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'People buy Doctor Who drinks'

Apr 3 2003


Sylvester McCoy was born Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith in Dunoon, Scotland, in August 1943, several months after his Irish father had been killed fighting in the war.

On leaving school he decided to go into the priesthood, but after being rejected from the local seminary he abandoned any theological ambitions and headed for London hoping to be an entertainer instead.

While working in the box office of the Roundhouse Theatre, he was approached by Ken Campbell (whose company also included Bob Hoskins) to take part in his new comedy roadshow. Specialising in bizarre circus antics, such as hammering nails up his nose and stuffing ferrets down his trousers, he changed his name to Sylvester McCoy and was soon invited by director Joan Littlewood to try his hand at more 'legitimate' theatre. Over the next few years he worked extensively on stage and screen, appearing in everything from Shakespeare and opera to TV's Tiswas and Vision On ( remember The O-Men?)

It was while playing the lead in The Pied Piper at the National Theatre in 1987 that McCoy was offered the part of the seventh Doctor in TV's longest-running science fiction series, Doctor Who. He played the Time Lord for three seasons until the series ended in 1989, briefly reprising the role for an American-made TV movie in 1996, where he handed the TARDIS keys over to his old friend, Paul McGann. Alongside his other work, McCoy continues to play the Doctor in a variety of media, including last year's BBCi web-cast, Death Comes To Time, and in regular audio dramas released on CD.

He appears alongside Paul Bradley (EastEnders), Philip Franks (Heartbeat) and Cheryl Campbell in Michael Frayn's smash-hit comedy, Noises Off, at Woking's New Victoria Theatre from Monday (April 7) until Saturday (12). Tickets start at £11. Contact: 01483 454 900.

How is the tour going?
I'm in Stratford. We've done six weeks now. It's going great - really well. We're making people laugh wherever we go. This is one of the great comedies of the last 20 years, without a doubt.

What attracted you to the production?
It's from the National Theatre and Jeremy Sams kind of took a different slant on the original piece and got Michael Frayn to shorten it. It was three acts before, now it's two and it's very, very funny - visually funny as well as brilliantly written.

It's an interesting piece in that at one level it's a farce but on another it's quite cerebral.

What's really great is that the first act is a Whitehall farce and people still look down their noses at farces but secretly everyone loves them. But then the second act is even funnier - it's about the actors trying to put on this Whitehall farce while all about it's descending into complete chaos backstage.

Is comedy the hardest type of theatre to pull off?
Yes. Not everyone can do comedy. Some of the greatest dramatic actors - and I've worked with one or two but I won't name names - wouldn't know a joke if it came up and hit them in the face with a custard pie. You have to have comic bones and there are actors in this who have got it... like Cheryl Campbell. She's a great dramatic actress but she is also the funniest person I've worked with in years.

Tell us a bit about your character.
My character is called Selsdon Mowbray, which sounds like a place just outside Stratford. He had once had quite a good career in the theatre - he worked at the RSC playing middle parts - but he's getting on a bit and has a bit of a drink problem and he basically spends most of the time trying to get hold of a bottle of whisky that the director has brought along for someone else, which ends up causing utter chaos.

Do these characters strike a chord with you as an actor?
Oh my God, that's the terrible thing. Michael Frayn has obviously been watching a lot of actors at work. I met an actress once who said she was really offended when she first saw the play, but it's very tongue in cheek.

You've done just about every type of theatre imaginable, haven't you? Yeah, I've done cabaret, circus, tragedy... everything from street theatre to high opera.

How's your singing voice, then?
Well I did Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and I played Puck, who doesn't have to sing. He speaks in time to the music, which is quite a scary discipline actually. But I have done musicals, too.

Let me ask you about the good Doctor. You're actually still playing him in various capacities, aren't you?
I think all the living actors are still playing him, apart from Tom Baker.

It's not the most original question, I guess, but what do you think gives Doctor Who such an enduring appeal?
It's that classic tale of the little man against great odds. That, and the other classic story of someone from outside our world coming down to help us. That makes it very attractive to human beings. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but Jesus came down from outside the world to save us and it's that kind of area. Science fiction has a quasi religious quality to it. People who are attracted to sci-fi are often not religious in other ways but are attracted to this idea of hope for the future, so it's a kind of religion in that way.

Do you feel he'll inevitably be part of your life for the rest of your days?
Yes. It would definitely play a big part in my obituary. At first, when the series finished, I thought 'been there. done that' - but then I realised you can't just go on to the next job after that one, so I thought: 'I'm going to enjoy this.' I've got to travel around the world and meet lots of very nice people, and people treat you very well. If you've been Doctor Who they buy you drinks, whereas if you've been someone like Dirty Den they probably throw drinks in your face!

You surprised people, I think, who expected you would be very comedic in the role, but you actually made him quite a dark, almost sinister figure.
Yes, we decided the Doctor should become darker and more mysterious. When the first Doctor arrived on the screen he was very mysterious and nobody knew what he was about, and we wanted to capture some of that again, albeit behind a more comedic front. We wanted to peel off another layer of the onion.

Is it true you were second choice to play Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings? Yes, I was down to the last two. They didn't tell me who the other one was but when I found out I was in the company of Ian Holm that took away some of the sadness, because he's a brilliant actor. I just wish he'd been busy that week! That would have been a nice pension...

And I enjoy doing conventions and things and this would have been another type of convention.

Do you have any burning ambitions still left to achieve?
I'd like to do more films. I've done films but none of them have been any good! But I'm more than happy with the career I've had. About the only thing I haven't done is ballet and I think I'm getting a bit old for that now. I don't think I'd be able to lift the ballerina - she'd have to lift me. Off the deck, probably.


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