Interview: Michael E Briant

robotsofdeathMichael E Briant worked on Doctor Who as a Production Assistant during the 1960s, and went on to direct some of Doctor Who’s greatest stories, including The Sea Devils, The Green Death and The Robots of Death. He directed Daleks and Cybermen, and worked with William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. He also directed episodes of other classic television series, such as Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, The Onedin Line and Blake’s 7.  A few years back when I was running my original website (explanation here) I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask Michael some questions.

Your first association with television was as an actor, until you decided to pursue a career as a director. What motivated you to become a director, and did you ever regret not continuing with your acting career?

I never set out to be a director. As a child actor I was pretty successful but that was looks, charm, height, nice voice etc. When I got into my late teens it was hard to sustain the opportunity of playing large, even leading roles – I looked at my work and felt I might not be the best actor in the world. In a way I have never made a career decision in my life – the acting gave way naturally to stage management. Then, after I married I started doing ‘proper’ jobs – spent about 9 months selling soap powder then cosmetics, the latter with some success. But I missed the roar of the crowd and the smell of the grease paint so gave up a company car and £3000 a year to take a 3 month ‘holiday relief’ contract at the BBC at the magnificent rate of £815 PA. Didn’t even think about it for a moment – knew it would be more fun. Having been a stage manager it was a slightly retrograde step – I fairly quickly realised that I could do a PA’s job so after about 18 months I put in for that and got it. Really lucky to PA for people like Joan Craft, Alan Bridges, Peter Hammond and learned a lot/everything about directing from them.

All the PA’s wanted to be either directors or producers. Because I have never seen myself in the ‘behind a desk’ mould I started applying for directors’ jobs – without a strong ambition and I was as surprised as anyone when the Beeb sent me on the directors course – mind you I purchased my first cine camera when I was 13 or 14 from the money I made on a feature called True as a Turtle and had been making little 8mm films from then on so it was sort of in my blood to ‘tell stories with pictures’.

I sometimes think I would like to try my hand at acting again but I could never remember the words or the moves and it would be instinctive not intellectual.

You directed episodes of some of the best-remembered television shows of the 70s and 80s, including Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green and The Onedin Line. Do you have any favourite memories of working on these classic series?

I did the first ever OB Z Cars. The management OB and Drama had the idea that, as the OB vans did not have space for a vision mixer and all sports directors etc mixed themselves, this was the way forward. I spent a couple of days cutting the shots in real time in the van then handed the chore over to my PA. One man, one job – you couldn’t look at the acting, composition, pace etc and cut the pictures as well.

Dixon was a much better police series than people remember. Jack Warner was very much fronting it in the days I did it, with quite powerful stories going on in-between his intro and close. Learned a lot on that show and Joe Waters was a good producer – he later produced Warship.

I came to The Onedin Line when it had been going for some years. Really enjoyed the sailing boats – did a super diving sequence with work in a big tank at Seabe Gormans, I think they were called. There is a pirate story I just put in my web site if you have a look…

Why Who was special for directors was you were handed a script and a blank sheet of paper. Other than the Doctor and co you could make the other characters and sets what you liked – tell the story how you liked within the budget restrictions. On the shows you mention – Z Cars, Onedin, Dixon – the job was really to pick up the baton from the last director, run with it briefly and hand it onto the next – when the show had a successful formula you were not encouraged to change it. Be innovative, tell the stories well but within the confines of the established style.

You worked with William Hartnell on several occasions throughout his time as the Doctor. Was he a difficult actor to work with, and did his attitudes towards the production team change at all over the course of time?

I found William Hartnell to be a total professional – knew his words – hit his marks and really wanted the show to be as good as possible – he did not suffer fools gladly and demanded some respect. I think he was not that young at the time and got tired – the famous story of his ‘personal’ chair in the rehearsal room – he made a big fuss if there was not somewhere for him to sit and there was a shortage of ‘arm’ chairs. Lots of metal upright chairs, like in school, but the only armchairs were excess ones ordered as rehearsal furniture. One of the ASM’s got so bored with Bill’s grumbling about not having a place to sit she made a canvas sleeve to go over the back of the most uncomfortable arm chair in the room and inscribed it ‘WILLIAM HARTNELL’. Bill was thrilled by all accounts – just like the movies he had been in before – and he nested in ‘his’ very uncomfortable chair happily ever after… Not unreasonable in a London Transport rehearsal room without the excellent facilities of the Acton Hilton rehearsal rooms of today. Certainly he had a reputation for being grumpy but I did not experience it – the recordings in those days started at the beginning and went on to the end. I think because it was sci-fi you were allowed an extra hour during the day but the schedule was: start rehearsals at 10.00 to lunch 2.00 – 3.00, rehearse record; 3.00 – 6.00 rehearse, then dinner and lineup and record 7.30 to 10.00 (not even certain the extra hour was available PM!) So it was difficult with things like the central column of the TARDIS working (sometimes!) off compressed air – hence the noise! Bill always had a routine for the controls (which made me smile as they were made from kitchen baking and cake dishes) and was irritated if a director or ASM did not know how to take off or land the TARDIS!

You were Production Assistant on Patrick Troughton’s first story, The Power of the Daleks. Did working with the Daleks pose any technical difficulties?

Invalided access was very important for Daleks; they cannot go upstairs and if there are bodies on the floor then they have to be careful their wheels (castors) do not run over cloth etc. John Scott Martin and the others would come to the rehearsal room and sit in the bottom halves learning their moves and also their lines so they could press the button in the skirt in time to the voice (Peter Hawkins – nice man) who spoke into a ring mike backstage in the studio (behind one of the sets). As an AFM you had to remember to order a chair and desk for him. Naturally when I came to do Death to the Daleks, whilst I was reading the script for the first time I was aware that the terrain whereever that was to be would be Dalek challenging. They had been stored at pinewood and quite a bit of special effects budget for this series went on refurbishing them – paint job – and mounting them on elemac dolly wheels for the Daleks on the move on location shots.

What was the atmosphere like on set when Patrick Troughton took over? Did he settle easily into the role?

Pat Troughton was a very, very experienced and professional actor. Apart from the hobo bit at the beginning (in my website) he settled in very easily. He was an actor doing a job: a leading role but a character performance. Pat was never grandiose in any way – he carried a hippy bag with that week’s script in it and his recorder. Very serious about the work but none of us treated the show like it was bound for posterity – it was important Saturday family viewing. It was fun to do because the challenges were different from the BBC1 and BBC2 classic serials, which were the mainstay of the department.

Not sure if it was known but Pat had a heart condition – serious stuff at this time so we were under orders to treat him with kid gloves and not overtire him – something like that? Cannot remember when he left Who or why but I suspect it may have been to do with health – quite a slog for the season for the actors, with location filming – rehearsals and studio.

It was obviously a very brave move to recast the principle role in a major television series. Was there a feeling at the time that this would spell the end for the series, or was the production team confident that the ‘rejuvenated’ Doctor would be a success?

No not at all. I think Bill had got older and was feeling the strain and having problems with remembering the ‘dickies’. And why not at his age. Pat was a very successful character actor with a background in classic serials. The biggest problem was the new appearance.

Fury from the Deep was Deborah Watling’s final story. How did her departure affect Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines?

Really enjoyed Debbie – good actress. Really cannot recall why she left. Whilst Doctor Who was an important show in Drama Serials, the other main important output being BBC1 and BBC2 classic serials, – it was not a cult – a successful show. I know that both Frazer and Pat were sorry to see her leave – there was not the emotional bonding that existed between Jon and Katy for example.

During the 1970s, the BBC ‘junked’ some of the 1960’s Doctor Who stories on which you worked, including The Power of the Daleks and Fury from the Deep, both of which are missing to this day. At what point did you find out about this, and what were your feelings on the matter?

Until you told me I didn’t know but I am not surprised – in those days there was a real storage problem – the tapes we recorded on were two inches wide – a Dr Who episode was on spool 18inchs wide and heavy with it. The BBC stored tapes in huge warehouses somewhere and producers were constantly being ‘memo-ed’ to know if they could live without a recording of their distant production. The fact so many still exist 30 years later is remarkable.

Colony in Space featured the familiar team of Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and Roger Delgado. Was there a good rapport between the three regulars at this stage, and what were they like to direct?

All three highly professional and a pleasure to work with – the three had a strong off-screen social life together and were friends so that was good too. Jon wanted to look good and it was simple to make him look good – Katy knew what she was doing and Roger was turning in an excellent ‘evil’ character performance – I think when artists have sorted out how to play their character then it becomes how to play the particular scene best within the constraints of the characters – we had four days rehearsal for each 25 minute show and had time to try things to find more interesting ways of playing a scene than may be immediately apparent. (Soaps today only have instant acting/interpretation)

Colony in Space is generally looked upon as one of the weaker Doctor Who stories, and your comments on your website would tend to indicate that you are not entirely happy with the end result. Did you feel at the time you directed the story that it was not working, and were you unhappy with the scripts?

I was just thrilled and awed to be given a six-part Who to direct after having only directed a few Z Cars and Newcomers – couldn’t believe my luck. Perhaps it was me not being brave enough or not taking risks enough – I know the mining robot was a disaster – too big, too clumsy, too slow, and would not fit in the door to the hut! A fight sequence intended to last several minutes became several seconds. If I changed from that show to the later ones it was in that I took the script and just had a ‘dream’ about how it should be – rather than on Colony just doing exactly what the script said – If it was not up to standard I must share the blame.

Your next story was The Sea Devils. Perhaps you could settle a famous question? Jon Pertwee often mentioned Roger Delgado’s bravery in facing his fear of the water, while it has also been claimed that he was instead worried about getting his costume wet. What is your memory of this?

Difficult to answer – lots of sub issues here I think. Roger had been in the Royal Marines (or possibly commandos or Para’s) and had I think seen active service – a brave man without a doubt. That he hated water there is no question but if he says it was because of damaging the costume then I can live with that.

For The Green Death you cast Stewart Bevan as Cliff, whom Jo viewed as a kind of younger version of the Doctor. Did you deliberately set out to cast an actor who resembled Jon Pertwee for the part of Cliff, or was this just a happy coincidence?

How strange – never crossed my mind that Stewart resembled Jon! Don’t forget that Stewart and Katy were an item in those days – I had real big problems in finding the right actor for that part and although it was communicated to me that Katy wanted me to see her boyfriend for the part I resisted because I did not want to interview him then turn him down and have to face Katy – after seeing lots of actors and not realising my dream in desperation I saw Stewart and he arrived dressed for the part – looked the part and so got the part – interesting that he looked like Jon in those days – he later was very good in a Secret Army – The Last Run – for me and bore no resemblance then at all.

How did you go about selecting locations for the Doctor Who stories you directed?

In those days a production office consisted of Director, Production Assistant, Assistant and AFM. The PA was responsible for finding a selection of locations and showing them to the director for his/her approval – On Who there were some standard quarries and sand pits from previous shows. There were always new ones to be found. Unless I had very sure feelings about where I wanted to shoot, the PA would come up with 3-5 possibilities, show me photos and then take me to the most likely.

Do you think that a greater budget on Doctor Who would have improved the show significantly, or did budgetary restrictions motivate the production team to greater creativity?

As a young director Doctor Who was a pleasure and a privilege to work on. You had control of a complete story and had the freedom to do what you liked with the detail – the effects – style – casting – presentation, and so on. One of the challenges was that the budget indeed was small, although in those days stunt men cost less and were more readily available. It was challenging in the area of say extras outside the pit gates for The Green Death – I think the budget could only stand five miners and a couple of management! For a miners’ rebellion that made sense: it was difficult and frustrating but went with the territory. Broadly speaking the budgets matched the production provided one accepted that only three Daleks existed or there could only be five Sea Devils to take over the world. To do it better would have required huge increases in funds, but I am not certain how huge the improvement would have been… ‘In the time for the money’ was very much the watch words for most BBC TV productions. That is if you wanted to work again. You only overspent if you were very, very certain that the show, any show not just Who, was going to be a huge success both in quantity of audience, and critically.

On your website, you describe incidents of out of control Daleks, broken legs and near-drowning. Were you ever worried about placing actors in dangerous situations?

Health and safety were not what they are today. I never purposely put any member of the crew in danger but we were frequently at locations which were new – untried and doing things for the first time – Daleks on elemac dollies going down hill. On Who stunt men were always used to double actors in anything dodgy but we worked hard and fast and in difficult terrain and sometimes the unexpected came along. Part of a PA’s job was to look after safety – if he considered there was a risk situation he had to inform the director of his opinion. If the director decided to override this advice the PA was meant to put the advice in writing to the director. If the director still decided to go ahead then he could but he/she bore total responsibility: all a bit cumbersome and mainly common sense prevailed.

In Revenge of the Cybermen, Christopher Robbie’s performance as the Cyberleader is notable for his animation and emotion, unusual for the Cybermen. Were you happy with the actor’s interpretation of the role?

Yes I think so – as I remember it Chris was an experienced actor and the others were extras or walk-ons – not that they were lesser artists but Chris’s Cyberman had all the dialogue – think it was like that… I was always keen that monsters should have some degree of individuality. I suppose an exception that worked well was Daleks – like ants controlled by a mutual intelligence. You could argue that Cybermen were like that but I was keen to make them different from Daleks and that they should be individual warriors with the same cause and motivation.

Previous Cybermen stories had utilised separate voice actors, but Revenge of the Cybermen was the first to feature the actors inside the costumes providing the voices. Was this due to budgetary considerations, or were there other reasons behind this decision?

For some reason I was never keen on the concept that actors did moves and one person, Peter Hawkins or Roy Skelton, did all the voices off stage – just seemed better to me that each character should talk for himself (television is radio with pictures…discuss? But it is true in a way). Dubbing lessens the performance I think unless it is done by the original actor. Not sure if Cybermen have body language but if they do then their voices should reflect it.

Philip Hinchcliffe’s vision of Doctor Who was much darker in tone than that of Barry Letts, and there were some scary moments in The Robots of Death. Did you feel the level of violence was appropriate in the Doctor Who stories you directed? Did you look upon it as a children’s series, or did you direct with adult viewers in mind?

It is not the job of a director to set the censorship levels. Certainly you have to be aware of the time slot but the detail has to be done by someone else. I see directing as being a storyteller – you tell the story in the most interesting, entertaining and exciting way you can. It is up to the management to decide if you have overstepped the mark – sometimes I did censor myself – in A Tale of Two Cities I decided not to have the guillotine blade drip blood in the last episode as it did mass beheading. I thought it would be too gruesome at 17.30 on a Sunday. The first thing Barry Letts, the then producer of BBC 1 children’s classic serials, said when he saw the film sequence was, “there’s no blood on the blade”. After that I never censored myself but equally good story telling should not make your audience want to turn off and throw up. I think Robots of Death was frightening because we broke the mould slightly and made the ‘heroes’ into fallible humans and the Robots appeared to be quite attractive and friendly without menace so when one turned it was particularly shocking.

You directed several episodes of Blake’s 7, including the very first, The Way Back. Did you have any idea at the time how successful the show would become?

You never know if something is going to be successful or not – you hope – wish – but in the end you just make it for yourself. The yardstick is: do I like it? Not some mythical audience – just you. Does it please you?

I was slightly surprised how successful Blake was because I thought it very similar to Doctor Who. When David Maloney asked me first if I would do it I got the impression that we were going to break new sci-fi boundaries rather than bravely go where others had been before.

I had some way out ideas that were not accepted. In the end you look at the stories and try to tell them well. I thought the actors, Gareth and Sally particularly, were very good indeed and in the end it is the acting that counts. Without good actors – the right actor for the role – you may as well not bother.

Have you ever attended any Doctor Who or Blake’s 7 conventions?

Yes several Doctor Who conventions I seem to remember, but I am not sure I was a success – the actors are always far more interesting. Don’t think I did any Blake’s 7 – didn’t know they had them in fact.

A number of Doctor Who stories have recently been released on DVD with commentaries. Would you welcome the opportunity to record a commentary track if offered, and which story would you choose?

I am always pleased to do anything to promote my productions – it is part of the job of actors, directors and producers. I liked Robots of Death best because we were so outrageous with an Agatha Christie type standard space characters script and it really improved it – good memories of it – I think.

What words of advice would you offer the directors of the new Doctor Who series, and would you direct a story if offered the chance?

Would not dream of offering advice – I strongly believe that directors need the freedom to take a script and interpret it in their way. Directing by committee which is what inevitably happens on BBC soaps – the management make all the real directing decisions – can only lead to mediocrity – safety – but then Television is now a business. Back in the old Who days we were nearly all from the theatre of film industry and did the work because we just loved it. I would have done it for no money – such fun. I love directing and am always thrilled when work comes my way.

Television nowadays seems to be dominated by reality TV, home improvement shows and soaps. You have had experience of the latter when you directed episodes of EastEnders and Emmerdale. Do you feel that British television is in a state of decline, or is it just a necessary evolution?

I think television has grown up – become a business. Personally I find reality TV almost unwatchable and home improvement reminds me I must paint more shutters in this rather old house we have here in France, and I spent much of last autumn painting shutters between editing my Blue Water tapes.

The participants in reality and improvement shows seem to have such boring and uninteresting lives but the public loves it and it is fairly cheap to make of course… I wonder how long the soaps can last for, but then Women’s Own magazine has been around for decades doing just the same.

It is of course very difficult to make original drama these days. I doubt at any time in our history has the public viewed so much theatre – television drama is theatre I think. My wife likes the UK soaps a lot but sometimes I come in and cannot tell which one it is. I suspect EastEnders‘ days are numbered – they seem to have lost the plot – not sure they ever really had it. Emmerdale has totally changed since I last did it and I think it’s excellent most of the time but for me the mightiest is The Bill. Just brilliant – frequently makes the one off series look pathetic. The Bill is arguably the best police series ever and I am amazed at the standard. It is not the directors who make it good – the producers, story editors and writers are responsible along with some clever casting. Just think how many characters there are in the show and how well they are portrayed – clever executives on that production.

In decline: no. Changing, and the role of the director has changed – for the most part directors are paid to point cameras, do it in the time for the money and not rock the boat. It is the executives who run the shows.

The sailing pages on your website are fascinating. How did you get into sailing in the first place?

My mum first taught me to sail when I was a kid – on the river Thames at Maidenhead. She and her two brothers had sailed in Poole harbour when she was young. I built canoes and later a Mirror dinghy like thousands of others. Got my first keel boat with a little cabin in my 30s whilst I was directing Warship. Like directing, I never really had a plan – just liked boats – after a few years directing/teaching the Dutch how to make drama and sitcoms I sailed around the Mediterranean, got bored and decided to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean and East Coast USA, then got bored and went into the Pacific via Panama, and after Tahiti and the Marquises and Fiji and Tonga the only way to get home was to go on round and complete the circumnavigation. Wrote some cheap philosophy in my website today – it – sailing – stops stress because the elements – tide, weather, sea state – are much mightier than anything man can create so you just have to adjust your course to the sea. Impossible to go against the elements or to make more speed than is possible for the boat in the prevailing conditions. So it is pointless to be stressed – just do what you can and accept what comes your way.

Would you recommend sailing as a pastime, despite the dangers you have faced, including a lightning strike and a pirate attack?

Sailing is a wonderful hobby – it has so many skills to learn – navigation, weather, splicing rope and tying knots, how to trim a sail, bail a dinghy, dive in and cut rope off a fouled prop, and most of all go to new places, new countries, new continents, and not live in a tourist hotel or hostel but shop in local shops and eat in local cafes. The first time I passed Cape Trafalgar I felt in touch with history… The Atlantic I felt like CC except I was going where others had been, but it was still challenging and scary. There are risks in life – I believe you should always minimise them as much as possible – not take unnecessary risks, but this is it – it’s not a rehearsal. I believe you always regret the things you don’t do. So enjoy – in case this is the last day of your life.

Interviewer: RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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