Interview: Nicholas Courtney

The Brigadier is one of Doctor Who's most fondly remembered characters. Patrick Mulkern caught up with actor Nicholas Courtney near his home in north London in 2008.

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Interview: Nicholas Courtney
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Patrick Mulkern

How does it feel as an actor to be so strongly associated with one character for 40 years?
Incredible, isn’t it? The Brig’s a great character and he’s still going strong. When I look back on my career, I think I might have done more classical work, but I jolly well don’t mind. A friend who’s done a lot of that said, “Yes but look, you’re rich.” Which is kind of true. I’ve done OK because of all the royalties from sales of Doctor Who abroad. They’ve helped my pension enormously. Thanks to the DVDs and Big Finish (who do audio versions), the Brig’s still alive. Whether he’s kicking or not, I don’t know.
 
How did you see the Doctor and the Brigadier’s relationship?
A terrific rapport. They respected each other, despite disagreeing on solutions to problems. The Doctor’s humane, interested in all forms of life, whereas the Brig has a job to do – making sure people don’t get killed. So of course he favours the military solution. But the Brig is always on the side of the angels.  
 
I liked the way the Brigadier trusted the Doctor, even some of his wilder claims.
He knew the Doctor was a good man and someone to be trusted. I’ve worked with eight Doctors one way or another. The first time the Brig saw one change to another he was nonplussed, but after a while he got used to it. At least that’s how I played it. And with Jon Pertwee, I developed the Brig’s incredulity. Like when he first goes inside the Tardis and says, “So this is what you’ve been spending all Unit’s funds on.” Horrified!
  
And you go right back to Bill Hartnell’s Doctor in 1965 when you played a space agent.
Yes, The Daleks’ Master Plan. I was Bret Vyon who was killed off after four episodes. Yes, Bill approved of me because he thought I was very English and posh. He was quite nationalist-minded, a bit intolerant of other races, I think. And he advised me to change my agent to his – then I didn’t work for a whole year! That story was directed by Douglas Camfield who was really responsible for the Brigadier coming to the fore. When Unit came into Doctor Who, he said, “You’re made for this part.” Extraordinary! When I was doing my National Service, I was only a private, not even made lance corporal. I had no ambitions to be a serious soldier. But it gave me a chance to observe officers when I was on parade. And my father was one too.   
 
So in 1968 you came in as Colonel Lethbridge Stewart.
I was down to play Captain Knight who was killed by the Yeti [in The Web of Fear], but at the last moment David Langton who’d been cast as the Colonel couldn’t do it, so Douglas asked my agent if I’d mind playing the part. I said, “No, of course, it’s promotion!” The money was the same: it’s the BBC. Had David Langton played that part, the whole of my life since would’ve been a very different story.

Sorry, this is an obscure point, but looking back now it strikes me as strange that viewers never actually saw the Doctor and Lethbridge Stewart’s first meeting. In The Web of Fear, when we first see you, you’ve already met up a few moments before in a Tube tunnel.
Do you know, that never struck me before. I’d have thought Douglas – a stickler for those things – would have sorted that, but then maybe it was done to sow the seeds of doubt. Everyone was very suspicious of the Colonel –whether he was in league with the Yeti.

Can you remember when it was made clear the Brig was coming back as a regular?
Pat Troughton was leaving and Jon Pertwee was coming in, exiled to earth by the Time Lords for “misbehaving in time” and Douglas and producer Peter Bryant liked the idea of the Colonel, or Brigadier as he soon became, so they asked me to become a regular for a couple of years. Head of Unit. I was over the moon. A bit of security when my first daughter was born.
 
Now I know you’re always being asked the banal question: who was your favourite Doctor? And you won’t be drawn on that, but which actor did you form the strongest bond with? Who was the most fun to work with?
Pat Troughton I found a delightful man. Very easy to get along with. When Jon joined, he took a while to find how he was going play his Doctor. We were sussing each other out for a long time but when we did Inferno [1970] I said to myself, “I’ve got to get Jon to trust me.” I worked very hard at that and once he did, it was absolutely fine. So I suppose I knew Jon better than any of the other Doctors because I worked with him longest. I knew how to help him, what things fazed him. I was a good foil for him.
 
And the Brig came back in the 80s, during Peter Davison’s time, as a teacher (in Mawdryn Undead).
A lot of ex-Army men go into teaching. And the Brig was teaching mathematics, which the Doctor finds extraordinary. I had a line: “I know how many beans make five.”
 
It’s lovely you still remember so much of your dialogue.
Well, when I was established, they used to let me write the odd funny line, delivered seriously of course. In The Three Doctors, when Unit HQ ended up on a sandy alien planet, I said, “No, I’m pretty sure that’s Cromer.” “Chap with wings, five rounds rapid” wasn’t one of mine, sadly.
 
Tom Baker has often said he loves being adored. What’s it like getting waves of adulation from the fans?
Oh, it’s very pleasant, I must say. I don’t know about “adored” but I love it. When I was doing Doctor Who in the 70s, I never dreamed all this would happen. Then we started going to conventions in the 80s, flying to America where everyone went potty. In 1985 I went across 13 times.
 
Do you stay in touch with any of your fellow actors from your Who days?
I do. I’m in touch with Tom and I see [writer] Terrance Dicks and [producer] Barry Letts, generally at conventions. My sergeant [Benton] John Levene lives in Hollywood. Dear John; he’s gone very American. Always on the cusp of doing a deal.   

Does your part in the programme seem a helluva long time ago or just like yesterday?
Mmm. I do lots of DVD commentaries and it all comes flooding back in a rush.

This part of north London seems a popular area for actors to live in.
Yes, it is. And I’ve lived around here since the 60s. You know, apparently David Tennant says on the commentary for The Five Doctors DVD, “Ah, Nick Courtney. I believe he lives near me. I often see him in Woolworth’s.” Well, he doesn’t see me in Woolworth’s, as I don’t go in there. Ha-ha. Maybe once, but I’ve never seen him out shopping.
 
Have you seen any of the series since it’s come back? Are you enjoying it?
Yes, though I haven’t watched all of them. The technology’s wonderful – they’ve a damn sight bigger budget than we had – and there are some good performances, too. Great ideas. But I think where it loses out is in doing a whole story in 45 minutes. It appears too rushed and has what I call the “restless camera”.
 
They’re doing three two-part stories this year.
Ah. That’s better. But you see, it’s evolved. It’s a series that can always evolve.
 
Long-term fans would love to see the Brig back in the show. Would you be up for it? 
The answer is I don’t know. I don’t know because I don’t know Russell T at all. Never met him. Put it this way: he probably would have approached me by now if it were on the cards. If the script were right, I’d love to do one story. It’d be great fun. And they’ve brought back Sarah – of course, Lis Sladen is still very pretty. And the Master.

So where is the Brig now in your own mind? What’s he doing?
In limbo. Ha-ha. Having written his memoirs – leaving out the classified information – he’s probably tending his garden and waiting for the call to arms from the Doctor. Which may never come. I have an idea for a story where he’s been given a peerage. Lord Lethbridge Stewart. He makes a speech in the House of Lords that the government doesn’t like very much, and there’s an attempt on his life. I want a story where they kill me off.

[Nicholas Courtney would never return to Doctor Who, but did guest-star in The Sarah Jane Adventures, some months after our interview, in December 2008. He died in February 2011, aged 81. The Doctor learnt of the elderly Brigadier's death in a nursing home in The Wedding of River Song, October 2011]

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