Exclusive Interview: Peter Purves

January 8th, 2013

To celebrate the 50th anniversary we will be dedicating each month to a different Doctor – we’re bringing in the new year by remembering how the legend began!

As part of the First Doctor festivities we’re delighted to bring you our exclusive interview with Peter Purves, the actor who appeared alongside William Hartnell, as Steven Taylor, back in the 60’s. Peter shares with us his memories of being one of the Doctor’s early companions and reflects on how far the series has come since its inception half a century ago.

You can find out more about Peter and keep up to date with him at his official site, here.

Q. Firstly, how did your role in Doctor Who come about?
A. Following an interview with Richard Martin, the director, for a role as a giant insect in an earlier episode of Doctor Who, and after being rejected on the grounds that I was too good for the part, Richard cast me in an episode of the serial The Chase. Not as an insect this time but as the Hillbilly visitor to New York, Morton Dill, who had a 10 minute cameo scene with the Doctor and his companions followed by a meeting, which he survived, with the Daleks! After recording that episode, I was approached by Verity Lambert (Producer) and Dennis Spooner (Story Editor) and offered the role of Steven Taylor. They had been discussing the possibility with Bill Hartnell during the day. I later discovered Bill had been instrumental in recommending me.

Q. Have you always been interested in acting? Would you say there were any defining moments that helped to inspire and shape your career?
A. I wanted to be an actor from an early age and it gelled into a determination at the age of 9. I grew up in a town full of theatrical tradition, Blackpool, where I saw lots of shows, from Music Hall and variety through to plays and Circus. So nothing seemed more natural than to want to be on the stage myself.

Q. Do you remember what the public perception of the show was like back then? Did it have a strong viewership or was it still finding its feet in terms of its fan base? Could you have predicted it would still be going strong?
A. The show captured the audience’s imagination from episode one of the very first serial. It grew into a massive success with the first of the Dalek adventures. Although it was called a children’s drama serial, it was never perceived as that, I don’t think, by the general public. It was embraced by a massive following. At that time, actors were beginning to be not quite so “sniffy” about TV. It was the coming thing and the best actors in the land were beginning to look at TV as a real outlet for their work. But never in a million years would anyone have dreamt of the longevity the show has had. Mind you, there was a dip in popularity in the late 80’s when the show was taken off by the BBC. No demand for it they said. The modern resurgence in the popularity of the show is a really astonishing phenomenon.

Q. The series had been on air for a short while before you joined the cast – what was it about it, and Steven Taylor, that appealed to you?
A. It was a job! There were only three channels on TV and the number of repertory theatres in the country was shrinking rapidly. Films were a closed book to me so the fact someone wanted to pay me for doing what I loved for an audience exceeding 8 or 9 million was not something any actor would have turned down. And let’s face it, Steven was an heroic character. Why would it not appeal?

Q. What was your first day on set like? In terms of its production, was TV ‘made’ any differently in the 60s compared to now?
A. There was no first day on the set. We produced the episodes and serials as “live” recordings on a Friday after rehearsals in a Territorial Army Hall in Shepherd’s Bush the previous Monday morning. It was like doing weekly rep. Unlike the modern shows which are made as single camera dramas, we were shooting on multi-sets with six or seven cameras, and virtually no recording breaks. A break meant an edit, which was expensive. We only had an hour and a quarter on the set to record the programme which was 25 minutes long. TV was a different world then. I have been to the studios in Cardiff where the current show is produced. There is no atmosphere there at all. When we made the shows, it was electric – everyone from the Floor Assistant to the Director, via the camera crew and the actors, were absolutely on their mettle.

At that time, the BBC was the mecca for TV – the feeling of pride when you walked in the main entrance to the TV Centre in Wood Lane was indescribable. We made some of the programmes at Riverside studios in Hammersmith, so it was an even greater thrill when we did a serial at TV Centre instead. It was an entertainment factory, and I was lucky enough to work there on and off for over sixteen years. The BBC had an ethos that made you walk tall. Sadly it’s gone now, watered down and destroyed by a succession of Director Generals, who should have known better.

Q. The Classic Series still has a loyal fan base. Would you recommend your serials to modern audiences who are interested in the Doctor’s origins?
A. Certainly I would – I honestly believe the early stories were amongst the best and there was a simplicity in the narrative that you don’t find in the modern era. I loved the first 140 episodes or so, and I am very proud to have been part of 44 of them. Anyone who is interested may like to listen to the BBC Audio Collection where all of the now missing episodes have been remade into radio plays with the original sound tracks. These exist because fans would record them on a reel to reel recorder when they were first transmitted. Domestic video recording had not been invented then. I voiced commentary to fill out the visual gaps. They make very good listening.

Q. What are your own experiences with meeting Doctor Who fans?
A. Generally they know far more about the show that I do, but they are always very polite and have never ending patience when it comes to queuing up for an autograph or signed piece of memorabilia. I don’t claim to be a fan of the show, but attending events and conventions in recent years has increased my knowledge and interest.

Q. What are your memories of working with the cast and crew, in particular the First Doctor William Hartnell?
A. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Bill. As I said earlier, he was instrumental in my getting the role in the first place. He liked me so he took a slightly paternal friendly attitude towards me. He would take me out to lunch at least once a week. My wife and I would take him out for a curry from time to time, and occasionally he would be a guest in my flat in Gloucester Road, SW7. I remember him sitting in our living room chatting one evening. I happened to ask him what he had thought of Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic, using the F word for the very first time on a late night TV show the previous Saturday. Bill went almost apoplectic and said it was “….disgusting. That TV set is in the corner of living rooms – you wouldn’t go into someone’s living room and use ****ing language like that!”. My wife and I could barely contain ourselves, and Bill never saw the irony of the situation.

Q. Are you a fan of the new series and would you say that the role of the ‘companion’ has changed or evolved over at all over the years?
A. No, not really. Although I do admire Matt Smith’s Doctor very much, I am finding some of the plots a little bit too complicated. I referred to the simplicity of the earliest stories, and I think I preferred it that way. But the technical achievement of the show is remarkable. I couldn’t comment about the companions other than to say they have moved with the times as has the show. The one element I loved that has disappeared completely was the serendipity – the TARDIS was always broken, and the Doctor could never control where he was going. That was one of the secrets of the show’s success, I think. That and Bill Hartnell’s wonderful portrayal of the iconic Old Man.

Q. You’ve returned to the Doctor Who universe in audio adventures. What’s it like stepping back into Steven’s shoes in front of a microphone instead of in front of a camera?
A. I’ve absolutely loved it. Acting in front of a microphone is proper acting, after all. I think the productions by Big Finish have been spectacular. The Companion Chronicles are wonderful. Great scripts and production values and fabulous recording facilities. I have made eight of the Companion Chronicles, 2 more in the pipeline, one with Jean Marsh and one with Maureen O’Brien, and I think that is more than anyone else has done. I’ve loved every minute of them. And the other actors have been brilliant. I’ve also loved playing Bill Hartnell in the stories. I do a fair impression of Bill, which I’ve been told really does not sound like me. It’s convincing enough to help the listening audience suspend their disbelief. I am proud of that.

Q. Finally, as one of the Doctor’s original companions, how does it feel to have been part of the show’s early legacy? Do you look back on your time in the TARDIS with pride?
A. Absolutely I do. As the years pass by and my memories get reinforced at every event or convention or recording, I enjoy it more and more. I’m proud to have been an early companion with, for me, the real Doctor. There can never be another who is as definitive as Bill Hartnell’s reading of the part. Matt Smith is just quirky enough to eventually grow old and become Bill’s version. That is a happy circle to complete.

We would like to say a huge thank you to Peter for answering our questions!

1 comment on this article
  1. JC
    January 8th, 2013 at 6.00pm | #1

    A great interview, very interesting read.

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