It started with Escape Into Night.
Back in July, I noticed that actor/director Lisa Bowerman – who I’d previously only spoken to when attempting a drunken Danny La Rue impersonation at a Doctor Who convention in 2012 – had left a rather nice comment on the original Haunted Generation article, referencing this wonderfully unsettling 1972 serial. We started chatting on Facebook, and it was quickly apparent that Lisa’s upbringing had been almost defined by the disquieting TV that she had watched in the 1960s and ’70s. She had kept the cassettes that she once made of her favourite TV themes, and the childhood drawings inspired by Escape Into Night itself! Once the conversation turned to the unsettling qualities of regional ITV idents, it was obvious we needed to talk further for the website.
Lisa, of course, is well-known to Doctor Who fans. In 1989, she appeared in ‘Survival’, the the final story of the original series, playing Karra – a member of an alien Cheetah-like race who forges a profound connection with the Doctor’s companion, Ace. And, since 1998, she has been an integral part of Big Finish, a company whose range of audio drama (including officially-licensed Doctor Who productions) has been as impressive as it is prolific. For over two decades, she has played 26th century archaeologist Bernice Summerfield for the company, and in recent years has also turned her hand to directing.
In addition, Lisa has enjoyed an accomplished stage career; as well as clocking up TV appearances in the likes of Casualty (where she was an original 1986 cast regular), Coronation Street, Grange Hill and Doctors.
Lisa and I talked over Skype one windswept Friday afternoon, and here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: Let’s start at the start. What are your earliest memories of watching TV?
Lisa: I was very much of the TV age. I had much older brothers who were away at school, and then university, so I was almost like an only child. So the television was a bit of a surrogate sibling. The television at that time, from the 1960s into the 1970s, was just extraordinary. I don’t know whether it was just the nature of black and white television, but there was an atmospheric quality to it… when you’re watching in black and white, your brain does the work for you. Sometimes, I think you have false memories as to whether you actually watched something in black and white or in colour. I think that all just added to the ambience of the kind of stuff I was exposed to as a child.
And I used to watch all sorts of stuff. I even used to watch – and dance to – the Test Card! Don’t quote that, that’s embarrassing…
Not at all, I loved the Test Cards.
Weirdly, I was only thinking the other day when I was listening to Radio 3: “That’s the music they used to play over the Test Card!” They were generally accompanied by classical music. I was even introduced to some classical music by the Open University programmes which were, of course, broadcast during the day. I was a bit of a collector of such things…I still have some of it on a little W.H.Smiths cassette! [Laughs]
The music has stayed with me… it’s a bit like people saying that smells are evocative. I think the music that television used, either original theme tunes or classical music, became a subliminal education for kids at that time. I really do.
Any examples in particular that have really stuck with you?
Well if you look back at the children’s TV shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a lot of jazz-based stuff. The music for Vision On, for example, was incredibly sophisticated. There were such interesting rhythms… even the music for Play School was unusual. It wasn’t pop-based. Everything had its own style. And maybe I’m just being unobservant, but I’m not that conscious of it these days.
I’m never sure if that was maybe even part of the BBC’s public service remit back then. A feeling that it was healthy to expose very young kids to esoteric things, and some actually quite avant-garde music.
Yes, there was a sophistication to it. I don’t know if it was intentional or just part of the zeitgeist. People producing television in those days were, to some extent, given a lot more latitude. They had a lot more creative freedom. Now, I think that everyone is so busy looking out for being tripped up that there’s a big stranglehold on some really interesting creativity – especially when it comes to children’s TV. I mean… we still had American cartoons and stuff like that, but the home-grown stuff was really extraordinary.
When you look at the background of someone like Oliver Postgate… it’s really strange. He came from a family of political firebrands, and he went to Dartington Hall, which was a notoriously progressive school. And all of that bled into his work, I think.
Absolutely. And you know… you can’t imagine him being commissioned nowadays, can you? But that also goes for television writing in general. I don’t believe that Dennis Potter, or even – to a certain extent – Alan Bennett would get through the regime that is in place for commissioning drama these days. You don’t get the one-off dramas, and it’s quite well-documented that – certainly within the BBC – trying to have an original voice as a writer is almost impossible. They now require you to go through this apprenticeship of… “Oh, you have to write for EastEnders. And now you have to write for Doctors” before you can even be considered for any larger projects. The soap genre is completely different from the 50-minute or the 90-minute drama. I have enough writer friends to know how disillusioned they are about writing for television. We look at things like W1A and laugh… but don’t laugh, do something about it!
That was exactly my response to that programme! If you acknowledge that you have these problems, then sort them out.
Exactly! So I do worry. It’s affected the acting industry as well, because I think that middle-management has created this terrible… not even a glass ceiling, it’s a concrete fall-out shelter. And directors feel the same way, I know they do. I’ve spoken to enough of them. It’s the execs… I know that some are better than others, and I’m probably going to shoot myself in the foot here, but I don’t think a lot of them have a lot of love for the industry itself, and for what has gone before. I don’t think a lot of them understand what it is we actually do, sometimes. [Laughs]
I certainly feel very lucky to have grown up in an era when incredibly creative people were given the freedom to make very distinctive television. We were chatting on Facebook about Bill and Ben and The Woodentops…
Oh yes… they were still, to certain extent, made to the Reithian edict of educating as well as entertaining. I suppose you can look at them now, and say: “Oh, they’re so middle class and safe and traditional”, but the one thing I think about most [modern] children’s television, that I personally dislike, is that they feel they have to associate with kids – that in some way they have to act like kids to be liked by their target audience, as opposed to just talking to them normally, as themselves. There’s always somebody shouting at them down the end of the tube! But the television I was brought up with was much more gentle. It was quieter.
When I first got broadband, I tripped up on Youtube, and… oh my God, nostalgia-fest. Things I never thought I’d see again. You look at somebody like Brian Cant, who I just thought was a genius of the children’s genre. You watch those very early Play Schools… he says: “Hey! Should we look through these windows? Maybe we will, and maybe we won’t…” He’s laid back, a twinkle in his eye, a hint of irony, he doesn’t have to overcompensate to get your attention. You just like him.
You wouldn’t get that these days; the presenters would be jumping up and down and screaming at you. You wouldn’t have that time to sit and listen. I think that quietude is missing from a lot of children’s TV now. I think perhaps Anne Wood – who did Teletubbies and In The Night Garden – got it right, and it still exists within those programmes. My great nieces, like everybody else, are obsessed with Peppa Pig, and I had to sit down and watch 58,000 episodes of it one Christmas, so I’m relatively well versed on that! And that’s quite sweet. Never fear though, I’ve shamelessly introduced them to Camberwick Green on DVD!
And although I was probably a little bit old for it, we had things like Bod – with that wonderful John Le Mesurier voiceover. It was gentle and quiet and slightly unusual. We had Oliver Postgate’s voice, which was almost mystical. We had things like Ludwig… do you remember Ludwig? I was introduced to Beethoven by Ludwig. That music… you think “What is that? Oh, it’s Beethoven!”. I suppose the clue was in the title! It’s fantastic.
Again, it’s the esoteric being given to kids.
Exactly, and it’s about discovering things without feeling you’re being lectured. I would say… from about the ages of seven to 13, your brain just soaks everything up. The things that have stayed with me are all from the age of about 13… that was 1975, so that fits the kind of era we’re talking about, I think.
With regard to that feeling of gentleness, I’ve been told by a couple of Play School presenters that the instruction they were given was to imagine they were speaking to a single child, sitting alone in the front room. And by the sound of things, that was you and me…
Exactly, television was my company. I travelled around a lot as a kid, because my father moved with his job from place to place. And although I made friends quite easily, they were never around long enough. So I had a relationship with the television that you wouldn’t have if you had a big family with a lot going on. And talking about that one-to-one feeling… the other genius, I think, is Bernard Cribbins. One of the best actors out there. He’s just at the top of his tree, I think he’s wonderful. He’s also been quoted as saying that, when he did Jackanory, he just sat and talked to that one kid.
He’s absolutely right – that’s how you associate with children. I don’t have children of my own, but I’ve had enough contact with nephews and nieces to know that if you have to sit down and teach them how to tie a bow or do their shoelaces, then you can’t do it in a bouncy way. And I don’t want to play amateur psychologist, but I think that children sometimes need to learn how to be quiet, or on their own, without feeling uneasy that something isn’t happening. I heard somewhere recently that boredom is a very good springboard for the imagination.
Yes, I think that sense of stillness can result in creativity. If there’s stillness and silence then your mind can wander… often in quite interesting and invigorating directions.
Absolutely, and children find their outlets. Through poetry, or art, or making models, or writing – they’re all pretty analogue references, I know. I’m not too sure how the electronic age has changed that… to physically pick up a pencil and draw, as opposed to doing it on an electronic pad… I mean the biggest high-tech excitement for me was an Etch-A-Sketch!
I guess we’re all just bombarded by “stuff “in the 21st century. You actually have to make an effort not to be, and physically turn everything off. You have to really want to be quiet these days, but back then it was our default setting.
And it’s very hard. I’m as guilty of it as the next person. Instant gratification is an interesting thing as well. As a photographer, I remember the excitement of waiting for your prints to arrive in the post from Bonusprint… or going down to Boots to pick them up! I was using film for years, even after digital came around. You’d take a photograph of a child and they’d say “Can I have a look at it?” And you’d say: “Nope! It’s on film, mate – sorry!” [Laughs].
The notion of instant gratification doesn’t encourage patience. I’m aware I’m a “quick person”, and I like things to be done quickly… but patience is something you need to learn. How that seeps into media and entertainment, I don’t know… possibly the idea of us watching one episode of something, and waiting another week to see the next one. Schedulers would simply never let that happen now! I think I should add however, that the sudden popularity of “Slow TV” is very interesting. Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Yes… and I daresay it’s not the last time we’ll talk about Doctor Who, but you would watch it on a Saturday… and then you’d have a full week for it to sink in. You’d act out that episode in the school playground for a week, and you’d think about it and talk about it with your friends. All of us watching and dissecting these programmes at the same time, at a leisurely pace.
I couldn’t agree with you more, and that element has completely gone. People either choose to binge watch, or they put off watching for months! I have to admit though, that that flexibility of viewing is convenient. Whether there’s a correlation with regard to soaps having completely exploded, in terms of the number of episodes… again, I think to a certain extent, that’s been at the expense of the single drama. I look back, and I quote this a lot: When we started Casualty, in 1986, we all trotted off to the launch of the new BBC Drama Season at BAFTA. I still have the brochure. The variety of output that the BBC had was extraordinary: within 18 months you had Screen One, Screen Two, ScreenPlay, Theatre Night, The Theban Plays… as well as, you know, the likes of Doctor Who and Casualty. EastEnders took up just one page, it had been going a year and had two episodes a week. And now, it’s every single night. In terms of drama, I do think it’s a case of the law of diminishing returns. As far as the executives are concerned though, it’s cheap and easy: you’ve got your set built, a stable of writers, your regulars and guests come in for a couple of bob to do one or two episodes.
Whereas we were brought up with the single play: Play For Today, Wednesday Play, and Play of the Month. Amongst some of the drama strands, and all those children’s dramas that used to be on at teatime, which threw up things like Escape Into Night, and the costume dramas… I bought a whole pile from Network a little while ago. You probably don’t remember Boy Dominic, an ITV costume drama, with Brian Blessed – it was wonderful! And there was The Children of Green Knowe, and Carrie’s War, and Lizzie Dripping… they were “dash home and watch” series. And then you’d be on your school holiday, and watch all the dubbed stuff from Europe… which was equally strange. The Singing Ringing Tree! My God… that was traumatising. The White Horses, and Belle and Sebastian, and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe… and all those little inserts during The Banana Splits. This was just Saturday morning TV… way before Swap Shop, of course!
I think those dubbed shows in particular had their own unique atmosphere. There was something “of the other” about them.
It was the psychedelic period. And that 1960s zeitgeist bled into things in a different way to the “haunted” 1970s thing. Let’s go back to Doctor Who: again, maybe I’m just being an old fuddy-duddy, but I think what’s missing from Doctor Who now is the oddness. The otherness of it. The fact that he – or she – is outside the norm. I think the more normal you make the Doctor, the more you take away from the show’s success. But that’s just my take on it, I suppose.
For me, the success of shows like Doctor Who was always about the collision between that otherness, that oddness, and the everyday. Most of my favourite shows are about the uncanny in some way bleeding into our ordinary day-to-day lives, and turning the everyday into something dreamlike. In the case of Escape Into Night, it’s literally dreamlike.
I think I sent you that funny picture! I actually drew that when I was 10. I could probably draw a bit better than that, but I was just trying to recreate what was in that story – it had sparked my imagination. There’s nothing as scary as that on TV now for kids.
What was it about Escape Into Night in particular that really got to you?
Maybe it was the child on her own? A sick child? It’s interesting… it’s a bit like The Changes, or Carrie’s War, or Lizzie Dripping, in that the protagonist is a girl. They’re all girl-led, but you wouldn’t say they were TV shows for girls – they were for girls and boys. That’s really interesting when you look back at it. And maybe it’s at that age, when you’re quite impressionable, that you say – “I want to be like her. I wish I was in her shoes”.
Everybody had adventures. I was allowed out for the whole day… when I was six, I lived behind a wood, and I used to go out with a couple of kids from next door and spend the entire day in the wood, playing hide and seek, playacting, making mudpies, that sort of thing ! You can relate that back to things like Enid Blyton and The Famous Five, I suppose… and Malory Towers. But that doesn’t really blend into the strangeness of the stuff that the 1970s threw up.
And I remember The Changes very well…
…that’s an extraordinary series. There are clips of the continuity on Youtube, where the announcer rather archly states: “Now it’s time for our programme for… slightly older children…” You don’t say!
[Laughs] Oh, that’s hysterical! And although I was a bit older then, Children of the Stones was exactly the same. But again, look at the accompanying music. It’s incredibly weird. I was slightly obsessed with theme tunes when I was a young teenager, and I have an old BASF tape with the most extraordinary collection of music from old BBC2 classics. It probably needs a new cassette case, because the old one squeaks so much! I made tapes of a lot of music from TV shows that either don’t exist any more, or don’t get played. There was a drama strand called The Classic Series on BBC2, that included productions like How Green Was My Valley… and in fact, I Claudius was part of it. Lots of different dramas under this one title, and I was obsessed with the themes.
Going back to The Changes, Paddy Kingsland, who composed the music for that, did lots of themes around that time, and there was another composer around then: Paul Reade, who composed the accompanying music for Crystal Tipps and Alistair. I particularly loved their work. The music stays with you as well as the images.
So you’ve still got the tape?
I do! I should tell you what’s on it… things like Warship and Film ’74! I’m just going into this box, this is very exciting… bear with me… [there’s the sound of frantic rummaging] I’ve got all my cassettes here… I’m not sure it is in here, actually – because I tried to convert it, but the tape was too squeaky! [more rummaging]
It’s interesting, a good friend is Denis King, who wrote the themes for Lovejoy and The Adventures of Black Beauty, and he was bemoaning a few years ago about the lack of commissions that people get for actual theme tunes these days [rummaging continues]… No, I can’t find it. I’ll dig it out at some point or other!
If you find it, send me a picture…
Oh, I will! It’s one of those treasures… oh, it’ll be around. Isn’t that crazy? I thought I’d put them all in here…
I loved it when we were chatting on Facebook, and you mentioned your love of vintage TV idents as well. Particularly the Southern TV ident, with that creepy folk guitar…
Oh, yeah! [At this point Lisa sings a note-perfect recreation] How can I remember that? It’s insane! I just think, with our generation, television was still in its infancy. When an actor or a celebrity from that era dies these days, people feel real pain over it – even though they didn’t know them. I’ve got a very grumpy friend who’s always complaining: “Well, people die every day.” And I was trying to explain to him that we were part of the first generation that grew up with people coming into our living rooms like that, on a daily or weekly basis. And when somebody dies, it’s like a little part of you goes.
I interview actors and presenters from that era, and it’s so touching – they have no idea how much they meant to us.
I know. I work very regularly with Peter Purves, and if you’d told me when I was 10 that one day Peter Purves would be a mate, and I’d be directing him, I’d have said “Oh, don’t be stupid!” I still do a sort of double take, really! It’s so bizarre.
Did you see the Blue Peter Edinburgh show a couple of years ago? It was wonderful.
I didn’t, but my friend Ian was in it! He was the only non-Blue Peter person in it! So I knew all about it, and saw lots of pictures, but I didn’t manage to see it, unfortunately.
I sat and cried all the way through it. There was a wonderful section at the end where Peter essentially said: “We loved doing the show, because we knew that you lot were racing home from school on dark and rainy nights to watch it…” And then Mark Curry sang ‘Mr Bojangles’, and that led into a montage of clips of John Noakes, with Peter telling us how much he loved him. I was in pieces. Absolutely devastated.
Oh, God! I mean John Noakes was just a hero to everybody. I know he later said it was a performance, but even so… again, look at him. He didn’t jump and down, trying to be a like a kid. He was literally just doing what he enjoyed. And that’s how you engage with children: not by being manically enthusiastic, but by just loving what you do. And I think sometimes that executives don’t always understand that. It’s very strange.
I wanted to ask you about something that’s come up a few times in interviews recently, and it’s about the nature of film: Alice Lowe and Matthew Holness have both talked about the nature of the medium of film itself being somehow dreamlike. And I gather you feel the same.
Oh, absolutely. I put off going digital for a long time with my photography, because there’s a real texture to film that digital has never quite recreated; things like colour saturation and renditions, the grain… everything. There’s a particular red colour that Kodachrome film had… if you watch a 1960s film for example, you know exactly when it was filmed, because you look at the London buses and the pillar boxes, and they’re all this incredible red. It was the film stock at the time. I can tell you now that digital cannot recreate that! I’ve been trying, and it just doesn’t do it! It’s really bizarre.
When it comes to using film for television… I’ve watched – quite a lot of times, and I hope they never remake it – The Signalman, with Denholm Elliott. You know when the figure is waving in the fog trying to stop him by the tunnel, and he doesn’t know whether what he’s seeing is real or not? The sequence works so well because of the nature of film – because it’s so grainy, you, the viewer, don’t know either. The image is so ambiguous. Again… unless you filter digital to within an inch of its life, it’s very difficult to recreate that sort of ambivalence of image.
I remember watching the film Akenfield, too. Peter Hall directed it. It’s about life in the Suffolk countryside. I must have been very young… I even got the book that it’s based on, it’s deadly dull! But the way it’s shot… he used very long lenses, with a very shallow depth of field. On film. It just looks like a painting. It’s that sort of mood that is created by film. It sort of distances you from things. Everything’s so literal now: I find it funny that everyone goes mad for filters these days, because they’re just trying to recreate that nostalgic mood. It’s like impressionist painting.
Matthew mentioned the look of A Warning To The Curious, another Ghost Story for Christmas.
Oh God, that’s fantastic.
The opening shot of that looks like a painting too, and he said he just can’t work out how it was done. It looks like nothing else on Earth.
Exactly. And I miss that. An industry that has been created, that we never thought would become so big, is the industry of nostalgia. And I think there are now more possibilities for a younger generation, and a creative generation, to discover these shows and say: “Actually… that works better than what I’m trying to achieve at the moment.” It’ll be like rediscovering vinyl. Film is a very different experience, but a very useful tool for what you’re trying to convey. My only regret is, it’s so expensive to use.
So did all of these childhood experiences feed into your desire to act?
It’s funny… I think I was obsessed with actors rather than acting initially – not in an unhealthy way! My middle brother is an actor as well, and my parents actually met on the amateur stage during the war: The Royal Army Pay Corps Amateur Theatre Society… RAPCATS, I think it was called! My father had an incredible memory for names and faces, and I’ve become a bit like that with actors. When I was 14 or 15 I would occasionally get calls from my brother, who would be post-show in some bar at a theatre somewhere, saying: “You know so-and-so… what’s he been in?” And I would rattle off their entire CV.
Do you know Toby Hadoke?
I do, and that’s exactly what he’s like!
He’s far better than I am, he’s just a walking encyclopaedia. I love him… he does it with such affection. When he and I sit down, it’s like Actor Geek Central! I’m so glad I’m not the only one in the world who was obsessed like that. There’s a fun thing now… my partner is older than me, and quite well-established… [Lisa’s partner is the actor, David Warner] and he and I watch Talking Pictures TV. I can name some of the actors, and he’ll name the others – he’s probably worked with the lot of them! So he’ll say “Test me: Who’s that? Is that so-and-so?” And I’ll look it up, and it is. It’s like a game. I’ll confirm that he’s got it right and he’ll say “OK, ask me another…” [Laughs]
I’m sure if I ever had to sit down and watch television with Toby, we’d both be terrible. It’s why I’ve been championing Talking Pictures TV… you look at some of those old B-movies, and there are some wonderful actors. Of course it was a very small rep back then. You know, the likes of Sydney Tafler, Sam Kydd, Michael Ripper, Geoffrey Keen, and Joan Hickson are in absolutely everything! And John Laurie, who you only ever knew from Dad’s Army, turns up in tons of stuff. You watch these things, and you think: these are really good actors. They had good, solid B-movie careers. I think a lot of young actors dismiss old actors as being melodramatic and over-the-top… but sometimes, they really aren’t and when occasionally they are, it’s because the part requires it. Everybody is so scared to show any energy onscreen now, that you end up with this kind of bland wallpaper of a performance… I find it really dull. “Oh, speak up for God’s sake!” [Laughs]
I guess it was still an era when theatre and TV were very closely linked. A multi-camera TV studio is very similar to a theatre set-up, so it’s understandable that some actors would give theatrical performances.
Absolutely. You used to get those credits that said “So-and-so is appearing by kind permission of the Royal Shakespeare Company”! Television was very much the poor relation to theatre. Even when I was at drama school, television wasn’t really considered as part of our training – apart from the fact that Equity wouldn’t allow us to do television when we left, as we weren’t full members. Which was really annoying! You could do really well for three years at drama school, then you were back to sweeping the stage the moment you left.
You could say that – back then – it helped calm the ego down a bit, and actually taught you to appreciate other people’s roles in the business, but at the same time there were things where you’d think “Oh… I really should have been seen for that.” Then they moved the goalposts a few years after I left drama school, and opened up the Equity closed shop. Employers used to say “We think you’re great… but come back when you’ve got some experience.” So you’d go back when you’d actually got the experience and they’d then say “Sorry, no – we’re using the students now…” [Laughs]
So was it theatre or television that you were drawn to first?
Absolutely theatre. There was a successful and well-known regional theatre near to where I lived, the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead. It’s actually still there, it’s just called the Leatherhead Theatre now – and is run by evangelical Christians! Anyway, they had a very active youth theatre. We’d tour an original musical annually, do improv sessions every week, work front of house – they would sometimes use us for padding out numbers in professional productions. It was a wonderful grounding. My brother was an actor anyway by that time – he’s ten years older than me – so I’d been to see him a lot of times, and although it wasn’t because of him that I went into it… I just loved it. As my old drama school principal used to say: “Either you want to be an actor, or a normal human being.” You’d have to know it was the only thing you could ever imagine doing.
So it was drama school for me… I knew what I wanted to do, much to my parents’ dismay.
Ah, really? Did they want you to have a proper job?
Oh God, yes. I agreed to do a secretarial course before I went to drama school – if, of course, I actually got into one. But I dipped my toe in the water, applying to just one place the year I was leaving school, and got onto the shortlist for the Bristol Old Vic, where my brother had been. They said “Come back to the re-calls again next year, and we’ll see how you go.” Mind you, with that place not being guaranteed, I auditioned for a lot of other colleges too when the time came.
When I finally got into Bristol, I think my father thought it was nepotism because the then-principal knew my brother Robin, but then I got offers from four more, and suddenly it was “Oh, OK then…”. I’d gone about it the sensible way, you know! [Laughs]
So I’ve been in and around professional theatre since I was 14, and I got to know a lot of actors in the main house at Leatherhead. Because it was so close to London, you’d get the most amazing casts. As I touched on earlier, I was stage managing in the studio theatre: I used to serve wine, and help out with auditions, and we’d do our yearly schools show. So I was working in a sort of amateur professional way for quite a time. For me, theatre is where it’s at – because you are there, in the moment. You don’t always get it right – you do sometimes trip over the furniture and forget your lines, but it’s the ultimate live experience. It floats my boat! I find television deadly dull… I mean it’s alright, and I’m sure it must be wonderful performing more challenging roles, but I’ve never done any more than what I call “hit and run” television. I’m generally the walking, talking information machine. I don’t think I’ve knowingly portrayed a human emotion on television for over 30 years! [Laughs]
I guess, as an actor, theatre gives you the ultimate control. What you decide to do onstage in the moment is, by default, the finished piece.
Yes. It can be terrifying! I mean obviously you’re very dictated to by the piece… and it is a team sport. You’re as good as the person you’re playing opposite, and it’s a bit of a game of tennis. It’s depressing when you’re in something and… oh God, I did a terrible play years ago with one of the worst actors. I’m not going to name names, but it was like freefall without a parachute on that stage! I thought “I’m on my own here… I’ve just got to do my thing and get off…”
There comes a point where you think “It’ll be good for the anecdotes” and carry on. There are other times though, when you’re in something hugely successful, with a fantastic cast, and you just have a ball. It’s a joy from start to finish. And that’s the excitement of the game. And how that bleeds into television… I actually think, although it’s a slightly controversial view these days, that the best actors on television are the good stage actors. What they do is very economic, but they have a lot of energy. They don’t do nothing… they just do nothing with energy! Does that make sense?
No, absolutely – some of my favourite actors barely move! But they do it brilliantly. Peter Sellers is the one for me… in lots of his roles, he barely twitches, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Exactly, less is more. My partner is quite well known for that! He doesn’t know how he does it… but you know, you don’t analyse it. It’s just instinctive. Some people have it and some people don’t; some people learn, and some people never learn.
Can I ask about ‘Survival’, your Doctor Who story? It doesn’t come from that peak era of hauntedness that we’ve discussed, but it still has that hugely evocative element of the otherworldly bleeding into the everyday. I don’t think the original run of Doctor Who ever showed ordinary, suburban life as effectively as it does in ‘Survival’.
It’s funny you should say that – I think they were just finding their feet, stylistically. Rona Munro was a new voice, and she’s a fantastically good stage writer. Her James plays are amazing. Dominic Glynn did the music, and that was Wild West weird. And the visual effects were stripped of money but they were cutting edge for the time – you’ve got all the volcanoes. And yes, there’s that juxtaposition with the urban, which I think Russell T Davies really picked up on when he brought the show back. I think that really brought a bit of the unusual into it, compared to the slightly panto stuff that had gone on in the previous season.
I mean, I’m not a great devotee of Doctor Who. I remember seeing William Hartnell… I might not be able to tell you the stories, but I remember watching him as a child. But going back into that “weird” thing: the ones that have stayed with me are the Jon Pertwee Earth-based stories, with all the Radiophonic Workshop underscoring. ‘The Green Death’, with the maggots, was the one I had the nightmares about. And I don’t know if it’s a false memory, going back further, but I seem to remember a nightmare about the Yeti too – I was very young when that one came out, and they were quite monstrous-looking.
Images at that age stay with you, but the way that television is consumed now… I don’t know whether nostalgia is going to exist in the form that we know it. There’s almost too much to choose from.
This is a big thing for me. I think a big part of our nostalgia is that we often didn’t know exactly what we’d seen. My first memory of anything at all is the end of Part One of ‘Terror of the Zygons’. The crash zoom into the Zygon’s face… I was about two and a half. And for years, there was no way of me finding out what that image actually was. So there was a potency attached to it: and if it had been, for example, an episode that had since been wiped then I might never have found it! The fact that we’ve got stuff missing from our memories is a really important part of our nostalgia, I think. There’s a longing.
I couldn’t agree more. This is why I suddenly became obsessed with YouTube when I first got the internet, because it was full of things that I really thought I’d never see again. That’s why I used to sit in front of the TV with my Panasonic cassette – because I thought “That’s it – I’ll never see this again!”
So is there a possibility modern kids’ relationship to nostalgia will be different to ours – because they’ve got unlimited access to pretty much everything they’ve ever seen on TV? If they’re deeply affected by seeing David Tennant do something on Doctor Who when they’re three years old, they’re then able to watch that scene every day for the rest of their childhood.
It’s interesting – when Big Finish went to the 50th anniversary celebrations at the ExCel Centre, I was absolutely struck by how many children were there – because of course, you’re influenced by what your parents introduce you to. There was a lot of indoctrination going on! One of the sound designers at Big Finish, Benji Clifford, is completely saturated in 1970s stuff. He’s too young for all that – but it’s because his father sat him down and said “Watch this…”
I always thought the “haunted” feeling was a generational thing experienced by those of us who were there at the time. But I’ve since met people in their twenties and thirties who say they also get “that” feeling from 1970s stuff… and they also get it from their own, more recent, childhood memories. Somebody was telling me recently that they get that fuzzy, weird, unsettling feeling from the Windows 95 start-up jingle.
[Laughs] That’s hysterical! I’ve found the cassette, by the way… sorry, I’ve been wandering around. I’ll give you a rundown…
Robin Hood, which was the 1970s version with Martin Potter and Diane Keen. Fawlty Towers, Play For Today, The World at War, When The Boat Comes In, How Green Was My Valley, The Prince and the Pauper – the one with Nicholas Lyndhurst – The Waltons, That’s Life, Read All About It – which was a thing with Melvyn Bragg… it was a version of the Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’, I think. Clayhanger, Cakes and Ale – which was a drama with Michael Hordern – Hadleigh, On The Move, Our Mutual Friend, which was a Dickens adaptation…
A thing called A House For The Future – obviously about house design! Going For A Song, Boy Dominic, Wodehouse Playhouse, Ask Aspel, Katy – which was again one of those kid’s costume dramas – I Claudius, Softly Softly: Task Force, The Duchess of Duke Street, Dickens of London, Starsky and Hutch, Sam – which was a thing with Mark McManus from Taggart – Warship, Anne of Avonlea, Film ’77… and then I taped a lot of a Richard Rodney Bennett drama called Abide With Me. And I also remember recording the music from Moll Flanders, with Julia Foster, because they used a lot of folk songs for that. Also a drama called Brensham People.
So there we go!
So you had actually had a little tape recorder on a hostess trolley or something, pushed up against the TV speaker?
Oh yeah! I think, for my 12th or 13th birthday, I got a Panasonic cassette recorder. I wish I hadn’t given it away. So you’d sit there in front of the television, and just click the two buttons. The really sad thing is that, during Robin Hood, I have the only known recording of my grandmother… saying “All over then?” And I’m going “Ssssh!” [Laughs]
I have a recording of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy from Radio 4, and during one episode my Dad walks in and says “Is this bloody rubbish still on?”
[Laughs] Parents! It was just as bad trying to record the hit parade…
Can I also digress slightly back to the ‘otherness’ that we were exposed to as children of that generation? We definitely can’t overlook the extraordinary Public Information Films. Again, they’re easy to access these days, and I do have a couple of Charley Says DVDs! I know people talk a lot about the Apaches film, which actually passed me by as I was a bit older when that came out. However, I do remember the sombre strains of Donald Pleasence and the dangers of open water… or was it discarded fridges? All of them though, whether live action or animation, were just beautifully produced little dramas. The one animated one I distinctly remember – both for visuals and the rather “otherness” of the child’s voiceover – was the “Mummy says…never talk to strangers” one, that was literally an animated children’s drawing, with rather breathless and disjointed narration from a child. It really worked! Again, I’ve no doubt it would be pretty much derided now for the obvious middle class, “stay at home” mother… but even so – it packed a punch.
Can I ask a little bit about Big Finish? You’ve been with the company pretty much from the start… you must have seen it grow so much.
Absolutely. 22 years, and talk about little acorns. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I think James Goss said recently that, second to the BBC, it’s got the biggest output of original audio drama of any company. Really amazing. Obviously they’ve hooked into a genre that they all love, and if proof that Doctor Who still had legs came from anything, it came from Big Finish.
I think Russell T Davies understood that, which is why he helped Big Finish when the show came back! He just took a piece of paper from Mal Young, with Big Finish’s name on it, and said “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with that…” And they carried on, thank God.
I was reading about your first experience with them – recording in a damp basement with Nicholas Courtney playing your cat?
Yes, it was the most surreal thing! I was asked about it months before by Mike Tucker, who’d been one of the visual effects designers on ‘Survival’. He said “Look, there’s this character, she’s in the novels, and my friend Gary knows you do a lot of radio… do you want to do it?”
I thought it would probably be a couple of fanboys in a front room with a Casio recorder… and thought well, no reason to say no, really. Then it went incredibly quiet, before I got a call asking if I wanted to audition. So I thought “Oh, excuse me!” [Laughs]. I turned up to Nick Briggs’ front room, with Gary Russell and Jason Haigh-Ellery sitting there with this script adaptation of Oh No It Isn’t – which is a bizarre enough story anyway – and read for them, into a mic attached to an uplighter! Encouraging.
Funnily enough, I was looking back at an old diary, and at the time I wasn’t terribly impressed with it. But looking back it’s a really fun script. And I thought – “OK, I’ve got the gig, it’ll last a couple of weeks and I won’t tell my agent”. I turned up to this damp basement in Elephant & Castle, with this moth-eaten cat and a couple of hippies, and then of course Nick Courtney turned up – who of course I knew, and I was incredibly impressed that he was doing it! And somebody I’d never heard of called Mark Gatiss…
We recorded this thing, just with one mic in the middle of the room. I have to say, they were very lucky with [sound designer] Alistair Lock, because it was still the earliest days of digital recording. His post-production was remarkable, and of course he did the music… as well as playing a Grell! We initially did three adaptations of Doctor Who New Adventures books – sans the Doctor. When I received the final tape back, I thought… “Oh, that’s come out better than I expected.” They did everything by the book and sent them to the BBC – because a couple of other companies were flying quite close to the edge in terms of licensing – and the BBC heard them and said “Oh, these are good!”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
They then got the license for Doctor Who, which was enormous for them – it was their Holy Grail. And I thought “Well, bye bye Bernice Summerfield.” But I have to thank Gary Russell, who championed the character and said to keep her on. And here I am, 22 years later!
Again, according to my wonderful producer James Goss, I am the longest-running continuous actor in a title role in any audio. I don’t quite know if that’s a Guinness record! It’s still a bit of a niche market, to be honest… I’ve been quoted before as saying that I do feel a tiny bit like I’ve been invited to the Doctor Who party, but then stopped at the door by the bouncer. It’s a very strange hinterland to be in.
I’m always intrigued when somebody has played a part for that long – how well do you get to know the character? Can you look at a Bernice script and immediately realise that she wouldn’t say that line, or do that thing…
Yeah, absolutely. But I do think it’s the strength of the character that Paul Cornell created. If you want to look for a parallel, look at the characters of Jago and Litefoot. Robert Holmes created two incredibly good characters, and if you get good writers they automatically know how to write for them. I don’t have a lot of say in what happens in terms of scripts, but there are times when I’ve said “She’s got too many jokes here.”
I just like the character. She’s a nice character to hang out with. And so long as that continues, I’m happy to play her for as long as they want me to. So long as I don’t sound too old! I’ve been lucky to have a lot of different producers who have all had their own take on progressing the series, so she hasn’t stayed static for too long. That makes an enormous difference.
And as somebody who has clearly grown up in love with the acting profession, it must be extraordinary to have seen the likes of John Hurt and Derek Jacobi come through the Big Finish door…
Sadly I never worked with either of them at Big Finish, but I am like a kid in a sweet shop when it comes to casting! Because Big Finish has now got such a good name in the industry, I can go to these big agencies. One of my favourite actresses of all time is Siân Phillips, and I got to work with her, and direct her! Never in a million years would I have had that opportunity otherwise.
I mean, this is the thing that makes me sad about television now: the casting directors don’t know the people I love. They’re too young, they’re not interested. The waste of talent amongst older actors is quite phenomenal. I wish television would embrace actors getting older. Especially actresses. Again, one of my other favourite actresses, who I weirdly doubled for in a play in the late 1970s at the Thorndike, is Sarah Badel. She’s absolutely wonderful, and I completely nicked her performance from that Tom Stoppard play for my audition to get into drama school! I had the pleasure of being able to offer her a job in Jago and Litefoot a few years ago, and I just told her I had so much to thank her for. And she said “Oh darling, I’m glad I’m useful for something!”
But you know… she’s not on television enough. She’s absolutely fantastic. And that upsets me. It’s annoying when the industry moves on from good actors. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith seem to have ridden the storm, but very few people do. And I know it’s a controversial view, but there are many actors who are as good as those two, but who have never got a look in. Because that’s the way the industry works.
A few years ago, I remember interviewing the late, great Dudley Sutton and asking what acting work he had in the pipeline, and he basically said – with a sigh – “Nothing…”
I know. I know. Although I have to tell you with Dudley – his difference was that he was incredibly creative. He never stopped working because he was always creating his own stuff; as a poet, an artist, a writer and as an actor. That’s the kind of thing I’m always envious of, because I’ve always considered myself as more of an interpreter – not a creator. If someone gives me a script then I can make something of it, but I don’t write and I don’t produce. But Dudley was incredible. I have a video that I took at his 80th birthday tea party, where he was reciting his own version of Rudyard Kipling’s If… it was extraordinary.
I saw him give a talk a year or two before he died, and he was talking about his love of Dizzee Rascal, and then he performed his own incredibly sweary rap. It was great.
He was incredibly sweary! David worked with him on a few films abroad, and he was always going native somewhere. My God, what a mesmeric actor. The Leather Boys… fantastic. And The Boys, where they’re all sentenced to death… amazing. I tell you another one of my favourite actors: Peter Vaughan. Just a joyous actor. He was in a film that was listed as one of the best ‘B’ movies ever… Smokescreen. If you ever stumble on it on Talking Pictures, it’s a fantastically good film. I’m glad he was working until the end, because God… he was good. Wonderful actor.
So what’s new with Big Finish? A new Bernice box set?
Yes! We did that back in March. I was incredibly ill on the day I did the two-hander story with David. I thought at the time it might have been Covid, but I never had that confirmed. I’ve also been very lucky to direct another few audios with James Goss as producer… he’s been getting me to do some of the Victorian Torchwoods, with Rowena Cooper. Who is another tremendously good actress. They’re very much in the spirit of M.R. James, and I was brought up with those wonderful BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas – Whistle And I’ll Come To You, and all of those. So to be able to do audio stories with that sensibility has been fantastic. Another one in that range is ‘Save Our Souls’, which is a little bit like a whodunit, but a lot spookier. And out in December, one of my favourite scripts I’ve had this year: ‘The Crown’ by Jonathan Barnes – he’s really nailed the M.R. James atmosphere. I love doing ghost stories for audio, they work incredibly well. Again, it’s that “less is more” thing… I’m very critical of ghost stories on TV these days, because I think they try too hard to be spooky. The more normal you make things, the stranger they actually become.
Things have to be unsettling… and we’ve worked in a loop back to our original subject matter now! We were so lucky to grow up in an era when TV creativity had a lot more freedom, I think. And we weren’t worried about scaring people… I think kids need to have a little grit in the oyster from time to time.
Even though lots of the stuff I saw on TV as a kid really scared me, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It made me the person I am.
Absolutely, and it’s good to know we’re not alone!
Thanks so much to Lisa for her time… The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 6: Lost In Translation is available here:
And Lisa’s own website is here: