Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Brigadier - A Few, Inarticulate, Thoughts On Nicholas Courtney

Some desperately sad news, I'm afraid, dear blog reader. After Alfred Burke's passing last week, another part of many of our childhoods has gone. We lost Nicholas Courtney yesterday after a short illness.
     Beloved to several generations of TV viewers as Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart in Doctor Who, Nick died at the age of eighty one. He was born in Cairo in 1929, the son of a British diplomat and the grandson of WL Courtney, a man of letters, founder of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and one-time literary editor of the Daily Torygraph. Nicholas's mother was half-American and was separated from his father when Nick was only a child. He would sometimes attribute the bouts of depression and insecurity from which he suffered as an adult to that early trauma. Happily, his stepmother, Anne, to whom he was very much devoted, was an exotic and generous spirited woman who encouraged Nick's artistic leanings greatly.
     Nick was educated in France, Kenya and Egypt. He did a stint of National Service in the British Army, shortly after the conclusion of World War II, leaving after eighteen months as a private, not wanting to pursue a military career. He joined the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where he trained alongside Bernard Horsfall and won the Margaret Rutherford Medal. His working apprenticeship then began in repertory theatre in Northampton and, later, Swindon, but that was soon interrupted when he relocated to London having been invited to join the legendary Donald Wolfit in a season at Hammersmith. Nick made his TV debut in 1957 in a minor role in a now virtually forgotten ITV drama, Escape. As a jobbing actor in the 1960s Nick made numerous guest appearances in television series as diverse as Sword Of Honour, The Saint, No Hiding Place, The Man In Room 17, Callan, The Avengers (twice), The Champions, The Main Chance, Jason King, Doomwatch and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) as well as playing a racing driver in Riviera Police. Director Douglas Camfield reportedly considered Courtney for the role of Richard the Lionheart in the Doctor Who serial The Crusade in 1964 and kept him in mind when casting the mammoth Dalek epic The Daleks' Masterplan a few months later. Nick played the space security agent Bret Vyon opposite William Hartnell's Doctor in the twelve part serial. Camfield liked Courtney's performance a great deal, and when he was assigned to the 1968 Patrick Troughton six-parter The Web Of Fear, he initially cast Nick as Captain Knight. However, when David Langton had to give up the role of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart during rehearsals to take up another job, Camfield recast Courtney instead. Lethbridge-Stewart reappeared later that year in the well-remembered eight episode story The Invasion, promoted to Brigadier and in charge of the British contingent of UNIT, an organisation which protected the Earth from alien invasion, in that initial case, The Cybermen. It was in this recurring role that Nick became best known, appearing semi-regularly from 1970 to 1975 in over one hundred episodes opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker.
     He made welcome return appearances in the series in 1983 in two Peter Davison serials, and his last Doctor Who television appearance was in 1989 in Battlefield with Sylvester McCoy. Nick eventually played Lethbridge-Stewart, either on television or in audio plays, alongside every Doctor from Patrick Trouhgton up to and including Paul McGann. He also acted with David Tennant in the Big Finish audio dramas Sympathy For The Devil and UNIT: The Wasting. Fifteen years after Dimensions In Time, Courtney returned as Lethbridge-Stewart (now, a retired Sir Alistair), freshly returned from Peru, in Enemy Of The Bane, a two-part story in the Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures broadcast in December 2008. Nick continued to act extensively in theatre and on television during the 1980s and 90s, guest-starring in shows like Minder, All Creatures Great & Small, Shelley, To Play A King, The Bill, Only Fools & Horses and Yes, Prime Minister. In 1982 he was cast alongside Frankie Howerd in the World War II comedy series Then Churchill Said To Me but the series remained untransmitted for over a decade (due, in part, to the outbreak of the Falklands War). Nick also had a regular role in the comedy French Fields between 1989 and 1991. His film work included Take A Girl Like You (1970), Jenny's War (1985) and the Roger Moore-Michael Caine vehicle, Bullseye! (1990). As recently as 2008 he appeared in the movie Incendiary with Ewan MacGregor playing the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1997, he became the Honorary President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, a position in which he was very active and proud of and he remained associated with the show, providing DVD commentaries and attending many conventions where he was a much-loved friend to fandom.
     For many years he also served on the Equity council. In 1979, Nick played The Narrator on stage in The Rocky Horror Show and also appeared in several notable West End runs in plays like The Mouse Trap. Nick released his autobiography, Five Rounds Rapid! named after an infamous line of dialogue the Brigadier had in the 1971 Doctor Who story The Dæmons in 1998. He recorded another set of memoirs, subtitled A Soldier In Time, for release on CD in 2002 by Big Finish. As his friend and biographer Michael MacManus noted, 'a shy man by nature, Courtney was often at his happiest with a small group of friends in the pub, usually discussing politics. He grew into a hilarious raconteur with the priceless gift of never taking himself too seriously.'
    Sadly, Nick's final years were blighted by ill-health, firstly a stroke in 2008 and then, soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with cancer. 'When I look back on my career,' he once noted, 'I think I might have done more classical work, but I jolly well don't mind. A friend who's done a lot of that said, "Yes, but look, you're rich." Which is kind of true!' Yer Keith Telly Topping had the great good fortune to meet Nick, socially, on several occasions and I always found him to be one of the nicest, gentlest, most sincere and funniest actors I've ever crossed paths with. I will particularly fondly remember a warm, sunny afternoon spent around a swimming pool in Los Angeles in 1999 (it's a long story!) with several other fanboys when we were doing a kind of 'daddy, what did you do in the war?' thing with Nick and he was, as usual, charming, courteous, affable and a wickedly amusing raconteur. He sent up the infamous Inferno eye-patch story brilliantly among dozens of other stories he told about his career and those he'd worked with. And, memorably, he spent all afternoon calling this blogger 'Dave.' And, the thing is, once he did it the first time, you can't really say to Nicholas Courtney, 'actually, it's Keith, Mister Courtney.' So, 'Dave Telly Topping' I remained.
     Nicholas Courtney, dear blog reader. A splendid chap. A class act and a gentleman in every sense of the word. We shall not see his like again. He is survived by his second wife, Karen, and two children from his first marriage, Philip and Bella. From the North's sincere collective sympathies go to them, and to Nick's many many friends and admirers at this sad time.