The Doctor Who Column: Rules for guest actors
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There are no cheap parts, only cheap actors. Errr...
Time's a healer, so they say. Well whoever “they” are, “they” must have got their facts wrong, since time is anything but a benign presence. Time brings two spectres of evil: Old age, with its saggy, wrinkly skin, creaking bones and chilblains. And of course, death. It's inevitable of course, but that still doesn't make a loss of life any easier for that person's friends and family.
When you're in the public eye, the fans mourn that loss too. Doctor Who's a good example of this, especially bearing in mind last year's losses of two Who greats, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen. It's a curious thing though. Alongside the series regulars, the fans still feel that twinge whenever a guest actor passes away. They may have turned up in just a handful of adventures, but if their acting's up to the mark, then they will undeniably leave a lasting impression. So with that in mind, the last couple of weeks' Who news pages have made for pretty bleak reading with the passing of three acting greats: Peter Halliday. Dennis Chinnery. Philip Madoc.
Between them, Halliday, Chinnery and Madoc have graced many iconic TV programmes for the past 50 years, whether it's A For Andromeda, The Champions, The Avengers, The Goodies or Casualty. They were the sort of actors who turn up in these programmes and you'd go “Oh yeah, it's that guy again...” So of course, it's no real surprise that their CVs contained Doctor Who. I actually read an obituary for Madoc the other day which snootily said something along the lines of 'Madoc appeared in Doctor Who and then more meaty roles came his way'. Which evidently means that the writer isn't the biggest Doctor Who fan on the planet. Shame, since Madoc's work on Doctor Who showcased his considerable talents to the max.
And on that subject, Doctor Who's the perfect showcase for any actor. It's the sort of programme that allows you the opportunity to do something that little bit different from your bog-standard crime drama. It affords you the opportunity, if you're lucky, to get your teeth into a real bad guy or gal role. And long-term, it's a godsend, given that the fan-base will always call on you for a signed photo, an interview for a DVD featurette or an invitation to a convention. Even if you were in just one 25-minute episode and your character was unceremoniously bumped off after 10 minutes, you will still achieve Who immortality.
But getting the perfect performance is by no means a simple breezy walk in the park. It's all about judging it perfectly. If you underplay the scene too much, it can border on wooden. If you overplay it, you're in danger of turning the performance into a triple decker ham sandwich. So just what are the vital rules to remember when embarking on a Doctor Who role? Well, why not follow the examples of Messrs Halliday, Chinnery and Madoc, who, from their Who appearances, could offer a few tips.
Rule One: Comic Timing Is Vital
Playing a vaguely comedic role in Doctor Who is much like the first night at an open-mic stand up joint in front of an audience of beery students. Get it wrong and the reception will not be welcome, to say the least. There's been quite a few of these in Who, and by and large, they've worked like a charm: Tom Chadbon's Duggan. Tony Selby's Glitz. And curiously, Peter Halliday was rewarded with three opportunities to show comic timing at its finest.
The first and probably most notorious of these is Peeeaaacckkaaahh - sorry, Packer, Tobias Vaughn's second banana and ruthless sadist from the 1968 classic The Invasion. Packer is actually a nasty piece of work, spouting threats left right and centre. He's constantly working out ways to threaten poor old Watkins (and he's not averse to making threats about Isobel either). He gives Jamie a nasty clump around the lughole. And yet whenever I catch The Invasion, I'm always left laughing at Packer because he still manages to be the most ineffectual excuse for a number two in the history of Who. A lot of this comedy gold comes from Halliday, who uses jerky body language and increasingly manic speech to portray a man who evidently couldn't organise a tea party at the local vicarage, never mind the successful capture of The Doctor. Look at the way Halliday's always making Packer shuffle awkwardly on the spot, sometimes biting his nails to the quick. The third episode especially is a great example of this, with some great, subtle humour coming through, such as Packer's smug face after Vaughn's bigged up his supposed badass status to Watkins or his high-pitched “MOVE!!” to his confused group of suited 'n' jackbooted lackeys.
Halliday would also get the comedy just right for his next on-screen role as Pletrac in Carnival Of Monsters. Pletrac is a pompous, bumbling bureaucrat, but what's great about this is that Halliday plays him so straight. So when Pletrac's throwing the rule book at the Third Doctor in the first few moments of Episode Four, it's all the more amusing because of this very straight-laced approach. Even Halliday's cameo in City Of Death follows the same lines during the scene in which he's holding Tom's Doctor captive. “I'm paid to fight,” he constantly shrugs before claiming that “When you work for the Borgias, you'd believe anything” - said with a completely straight face.
Rule Two: Take The Part Seriously – Even In The Twin Dilemma
Doctor Who may be a dream part for any actor or actress because it gains you respect and copious kudos points with your kids, but it's still a lot of work. This is because you're asked to make an absurd situation real. I'm still reminded of that scene in Timelash when Paul Darrow is asked to keep a straight face while confronting a sock puppet on a TV screen. That Darrow manages to do so and give a performance of such relish surely deserves an award of some sort.
Dennis Chinnery was cast three times in Doctor Who, and two of these stories are not that highly regarded by fans. And yet, Chinnery's performances stood out because he took the roles so seriously. The first of these was a quick turn in The Chase as Richardson, a crew-member of the enigmatic Marie Celeste. Now, Richardson is called upon to look appalled at a horde of Daleks – not particularly easy in a story that sees the Daleks' tough-guy status at just above zero. Luckily, Chinnery convinces that far from coughing, blundering idiots, the Daleks are in fact, terrifying weapons of doom.
Nearly 20 years later, Chinnery was put to the test even more by appearing with futuristic John And Edward clones in The Twin Dilemma. Chinnery played Sylvest, the harassed father of the two swotty munchkins Romulus and Remus, twin nerds whose talent for mathematical equations somehow mean that they have unspoken powers. Quite what we're never sure of – presumably they can fire deadly bolts of numerical symbols at anyone they choose – but Chinnery manages to do the unthinkable and make their mathematical powers seem genuinely convincing. “Your mathematical skill could change events on a massive scale, don't you realise that?” pleads Sylvest. Chinnery only got about five minutes of screen time in The Twin Dilemma, which was a shame, but he played every scene with real dedication, which is some accomplishment for a tale about an overgrown, boss-eyed slug.
The best example of Chinnery's talents is of course in Genesis Of The Daleks. As Gharman, one of the few men in that tale with a conscience, Chinnery gave a stand-out performance, full of quiet authority and total conviction. Oddly, Gharman starts out as an elusive presence. We're led to believe that he's no more than a minor henchman, speaking two words in the first part (“Ready Davros!”), standing around while getting no lines in Part Two and then bypassing the third episode completely. It's in Part Four that Gharman gets to make his mark as Genesis' token opponent of Davros' plans. Now that Ron!Son! was unceremoniously and loudly zapped by a horde of Daleks, it was left to Gharman to protest at a race of creatures who are devoid of morals and ethics. Chinnery really nailed the part, portraying Gharman as a genuinely conscientious man who unfortunately had got himself in way too deep after underestimating Davros. Seriously, would you trust a man with a face like Davros'? Even potentially hammy lines like “You are insane Davros!” are given real weight by Chinnery's convincing delivery, proving that part of Genesis' classic status is down to the brilliant acting. And Dennis Chinnery's performance as Gharman was one of the core elements of this story's success.
Rule Three: Don't Go Badly Over The Top
The bad guy is perhaps one of the most difficult parts to get right, especially if the script writer keeps chucking hammy lines your way like wet sponges. There's a fine line between genuine menace and twirling your moustache.
Enter Philip Madoc, a man responsible for two of the most memorable portrayals of evil in Doctor Who. The War Lord in The War Games set out Madoc's stall with consummate professionalism. There's something ahead of its time about Madoc's performance as The War Lord – it's a very organic, natural performance rather than one that relies on stagy histrionics. Madoc chooses to speak in a softly spoken murmur that still manages to convey much more terror than a horde of Slitheen ever could. And it's that subtle menace that makes his confrontational threats all the more chilling. “Are you returning to the home planet?” quakes The War Chief at one point, like a small kid desperate for the headmaster to take the day off – to which The War Lord replies with just a hint of surprised menace: “No, I'm waiting until the emergency is over”. The War Chief's quaking fear of the War Lord comes to a head when he's inevitably caught out. And again, Madoc's softly-spoken delivery makes far more of a difference. “No, no, you killed him,” he says, when discussing the demise of squawking goon midget The Security Chief. “But a little too late – I heard the recording.” And so when he moves from that quiet, hushed voice to the bellow of “Kill him!”, it's all the more unnerving.
If The War Lord was a straight-ahead bad guy, then Mehendri Solon was, in theory, more of a complex nasty. On paper, there's the danger of Solon coming across as a pantomime caricature because some of the lines are flowery to say the least. “That squalid brood of harpies, the Sisterhood! That accursed hag Maren found I was holding a Time Lord and rescued him! May her stinking bones rot! I'll see her die Condo, I'll see that palsied harridan scream for death before Morbius and I are finished with her!” In a lesser performance, that bit of zesty dialogue may have come across as way too over the top, but Madoc's blistering performance adds a whole new degree of menace while just about keeping on the straight and narrow. There's many more examples of this in The Brain Of Morbius, but Madoc successfully makes Solon into a genuinely malevolent player, single-minded to the point of lunacy in the quest to resurrect Morbius and be revered as some sort of intergalactic genius. The casting of Madoc was a real stroke of genius and is rightly remembered as one of the most memorable Who performances to this day.
Rule Four: Make The Best Of What You've Got
Even when the scripts aren't the best in the Whoniverse, it's still important to give the best performance you can. Dennis Chinnery successfully brought two five-minute cameos to life with real gusto in forgettable stories. Ditto Philip Madoc, who made the most of relatively undemanding parts in The Krotons and The Power Of Kroll.
In The Krotons, it's all relatively standard fare. Angry jukeboxes plan to rule a quarryish planet, thus prompting political squabbling between current ruler Selris, Selris' comedy afro and sneering hothead Eelek. And yet, Madoc makes the most of this part, really getting his teeth into the role and making this political upstart into a real boo-hiss baddie.
Same goes for The Power Of Kroll, in which Madoc apparently got the consolation prize of the role of Fenner after failing to nab the part of Thawn. It would have been interesting to see what Madoc would have made of Thawn, but even so, he throws himself into the part of the good guy with relish. His bellow of “HAARRRGGG!!” at the dramatic end of Part Two as poor old Harg is dragged into a cardboard pipe with a series of hideous screams raises the stakes even more. Fenner's righteous anger at the death of Dugeen is also given extra gravitas thanks to Madoc's performance which again, keeps it totally real.
Rule Five: Be Proud Of Your Work
Some actors tend to get a bit embarrassed by their earlier work, shrugging it off as 'just another job'. But a good actor will always be proud of what he or she achieved. So luckily, Halliday, Chinnery and Madoc turned up on various DVDs, breezily looking back at their performances with fondness. Chinnery could be seen on the Genesis Of The Daleks documentary, chuckling about Michael Wisher's penchant for scuttling around with a bag on his head, Halliday happily remembered his days playing a loutish thug on the Invasion documentary, while Madoc got himself his very own mini-retrospective on The Power Of Kroll DVD (and two commentaries to boot – there's also rumours that he recorded one for The Krotons). Madoc has also said that Solon was one of his favourite performances in one or two interviews.
Fancy the job of a Who actor or actress? There may always be a job for you one day. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but those five simple rules should stand you in good stead – a masterclass demonstrated admirably by Peter Halliday, Dennis Chinnery and Philip Madoc.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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