The Brig Remembered
by Alan Stevens
This is a previously-unprinted transcript of the very first interview I ever conducted with Nicholas Courtney. It is a snap-shot of Nick, after many years as the Brigadier, but before “Battlefield,” Kaldor City and his final return as the Brigadier for The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Your first appearance in Doctor Who was as Bret Vyon in “The Daleks' Master Plan.”
That's right. A very butch name.
It was, although perhaps not as butch as Kurt Gantry.
Who was that?
I remember appearing with Brian Cant in “Master Plan,” but I'd forgotten his character was called Kurt Gantry. Well, I've learned something today!
How did your part in that story come about?
Well, Douglas Camfield, who directed so many of the ones I was in, had first interviewed me for a part in another William Hartnell story about the Crusades, to play Richard The Lionheart, but I didn't get that. Julian Glover got that, but presumably Douggie didn't forget the interview, and when this part came along he asked me to play it.
How did you find William Hartnell to work with?
He was okay. He could be tetchy with people sometimes, but he wasn't with me though, so much so that he introduced me to his agent, and suggested that I should go with him, but unfortunately, it didn't do me any good at all. I don't think I worked for a year. So I left his agent and went back to my original one.
How did you get on with the Daleks?
I sort of keep my distance from the Daleks. I never really found them very frightening, certainly not in the stories I did with them. Perhaps maybe in “The Five Doctors” where a Dalek has its head blown off, and all this nasty stuff comes out, that was quite good, but aside from that, they don't terrify me at all, although I know the Daleks are still very popular. Quite recently, in Los Angeles, I met the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, who is working over there now. He invited me to his home for dinner, and I found him a very kind and charming man. The amazing thing about Terry is that, although he's got this wonderful house in Pacific Palisades, which is a very desirable part of LA to live in, none of it has changed him at all. He is still a very, very nice guy.
Your next appearance in Doctor Who was in “The Web of Fear,” where you played Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart.
Yes, and that was due to Douggie again, and there's a story about that. He'd asked me if I'd play a character called Captain Knight, and I agreed, but then, two days before rehearsals started he said, “would you instead mind playing Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart?” And I said, “no, I don't mind at all.” It was a promotion for a start, and it was also a much bigger part, although the money was the same. Apparently, the actor, David Langton, who was originally going to play the Colonel, had dropped out as he'd got something else, a play I think. So can you imagine, I obviously owe David Langton quite a lot, because the character I was marked down to play, Captain Knight, was killed in the story.
By this time, the Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton.
Yes, he's lovely. Great fun. Used to have a lot of giggles with Frazer Hines and Debbie Watling and Wendy Padbury too, when she later came along. I've also seen a lot of Pat since then during our travels around the globe doing conventions. I keep in touch with Pat, he's very good news.
For “The Invasion,” Lethbrige-Stewart was promoted to Brigadier. Did you know at this point that the character was going to come back on a regular basis?
Yes, I did, because the BBC offered me a two year contract. “The Invasion” was a sort of dummy run really, for what was intended when Jon Pertwee took over.
Had you known Jon Pertwee before his first appearance in “Spearhead from Space”?
No, I hadn't. The first time I met him was at a read-through, and he gave everyone his phone number, which I thought was very nice of him.
In the last story of your first full season you played the Brigade Leader, the Brigadier's fascist counterpart from an alternative universe.
Yes, I enjoyed “Inferno”, it was a very good script. I based the Brigade Leader on the Italian Fascist leader, Mussolini, who was this big swaggering braggart, and as the Brigade Leader was a bully and a coward, I thought it fitted well.
As you played two parts, did you get double the pay?
[LAUGHS] You like the jokes, don't you? No, no, no. But it was nice to play two parts. It gave me a chance to play two aspects of the same man. It was a good challenge and I enjoyed it.
Talking of money, in “Colony in Space,” you only appeared in two episodes, but as you were on contract, did you still get a full fee for all six episode?
No. That was after I'd done my first two years, so I just got paid for the episodes I appeared in.
Apparently, UNIT were also originally meant to be in “The Sea Devils.”
Were they? I didn't know that. Damned Royal Marines, shooting our monsters.
And stealing your pay-packet...
[LAUGHING] That's even worse!
Now, “Terror of the Autons” introduced Roger Delgado, who had previously appeared with you in an episode of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), called “The Ghost who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
That's where I first met Roger, and also that's where I first met Brian Blessed. What I remember most vividly about the story, though, was the huge amount of takes they did of me falling out of a cupboard. I had to wear these great pads on my knees, and they kept on retaking and retaking and retaking it. I played this character called Max, who wore this terrible Hawaiian shirt, and then, of course, as you say, I met Roger Delgado, who was playing a croupier, and we got talking. Our first conversation, I think, was about bullfighting.
Max got involved in a lot of fights. Was that you, or did they use a stunt double?
I probably did have a stunt double, as I'm not a born fighter. I'm also not a serious soldier as my only army experience was when I did my National Service, where I did eighteen months and spent all of my time as a private. I have no ambition to be a serious soldier. I'm a celluloid soldier.
Do you think you've got typecast?
Oh, yes. I used to worry about that, but I don't worry now. It's much more important to work, and there isn't always a lot of work around.
What do you remember about “The Daemons”?
Well, for a start, it was one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. It was wonderful.
Yes, just prior to filming, Christopher Barry cut off some of his toes with a rotary mower.
As a director, was he trying to connect with the story's inner pain?
No. It was an accident. Those rotary mowers can be deadly.
Apparently, the last scene of “The Daemons” ended with a line of dialogue written by you...
Yes, I did get to write some of my own lines in Doctor Who. At the end of that particular story, Captain Yates was supposed to come up to me and say, “fancy a dance, Brigadier?” to which I'd reply with an affirmative and we'd then start prancing around this Maypole. I asked the director if I could change the line to “I’d rather have a pint!” and he agreed, so I said it and then walk straight into the pub. Five rounds rapid! Another time I put in a line was during “The Three Doctors,” when the Brigadier looks out onto this alien landscape and says, “I'm fairly sure that's Cromer.” and I'm really sure he meant it, and that he didn't believe for one second that he'd been transported down a black hole into a world of anti-matter. I was always trying to make the Brig a little more three dimensional, and getting some humour into the character is a way of doing that, and is much better than playing him as a stereotype army officer, who just barked orders all the time. In fact, in my own mind, I've made up a lot of things about him. When you're playing a long term character I find it's always a good idea to imagine some background details, as a way fleshing the character out; I've got lots of ideas about the Brig, and what sort of private life he has. I'd say, I do know him pretty well.
What can you tell me about Doris?
Doris was the Brigadier's bit on the side, but his wife would have been Fiona. There was this scene in “The Daemons” where the Brig is woken up in bed by a telephone call, and I remember [script editor] Terrance Dicks later saying to me “what a pity we didn't have a lily white arm reaching over and a woman's voice saying, “where are you going, darling?”
How did you find Tom Baker during his first story? Was he at all nervous?
No. I'd say Tom was more nervous, curiously, during the second story I did with him. There was a sort of tension during “Terror of the Zygons,” I don't know why, but during “Robot” he seemed fine. I enjoyed doing “Robot” very much indeed, and I think Tom did as well.
“Robot” also introduced Ian Marter as Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan...
That was the first time I met Ian, although I didn't really have many scenes with him during “Robot.” I had more to do with him on “Zygons,” and that's when I got quite paranoid and thought, “what's going on here? The Brig's being eased out and they're getting in another military character!” I thought they were trying to supplant me. That wasn't the case, of course, in fact, Ian only did one more story after that before leaving the series entirely.
In “Terror of the Zygons” the Brig wore a kilt. Whose idea was that?
It was Douggie Camfield's, actually. He thought Lethbridge-Stewart probably belonged to one of those regiments that comes up north of the border. He may also have thought my knees were a bonus! I don't think he was right.
Did you wear anything under the kilt?
[LAUGHING] Certainly! I'm not going to mess around. Anyway, it's quite correct that I should wear something under it, only a true Scotsman would wear nothing under it, and I can't claim to be a true Scotsman. So, I think it's quite correct that I wore something underneath, aside from being safer!
You don't seem to be a particular fan of this story.
Well, a lot of people say, “which one did you enjoy the least?” and “Terror of the Zygons” is the answer, and I think it was because I'd got the feeling that this was going to be the end for the Brig. That this was it, and obviously I'd got rather fond of the character and I thought it was a bit sad. Also, John Levene had the very same feeling about Benton, and he wasn't happy, and then Douggie had trouble with the Skarasen, and he wasn't happy about that, and Tom was a little tense, and that's why I remember it as being my least favourite one.
The next story to feature UNIT was “The Android Invasion,” but you didn't appear. Why was that?
At the time I was doing a play in the West End, The Dame of Sark, with Celia Johnson. Once again I was playing an army officer, and we were going to go on tour, but then the BBC rang up and said that they wanted me to do another Doctor Who, and I turned the tour down. Then the BBC changed their minds at the very last moment and said, “sorry, the scripts didn't work out!” So, I wasn't too pleased about that. A short time later, however, they rang up again, and said, “actually, we do want you for this one,” but by that time I'd got another job, this time playing the lead in The Dame of Sark, having taken over from actor Tony Britain and so I had to say, “sorry, can't do,” and the BBC had no claim because I wasn't under contract. I was freelance. So that's why I didn't do it, and that's why Doctor Who had to get another army officer in to replace me.
They got Patrick Newell in to play Colonel Faraday. The next story,“The Seeds of Doom,” also featured UNIT, but on this occasion none of the regular cast appeared at all.
Yes, that's right. I remember watching that one. Oh, well.
But that wasn't the end of the Brigadier as seven years later, he appeared again in “Mawdryn Undead”. How did that come about?
Well, I'd been invited to Tom Baker's farewell party, and towards the end, a man suddenly came up to me and said, “I don't know if you remember me, but my name is John Nathan-Turner!” And I said, “yes, I do remember you,” because in my early days on Doctor Who he was working as part of the floor crew. Anyway, he said, “I'd like to ask if you'd be willing to come back?” and I said, “yes, when?” and he said, “well, let me think about it.” After that nothing happened for a long time and I thought, “oh, well maybe not,” but then one day he rang up and started to tell me about this story that involved the Brigadier, and was set during the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977 and in 1983. Anyway, you probably have a better grasp of what was going on than I do...
Are you joking?
I'm glad you said that. I found the story most complex. I know it was very popular and it got very highly rated by the DWAS, but I remember holidaying in the South of France with a friend, and I took the script and passed it over to her and said, “do you understand this?” and she said, “no.” So I thought, “well, I'll just play it,” and of course, people now ask me lots of questions I can't answer, and the question they keep asking is how can the Brig have retired in 1977, when the UNIT stories were supposed to have been set during the 1980s, but you know what I'm talking about.
Yes, I do.
And I say, “Don't ask me. I just read the lines!”
Again, like “Inferno,” you had two parts to play.
Yes, two roles as the same person, although it was a bit harder this time round as the differences between the two Brigadiers was much subtler.
Did you ever foresee that the Brigadier would end up teaching A Level maths?
No. Certainly not.
How are you at maths?
Well, I'll tell you that at my school in Egypt I had a report from the Headmaster once that said, “I defy anyone to drive mathematics into Nicholas' head,” so the idea of me teaching A Level maths is pretty daft, history is my subject, but there you are, and it made a nice gag for Peter Davison to raise his eyebrow when he heard I was teaching maths.
The latest story you've appeared in is “The Five Doctors,” where you got to meet up with all your old colleagues again. I bet the atmosphere was...
Wonderful,yes. It was indeed. During rehearsals all these people from over the years were pouring in, and the poor director, Peter Moffat, had a terrible time getting any work done because there was so much chatter going on. So much so that I went up to Dinah Sheridan and sort of apologised on everyone's behalf. Many of us hadn't seen one another for so long it was like a huge reunion.
Did you see the story when it went out?
I saw it in America, as it was shown out there first, which I think the British fans got very annoyed about, and I don't blame them, but there was this big convention in Chicago and a lot of us were invited, and we saw it on the actual day of Doctor Who's 20th anniversary.
What did you think of it?
Oh, I like “The Five Doctors,” I think it's good. It's very well directed by Peter Moffat. I think he's a super director, and and I thought the Raston Warrior Robot was very impressive.
Yes. Poor old Cybermen...
And who thought we'd be saying, “poor old Cybermen,” the nasty things, but that Raston Robot was really something.
I've heard rumours that you were meant to appear in the aborted season 23. Were you ever contacted about that?
No, I wasn't, and yet I've heard all these rumours so often. I recall John Nathan-Turner being asked at a convention if the Brig was going to meet up with the sixth Doctor, and John had replied that he wanted to keep up Nick's record of appearing with all the Doctors. Well, as you say, the season was aborted, so I'll never appear with Colin, although I know him very well, of course, and we've gone to conventions together. But yes, I heard these rumours all the time, but I think these rumours may derive from the fact that I'm seen frequently in the company of John Nathan-Turner, as we are very good friends, and we meet fairly regularly. Usually in a public house.
Last year was a very bad time for Doctor Who. The show was cut to 14 episodes, Colin Baker sacked, and also the deaths of Robert Holmes and Ian Marter.
That was terrible, and, as you probably know, Ian was my best friend. It's funny about Ian in that I only really got to know him in 1983, when we started going to these American conventions, and then I got to know him very, very well, and we saw a lot of each other. It was a terrible shock when he died. His widow rang me, and I was the first person she called. I miss him a hell of a lot. He had, as you know, suffered from diabetes, but it wasn't that. It was his heart, I think it just gave out. It was very, very sudden. In fact I'd been with him, writing, three days before he died.
When writing his novelisation of “The Invasion” he put in a reference to you...
Yes, that's right. The Russian airport, Nikortny.
Ian Marter also wrote a book called Harry Sullivan's War. Any chance of you writing a book based on the Brigadier?
I think so, and I'd like to start writing it this year.
Do you have a title in mind?
I do, actually. Whatever Happened to the Brigadier?
Nick Courtney. Thank you.
This interview has previously appeared in Celestial Toyroom Issue 400.