Nabil Shaban's portrayal of Sil has made him one of the most memorable of Doctor Who's villainous creations, and through a long crusade for proper recognition of the disabled, Nabil has made his presence felt. In an interview for Skaro #7 (Spring 1993), Alan Stevens shares a few marshminnows with the outspoken actor...
I was born with brittle bone disease, in a little village in Jordan, just outside the capital, Oman, and then I came to England when I was three and I've been here ever since. My mother was Turkish, but my father, his roots are Mongolian, there's a rumour that we're descended from Genghis Khan. Many members of the family believe this to be true, though obviously I don't really know how you could prove it.
Apparently you spent some time in a children 's home.
Yeah, for about seven years. During the sixties.
Is that when your first association with Doctor Who came about?
Well, you see we were allowed to see a lot of television at the children's home. It was a way of keeping us occupied, but in the early days they vetted what you watched, and had very strict bedtimes. When Doctor Who began, the family group that I was in wasn't allowed to watch it because they thought it was too frightening, so I never saw "An Unearthly Child." However there were some other family groups who were allowed to see it, so I heard about it and then one day I was invited to tea with the local GP. His son Stephen was hooked on Doctor Who and while we were there the GP said, "I hope you don't mind, but we're going to have to turn the television on and watch Doctor Who." I said, "no, go ahead, we don't mind at all!" It was the second episode of "The Daleks", and of course once I saw it, I thought, ah, nothing's going to stop me from watching this now. So when we got back I told the staff that the GP watched Doctor Who and that he had let us watch it, and he was the GP of the home, so if they didn't let us tune in next week I'd tell him!
What aspects of Doctor Who appealed to you back then?
Well it was the sheer diversity of it. Doctor Who was so wide-ranging, you could do anything, time and space was your oyster. You could do historical stuff, you could do science fiction stuff. Of course in later years they did less historical stuff, but during the sixties there was quite a lot of costume-drama types, and because I was into history as well, Doctor Who became one of my favourite programmes.
Did you ever have any aspirations about becoming an actor at the time, or being involved in any way with the theatre?
I was interested in acting, I liked the idea and I used to act a lot in the playground. Also when it was time to do the school Nativity, I always hoped I would be one of the people in the show, but I never really thought at the time that I would end up being a professional actor.
I understand you wrote a script for Doctor Who.
Yeah, I did it back in 1970, about a year after I left school. I didn't actually send it in though, because (a) I lost the script itself, although I still had the outlines, and (b) I was still not entirely convinced that I could write, so I thought it would be a waste of time. In the script I wrote a big part for myself, and set it in an institution for disabled people. We actually helped the Doctor to thwart a take-over bid of the planet by aliens, so even then I wanted to use disabled people as heroes.
I gather that you once applied for the part of the Master?
Yes. When Roger Delgado died, I
wrote suggesting that I should play the part, they didn't need to get
rid of the character, and that he would be more interesting if he were
small and disabled and went round in a hover-chair, and had eyes which
were laser-eyes when he took his glasses off. I had a polite letter
back, and they said they would keep the idea on file, and probably
nicked it later on without telling me about it.
Then in 1980, I wrote to the producer John Nathan-Turner, suggesting that I should be the next Doctor. I wasn't aware at the time that they were actually looking for someone to replace Tom Baker, I had only written on the off-chance. However, at that point in my career, I was just starting out as an actor and so didn't have a track record; also I was just too late as they had already cast Peter Davison in the role. Then later, after I'd appeared in Doctor Who as Sil, I spoke to John and said, "do you remember the letters I wrote, suggesting I should play the Doctor?" and he said that he had felt perhaps it was impractical, given the problems involved with my disability.
So how did the part of Sil come about?
It just came out of the blue. The script of "Vengeance on Varos" had been written, and there was a creature which Philip Martin had created, and the description of it seemed to require a very small person. They auditioned dwarfs, and midgets for the part, but the director, Ron Jones, just wasn't happy with the people who were coming forward. They had to start rehearsals soon, so things were getting a bit desperate. Then suddenly, from three different sources, came my name. Martin Jarvis had already been cast to play the Governor, and his wife, Rosalind Ayres, had seen me on a TV documentary. The documentary had clips of my acting, and she said, "why don't you suggest Nabil?" Martin had actually met me in the street once, and told me that his wife was a fan of mine! So he knew who she was talking about. Secondly, one of the production assistants on that particular programme had been production assistant on that same documentary, and she recommended me, and then a Doctor Who floor assistant who had worked at Graeae [pronounced grey-eye], a theatre company for disabled actors, suggested that it might be a good idea to contact me through them, as she thought I would be just right for the part. So with it coming from three sources, I suppose they thought they'd give me a try. However they were a little worried that I wouldn't be too keen on playing a monster, but I went along for a meeting/audition, and as soon as I did the reading, Ron Jones said, "do you want to play it? It's yours if you want it ."
Did you discuss it at all beforehand with the writer?
No, I didn't meet the writer until a convention. He couldn't make it to the recording, for some reason.
How did you see the character of Sil?
As a sort of intergalactic Arthur Daley, but obviously more sinister, and with greater power. I saw him as being the head of the galactic equivalent of a multinational company, which was exploiting a third-world planet of its one resource, while keeping it's true value hidden, which is typical of many third-world set-ups. So I saw him as someone who was very contemporary, in that sense, and the script was very well written, there were lots of indicators as to what made Sil tick. He was a sadist, he enjoyed inflicting pain on others, but a bit of a coward when it came to suffering himself. Very clever, but more astute in the first story, whereas in the second story he didn't have all his wits about him. I really wanted to create a character who would be memorable, and one who would be frightening for children, as I didn't feel that Doctor Who had been frightening enough for the previous four or five years. I relished the idea of driving children back behind the sofa. I knew that if I got Sil's laugh right, it would be the clincher that would make him memorable, in the same way as the quality of the Dalek voice made the Daleks come alive, and I thought it would be the same for Sil.
Is it true that originally you were going to be submerged in water?
Yeah! I think that would have been really interesting. In the original script he was in a kind of goldfish bowl. I quite liked the idea because he would be in this bowl which was a life support system, and it would be full of snakes! At the first rehearsal, I suggested this to Ron Jones, but he thought that the production assistants wouldn't really want to be handling that. Also apparently the main problem with the bowl would have been lighting. They would have been plagued by reflections. I would have done it, but after they turned down my suggestion I thought, "thank God for that!"
What did you think of your monster costume?
Basically, they were rushed, the first suit I wore had no ventilation, which caused me to sweat a lot, and the glue around the side of my head kept giving way. So it didn't look as good as it could have done, but by the second story they had learned from their mistakes and were also able to spend more time on it. Of course, he changed from a sort of turd-colour, to a green! Perhaps it was the effects of old age, I don't know.
Do you remember recording a scene where Sil's translator unit explodes? Because apparently it ended up being cut.
Yes, there was this bit where Sil gets very excited and it blows up. I don't know why they cut it, time probably. I remember when I saw it, I thought...
(Laughing) Yeah, that's right, they should have left it in, because it was also a frightening scene to do. Although I was told the explosion would be totally safe, and there was nothing to worry about, you still don't know for certain. So I was waiting for the explosion with the hope that there would still be some of my chest left afterwards.
What do you think of the Mary Whitehouse brigade?
They're idiots. I have no time for Mary Whitehouse, no way. "Vengeance" was actually a very moral tale, as it concerned the nature of power and how the state can use violence and torture to both suppress and entertain the masses. Although the people of Varos were living their lives in squalor and poverty, they could make themselves feel better by turning on the television, and seeing some other poor devil suffer a worse fate. The story scrutinized a facet of human nature that exists within us all, an aspect that was being ruthlessly exploited by the establishment, in an attempt to blind the people of Varos to the true nature of their situation.
I understand that you were scheduled to appear in the aborted Doctor Who season.
At the end of "Varos", I heard that John Nathan-Turner was keen for Sil to come back, and Martin Jarvis and Colin Baker told me they were sure I would be returning soon. I had been a big success, so I wasn't surprised when, about a year later, I had a phone call saying they wanted Sil again. I was told the story involved the teaming-up of Sil with the Ice Warriors, so I thought, "oh, great", and the contracts were signed. Then, one day, my upstairs neighbour told me she'd read in the paper that Doctor Who had been scrapped. I rang my agent to see if it was true, and he said it was, but I got paid! I don't know how many other actors they had to pay. Maybe the BBC felt obligated to pay me because they hoped to get another chance, and thought that if I wasn't paid I'd be reluctant in the future. A year or so later they got in touch again, sent me the scripts for 'Mindwarp' and that was that.
I liked the idea of the overall concept of "The Trial of a Time Lord", but at the same time I was worried that the stories would be shorter, with not as much depth, because if you keep cutting back to the courtroom scenes, it wouldn't have the same flow. Secondly, the BBC were nervous about the accusations of violence, so consequently I was sorry that Sil's evil, sick nature had been played down, and he was turned into more of a comic character. I decided to make the best of what was there and tried to sneak it in, but every now and then, during the filming or rehearsal, the director would say, "tone it down a bit, we don't want any more complaints." I thought Christopher Ryan, who played Kiv, was extremely good and was a nice guy as well. I was pleased to meet him because I was a fan of The Young Ones anyway.
What were the Marsh Minnows made of?
Well, they were meant to be a slug-like guppy, and I had a choice of either peaches, mashed up and dyed green, or avocado and maybe prawns, I can't remember. It had to look like fish, but I can't stand fish, and I didn't want any seafood stuff, so I settled for the peaches, but they gave me the runs for several days afterwards!
Sil always had the pick of the lines...
Yes, and I relished them! But don't ask me to repeat any of them now, because usually within two weeks of having done a part, the lines have completely gone. Brian Blessed, however, is a great one for remembering lines. He can quote whole passages from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. I went to see Brian quite a few times at his pad afterwards, and he mentioned other projects he was involved with which might be suitable for me.
Like climbing Everest?
Well, I wouldn't mind, he could carry me on his back! No, he was going to do a second series of Return to Treasure Island, and he was going to suggest me as one of the pirates, but the series was never made. I like Brian, he's a very well-read man, very into philosophy, mysticism, the occult and flying saucers. I found him fascinating and respected him because he likes the bizarre and the unusual.
Do you beiieve in the paranormal?
Yeah, I feel I've experienced enough things to make me think that it's very likely. I had an experience once with psychokinesis. 1 was staying with some friends, when one night a carved African mask jumped off the television, which was at the end of the bed, and landed on my back waking me up! I picked the mask up and placed it back on the television, and then jumped up and down a bit on the bed, to see if I could make it happen again, but really there was no way that it could have fallen from the position that it was in, to where it landed. The thing that clinched it for me was that three months later, on the day I was due to arrive for my holidays, they found the mask lying on my bed again.
Really? Where did the mask come from?"
Well, I have to say I cannot imagine why the mask should have behaved in the way it did, because I bought it in Woolworths. A carved African mask.
Yes, in Woolworths. It was a Christmas present for these people. They weren't impressed with it and left it in my room. So I don't know why something bought in Woolworths would behave like that. In the end I reclaimed it because they didn't want to keep it, and it hasn't done anything since.
Yes, it just stayed on my mantelpiece.
You weren't on drugs at the time, were you?
What, on an acid trip?...No.
Oh... How did you get on with Colin Baker?
Again, I have a lot of affection for Colin. On the whole I find that most British actors are really nice people. I very rarely have problems with British actors, although I've heard that some American stars can be complete bastards. Funnily enough, I did work with Faye Dunaway, in Raspberry Ripple, and although she was never unpleasant to me, and was in fact quite complimentary, I saw the way she behaved to others, and a lot of people complained about her. I could see that the Hollywood star system had struck again. Colin is a very clever actor, but my own preference is for a Hartnell-type Doctor. He was my Doctor; in fact I bought some Hartnell videos recently, both Dalek stories and "An Unearthly Child", and I still think he is excellent. Although I find it amusing that actually he does fluff his lines a lot! I suppose because editing was so cumbersome then, they were never cut out, but it endeared William Hartnell to me even more, and I liked the anti-hero element.
After Doctor Who, you went on to appear in a number of controversial stage plays at the Royal Court theatre.
Yeah. The first one in 1987 was called The Emperor based on a book about Haile Selassie's downfall. It was written by this Polish guy. It's a quirky sort of book because he wrote it as if he'd interviewed the various palace dignitaries, and they had all given their views and opinions on the history of Haile Selassie, and about how the revolution had taken place. Jonathan Miller, who directed the stage version, wanted to stick as close to the book as possible and it worked extremely well. Basically, you had five actors who would come back and forth being the different characters and presenting their views in a speech. Overall, I ended up playing about twenty five different people.
I believe some objected to the play.
Yes that's right. First the Ethiopian Royal Family in exile objected to it - understandably, but that only lasted a couple of days, because they soon realized that the publicity generated from their protest demonstrations, was doing us nothing but good. However, the Rastafarians were more persistent, as they regard Haile Selassie as their black messiah, and so, on occasion, there were a number of death threats and bomb scares. At the time I had this yellow Mini and the demonstrators got to know it. As soon as they saw it drive up they would scream and shout. So to taunt them, I would drive around Sloane Square a few times, beeping my horn.
It's a wonder you didn't get yourself arrested for incitement to riot! What was the second play about, which you did the following year?
It's called Down-Fall, and although it wasn't as controversial as The Emperor, it was quite surreal and interesting to do. I played this weird hermit type who played music on a harmonica and an old wind-up gramophone and lived in a bath tub, which was stuck at the top of this pole. Every now and then he would interrupt the proceedings of what was going on below him, and act as an observer and consmentator. It was very confusing, and a lot of the audience didn't know what was going on. I don't think the actors understood it either, but it was fun to do.
Then a year later it was back to the controversy again, in a play called Iranian Nights. It was written as a response to the death threats issued against Salman Rushdie, but apparently the original cast got frightened and backed out. The producers fished around and eventually someone said,"what about Nabil Shaban? He doesn't seem to mind controversy." So they rang me up and I said, "yeah, I'll do it, with the greatest of pleasure."
You played the Ayatollah Khomeini in that.
Again it was one of those shows with only three actors in it, so I played four or five different characters. I don't think it was a big hit with Tehran radio though, and at the time I did get a death threat on the phone which said, "Nabu Shaban you are an Islamic pig, we're going to kill you, you're going to die." Im still alive, so it must have been a hoax, but I suspect that it wasn't the pro-Khomeini lot at all, because I was called an Islamic pig, rather than an Anti-Islamic pig. Instead I suspect it was Special Branch getting their own back on me, after my girlfriend Tina and I attempted, for a laugh, to get inside the local Nuclear Satellite Communications base, on the pretext of reading their electricity meter.
You also became involved in some controversy over a television series called Micro-Man.
Well, this independent production company had the idea of doing a children's series about a little man who lived in a computer. He would come out and help these two kids with their history of science lessons by taking them back in time to meet people like Pythagorus, Einstein and all that. The makers contacted my agent and I went for the interview and they said, "look we are convinced that you should have the part. However because this project is sponsored by Granada, they have right of veto, so we're going to have to persuade them." Anyway Granada told them "no, we think he may frighten tht children." They then asked why - "because he is in a wheelchair. Now if this was a one-off we could take the risk, but we have to get an audience which will stay with us for seven weeks, and if he does frighten the kids, then we've lost the audience for the series." The makers decided that they weren't going to take the risk and fight the decision and just dumped me instead, without even giving a reason as to why I didn't get the part!
Anyway, I rang up the producer, and he leaked to me the reasons why Granada didn't want me, and so I said, "that's it, the shit's going to hit the fan." He then said, "look if you try to cause any trouble about this, I'll have to say that we don't think that you're a good enough actor for the part, " and I said, "you can try that, but I am still going to cause a rumpus about it." And that's what happened, I got it in the press, and disabled people demonstrated in Manchester and in London, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament, Labour MPs, for a while up in the Manchester area, boycotted Granada, saying that they wouldn't appear on their programmes, and so really it caused quite a stir. The best thing, however, was that soon afterwards, I did this children's drama series called "Bllly's Christmas Angels,' and so was able to prove to those people at Granada that kids weren't going to be frightened of me after all.
How do you feel about able-bodied actors portraying disabled people?
I object to it totally. I don't see that there's any reason for it at all. Particularly in films, because films require a different technique of acting anyway, that doesn't need a lot of experience. I personally don't think Daniel Day-Lewis should have been cast to portray someone with cerebral palsy in the film My Left Foot. They should have had a real guy with cerebral palsy playing the part. I mean the BBC in the past have done it in a play called Joey, and they got someone with cerebral palsy, who had never acted before in his life and it worked. The thing is, you're scoring an own-goal if you are trying to say something about disabled people, and then get an able-bodied person to play the part. You are sort of saying that "we don't really believe that disabled people are as good." It defeats the object, and I just think that if you're doing a film about a black liberation fighter, you don't get a white guy in to play the part. If you are doing a film about Emily Pankhurst, you don't get a man to play the part of Emily Pankhurst, because to do that is to destroy the credibility of your argument.
I hear you are now writing a book.
It's an historical novel about a Viking called Ivarr the Boneless and he, according to some sources, had my disability, and so was carried into battle on the back of a shield. He invaded England with a huge army of Danes in 865 AD and succeeded in conquering Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, and was poised to take Wessex when he got distracted by troubles in Ireland. The King of Norway had asked Ivarr if he would come and help him quell the Irish; however, whilst over there Ivarr got hirnself killed. Consequently his brothers, who lacked the tactical skills that Ivarr possessed, lost the campaign against Alfred. It's quite ironie that Alfred was crowned king in the same year that Ivarr died, so one wonders what would have happened if Ivarr had not died in Ireland, but had gone on to defeat Alfred. What would the British monarchy look like now? Brittle bones is hereditary, it could have re-occurred, so who knows we might have ended up with a disabled monarch!