Sonic Screwdriver #102
This interview was conducted by myself, Rod Scott and Richard Nolan. The funny thing was that, as I waiting to meet up with my fellow interviewers, Christopher actually bustled past me. My brain was operating slightly slowly, and he was gone before the light bulb came on in my head!
Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Martin go back far in the history of Doctor Who. Christopher first appeared as Sir Keith Gold in the classic Inferno before returning to the show in 1977 as theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago for The Talons of Weng Chiang. Trevor Martin beat him into the show with his appearance as one of the Time Lords exiling the Doctor to Earth in The War Games but made his mark when chosen to star as the Doctor for the 1974 play Doctor Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday.
Both were recently in Melbourne with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and were kind enough to give us some of their time. They proved a charming pairing, playing off each other in a way that ranked up with the classic double acts penned many a time by the late Robert Holmes.
Our meeting took us on a deep, convoluted and hi-tech passage into the bowels of the Arts Centre; as Christopher commented, a far cry from The Royal Theatre used for Talons. After some chat on whether Melbourne, new home of salmonella, could outrank England, home of mad cow disease, and how the Poms could possibly get a chance in the upcoming Ashes tour (Christopher suggesting the Aussies take the traditional sea trip from Fremantle and Glenn McGrath work in one of the Who quarries), we got around to the show that had brought us together.
Both have had contact with Who fans in the past; as Trevor put it in a mock-tremulous voice ‘It’s very nice to know one is still remembered!’. Trevor had also attended conventions before. ‘That’s right!’ added Christopher. ‘I’ve never been to a convention, but I’ve met Doctor Who fans from Los Angelos. That was quite nerve-wracking…’
Just days before our chat, Christopher had appeared on the 7:30 Report to promote the tour. ‘Oh, that was terribly embarrassing,’ recalled Christopher. ‘He was a nice guy — we were talking very easily half an hour about cricket, when he suddenly said "Right, now we’ll do the interview. What about Shakespeare?" I couldn’t answer a single question — I didn’t get what he was talking about! I wished he’d talked to me about the cricket…’
Both recalled how Doctor Who had been a part of their lives even before appearing in the show — Trevor Martin’s child was indeed one of the oft-quoted young viewers running behind the sofa!
’We enjoyed watching it,’ said Chris. ‘I used to watch it a lot — I used to love it, especially Louise. I thought she was the sexiest thing around — she was there for the dads, wasn’t she? There was something in it for everyone. My kids used to watch it, so it was good for the children to be in it. My daughter would sit with her friend, and they had a cushion to cover their faces.’
We asked them how they coped with the different environment of a science fiction show, and whether it was unusual for them. ‘Yes, I suppose it was,’ said Chris. ‘The one I did when I was Jago was OK because that was like a Victorian melodrama. I loved that. The other one I don’t remember what it was all about — that was very sci fi and it got very boring with technical talk and things going wrong in the studio. I don’t remember much about that at all. Certainly I remember Talons of Weng-Chiang — I remember going to that lovely theatre in North Hampton, The Royal, a very beautiful theatre.’
Taking this opportunity when theatres were mentioned, we asked Trevor about the Seven Keys to Doomsday, asking him whether the play had been a problem with all its technical complexity. ‘Oh, yes. It was a nightmare from that point of view. Normally speaking, when you do a "technical" it takes about a day, or a day-and-a-half. Well, we started the technical on Monday and we were still going on Saturday night at 11 o’clock! We’d had to cancel the first three performances. It was the press day on the Monday, and they wanted us to do it first for the press without a dress rehearsal on the Monday night! I’m usually a very mild-mannered person, but on that occasion fear made me stick my heels in, and I said "No, we’ve got to do a dress rehearsal." So we did have a dress rehearsal on the Sunday. I can still remember at the start of the first night wondering whether one was going to remember all those little technical things and thinking "This is never going to work, it’s not going to last" — but we did, and it worked.’
With this troubled start, we asked if there were any big problems during the actual running of the play. ‘I can’t think of any major disasters. They had twenty-four slide carousels working in conjunction, and that was the biggest problem they had — that’s why it took a week to sort out the problems.’
With the decision not to cast Jon Pertwee or the new Doctor Tom Baker, we asked Trevor how his part had fitted in, and how he had come to approach the part. ‘I started off dressed up as Jon Pertwee. Then I came out and had a seizure, as it were. The carousel showed our faces changing. We’d already had three different Doctors, who each had their own approach. So provided one played it — I was going to say seriously! — without sending it up, it was up to you really. You were your own Doctor.’ He commented that the play was very true to the style of the television show.
Bringing out our copy of The Seventies brought back a few more memories. ‘It’s nice seeing the names of people whose name you’ve forgotten,’ said Trevor. ‘I’ve seen Wendy Padbury a few times. The play was very good, very funny. We had a giant claw which was very tricky.’ This led to a discussion of other companions: Christopher had re-met Louise Jameson in a short play after Talons, and had worked with Caroline John on television just six months ago.
Of course, the issue of Tom Baker then jumped up. ‘Great fun,’ said Chris. ‘He was lovely, and not at all difficult. He was really wonderful. I had a terrible time with Trevor Baxter [Professor Litefoot] as we got the giggles all the time. They had to stop recording a few times. We got into quite some heavy trouble — David Maloney never, ever used us again!’ he claimed, bursting into laughter. ‘I had a lot to do with Tom, as we went stalking around together like Watson and Holmes. I had the better part, of course. Tom was actually my straight man — I wonder what he’d say to that!’
Interestingly, the rumours of a spin-off starring Jago and Litefoot were denied straight away. ‘No, I only hear of that from you guys! I never heard anything at the time. It would have been wonderful. They probably thought it would cost too much, on film, because we "corpsed" it all the time!’
One of the lesser parts of Talons was the giant rat in the sewers. Chris shared the same view as most fans: ‘Yes, it came across as a toy — it was ridiculous!’
John Bennett, who had earlier played the very white General Finch in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, was cast as Li H’sen Chang for this story, with appropriate (and very effective) make up used to achieve the look of the Chinese magician. We asked if this showed any particular stance or social situation at the time, but found it to be more indicative of the scarcity of Asian actors in England of the time. ‘John showed up very well,’ said Chris. Trevor went on with a current parallel of sorts. ‘It’s crazy — they won’t do Othello in England any more unless they’ve got a black actor, which is ridiculous. They once had a black actor playing the King of France in Lear, and a French member of the audience stood up in the middle of the performance and said it was typical of the English to make France look silly by having a black king. They wanted Anthony Hopkins to play Othello and he wouldn’t do it because of the political correctness of it, which is silly as Shakespeare wrote it for his actors. I would like to see an Othello where Othello is white and everyone else is black — I’ve done a bit of that myself. It helped very much to understand the jealousy — I actually did quite fancy the girl playing Desdemona.’
Chris has also been in this situation. ‘I played Othello when I was young and a bit slimmer than I am now. I played him three times in fact, and I had constant nightmares about it. The nightmare is always of sitting in front of a mirror putting my black make-up on, and seeing it turn white.’
With time running out before they were due on stage, we raised the recent radio serial Paradise of Death. ‘It was hoped that if the powers-that-be accepted it, we’d get a series,’ said Trevor, who appeared as Jenhegger. ‘There was hope there, but then Jon Pertwee died, so that was that one.’ While neither saw the US telemovie, both expressed fondness for the show and its future.
Trevor and Christopher, thank you.
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.