From the Archives: the following interview was originally included on The Doctor Who Review, the precursor to this blog. It was conducted in 2003.
As a member of a family with such a strong theatrical heritage, was there a weight of expectation on you to become an actor, or was it something you always wanted to do?
There was no expectation at all – as my parents were not involved in the business. My maternal grandmother had grown up in the atmosphere of the theatre at the end of the Victorian age when her grandfather was lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, and in the Edwardian era when her father was business manager of the Theatre Royal, Shrewsbury. Her uncle was a touring actor-manager, her cousin a child actor – the first Michael in “Peter Pan”, and her great aunt, Dame Madge Kendal – one of the leading actresses of the age and friend of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. However, by the end of the First World War, the connection with the theatre in my direct family line had been lost – although it continued elsewhere in the family.
My desire to act had seemed to me to come from nowhere – as I hadn’t been told about the long line of actors. Although a very shy child, I loved performing and creating characters. Throughout my school career I regularly appeared in plays and often played leads. However, it was when my Grannie died in 1978 – when I inherited her collection of newspaper cuttings and books relating to the theatrical family – that I realised that I was not alone. It made such an impression on me that I decided to research the history of the Birmingham Theatre Royal for my third year dissertation at Birmingham University. I also decided that an actor’s life was for me! Fortunately my parents supported my decision: “If it’s what you want to do and it makes you happy!” they told me. Since 1981 I have come to realise that my ancestors have been on the stage for two hundred and fifty years and it is one of the oldest theatrical families in the country.
How did you get your first acting role?
At junior school along with a host of other children I was cast as a rat in “The Pied Piper” in 1968 – my mother had to make the costume from the material and designs provided. Two years later I graduated to play a dancing Troll in “The Hobbit”. After several years in plays at school, university and in amateur companies, I decided to take the plunge into the profession. I auditioned in the autumn of 1983 and was cast to play Silly Billy in the pantomime “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” on a tour of working men’s clubs in South Wales. It was very tough and rather dire! Not the most auspicious beginning to a career!
Of your many roles for Radio 4 plays, are there any you are particularly proud of or that hold strong memories for you?
I have many happy memories of radio drama. I was very fortunate to act at BBC Pebble Mill with some truly great actors who were approaching the end of their careers such as Peter Jeffrey and Norman Rodway. I had a great time on so many productions, but a few stand out. “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” with Matthew Kelly and Chris Emmett – was an absolute joy; as was “Five Children and IT” with Julia McKenzie; “Nocturne in Blue and Gold” – the story of James Whistler’s famous painting of the bridge over the Thames and the subsequent trial – was a great and moving drama-documentary; Peter Tinniswood’s translation of Eduardo de Philippo’s play “The Monument” with Tom Georgeson; “Watership Down” – a much better production than the animated film. It even won the approval of the author Richard Adams; David Pownall’s play “Façade” with David Tennant and Celia Imrie; and “Mr Foster’s Good Fairy” in which I played my first lead. However, if I had to pick out just one play it would have to be H.G.Wells’ tremendously moving story “The Door in the Wall” in which I played an older man who tried in vain to recapture the joy of his childhood. An absolute gem of a play. It still means a lot to me.
Which actor have you enjoyed working with the most over the years, and is there anyone you would especially like to work with in future?
I have enjoyed working with so many wonderful actors. However, David Tennant was great to work with on the play “Façade” (we met again on Nick Briggs’ series “Dalek Empire III”). I also thoroughly enjoyed working with Derek Jacobi on “Deadline” – a truly memorable production and a great laugh. I was very touched when after completing my scene as The Supreme One/Dalek/Juliet Bravo journalist – Derek Jacobi led the cast in giving me a round of applause.
Of the actors I have worked with regularly, I would say I have most enjoyed working with my colleague and friend Robert Lister – not a household name but a lovely man. There are so many excellent actors out there – some who work regularly and some who hardly work at all – who are not known to the public and probably never will be. It is not always the best that succeed!
One actor I would love to work with is David Warner – whom I have admired for years. This opportunity came recently when Big Finish offered me a role in an audio featuring David Warner. Unfortunately, I was out of the country and couldn’t do it!
Was it always your intention to work mainly in radio rather than television or film, or was that just the way it worked out?
Although I had a talent for character voices from an early age – I used to do all the voices for the Tintin books for my own amusement and had different voices for each and everyone one of my twelve teddy bears – the only opportunities to act were in stage productions – at school, university and in local productions. I loved television from an early age and quite naturally as soon as I was professional wanted to pursue a career in TV and film. A few good roles came my way over the years: Saint Dominic in “Gnostics” opposite Brian Blessed – filmed in Languedoc, France, Henry Carson in “Jupiter Moon”, and featured roles in “Casualty” and “Doctors”. However, I knew that it was radio that offered me the opportunity to utilise my voice talents to the full. Unfortunately, radio was and is notoriously difficult to get into. I tried for several years to be seen by radio producers and when I was auditioned I blew the opportunity through nerves. It was the producer Brian Lighthill (who had directed a number of “Blake’s 7” episodes on TV) who cast me in my first Radio 4 play “Lorna Doone” (adapted by the Doctor Who producer, Barry Letts – with whom I acted in a number of scenes) and from then on I became a regular in radio drama.
Having worked in film, television, theatre and radio, which has been your favourite medium?
It would have to be radio and audio. The reasons are that on TV and film you are largely cast as you appear in real life as the casting directors are not known for their imaginations! If they need an actor to play a part with pink hair – the actor waiting outside in the queue with pink hair will get the job! You are type cast. Television cast-lists today are dominated by a small pool of actors largely drawn from soaps. These actors don’t have to be versatile as the casting directors and the accountants want these actors to continue to play the same character – usually themselves – as they appeared in the soap – for whatever role they are going to play in the future. It’s all about ratings! When a casting director can select any and every type of actor for a part – as there are so many actors available – why bother with the versatile character actor!
There is so much more opportunity in theatre for versatile acting, but it is tremendously hard work for little reward. I have appeared in some wonderful stage productions such as “Neville’s Island” (in which I played Neville) at Harrogate Theatre, and “Two” in which I played all seven male roles in the Polish premiere production in Warsaw. But as you get older you prefer a quiet and easier life.
Radio offers the best of all worlds. As long as you are versatile and have the imagination you can be anyone – a seven year old child, a seventy year old man, thin, fat, a giant, a fairy, an alien from anywhere in the galaxy. There is no physical limit to what you can do. You can be anywhere – on a farmyard near Ambridge, at the destruction of Atlantis, in ancient Rome and on any planet you wish to name. With the voice you can create character, space, movement and physical effort sometimes without moving from the spot. It is the most creative medium. Without costume and set – all you have is your fellow actor(s), a microphone and your voice. And you are in studio between one to four days and then it is all over. At the end of it you have your CD of the play. Beats a theatre tour every time!
How did you originally become involved with Big Finish?
I had been a devotee of Doctor Who since the very beginning in November 1963 and had followed the series up until the end of the Tom Baker years. From the 1990’s I started to collect the videos of the old stories that I remembered and many that I had never watched from other eras. Then in January 2001, I read in DWM about Big Finish’s audio dramas and I sent an e-mail to the person who I thought was in charge: Nick Briggs. I then realised, of course, that Gary was the Supremo. However it was fortuitous that I contacted Nick. Nick requested a voice cassette (containing excerpts from the radio plays I had recorded) which was duly sent. He immediately got back to me to ask if I was available later in the month to record a couple of Doctor Who audios (“Time of the Daleks” and “Embrace the Darkness”) with Paul McGann in Bristol. I was absolutely delighted.
Which has been your favourite Doctor Who role?
It’s difficult to choose only one. It would have to be between ROSM in “Embrace the Darkness”, Surus in “Auld Mortality”, Sydney in “Deadline” and Dr. Hendrick in “UNIT: Snakehead”.
Do you ever need to audition for a part in a Big Finish play, or are they always offered to you?
The parts are offered. Nick and John usually send an e-mail or telephone to enquire as to my availability. It’s the same with radio drama.
How far in advance of recording do you receive the scripts? Is it a case of turn up on the day and read, or do you need to prepare yourself for each performance?
You receive the script about a week before recording. You need to do considerable preparation before you arrive at studio. However, it is always possible that Nick will want you to change a voice or interpretation that you have prepared when in studio. So you have to be prepared to come up with something completely new at the last minute. Nick is an excellent director and I love working for him. In radio and audio some actors have turned up without adequate preparation and it always shows. You can end up wasting precious studio time trying to get a performance out of someone who is either lazy or not up to it. Fortunately this does not happen often.
There have been comments from some areas of fandom that Big Finish should not rely so much on their ‘rep’ of favourite actors. How would you respond to their views?
All directors in theatre, TV, film and radio have their favourite actors – those with whom the director has worked on a number of occasions and who are viewed as the most reliable. You will find that directors in all fields build up a “rep” company and you will either see or hear the same actors again and again. Obviously some fans get tired of the same actors appearing in the cast lists, but if the actors are versatile and constantly creative it shouldn’t matter.
That said I really do not think that as a whole Big Finish rely to a great extent on their so-called “rep”. There was very little crossover between the casts for productions directed by Gary and those by Nick. I tended to work for the most part with Nick and sometimes for John Ainsworth. Gary would use his own actors and cast me only on a couple of occasions when an actor had to drop out of a production at the last moment due to a bereavement or Gary had been let down and the part had to be recast.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, for every negative comment on Outpost Gallifrey such as “I’m really tired of hearing his voice” and “why don’t they cast someone else other than Gary’s/Nick’s friends”, there are plenty of fans who appreciate your work and who would be very disappointed if you disappeared all together.
I am really proud of the work I have done for Big Finish.
What’s next for Ian Brooker?
I’m waiting for the phone to ring.
Some subsequent comments from Ian Brooker:
In my answer to the question re: favourite actors I forgot to mention Geoffrey Bayldon. I loved working with him (on “Auld Mortality” and “Storm of Angels” – he was a delight and full of so many fascinating stories. I was also very excited about meeting Derrin Nesbitt – a favourite villain from my youth!