This is an extended version of an interview that previously appeared in issue 329 of Doctor Who Magazine, dated 30th April 2003.
25 years on from his first Doctor Who appearance in The Robots of Death, Sapphire and Steel star David Collings is back in the fold for the latest Kaldor City audio drama Hidden Persuaders. The three-times Doctor Who guest artist took time out from recording to talk to Alan Stevens about cities of gold, robot wars and playing undead...
"You know, I didn’t really set out to become a professional actor at all," says David Collings. "I was invited. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it’s true. While appearing in amateur productions during the early 1960s, I was seen by a fine actress called Freda Downing, and she rather kindly recommended me to a director called David Skace. He had recently taken over the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, and he rang me and asked if I would like to turn professional and join his company. I told him to bugger off and put the phone down on him, but fortunately he rang back, and that's really how it all started."
David pauses for a moment. "You know, I don’t normally give interviews, because I’m usually asked about things I don’t remember!"
One thing David does recall, however, is his first work for television. "I had been playing at the Liverpool Rep. for about six months when this wonderful actor called John Slater recommended me to Associated Rediffusion Television, who were about to do a three and a half hour version of Crime and Punishment. I went to see them and was offered the part of Raskolnikov. That got me into television, where I was then trapped for many years. Well, I say trapped, but it was actually a delightful place to be. So there you are. I didn’t even go to Drama School, which I suppose is obvious to anyone who sees any of my performances."
David's first science fiction appearance was in the Gerry Anderson live action series UFO.
"The episode was called 'Psychobombs', and I played this poor fellow who had been kidnapped by aliens and turned into a human explosive. I don't remember a lot about it, but I do recall that they had built this trick wire fence, and I was supposed to cut my way through it with a karate chop. Anyway, they got a bit upset with me because, although they weren't ready, I thought I heard someone say 'Action,' and chopped away, which then meant they had to build another fence."
For a tall, powerfully built man, who has spent the best part of forty years playing major roles on stage, screen and television, David Collings comes across as surprisingly modest and self-deprecating. In fact, he seems a million light years away from the ranting, power-mad character he played in the 1975 Doctor Who adventure "Revenge of the Cybermen". "Yes, in that story I was a sort of scientist/politician, packed into a rubber mask, and thinking, ‘Thank God they can’t see what I look like!’ We certainly had a lot of laughs while rehearsing for that one. I like to laugh. You can’t take this business too seriously, can you? Now, if I recall, I played an alien [Vorus] from Voga, the Planet of Gold, who wanted to blow up the Cybermen with a rocket he had built called the Skystriker. Anyway, in the end he gets to fire his big rocket, but then dies in the process. Another character shoots him." David clutches his back with one hand, and, reaching out with the other, proclaims, "My Skystriker! My glory!" Dropping out of character, he continues, "And then he falls down dead, and that was the end of that. Only it wasn’t, because soon after, and I don’t know why, they asked me back to do 'The Robots of Death'."
Could the reason be that both stories were directed by Michael E. Briant?
"I’d prefer to think that I got the job on merit," grins David, "But, no, I think you’re probably right. I did a lot of things for Michael Briant. Maybe he found me easy to get along with. I worked with him a great deal. He looked about twelve years old at the time, but he was very good, and that of course was the story with those very pretty, but rather murderous robots in."
David was cast as Chief Mover Poul and was called upon to wear a quite elaborate costume. "Very butch, wasn’t it?" David remarks. Did he have any idea what the costume would have looked like before taking on the part? "Oh, yes, certainly, you get to see drawings of your costumes when you start. The designer brings his or her sketches along, so you get to know roughly what you’re in for. I remember the costume I wore was quite flimsy, but to be fair I thought it matched the story rather well. It had to fit with the style of that particular show and was designed to go with the décor of the set. It was quite a decadent society they were showing, and I think it was put over very well through the general look."
However, for David, seeing the costume designs wasn’t the most important factor in developing the character of Poul. "It was of some help, I suppose, but really I’m the sort of actor who likes to work from the inside out with a character. I mainly work from what I find in the script and then plan from that what I intend to do with the part, and the direction in which I want to take it. Sometimes you might get inspired and change certain things in your performance on the day, but you can only rely on inspiration up to a certain point. It’s got to come from the script, not the costume you’re wearing."
During the story it is revealed that Poul suffers from Robophobia, a morbid dread of robots. As a consequence, David had a number of scenes where he had to crawl around the floor, sobbing. "I didn’t find that difficult at all," smiles David, "It comes quite naturally to me."
Although David’s first Doctor Who had been with Tom Baker, it was only on "The Robots of Death" that they really got to know each other. "With the first story, I didn’t have many scenes with Tom, but with the second, that was different, and so we spent a great deal of time together rehearsing up at North Acton. We also spent a lot of time, as I recall, in the pub."
Between this story and his final brush with Doctor Who, David was to play another memorable role, in the supernatural detective series Sapphire & Steel. "The head of casting sent me a script and asked if I was interested. To be honest, although I read through the script a number of times, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. All very complex and mysterious. I didn’t understand a word, but it seemed like a great deal of fun to do and it was a nice part to play, so that’s why I agreed to do it."
This was the first time that David was to meet either of the show’s stars. "I’d never worked with Joanna Lumley or David McCallum before. I got on with Joanna particularly well, and we’ve remained firm friends ever since. The character I played, Silver, was what they called a Specialist. He was a kind of technician who was able to conjure things out of thin air. In fact I invented all of that. All those sort of magic tricks he used to do. Do you remember that glowing doorknob in my first story? That was one of mine. In the last story I had this business with a fruit machine. I had this special device that allowed me to hit the jackpot all the time. ‘I’m not enjoying this game at all,’ says Silver, and Sapphire replies, ‘That’s because most times you’re supposed to lose.’ Lovely stuff. I also remember that on that story, which was my second one, we were underrunning, and so they told me to improvise a scene with Joanna, but they didn’t tell her that this was what we were doing. She thought I’d gone mad I think, but she kept up with the improvising anyway. Very game girl, Joanna."
David recalls that there were a lot of alterations made to the scripts during recording. "There was endless rewriting. David McCallum would always insist on rewriting everything, which of course upset the writers. I also think it wasted a lot of time, and it didn’t make any more sense after he had rewritten them then they did before."
At one point, there were even plans for David’s character to become a permanent fixture of the series, making it, perhaps, Sapphire, Silver & Steel? "I think Silver would have come third, Sapphire, Steel & Silver. The television company were very keen on the idea and they wanted to do another series, but then Joanna and David decided that they’d had enough of it by then, and didn’t want to do any more. The story where they were whirled off into space, that became the last one. I think it was more David McCallum then Joanna really who wanted it over. I was very keen for it to go on because there was a very good relationship developing between Sapphire and my character, which of course might have been part of the problem with David."
Having appeared in the last episode of Sapphire & Steel, David was soon approached to appear in the last episode of Blake’s 7. "I was sent this script where I had a lot of scenes with Blake, and I thought, ‘This looks promising,’ and then I got to the last page and guess what? Blake and everyone else, including myself, is shot dead! I always try and do a good death," quips David. "For that one I dived into the wall, and almost brought the set down. Oh, yes, you can always rely on me to finish off any series that I’m in."
David’s final appearance in Doctor Who was as the title role in the 1983 adventure, "Mawdryn Undead". "Well, I had hysterics doing that. I mean we were in hysterics all through rehearsals, including the director. I remember him saying, ‘Look, we’ve all got to take it seriously when the producer comes along to watch,’ but then if it’s not fun to do it’s not worth doing."
During recording, David had to undergo two extensive make-ups jobs. "For the first one I had to look as if I had been burnt very badly. In fact so badly, I could be confused with Peter Davison! Sheelagh Wells did the make-up and she was very good. It took several hours to do, but that was all right as you can always read the paper and chat. The problem is when you go to lunch afterward which can be a little embarrassing, walking around pretending to be a burnt Peter Davison. For the second make-up I had to stop being Peter Davison and turn into a mutant instead, with all this spaghetti falling out of my head. Again, as Mawdryn wasn’t in very good health, I had to do a lot of crawling around on the floor. It’s a recurring theme of my career, that!"
David has recently returned to science fiction through his involvement with the thriller audio CD series Kaldor City. "I have Louise Jameson to thank for that. The BBC had written to me asking if I’d like to attend a Doctor Who convention in Manchester as part of the promotional launch for 'The Robots of Death' DVD. I was going to say no, but then Louise said to me, ‘Come on, I’m doing it, so why don’t you come and do it too.’ So I did, and actually it was quite enjoyable. I had a really nice time, and it was there that I was first approached to come back as Poul, my character from 'The Robots of Death', in Kaldor City. It’s always nice to have somebody ask you back to play the same role, it means they must like you."
How does David think the character of Poul has developed since he last played him?
"I’m very pleased with what’s been done with the character and I think it’s a very clever twist on what has gone before. No more sobbing and hiding under tables. Poul’s much happier now-- as he’s gone completely mad."
Finally, I wondered if David was aware that he was always a hot tip in Doctor Who fan circles to become the next Doctor. "Well, I’ve never heard that before. Is that why the BBC stopped making it-- because they were afraid I might become the next Doctor Who?"
I hastily deny that this was the reason.
"David Collings, the next Doctor Who. Now, would I have done it? Well, if the money was right and--" David suddenly shakes his head and laughs, "No, no, of course I would have done it. It would have been delightful."
Image copyright Andy Hopkinson 2003