An Adventure in Space and Time: Brian Cox on meeting Doctor Who's creator and kissing Helen Mirren

In an on-set exclusive, the Hollywood star tells RT's Patrick Mulkern about BBC legend Sydney Newman and the fun-filled heyday of TV Centre

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An Adventure in Space and Time: Brian Cox on meeting Doctor Who's creator and kissing Helen Mirren
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

It’s 12 February 2013, and Brian Cox is extremely busy. He’s required in every scene today but kindly agrees to chat to RT between takes.

The burly Hollywood star has had his hair dyed and grown a moustache especially for the role of Sydney Newman, the BBC head of drama who created Doctor Who in 1963. The film crew is based on the very drafty seventh floor of BBC Television Centre – a curved space they’ve partitioned and retro-ed to look like Newman’s office in the 1960s.

Cox has just filmed a scene where Newman discusses with two BBC producers, Rex Tucker and Mervyn Pinfield, how he’d like to fill the gap in the Saturday-night schedule between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury with a new sci-fi series that’s “Fun, FUN. You heard of fun?” In another scene, Newman offers the Doctor Who producer’s job to his youthful protégée, Verity Lambert.

Brian Cox is a formidable presence, with a massively impressive background in theatre, film and TV. I ease into the interview by mentioning his then-current BBC4 sitcom, filmed in his home city, Dundee…

I’ve just been catching up on Bob Servant Independent.

It’s good, isn’t it? Very sweet, charming and unusual. It’s written by this very good writer, Neil Forsyth – a genuinely original comic voice. There hasn’t been somebody like him for a long time. It was a joy to do.

Think you might do another series?

I hope so. If it went again, I would certainly consider doing another series because I actually believe in it. I come from that part of the world. It’s humour that’s not been seen anywhere else. It’s not Glaswegian. It’s not dreeky. It’s about light. It’s about air. Eternal optimism.

So you actually met Sydney Newman.

Very, very briefly. It was the first television I ever did [The Wednesday Play: A Knight in Tarnished Armour] in this very building. It was in 1965 and he was the head of drama then. I met him in the BBC Club. It was the first time I went in there and we just said hello.

Did he look much as you look now?

He was very different from the other people around. In 63 when Doctor Who started, everybody was still very much in BBC suits and waistcoats, pipe-smoking. He had this aspect particular to him that made him brash, kind of mogul-like. He had this Canadian Jewish accent. He’d say, ‘How are you, kid? Are you OK? Enjoying yourself. That’s good, GOOD.’ It was not what you were expecting.

So in your extensive career, you’ve played lots of Americans but is this the first Canadian?

I’m trying to think. Is it my first Canadian? I think maybe it is my first. Not that he had a particularly noticeable Canadian accent. He was more American really. Except later on he got quite British.

You have fond memories of working at TV Centre in the 60s? You did The Year of the Sex Olympics here in 1968, another sensational sci-fi in its day.

Yeah, I did Sex Olympics here. That was in colour. In fact they lost the colour print. It’s now only in black and white. I remember Robert Kennedy was assassinated during the rehearsals of it.  I did When We Dead Awaken [1970] here. I worked with with Helen Mirren in The Changeling [1974]. We kissed. I haven’t kissed her since 74 in the changing room in the red assembly down there [smiling fondly]. In the late 70s I did a series The Devil’s Crown [1978] all in the studio here. Very ahead of its time. It was about Henry II and the Plantagenet family and I played Henry II.

What’s it like coming back here now?

I don’t quite know what’s going to happen to the building. This place has got so many memories. In the 60s, you know, there were a lot of very attractive women in the make-up department and they always had a Christmas party and one of the things to do was get invited to the party – for obvious reasons that I won’t go into… It was quite a place. It’s very strange to be here now. Yesterday I was very sad actually when I came back. It was the first time in a while.

I think that’s the general feeling. I came here a lot in the 80s and remember such a hubbub.

The club! I remember being carried out of there at two in the morning on many occasions. I hope they don’t pull it down. The 60s isn’t one of our great architectural periods but this is the best example of it. And this whole thing of how you kept going round and getting lost – but I kind of knew my way around because there was red assembly, green assembly and blue, and there were studios in each place and I worked in quite a lot of them. I did another thing called Doomwatch here.

You live in the States now.

I live in Brooklyn. Downtown. If you drew a line between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, you’d go through my house. I live in the tallest building in Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn is steadily becoming a great place to live. We keep toying with the idea of coming back but my boys are American and it would be hard to bring them here now.

Do you miss anything about the UK?

I miss everything about the UK. Except the politics. It’s the same Etonians running the country as when I was a kid.

Channelling a bit of Bob Servant now?

[laughs] Yes I am channelling a bit of Bob Servant. I miss the laughs, the history, the personal history. I started in this business when I was 15 in 1961. And I did my first television in 1965. A long time ago. I do miss that and this is all coming rushing back to me being here. It’s full of incredible memories. As I get older I miss it more.

I heard you were supposed to be on leave when this part came up.

I read the script and I loved it. It was so nostalgic and it was a period I feel… I mean I was never in Doctor Who but I know what it was like making television with those big cumbersome cameras. And those great camera crews. Five big crews. These guys did wonders. It’s a whole art form, which has gone, of big video production.

Did you ever work with Verity?

Yes, she produced Out, a gangster series with Tom Bell [1978]. One of the best there is. And my second television was at ABC called Red Cap with John Thaw. Sydney was amazing. I saw Armchair Theatre. He gave Harold Pinter his first break in television.

Did you follow the early Doctor Whos?

No I was already a working actor. I saw it occasionally. But my elder son who’s 42, he was a fan of Tom Baker when he was a boy. I did see a lot of Jon Pertwee, but never much of Patrick Troughton and apart from the initial William Hartnell not very much of that. It was about ten years before I watched much.

You’re enjoying re-creating the past. I read somewhere you love the movies of the 50s. If you could choose a movie you could have acted in, which would you plump for?

It would probably have to be On the Waterfront. I knew [one of its stars] Eva Marie Saint. I had a weird sensation when I was doing a lecture on Othello at the UCLA in the 80s and she was in my class as a mature student, probably about 50. I stopped and lost it.

Sure you weren’t hallucinating.

No she was there. We became friends as a result. I apologised to the class. She’s a heroine of mine.

But lots of young actors must look up to you – who are your icons?

[Spencer] Tracy and Brando, in his less narcissistic period.

Did he ever have one? Did you ever work with him?

No. Nor Tracy. He was dead when I was only a few years into the profession.

Have you got any more big scenes to film?

I did the one yesterday where I have to fire Bill Hartnell, which was lovely, a beautiful scene. David [Bradley] was wonderful in it. Nice working with David. We last acted together 20 years ago when I did Lear and he played the Fool so it’s kind of a reunion and Jeff Rawle [playing Mervyn Pinfield] was a student of mine when I taught at Lamda. He was in the first group I ever taught. So it’s kind of weird.

*

And there we must leave Brian Cox – a man who’s led a fascinating life and clearly has at least one book in him. It’s a shame that with that name, and after such a long career, he’ll forever have to be dissociated from the wide-eyed TV professor!

I’m looking forward to watching his scenes in the drama – and seeing if I can spot the moment after he accidentally grazed his knuckles on Sydney Newman’s stiff office door. Look out for patches of blood…

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