Tom Baker is the glamour boy in the sense of Doctor Who, and for good reason, but I really was highly impressed with Pertwee. We became friends, and I'm very privileged to say that. What I liked about Pertwee was that he was such a damned good actor. People underrate artists who have come up in the world, either through light variety and light comedy, let alone doing impersonations and cabaret, which is all Jon Pertwee's scene, but nobody should underrate Jon Pertwee. He was one of the great Doctor Whos without question."
Peter was less happy, however, with Doctor Lawrence's rather energetic demise. "As I recall, I suddenly got an attack of death and tried to strangle Nicholas Courtney, because I had gone mad with some horrible Silurian plague! I remember prior to the scene being recorded, I was going a little around the bend myself, because the BBC were announcing on the studio floor, 'Watch that Peter doesn't make us go into overtime,' and the reason for that was because I was stuck in the make-up room, having all this latex put on my face to show the effects of the disease, and they were taking too long about it. So when the time came for me to try and kill Nick I was a little concerned afterwards that I may have gone over the top. Watching it back today, though, I see that it turned out rather well. So there we are at last, thirty-three years of worry put to rest. What a relief!"
A few years later Peter was back with Doctor Who for Jon Pertwee's last season, this time elevated to the academic rank of Professor, in the fondly remembered story "Invasion of the Dinosaurs". "In that one I played Professor Whitaker, another cold fish. He had a Noah's Ark, but without the animals, stowed away under Whitehall, and he was bringing these rubbery dinosaurs back through time. I loved everything about that story except the rather croaking dinosaurs with their big teeth looking at me. Poor things. This is not Steven Spielberg spending millions of pounds that we are talking about, this is in the mid-1970s, on a 25-minute programme coming out every week with a BBC budget, for God's sake. But they were rather stiff, weren't they? Rather solid. They were like living corpses. When their mouths were shut they looked as if you could buy them in the science museum, but I thought some of the tricks the Beeb did with the dinosaurs were quite good. Like the bit where Sarah Jane Smith [Elizabeth Sladen] visits one that is lying down, and suddenly its eye opens and it starts waking and gradually getting up and she runs out in horror."
I wondered if Peter had noticed that there was quite a few similarities between his first story and his second, in that both featured creatures from primeval Earth and an attempt to change the present into the past. "That's absolutely right!" he exclaims. "And Professor Whitaker was very much like Doctor Lawrence, wasn't he? Both being very rigid, very arrogant and single-minded. Looking at it now I can see a progression there, and I suppose everything I did on Doctor Who was heading towards me becoming Nyder one day."
Peter's next appearance as Davros's sinister Security Commander in Doctor Who's twelfth season classic "Genesis of the Daleks" provoked an apoplectic reaction from clean-up-TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse. "I actually struck Tom Baker with a wobbly cosh. But that was of course a physical assault on the star of the show in front of what she believed was the under-tens. She sent the producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, a very long list of complaints and one of them was that my character had 'coshed the Doctor.' I loved the fact that Mary Whitehouse was livid." Peter chuckles. "I thought it was wonderful, and if she had looked closer then she would have seen the cosh wobbling as it bounced off Tom Baker's head. It wasn't real at all, but she was determined to make a fuss. I think the director, David Maloney, knew she was going to complain and I think that's why I lost the Iron Cross I had dangling from my neck. She still mentioned it though, when she wrote in with her list. 'A certain actor is wearing an Iron Cross and is obviously a Nazi.' Well, that's what the story was all about! To me Davros represented Adolf Hitler, trying to take over the world, and I represented Herr Himmler, the head of the SS. I relished that part, and what a wonderful script. Yum, yum. That story is very special to me, it was a big success and it was good to appear with the Daleks."
Had Peter seen the Daleks in action before meeting them in person? "Oh, I certainly had. I used to watch Doctor Who at my sister's flat in Park Royal at tea time with my nephew, so I certainly knew what William Hartnell and then Patrick Troughton were up to, and so I was very pleased to learn that for my third story I would be working with Daleks. One particular moment that sticks in my mind was doing that very reverent ceremony with Dennis Chinnery where I fit the very first Dalek with its gun. Dennis Chinnery would keep telling me these corny jokes between takes and so it was difficult to keep a straight face."
What was it like working with Tom Baker? "I remember he was quite concerned about getting everything right," Peter recalls. "Perhaps because this was his first season and he was still establishing himself as the new Doctor Who, but he was very attentive to the script. He would often come into the North Acton rehearsal rooms, and you could see he'd crossed out a paragraph and he would be speaking to the script editor about how he could change a particular scene or line of dialogue. He wasn't being awkward, he just really wanted it all to work, and they took his remarks very seriously, he was just so good at his job. I liked his character, it was distinctly a Tom Baker Doctor Who story and I liked every minute of it." Peter pauses, smiling at the memories. "I also greatly enjoyed working with Michael Wisher. He was outstanding as Davros and tremendously dedicated to the part. During rehearsals he used to wear a paper bag on his head! He wasn't a glue sniffer or anything, it was just that he knew that in the studio he was going to be in full make-up wearing this Davros mask and so he was trying to screen out facial expressions and do everything with his voice. Many years after, Wisher and I used to be a kind of Laurel and Hardy double act at various Doctor Who conventions. I love conventions. I am indebted to the thousands of fans of Doctor Who with their terrific loyalty and friendliness, and it's always a great joy to meet them."
Towards the end of the story Peter was asked to devise his own death scene. "That was due to the various pressures in studio. They had spent a long time in setting up the story's climax. It was a big set and they were trying to move a number of 'dummy Daleks' around to make it look like a big army, and of course the clock was ticking. So eventually David Maloney came up to me and said, 'Honestly, Peter, I haven't got time to think up a death for you. Could I leave it to you to choose a position and do your own thing?' So I chose this pillar and I thought , 'What a nice place to die,' and as you've seen on screen I slid with my back down the pillar. I also decided to die in silence because it makes people feel a bit sad. If everybody screams, which most people do when they are exterminated, you think, 'Oh, they are in pain, but that's alright, they're at least getting Equity minimum!' But I thought, 'I'll have a bit of tragedy,' so I died in silence."
Two years later Peter appeared in the Terry Nation sci-fi series Blake's 7, which was also produced by David Maloney. "I played Rontane, the personal secretary to the President of the Federation, who had to go and see the head of the military, Servalan, on her space station. Servalan of course was played by a lovely lady called Jacqueline Pearce, who was, in my humble opinion, an absolute dish. A corker! A cracker! She was so attractive. And what a wonderful character to play, a really important part in Blake's 7 for her. I remember that the director, Vere Lorrimer, thought the episode was going to run short and so told me that they had written two new scenes for John Bryans [who played Senator Bercol] and myself and that would we go into the canteen and learn it by heart immediately. Then, damn me, after we had recorded the scenes they were cut as they didn't need them after all."
Peter then returned to Blake's 7 a season later in the Chris Boucher episode, "Trial". "I loved that one," he confesses. "I adore doing law court scenes and it was a particularly good script, and very well directed by Derek Martinus. The story was about the trial of Blake's archenemy Travis, who was played by Brian Croucher. Brian and I had previously worked together as a couple of bomb makers in The Hanged Man, and he is one of the nicest guys in the business. It was also fun to work with John Savident, and I thought he was very good as the court arbiter. John is very proud of his aftershave and he wore it every day. I have a collection of aftershave actors who I have worked with in my life. Simon Oates, whom I worked with in Doomwatch, wore stuff you could gas a badger with. The best was John though. He said, 'Do you know how much this cost, Peter?' and I said, 'No, I've no idea!' I remember him telling me and thinking, 'Oh, God, he's got some money.'"
Peter's next venture into sci-fi saw him returning to Doctor Who in the Barry Letts radio serial The Paradise of Death. "I enjoyed that. It was fun to work again with Liz Sladen, Nick Courtney, and Jon Pertwee. I was also reunited with another colleague, Harold Innocent. He was my best friend when we were at the Royal Shakespeare Company together. Harold and I played two intergalactic bad guys. My character was a nutty, sadistic villain called Tragan. I adored playing him. And I also had these mad dogs I would set on people. In the studio I was given some chains to rattle, so as to pretend that I was holding their metallic leads, but the mad dogs themselves were relayed into the studio via some large speakers. I certainly had a great time recording that story."
Before working on Doctor Who again, Peter also did the audio play Zygons: Absolution for Bill Baggs. "I played a religious cult leader who has a rather unfortunate encounter with the nasty shape-changing Zygons. It was a part I enjoyed enormously. Not long after that, I did another audio, Doctor Who - The Whispers of Terror for Big Finish which was through Gary Russell, who knows me terribly well, and gave me this lovely part. It was a whodunit and a thriller, and I played a blind curator of a sound museum. It was a lovely complicated plot and I thought it was a damned good cast."
What did Peter think of Colin Baker? "Well," he says, "I had worked with Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant before on the Bill Baggs video More than a Messiah. I've performed with four Doctor Who actors in all, as I also did the Bill Baggs CD Prosperity Island with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, where again I had a superb part. Colin, like Tom Baker, is very astute and very conscientious about everybody's performance and his own, he's very with it. The more professional people are, the more I love it."
Peter's next work for Big Finish was in "Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre", an episode of the Sarah Jane Investigates series. "I played Doctor Brandt, which was quite a small role, but integral to the plot. I just did that in one afternoon. I enjoyed doing it, because lovely Liz Sladen was there, but I literally just flew in and flew out."
Recently, Peter has been one of the main players in the high-octane Kaldor City audio series, based on another Doctor Who serial, "The Robots of Death." "I am so proud to be involved," Peter enthuses. "I think everyone has done a magnificent job, and the quality of writing and production are both extraordinary. I think they are damned good CDs. Another bonus is getting to act alongside such a fabulous cast. Russell Hunter, who played [Firstmaster Chairholder] Uvanov, my main political rival, was such a wonderful and clever actor. I was very sad to hear the news of Russell's death, after the joy of working with him so recently. The man had boundless energy!"
I asked Peter how he approached his own character, the machiavellian Firstmaster Landerchild. "I see him as a sort of mafia boss," he says slowly. "He is involved in a number of conspiracies and, like the Mafia, he can get away with things for an awful long time. I love playing Landerchild. It's a part I relish, I can tell you. He wants to become the master of Kaldor, but he's up against some strong competition."
Peter also finds the series something of an unofficial Pertwee-era reunion. "I got to work again with many of the actors I encountered during the first Doctor Who I did, the one with the Silurians. There's Nick Courtney, Paul Darrow [who played Captain Hawkins] and Peter Halliday who did all the voices for the Silurians. We are talking about actors whom I regard very highly. I think my favourite scene so far is where Landerchild is put in prison and served for his supper a dead rat in a bun! I have a strong love of comedy and farce, and it was great to play the scene with Brian Croucher, who has magnificent comic timing."
Peter's most recent appearance as Landerchild has been in MJTV's The Actor Speaks audio series. "Paul Darrow was doing one and I was so delighted at being approached to appear in the short Kaldor City play "The Prisoner", a duologue between Landerchild and Paul Darrow's Iago. It was quite an intense piece, a taut drama between two of the main characters in Kaldor City. Very metaphysical, but at the same time very dramatic. I've had quite a few letters from Kaldor City fans and it's great to know that it has been received so well. It's been a marvellous series to do, and I'm looking forward to working more with Magic Bullet in the future."
This is an extended and updated version of an interview that previously appeared in issue #335 of Doctor Who Magazine.
Images copyright Andy Hopkinson 2001-3; BBC