Sonic Screwdriver #90
This interview was conducted along with Rod Scott. Do you know how long it takes to transcribe an interview like this? Forever!
We live in a small world. Really. You’re a Doctor Who club. You’ve got a table at a collector’s fair. Up walks someone. They turn out to be a set designer for a Doctor Who story. You organise a time for an interview. A few days later, you’re out doing a traffic survey for one of your university subjects, and run into fellow member Matthew K Sharp (he of the silly writings). You mention the upcoming interview. ‘Ah, yes,’ he says. ‘I know him. He taught my mum Art.’
At least it makes you look mighty well researched when you mention that you know he once taught Art.
The said set designer is Evan Hercules, and the story he did was the Troughton classic The Mind Robber. Evan is a small, energetic man who welcomed us warmly to the flat he was staying in while on one of his many trips to Australia from his now home of London. Thoroughly unassuming, and with a flair for the occasional colourful phrase and a liking of the word ‘naff’, he gave us a great tale of his life generally and his work on his Who story of nigh on three decades ago.
Born in the Mallee, he went to England as part of the "Barry Humphries exodus" of the fifties and sixties. ‘I’ve always loved theatres. As a kid, I used to build them. I came from the bush — I used to make stages out of old wheat bags, and have curtains on counterweights. I was a nut, an absolute nut. It’s funny how an interest like that can be born in what can be an alien, hostile place, in a small town. They used to think "He’s a bit funny, bit of a problem there". I played football, and the like, but I’d say things that made me different. My love was the theatre — always for the theatre. I came to Melbourne to go to boarding school in Brighton. I went to university and suddenly my mind was opened up. The pool was bigger, with more interesting people in the pool as well. It was bubbling with excitement. I knew I wasn’t going to be a schoolteacher. I stuck it out for a while, teaching in Hamilton. Your parents say things like "Get a steady job… you don’t want anything to with this arty-farty stuff."’ Here Evan thumped the table in mock formality, and laughed. ‘And, of course, being dutiful, I did that. I hated it! Then I went to art school and then on to London, and I didn’t come back.
’I was lucky; I worked as a theatre designer, but there’s no money in that! BBC2 started, and they announced this competition; I applied, and got into it. There were fifteen designers chosen, and I was one of them. I was euphoric! They trained us for about six months. We worked as assistants to existing designers. That period of apprenticeship is terribly important — you can’t learn that. It was a very good training ground, as a young Australian in London, working for the Beeb. The BBC is really very small, and full of gossip: who’s doing this, and did you hear this one? The BBC is really like being in the public service.’
We asked him how he’d gotten the call to do Doctor Who. ‘In an institution like the Beeb, you’re allocated. I mean, we didn’t fight, we didn’t kill, to do Doctor Who! You’re rostered to do it, and some people have the luck and some have the dodgy ones. I happened to be free, and my name slotted in, and I did it. As far as this one was concerned, this was quite early on in my career as a designer. I’d just finished training as a designer, and suddenly I was launched into this thing that was totally unreal. If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have made it far more theatrical. I made it as an innocuous illustration — there were some illustrative things. The forest of letters could have been much more interesting — it was boring. When I think about it now, it was bloody boring.’
So what was is process of doing a Who episode (or, indeed other shows)? ‘It’s dead simple. A script arrives, and you read through it to get the gist of it. That gives you an idea of the flavour of the kind of concept you’re going to give to it. Then you read through it more carefully, and work out the problems… One part of your mind is working out what you want it to look like, and the other part of your mind on how you can make it work, with the resources you have. As well as a script, you get given so many "man-hours". A man-hour is a mythical thing, you never know what it is, and as far as the BBC was concerned their man-hours were half of anyone elses!’ he added with a laugh. ‘Then you go and discuss it with the director. You work it out as if you were directing: you do the scene, you plan where they come in, and you plot it all out. It takes you a week or two. Then you talk about it with the director, and you persuade him that certain things would work, and he persuades you he doesn’t want those, but this instead, and you try to work out how you can do both. And then if you’re forceful enough, and determined enough, you say this would look really good if we could do this, or if you gave us a few more man-hours.’
So, let’s say I want to be a designer. What do I need to able to do, and what will I do? ‘You’ve got to have an imagination, and be able to sketch your ideas. You’ve got to be able to do lightning-quick sketches. Often doing commercials, you’ve got to spend more time making it look pretty than the actual design of the set. You’ve got to,’ he said, tongue thoroughly in cheek, ‘please the agency. They’re always asking things like "Is that plate alright, do you think?" Tedious in the extreme. You need to recall things. I was always looking at things. I was dreadful at school; I was dyslexic and was a hopeless learner. I’d sit outside, and watch the peppercorn tree and the sparrows, thinking "God, it’s hot. I should be in the swimming pool now" but I was always good at art.
’As a theatre designer going into television, you’ve got to be double careful to design for the whole thing. Attention to detail is very precise — in the theatre you can get away with murder. Some sets are very sneaky — you’ll have a close-up of a door-handle, and you’ve got it stuck on with sticky tape! In television, you’ve got to spend an awful lot of tedious money on things like that, which does sometimes take away from the overall visual impact.
’The one or two days in the studio would be a nightmare. You’d get in at 2 o’clock in the morning. Overnight, the crew would set up, and you’d be in, checking all the dressing. They started rehearsing at 8:30 am. You’d had a long day already, and you’ve got to stay there looking at this box, and say "Yes, I know that’s bad, we’ll do something about that in a minute" and you write it down, and think "How am I going to do this?!" They do have time limits — thank God they do, otherwise you’d be exhausted.
’This happens a lot in commercials — I’ve done a lot of commercials [Including, as we found later, many with Mind Robber director David Mahoney]. I left the Beeb and went freelance, and did films and freelance television. There were some commercial makers — this is in the seventies — who were carving their career mercilessly through people. They’d just tread over these bodies who’d been slain and slaughtered because they were doing 14 or 18 hours a day. You’d start at 8:30 and wouldn’t finish until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning. I’ve done this when I had a commercial for someone else the next day. So you live through life, and wonder "Where the hell has it gone?". I went through six or eight years of this, and then you wonder "God, I’ve missed my kids — they’re grown up and I’ve hardly seen them!"’
Having said that, Evan was also quick to point out the benefits. ‘It’s very exciting. I mean, even if we whinge about it a lot: "Sod this, and oh God, why’d I ever do this sort of job?" It is good when you do something and it gives you a buzz. It’s like creating a picture. We all need to create something — there’s not many of us who don’t. Even accountants get a great buzz out of getting something to work that most people thought wouldn’t. When it’s lit, and when it’s dressed, it’s got a magic that not only a designer recognises but other people do as well. It’s like an sculpture.’ [Ed: Sounds like Sonic!]
All this time, Evan had been most loathe to actually view his story. ‘Naff’ popped up a few more times. Finally we convinced him to watch a few clips put together by Rod. It was an interesting sight, as shots and sets from over a quarter of a century ago came back to Evan — and quite a few times, he found bits he particularly liked (much to his surprise!).
His main memory was the clockwork soldiers (’Those stupid things with the keys in their backs! Those things were naff!’) and the unicorn (’There was a unicorn, wasn’t there? That stupid unicorn. That was a nightmare, as well: getting the thing to stay on this wretched donkey, or whatever it was. The horn kept falling off’) as well as the technical problems faced.
’There were lots of things in it that were quite unusual to us all — things that today are quite normal and commonplace, like matting on, which are done in films a lot but not in television. And cut-outs, and balancing things in the foreground so that they scaled with things in the background. Rapunzel’s hair was a painting, and it was all experimental. I enjoyed it, but the pressures were so great and I had to come to terms with the technical problems. You were expected to know it, and that’s why it was a bit of a challenge.’
As we showed the clips, things sprung to mind. For the Master of the Land of Fiction’s base: ‘I didn’t have a ceiling — I had a mesh! The problem was that they were shooting up to the bloody lights. So we had a series of canvases which hung down — it was dark anyway, with a galaxy background — I thought that was pretty clever…’
’The forest was made out of great big sheets of polystyrene, and you couldn’t see they were letters. They look quite interesting — but they don’t look like letters. That was my fault.’ As the top view of the "forest" came on, he cringed and laughed. ‘That’s terrible!’
’I used this great rich sophisticated candelabra in the caves — I thought that was pretty cool too. I had a great problem finding those, but I did,’ he added with pride. Another thing he remembered were the famous Zoe-and-Jamie-crushing-book being on ‘great big castors’. The castle window and balcony shown shortly afterwards earned an appreciative murmur: ‘Oh, that’s pretty, I like that.’ The spider webs in the caves were made from latex out of spray cans.
The first episode, best known as the "white" episode, he called ‘dead simple. The magic was in the lighting of that. There was so little money. It was very much a kid’s program — they just shoved it out. That was why it was such a drag; that’s why it was a real bind. You got Doctor Who this week, and you had no money. I mean, curiously enough, I would love the challenges now. But when I was doing things every week and I thought "Oh, shit, Doctor Who". I was shoved in at the deep end.’
We moved on to ask what else he had done during his career, and what he was up to now. Apart from the many commercials he had done, the lists of shows was long; the early Dr Finlays, Z-Cars, Softly Softly, Troubleshooters and Catweazle being just a few mentioned. ‘I did another thing that was weird, also by Verity Lambert, called Adam Adamant. That was great fun to do. I worked with Verity a lot. I did a lot of plays with her, and we did get on very well.
’I got tired of working on films. They’ve changed — you’re either doing a big epic, with loads of money or you’re doing nothing — filling in exit signs when they shouldn’t be there! Apart from the lucky chosen few, who do a few big ones and then are burnt out, you’re now a jobbing designer. And that is dead boring. You’re at the beck and call of everyone, and your creativity is not used as much. You become a functionary. So I decided to get out. A lot of people I worked with did the same. You see, you work with a team — I’ve got my own chippies and prop-buyers, and we’re great mates. You know what you did last time, and they go out and get the stuff, and the job is much easier because of that. Once you’ve got your own team, you can work in shorthand.’
Evan comes back to Australia regularly. His current stay, his longest for quite some time at three months, was for setting up a Theatre’s Trust. We asked him of this, and he warmed to the task. ‘The Theatre’s Trust is a movement to parent, guard and patronise the buildings — the theatres. Melbourne has more than anywhere else. A theatre is not the same as a converted cinema — they’re as different as chalk and cheese. Most people don’t seem to think there is any difference.
’My first experience at the theatre was a pantomime in the Tivoli. I remember everything about it: I remember going there, going through the doors, sitting down, the curtains going up and this splendour happening. It’s the intimacy you’ve got with what is happening on the stage that makes a theatre so much of a different form of architecture to a cinema. Whatever happens on stage and whatever happens in the audience should be a shared experience. It’s easier in some theatres than others — a good theatre is not a long thin one, but probably a square one that goes vertically. But with the coming of the cinema halls, many of the old theatres are all gone, ploughed into dust.
’I would love to build (this is where I get shot down; I’m a reactionary) a children’s theatre which is like a Pollux theatre. I would love to build a children’s theatre, purely for children. So it has all the fantasy I remember as a kid, with all the expectancy: you go to a theatre and the curtains are there and you think "God, I can’t wait till the curtains go up, and see what’s going to happen". And then the lights go down and it’s magic. Fashions change, you see, and theatre today is very austere and intellectual and harsh and pertinent. That mystique is gone. In these modern theatres like the Malthouse theatres they’re very sophisticated, and they’ve got all the up-to-date lighting things; but they’ve got no atmosphere! The nineteenth-century theatres do. So keeping our nineteenth century theatres is vitally important, because we’ll never ever build them again.
’I’m a designer, so I can reproduce something pretty much as it was — often better!’ He laughed out loud. ‘I’d like to build a small one, a 500-seater. The kids are tomorrow’s audience, and tomorrow’s actors. So I came here thinking "Why don’t I set up a trust?" "What a good idea," they said. And so here I am, knackered!’
As if Evan wasn’t busy enough, he and his wife Mog also run a school in London. ‘Mog and Evan Hercules, founders of Darlington School. We have about thirteen or fourteen teachers — three of them Australian, two from New Zealand, one South African and the rest are English. We started it from nothing. It’s great fun. Mog is a brilliant teacher — she’s a pied piper, they follow her. There’s one terribly funny story. Mog was going into the lavatory at one stage. You know how they’ve got an opening at the top and the bottom? Well, this child came after her and said "Will you correct this?" and shoved the thing along the floor to her! She didn’t say "Go away" but instead marked it, passed it back and said "Is this better?". That’s the sort of school it is.’
At the end, we asked for his signature. ‘Oh, come off it…’ he drawled. A pause. ‘Don’t be daft.’ Another pause. ‘Oh, alright then.’ He may put a low ranking on his Who work, but we fans certainly don’t. Thanks for the time, hospitality, and laughs, Evan.
Here’s the list of the Doctor Who interviews available here:
→ Andy Lane
→ Craig ‘Craggles’ Hinton
→ Evan Hercules
→ Kate Orman
→ Trevor Martin & Christopher Benjamin
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index
This page last updated by David J Richardson on Wed, 8 Jan 2003.