Sylvester McCoy: 'Doctor Who fans wouldn't let the show die'
As the Doctor Who legend turns 80, he chats to RadioTimes.com about his life, his career and the joys of being the Doctor.
"I'm astonished, really. Confused," Sylvester McCoy admits as he approaches his 80th birthday. "Because I don't feel 80 inside. This year, I woke up one morning and I was in some old person's body and I thought, 'What am I doing inside this old body?' I'm also kind of amazed and delighted to have got this far. And I’ve no idea where the time went."
McCoy has certainly been busy over the years. From his comedy roots to treading the boards to taking more than a few trips in the TARDIS as the seventh incarnation of the Time Lord in Doctor Who, he's done just about everything and has no intentions of retiring - not that he ever could have predicted that in his younger years.
Chatting to RadioTimes.com at his North London home, which is filled to the brim with mementoes from his illustrious career, he explains: "I became an actor by accident - someone mistook me for an actor and offered me a job and I took it because I always had this philosophy of saying yes.
"I ended up in a thing called The Ken Campbell Roadshow and we created a show called An Evening With Sylvester McCoy, the Human Bomb, which I was a stuntman [in].
"I used to have bricks broken on my chest, I used to bang nails up my nose, escape from mail bags and chains. I'd set light to my head, blow fire, explode a bomb in my chest, try to break the world record for having ferrets down my trousers. It was a common everyday thing - no, it wasn't!
"I was a little stuntman in this mad comic show written by the genius of Ken Campbell and it became very successful all over Europe, and it kind of started me off in my career."
Continuing with a career on stage, it was a role in The Pied Piper that caught the attention of the higher ups at the BBC, particularly Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner. McCoy remembers: "For years, people used to say to me, 'You could be Doctor Who.' I think part of the reason was I used to wear a scarf all the time…
"When Peter Davison was leaving before Colin [Baker] came in, I got in touch with my agent and said, 'Peter Davison’s leaving, shall we try and see [about] the Doctor?' They’d already cast Colin so I’d given up.
"And then, two years later, Colin was leaving, so again I got in touch with my agent and said, 'Have another go.' So my agent phoned John Nathan Turner and said, 'I think you should see Sylvester McCoy.' And John said, 'Who?'"
He recalls: "John Nathan Turner came along to see [The Pied Piper] and went back afterwards, I learned many years later, and said, 'I've found my new Doctor.'
"Of course, I was handed this part. I was quite ignorant of it because I'd been working in the theatre for years. So I hadn't seen it, I had a distant memory of it. Patrick Troughton was my Doctor but it was a long, long time ago, and so I had no idea really what role I had been handed, and then discovered I'd been handed one of the great television acting roles where you could do anything with it. The canvas was enormous, and you could do all sorts of things. And so that was a blessing."
But McCoy's first days on Doctor Who were anything but smooth. Following his replacement, Sixth Doctor actor Colin Baker refused to return for the famous regeneration scene that marked the beginning of McCoy's era (a decision he's since admitted he regrets), with McCoy having no choice but to whack on a wig and make the best of it.
"Yes, you noticed did you?" he jokes. "[I'm] surprised, because they dressed me up. They put me in Colin’s costume. And they put a wig on me and I looked like Harpo Marx."
Naturally, he's quick to point out the bright side, though: "I'm an actor who’s played two Doctors! I was the only one - but there's another one come along, damn him! David! David [Tennant] is now playing Doctor number Ten and and Fourteen. I was Six and Seven - I got there first!"
Harpo Marx wigs aside, McCoy quickly found his feet on Doctor Who and still raves about the cast he got to star alongside, including his "old mate" Bonnie Langford as companion Mel, Kate O'Mara (who he was "in awe" of) as The Rani, the great Anthony Ainley as The Master, and the fabulous Wanda Ventham, who once decided to bring her son to set - a 15-year-old Benedict Cumberbatch.
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But he was still grappling with what he wanted to do with his Doctor.
"As I am a comedic actor, I arrived with my bag of tricks. That’s what I brought to it originally. It was then that I started to realise that this was an amazing part, you could do anything with it. I also thought that there was too much known about the Doctor. The mystery had gone and I wanted to bring that back. I wanted to bring back the mystery.
"As luck would have it, the script editor, Andrew Cartmel, he was Canadian and he didn’t know much about Doctor Who either. So both of us didn’t know much about it and I think that was a blessing for us, in a way. We didn’t have all that baggage, we weren’t constrained. It was [initially] more cartoon-like in a sense; brilliantly, beautifully, wonderfully, entertainingly. But we took it into something with more depth.
"Steven Moffat - I was dining with him once and at the beginning of it, he arrived as a producer and as the evening progressed, he turned into a fanboy. And then he told me something I hadn’t realised we were doing, we just did it because we were ignorant. We’d given it a depth and more three-dimensional path, which then eventually got carried on into Christopher Eccleston and the rest of them, which delighted me. I had no idea we’d done that. We just did our interpretation of the Doctor - and he got darker."
He adds: "At the same time, my grandmother got to be 100, that was way back in the '80s and that wasn’t very common. I went to see her and I realised my Doctor was 970 years old, he was old...
"[My grandmother] was fed up, she’d been born in the Crimean War, all the wars she’d seen - and, of course, all the wars the Doctor’s seen. She’d lived and she’d lost people - and all the people the Doctor had lost. That came to me as well. She’d lost people she’d loved dearly and she’d outlived friends and she’d become kind of lonely. I thought, 'I’ve got to bring that to the Doctor.'
"I wanted to bring back the mystery, the longevity, the seriousness and also the sadness as well as keeping the comedy," he sums up.
In 1987, the Doctor's adventures with Mel came to an end and McCoy fought for his friend to have a proper goodbye on the show.
"A little sad bit was when Bonnie left," McCoy recalls. "When they said Bonnie was going to leave, it was just lucky for Sophie [Aldred] because it was in that episode and for some reason [Bonnie] decided she couldn’t take it anymore; you'll have to ask Bonnie.
"She decided to leave. And they were going, 'That was it.' And I said, 'No you can’t let her leave without a scene! We need a scene!' I was the Doctor... She was Colin’s companion, she’s been with me, he and I are the same. You can’t just say goodbye and close the door.
"They went and found a scene that I’d done a screen test for and they took that scene and they wrote it up to do. I remember that being an emotional moment and I was so pleased I argued to get that in, so that I could say goodbye."
The journey continued on a high with the introduction of Sophie Aldred as Ace ("We just hit it off like that - she had the same philosophy, the same politics, the same kind of sense of humour") but, as the end the decade rolled round, things changed. Doctor Who was put on hiatus ("a horrible word!") and it later became clear that the show had been cancelled.
"That was really disappointing because it had gone through a dip. The powers that be in the offices above had fallen out of love with it.
"There were lots of reasons, but one of the reasons was, at the BBC, you make your name becoming a producer of something new. Doctor Who had been on the air coming up to 30 years and Verity Lambert had made her name, but no one else had made their name in a slot like that - so one of the things they wanted to do was get rid of it so they could bring in their own new thing and make their name."
Heartbreakingly enough, before the cancellation, the BBC had persuaded McCoy to agree to a fourth season.
"When I first got it, Peter Davison said to me that Patrick Troughton had said to him: 'Only do three years.' Now Patrick Troughton was my Doctor, a far, far distant memory. But that stuck with me. So I was booked for three years.
"But then, when I got to the second year, John Nathan Turner came to me and said, 'We want you to carry on and do a fourth season,' because they liked what I was doing. And I said, 'Well…' and they said, 'If you don’t do a fourth season, we won’t do a third.' And I went, 'Oh alright, I’ll do a fourth season!' So they twisted my arm, in a sense, to do a fourth season.
"The plans were afoot [for a fourth season]. We were going to carry on with the mystery, drop hints that the Doctor was more than just the Doctor, a more powerful kind of being - not a being, really, an alien, whatever he is! That was the kind of idea. We never achieved that because of what happened."
But, for McCoy, much of the magic came later - when Doctor Who fans simply refused to let the show disappear into the ether. Big Finish began releasing audio plays and, in 1996, Paul McGann appeared as the Eighth Doctor in the TV film.
Doctor Who was back and McCoy was delighted, giving a resounding yes when asked to return for the regeneration scene, partly because of his own experience (lest we forget the wig).
"Because I had to take over Colin’s role - and played it magnificently - and then turn into me, I remember at the time thinking, 'No matter what happens, I will turn up for that changeover.' I’d sworn to myself I would do that.
"I was also delighted to be asked to do it, to bring it back. Because by then I knew we were already making Big Finish - Doctor Who hadn’t died. We were doing audio plays with really good actors and great writers.
"We all knew Doctor Who couldn’t die because the fans wouldn’t let it. In fact, the fans brought it back - Russell T Davies was a fan! I was speaking to him the other day and he told me he was 16 or 17 and he was a huge fan and he was heartbroken [by the cancellation]. So the fans, what they did, was decided to sneak their way into the BBC and bring it back."
Bring it back they did. The show celebrated its 30th and 40th anniversaries before returning to screens in 2006. It went on to turn 50 in an extravaganza that brought David Tennant's Tenth Doctor and Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor face-to-face.
While McCoy and his classic Doctor pals had hoped for an appearance, they took on their own beloved project - the Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
Now, with the 60th anniversary around the corner, Doctor Who is stronger than ever. It's no secret that McCoy was "delighted" by Ncuti Gatwa's casting, recalling that he immediately boasted to McGann about the Scottish Doctors overtaking the Liverpudlians.
As for his biggest hopes for the show's future? "Well, that it carries on as it has been doing in the last few years, with imagination."
He adds: "I want to also spread the message of the Doctor’s love for humanity. He loves humanity and that’s very important that that goes on because humanity, especially at the moment, needs all the love it can get."
"Who would have thought?" he says of how far the show has come. "Here’s to the next 60 years."
Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Episodes of the classic series can be streamed on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.
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