1990 Interview - The Mark of Turlough
The Mark of Turlough
An interview with Mark Strickson
By Paul Scoones & Jon Preddle
This interview is a compilation of excerpts from a speech and an interview given 13 May 1990 at Conflagration, an Auckland science fiction convention at which Mark Strickson was a guest of honour. The interview was conducted by Paul Scoones and Jon Preddle, and the recording was made by Chris Mander.
Excerpts from this interview were subsequently printed in Doctor Who Magazine issue 227 (July 1995) with permission.
Getting the Part
I got the job on Doctor Who when I was working on a hospital series called Angels, where I played an ambulance man called Terry. There was a guy working on it called Gary Downie who was a great friend of JNT's, and they wanted to bring in this character (on Doctor Who) called Turlough. The guy who was playing the lead in Angels fell ill, and they offered me the lead, but they didn't consult me in any way, shape or form. They just wrote me in as the lead which I had no desire to play at all. It wasn't a very good programme.
So I rang my agent and asked what else I was up for, and she said "Well, you're up for a part in Doctor Who but I don't think you're going to get it. They're seeing about eighty other people." I asked who it was I had to see and when, and she told me it was JNT in two days time. But that was too late, as I'd found out that a party was being thrown for me the next day. So I went and knocked on John (Nathan-Turner)'s door and said, "Hello, I don't know if you've got some time to spare but I'm Mark Strickson. You' re supposed to be seeing me tomorrow for the part of Turlough." I told him about being offered the part of this lead in Angels. He said "Okay Mark, read!" So I read for him, and he went and got Eric Saward and I read for Eric, and John said, "We're very interested in you Mark. I'll give you a ring in an hour. Go home."
I went to a telephone in Shepherd's Bush and I rang my agent and said, "I think I might have got the job. I can't tell you why." I went home and JNT said, "I'd like you to do it"; and continued to see people for the part for the next two weeks! This is not as stupid as it sounds because it gives you a chance to see other actors, and a lot of people who auditioned for Turlough were then employed on the show in other parts.
So I got the part of Turlough, and John says, "Well we've actually got a problem. On long shot you look too much like Peter (Davison)," because we both have got blond hair. John says, "I have an idea Mark, we'd like to have all your hair cut off." I didn't really fancy that. You can imagine Peter standing there next to a condom! So I thought how do you get out of it? When you mention money to the BBC you can get out of most things, so I said, "Fine. I don't mind at all. You put in my contract that I have six months loss of earnings until I my hair grows back because I can't work if I look like a condom." So they decided that they wouldn't cut all my hair off, and JNT said. "I've had another idea, Mark. We can use a washout dye, it's going to make your hair a metallic red." So that seemed fine so I agreed to it. But this washout dye didn't wash out, and I lived with a red pillowcase for the next two years of my life. The other unfortunate thing about it was that I got recognised very easily in the street. I'mnot terribly frightening, I don't think, but when I first started onDoctor Who, I'd go into the supermarket, and little children would run away screaming!
Me and my wife lived at the time on a boat on the Grand Union Canal, and I remember Janet Fielding (Tegan) coming to pick me up and she said, "You live on that thing?!" I think she envisaged this big yacht! My wife would know when I was coming home because I would cycle back to the boat across these playing fields, and all the children would shout, "There goes Turlough! Hello Turlough!" My hair made me look like an ageing punk. I should have dressed in leather!
I did get a lot of say about my costume. I felt that possibly Turlough would provide complications. Once you had the Doctor and the villain and the girl assistant, and she was always changing her clothes, you were getting a situation where you were having a lot of characters for people to pick up on very quickly, particularly if they missed an episode. So I felt that Turlough shouldn't change his costume, so that he was instantly recognisable like the Doctor. So as they'd written the script where I was brought in as a schoolboy, I had to work from that, and I went out with the costume lady and we got this costume together. We went back to John's office and John says. "My god, Mark, you look like a funeral director." I said, "That's the idea. There are all these colourful people in Doctor Who like Janet, who wears every colour under the sun, and I thought it would be different." So the suit worked in that sense.
But I changed my costume for the last story. Actually, we had a lot of letters saying why do we see girl assistants' legs and when are we girls going to see some legs? So John kept saying to me, "Mark, I've got an idea for you, how about shorts?" And I said to John, "No!" So John' went away, he's a devious bugger, and he decided to put the last story somewhere where it looked really hot and they deliberately wrote that scene where I was in swimming things, so I had no option. I hope my legs weren't too much of a disappointment!
The Companions novel, Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, was something else I had some input in. When you see the description of Turlough at the beginning, it's actually a description of what I was wearing at the time that I first met Tony Attwood (the author), at a convention in Swindon in England. I was wearing some scruffy green faded jeans and a tee-shirt, and his description of me is actually far more like I am than I was playing Turlough.
The problem with Doctor Who is that it isn't real acting. It does get very boring actually, because by necessity it is two-dimensional acting. You can't have a depth of character because it's a comic strip. You think, why can't Turlough and Tegan, or Turlough and Nyssa have a relationship of some kind? Indeed, why can't Turlough have a proper relationship with the Doctor? Why can't they talk? Why can't they sit down in the TARDIS to talk about what they're going to eat that day. I think in a sense it would be an improvement to Doctor Who if you saw a bit of their domestic life on the TARDIS. It might be a bit less action, more humour, and a bit more personal human interest.
As an actor I try to put relationships and love interest in because even if they're not written, I think it makes more sense. Both Janet (Fielding) and I, without it being written, tried to make a lot of eye-contact, to be physically close, although there was one scene in Sarah (Sutton)'s final story Terminus, where you did actually see that. The writer did pick up on that. I was trying to have a relationship with most of the women onDoctor Who only because it makes it more interesting.
John Nathan-Turner and Doctor Who
I think it's absolute nonsense that the fans have been slagging off JNT. Without JNT, Doctor Who wouldn't be made. The reason why JNT got the job was that he said "I can make it for less money than any other television programme." and the BBC said "Well, if you can make it for that, John, have a go." And he was given a trial of making a season on that budget because that was all they were prepared to give. And John made it, and made it well, and certainly it would have been axed by Michael Grade if John hadn't got on so well with him, or if it hadn't got the sales to America it got, and that was mostly due to John going around America sellingDoctor Who personally. So you have JNT to thank for the fact thatDoctor Who is being made still. Without him it would have collapsed very soon after I joined the programme. So whether or not you like John, if you like Doctor Who then you have got to thank him. John is a great friend of mine. I don't necessarily agree with him about everything. I think that a lot of the humour was lost in Doctor Who when I was in it, which I think doesn't work. Then they tried to bring in humour in the wrong way by bringing people like Ken Dodd into it. Doctor Whoworks best as a straight, zany, eccentric, English programme.
Doctor Who is like a cartoon. When American science fiction fans watch it, they roar with laughter. I suppose it is a comedy. If you try to look logically at Doctor Who you have to look very hard. In a sense it is a cartoon because life isn't about green slimy monsters chasing actors down corridors - at least I hope it isn't!
The TARDIS Console
On Doctor Who you can actually make up the lines as you go along, and can do terribly naughty things as well. For instance with the TARDIS console, nothing works on it, so you can completely ruin someone else's performance should you so desire. So if someone is doing a scene, and you're a bit annoyed at them because they didn't buy you a drink at lunchtime, you wander over to the console and make sure you're in shot, and you start pressing buttons. And when you watch it, you see an actor doing his scene, and in the background you have "beep-beep-borp-doodle-beep." They lay sound over because you're touching the console, and it has to be seen to be functioning. I used to do that very often - watch out for it - spot the actor that Mark hasn't got on with!
When I was doing Doctor Who, we were working very, very hard, a six-day week. You go in at ten o'clock on a Monday morning, and you work four days in a big room in North Acton in London. You rehearse for three hours, then you break for lunch, then you come back - and you do that for four days. On the afternoon of the fourth day, JNT comes along and tells you you're no good or you're good, and then you're in the studio. In fact, the studio on Doctor Who is frantic. If you don't get it done by ten o'clock at night, they turn the lights off, which gets the old adrenaline going. There is literally a man at the BBC who turns off all the electricity, so if you haven't got your programme made by ten o'clock, they stop and that's it.
In Warriors of the Deep we were doing well, everything was on schedule, and then they suddenly realised that they didn't have any shots of Sea Devils being killed. We had all this stuff of people shooting at these Sea Devils, but no shots of any Sea Devils dying. We had six minutes left in the studio, so Ian Fraser, who was the production manager, got the people playing the Sea Devils and he said "Right now you, die, die, die! Get up, get up! Die, die, die! Get up, get up you bastards! Die, die, die!" and this went on for the last five minutes of shooting, all these shots of Sea Devils dying.
Things happen that are worse than that. In my last story, there's a scene where I'm in a burnt-out ship and I put a card in, and I speak to my mentors on my planet. This scene lasts about a minute and a half in the script and there was about forty-six seconds of studio left to get it in. So we started this scene and Fiona (Cumming, the director) says " I don't care what you do, but get the plot in." We just went for it - and I got the plot in.
Most Promising Spitter
You get given these scenes which can be very difficult to do. For example, the script reads: Turlough writhes on the floor, foaming at the mouth screaming " Tractators! Tractators!"' I did that until they told me to stop! I remember JNT's voice coming out over the speakers in the studio - "Lovely, Mark. That's really good. If you could just give us another one because you spat all over the camera!" I was the Most Promising Spitter of 1983!
Location Filming: The Awakening
Extraordinary things can happen to you while filming. We were doing two episodes called The Awakening in a little village in Wiltshire, and there was this scene in it where I was supposed to run around this corner and see two people on horseback, and they had to ride past me and l had to jump in the ditch. So I'm around this side of a wall, and I can see right in the distance the production manager, who's going to wave to me when I have to run around the corner and start the scene. I can't see anybody else, and I feel a tap on my shoulder and there's this old country yokel standing there beside me and he says "You that Mark Strickson chap off Doctor Who?", and I say "Yes, yes, I am. Would you mind, we're just about to do a scene. I'll talk to you later, okay?" and the yokel says, "My grandson looks like you, 'cept he's much more 'andsome. He's a better actor as well." Then he said, "He's a better gymnast as well. He's much fitter than you are." In the middle of Wiltshire, and here was this old guy telling me what a marvellous guy his grandson is! I couldn't believe it! These things do happen to you!
So many things go wrong on Doctor Who it isn't funny, you just have to do them again, but when something goes cataclysmically wrong you can but laugh. We had a scene in The Awakening where Janet was playing the May Queen and she was to draw up outside a lych gate, the gate which leads into a churchyard. The church we were filming at didn't have a lych gate, so one was built, a beautiful lych gate, fence either side and honey suckle all over it. The cart was supposed to come along accompanied by men on horseback. These men went through the lych gate when the cart stopped and Janet was to get off and walk through the gate into the church. We got the horses from a local riding stable, and horses at a riding stable have a leading horse, and the other horses just follow wherever that horse goes. Unfortunately the leading horse wasn't the one they attached to the cart, it was one of the ones that rode up and went under the lych gate. So the cart didn't stop - the horse pulling the cart followed the leading horse into the lych gate, completely demolishing it, breaking the axle, and nearly injuring Janet rather badly. That was the worst thing that ever happened on Doctor Who to us.
Explosions and Set Destruction
In Frontios there was this scene where Peter, Janet, and I are in this little cave and we had to come out and react to this explosion, which was to be done by a sort of cement mixer, with compressed air forced into it so that little chips of foam flew across the camera's sight so it looked like rock. So out we came and nothing happened. So we look puzzled and go back in to do it again. Then the floor manager says "On we go! Next scene." Peter says to the director, "Excuse me, but nothing happened, no explosion." And the reply comes back, "Don't worry, we'll lay something over later. Be fine. Off you go!" Any competent actor when there's an explosion does 'explosion acting' - we didn't do that, we assumed we would do it again and just stood there. But we didn't do it again, so you get this shot of this massive explosion and three actors just standing there. That used to happen all the time. You eventually learned that, come hell or high water, just keep acting until someone says stop.
Also in Frontios was Jeff Rawle, who was a mate of mine who played Plantagenet. I said to him, "Whatever happens, keep acting." He walked down these stairs, and as he did so, he put his foot through one. So we finished the scene and the usual cry goes out, "On we go!" Jeff said "Excuse me, but did anyone notice that I put my foot through the set in the last scene?" and someone said "Don't worry, we'll lay some loud music over it! On we go!" This, of course gives Doctor Who the quality that I feel it is renowned for - its freshness, its spontaneity!
Liza Goddard had this scene in Terminus where she put a big bit of plastic explosive on the side of a wall and there had to be an explosion, and they would break through this wall. BBC Special Effects can do one of two things - either nothing happens, or it goes bang, and you have to look horrified as half the set falls down - or what happened to Liza. There was a massive explosion! It was heard on the news going out live in the next studio - the news reader is sitting there and suddenly "Kaboom!" - a newsreader's nightmare - they thought the BBC was being bombed! So you've got this massive explosion, and Liza goes "What the fuck was that?!" If you watch that scene you'll see they had to lay a line on which resembles "What the fuck was that?!"
Also in that studio, Liza and Dominic Guard had these big dome-like fish bowl helmets, but the only problem with this was that they couldn't breathe. There were absolutely no air holes in them at all. So they gradually steamed up with condensation and so we had to do it in ten-second bits and wipe then down in the breaks.
The Myrka was in Warriors of the Deep. We go in (to the studio) and the Myrka is being hung from the top of the studio and it's dripping in green paint. They had only just finished building it. As luck would have it, the first scene we are doing, Janet is supposed to fight the Myrka. So Janet fights the Myrka and comes away from in with green paint all over her costume. So Janet goes off to her dressing room and we decide to do something else. There's a bit of a break and we decide to do this scene where the Myrka is supposed to be breaking into the base, and the idea is that it's coming towards us and we're all doing backing away acting, cringing in horror. This was fine in rehearsals; we had a great time. The two guys who were in the Myrka were in a programme called Rentaghost, and they played the horse. They were marvellous. They were a specialist duo who did animal things together! In this scene they were swaying and rearing up in rehearsal and the camera shots were planned, then we got into the studio and all the Myrka could do was raise one foot and drop it again. The costume was so heavy that if they did any more than that they'd just collapse. They just couldn't support it. So we had to do a shot of the Myrka's foot and then we had to go, "Get away! Get away!"
Another instance of this was the Tractators in Frontios. We had a group of eight male dancers who were wonderful, and we did all this rehearsal with them writhing about and doing boa constrictor things, crushing people - marvellous! We got into the studio and they had completely rigid costumes, and all these eight dancers could do was to wriggle their hands! The costumes were so big they couldn't walk through any door on the set, so we had to completely re-box the studio so we could get them through the door, and also they couldn't breathe. Every Tractator had to be assigned a follower with oxygen and a tube was stuck up the bottom of the Tractator and they had oxygen flooded in between takes!
When they do a Dalek story, the production manager gets on the phone and rings the Daleks. What that means is six little grey-haired men arrive, and they potter in like six gnomes, silent old people who have been playing the Daleks for twenty years. The Daleks are great to act with because they are the only monsters that function the same way in studio as in rehearsal. No other monsters can improvise on Doctor Who because you're worrying so much about the costume you're wearing and all the other technical problems, whereas all the guys in the Daleks have got to do is move them, and the guys who do the voices can improvise.
A nice example of this is in The Five Doctors I happened to be in the studio when the Dalek was supposed to be chasing the First Doctor and his assistant. The scene was plotted so the Dalek actually shot at them but was supposed to just miss, but the Dalek set off late and the guy went too fast. By the time he arrived the Doctor and his assistant were nowhere to be seen but he couldn't stop. He just ploughed into the wall and demolished the set! You could hear the Dalek go, "Damn - missed the buggers!"
The robot I had to work with was Kamelion - a disaster area. I think it had a budget of two thousand English pounds, which is not a lot of money to build something like that with. They want their money's worth, so they say they want this completely functioning, independent robot that walks and talks, and they want it for two thousand quid. Well you can't do that. It costs two hundred thousand pounds if you really want that. So what we got in rehearsals were bits of the robot. You got to a scene which Kamelion was in and there would be a couple of legs sitting there with nothing else, with a lot of tools lying around and we had to go and do something else as Kamelion wasn't ready. Getting Kamelion together wasn't easy in itself, but Kamelion was also actually supposed to speak whilst you acted with him. He actually had a tape inside him, which you had to act with. Imagine the problems with that; it could only say things at a certain time. The lines were put on a tape down at Special Effects and you could guarantee that if you had a long line you'd have two seconds to get it out, and if you had "yes" you were given twenty seconds. JNT wanted to keep Kamelion in, but we all ganged up on him.
Working with Nicola Bryant
In my last story, Planet of Fire, when we were in Lanzarote, I was supposed to swim out and save Nicola Bryant. You may have noticed they chose the only rocky beach in Lanzarote for me to carry her out on to. I swam out to Nicola, who was screaming for help, and it was a hell of a swim, about three hundred metres out, and at the same time, some people on another beach, just down the headland, heard these screams for help and they thought it was for real. It was a nudist beach so this large, bronzed, blue-eyed German took to his feet, equipment flapping, was seen to thunder along the rocks, lacerating the soles of his feet, dived into the water and came out to save Nicola. He couldn't speak any English and I couldn't speak any German and Nicola by this time was not capable of speaking anything. And so I was three hundred metres out in the sea signalling "filming, filming" to this German. That didn't do much for Anglo-German relations!
Nicola was supposed to be seen to plunge me under the water, and hold me under, and the theory was that I was to burst up again in a spume of foam bearing my manly torso and rescue her. Unfortunately Nicola was a bit nervous and held me under the water slightly too long. She's a strong girl, well built; she almost drowned me! As far as I can remember, JNT and I had a very heavy night on the booze the night before. I left Nicola where she was and managed to get back to the beach, where there was the local film crew for television in Lanzarote, and they were able to get a shot of me, famous actor Mark Strickson, vomiting all over the beach! I swallowed about two gallons of seawater. Lovely girl, Nicola Bryant. Shame I wasn't able to work with her longer.
I used to do stunts; I belonged to the Society of Fight Directors and I signed a contract to do my own stunts on Doctor Who - a very, very stupid thing to do. I wouldn't do it now. I stopped doing stunts after an incident whilst filming Enlightenment. I was to throw myself off this ship, and it's about a thirty-foot drop, and I'm seen to be floating around in space. This was achieved using Kirby wire, attached to a harness around my crotch. I checked the harness, did all the things I should have, threw myself off the ship - and it broke! On impact, half the harness broke and so I took the full impact on the inside of my right crotch. It would probably have been better if the whole harness broke. It was unbelievably painful! I did think some of my best days were over. I was rather worried! I couldn't walk for about two weeks afterwards, so you'd see me in some scenes completely static because I couldn't move. It was terrible.
The other thing that constantly injured me was that ruddy cube! I used to have this cube that would light up when I spoke to the Black Guardian, but the only way you could get to see that cube in studio was to have a car battery attached to it. The cube had a wire, which ran down my arm and leg, and you'll notice I always held the cube with both hands to hide the wire, and there was this little chap who wherever I went he had to run after me with this car battery. The only way I could communicate with him when I wanted the cube to come on was to shake my leg and the cube would light up, and when I wanted it to go off again, I'd shake my leg, but he was never anywhere where he could see my leg. I'd be there shaking away, acting because I knew it would actually be shown on the television, this maniac acting going on. It's not so bad on Doctor Who - panic-stricken with my naff acting appearing on television. The other thing was, it never occurred to them that when a light bulb comes on, it gets bloody hot! I reckoned on average I could make twenty seconds without screaming in pain! So there must be some marvellous out-takes of Doctor Who, where I'd be completely serious, acting, and I'd suddenly go, "Sodding heck!!" because the thing was burning my hand!
One of the problems of being an assistant on Doctor Who is that you have no brain. Frequently, all the assistant does is to say, "What's that blob on the screen, Doctor?" There are actually two ways you can say a line like that. You can say it like a question, but if you want to show that you've got a brain, you can imply that you know what the blob on the screen is. I got into terrible trouble because I kept doing the second one. I reasoned that if you brought in a character in his own spaceship, with his own brain, and you hadn't written a scene in which his brain was killed, he can't suddenly become terminally stupid. He has to be a thinking character.
We got into a terrible situation; we basically had two Doctors, and then Janet cottoned on, and she thought, my goodness, we could all be intelligent in the TARDIS! So we had three Doctors - it got so boring! John got us together around the table and said, "Look, I know what you're doing, but we've got three Doctors. We cannot function like that, it's impossible." So I had to become terminally stupid and so did Janet. Which is why I felt Turlough should leave the series. I probably made the wrong decision. What I felt was that Turlough wasn't functioning, as a character, because once you have the baddie and once you have the girl assistant and once you have the Doctor there isn't room, in four episodes of twenty-five minutes each, to have another plotline. So this is why Turlough got captured in episode one and found and released in episode four, so I left Doctor Who.
The Legacy of the Series
I have a complete set of friends whom I'm enormously close to whom I got through Doctor Who. JNT, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton are all my best friends. In fact, Sarah has just been staying with me in Australia. We were just outside Armadale, and Sarah, who was with her husband, had on my wife's hat as she was being driven mad by the flies, and this hat had a net wrapped around it to keep off the flies. This Doctor Whofan suddenly came from behind a bush and said "You aren't the Mark Strickson, are you?" And I said, "Well I am Mark Strickson, and I don't think there's another one, so I think I am the Mark Strickson." So he says, "Would you mind if I take a photo of you? I've been a fan of Doctor Who for years." I said, "That's absolutely fine." And he didn't even recognise Sarah. Sarah didn't even tell him who she was. I'm sure he would have been mortified to know that the Sarah Sutton was also there!
Last week, I had to plot a graph of my life and the things that had affected me most. I think walking into that office in Shepherd's Bush, knocking on that door and saying, "Hello, I'm Mark Strickson. Would you give me the job, can I read for you?" has affected my life in a way I just couldn't have conceived at that point.
This item appeared in TSV 21 (February 1991).
Reprinted in: TSV: The Best of Issues 21-26