Nicholas Courtney RIP
It is with great sadness that we have to report the death of Nicholas Courtney, the much-loved Brigadier in Doctor Who, at the age of 81, after a long illness
Nicholas Courtney in his final appearance in the Whoniverse
It with extreme sadness that we have to report the death of Nicholas Courtney, a man who became a legend in science fiction as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in Doctor Who.
Born in Egypt, Courtney first appeared as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart in 1968’s “The Web Of Fear” when Patrick Troughton was the Doctor (although he had previously appeared in the show as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” opposite William Hartnell). He was promoted to his more familiar rank for his next appearance in “The Invasion” (1968, again with Patrick Troughton), before he became a regular fixture throughout the UNIT years of the early ’70s when Jon Pertwee was the Doctor. After that he made numerous, sporadic guest appearances alongside Tom Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy, his last appearance in TV Doctor Who coming in 1989’s “Battlefield”. But he continued to play the role in various audio dramas and fan-made video spin-offs after the classic show was cancelled.
Sadly he never appeared in the new series of Doctor Who, though he was mentioned many times, but he did make one final appearance in the official Whoniverse in a 2008 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, “Enemy Of The Bane”.
He was honorary president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society and served on the council for the actors’ union Equity for many years.
He was also – always – a delight to interview and a genuinely lovely gentleman.
He is survived by his wife Karen, his son Philip and daughter Bella, to whom we send our deepest sympathies.
In his honour, we’re reprinting this interview with the great man himself from SFX46. Read, enjoy and remember this very splendid chap with great fondness…
Five Rounds Rapid
Nicholas Courtney sips on his lager and muses on the title of his recently published autobiography. “Five Rounds Rapid… I hope that’s a good title, because halfway through I found a better title, I thought… A Soldier In Time. A lot of people said, ‘Well, what does this mean, this Five Rounds Rapid!?’ Unless you know the Doctor Who story ‘The Daemons’ and the context, it might be a rather puzzling title. But my friend Stephen Thorne [the Daemon himself] says it’s quite a snappy title, and will intrigue people – it could be drinks!”
In “The Daemons” – a quintessential early ’70s slice of Who, starring Pertwee and UNIT, the “Five rounds rapid” is uttered when Courtney as the Brigadier orders a hapless soldier to open fire on the “chap with wings.” But the other meaning is quite appropriate as well – after all, “The Daemons” is the story which ends with the Brig commenting that he’d rather have a pint… But of what? “What’s the Brigadier’s pint?” grins Courtney. “It depends what public house he goes into. In this one, it is Stella Artois – so reassuringly expensive! I do my best to audition, but I haven’t got any voice-over work for them yet…”
Nicholas Courtney’s involvement with Doctor Who has lasted longer than any other actor. And Doctor Who remains important to him, even though the Brigadier’s only appeared in a BBC studio three times in the last 20 years, thanks to the convention circuit. “Yes, since 1970-whatever… I said I’d give it a go, have a trip to America at somebody else’s expense, and the rest is history – ever since then there’s been convention after convention.”
So have the conventions become as important as the series? When he’s meeting actors from other eras of the show every few months, does Courtney still think of the Pertwee era team as “his group” any more? “No, that’s gone… I can’t be tied down to one era. There’s John Levene and Katy Manning and Richard Franklin, and after that there’s Lis Sladen and Ian Marter, who I became very friendly with. We became great mates; it was a great loss when he died. But then when I did ‘Mawdryn Undead’ there was another crowd – Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding, and Mark Strickson indeed… And then the next lot come along, Sophie and Sylvester… all periods.”
Which gives him an overarching perspective on the series, as shown by his biography, Five Rounds Rapid! “I’m very lucky to have a great gift of recall, so there’s lots of things that are new, not just about Doctor Who but the rest of my life, which hasn’t been talked about at conventions. ”
One of the ironies of Courtney’s on-screen Who career is that the first story he appeared in wasn’t as the Brigadier, but as special agent Bret Vyon in the Hartnell story “The Dalek Masterplan,” co-starring Jean (Willow, Return To Oz) Marsh, who also turned up in the Brigadier‘s last BBC appearance in “Battlefield.”
“Yes, the Arthurian one would be his last adventure,” remembers Courtney, “with Jean Marsh who was also in the one when I wasn’t the Brigadier. I was her brother, Bret Vyon, and she killed me!”
“The Dalek Masterplan” was a story in which companions were coming and going left, right and centre and Vyon looked as if he might be joining the TARDIS crew, so it came as a shock to viewers when Vyon bit the dust. But Courtney had expected the role as a Space Security Agent to be a one-off.
“I knew it was four episodes and then I was killed… I thought, ‘It’s a nice job, Doctor Who. I’ve seen a bit of that on telly. That’ll be nice and I’ll have been in a science fiction series… Only four episodes, but never mind. I’ll go an do something else…’ But, no, I came back to Doctor Who, and all because of that same director [who did “Masterplan”], Douglas Camfield.”
It was Camfield who cast Courtney as the doomed Captain Knight in the second Yeti story, “The Web Of Fear,” three years later. “Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, as he was then, was going to be played by another actor, who bowed out, so I got the job.”
So Courtney got a sudden promotion, creating a character that made an instant impression – not least on the director. “Douglas thought that I was the Brigadier. He was convinced that I was so right. After ‘Web Of Fear’ he went on and on about it, while I was saying, ‘Duggie, it’s just another part.’”
Then, a few months later, Camfield was directing the first appearance of UNIT, and with a quick promotion to Brigadier, Courtney found himself with a recurring role for the next few years. “He saw me as this soldier, which had never struck me. I was only a private when I was in the army. Duggie was very military-minded, he was always worried about getting extras who didn’t look like soldiers… I was looking back at some of that ’70s stuff recently and we all had enormous long sideboards, everyone… When I got the part of the Colonel, rather than Captain Knight, Duggie checked with the producer who said, ‘Nick Courtney? But he looks too young to be a colonel, make him grow a moustache…’ So that’s where the moustache came from, and why I had a succession of false moustaches for ages before I grew my own.”
Several moustaches and six years later, the Brigadier finally moved on, with Camfield directing his final appearance in Tom Baker’s second season. “Then six years later, at a party, producer John Nathan-Turner said, ‘Do you want to come back?’ I was doing him as a schoolmaster, of course, because ‘Mawdyrn Undead’ was originally for William Russell’s character, the original companion Ian Chesterton, but he couldn’t do it… So that’s twice I’ve stepped in when the first choice dropped out!”
All part of the vagaries of an actor’s life, something Courtney’s well-aware of, having spent more than 20 years on the council of the actor’s union, Equity. “Oh Equity, yes… I got involved with it because they helped me as a young actor when I had a dispute with the management at a theatre. So years later I thought it was time I did something for them. It’s important that young actors don’t get exploited outrageously. It’s very much party of my life, Equity… it’s curious that in 1968 my son was born, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart first appeared, and I got elected to Equity for the first time, all in one year – three things which have been very dominant ever since.”
Even the fact that Doctor Who BBC-style is long dead, the Brig is alive and well thanks to the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s impressive video drama, Downtime, which enabled Courtney to highlight a side of the Brigadier he’d always wanted to show – his private life, including a previously unmentioned daughter. “Oh yes, I had a whole background worked out, which is why John Nathan-Turner decided in ‘Battlefield’ to introduce his wife, Doris. But I worked out he had a first wife, Fiona, who got fed up that he was off gallivanting around with the Doctor, and decided to leave. Terrance Dicks says he wished he could have included her in ‘The Daemons,’ but the budget wouldn’t even stretch to a white arm reaching out to try and restrain him from getting out of bed and going off to do what he was going to do…”