J' adore Kaldor!
Storm Mine survivor Russell Hunter tells Alan Stevens about rebellious robots, drinking with the Doctor and catching up with Kaldor City, 25 years later.
"I had no idea at the time that I'd have to wear that bloody stupid hat, or those outrageous shoulder-pads," laughs Russell Hunter, reminiscing about his star turn as the explosive Commander Uvanov in the Season Fourteen classic "The Robots of Death". "If I had known they were going to put me in that, I would probably never have done it. Or I'd at least have asked for some decent money! I did complain about that hat. I said, 'Why would the Captain of a Storm Mine be wandering around with a hat like that?' And if you watch that show again, you'll see that it disappears somewhere towards the end of Part Three, though I don't think it had anything to do with what I said, I think the director just got bored with it. It was all very cumbersome."
Russell takes, pains, though, to assure me that the handsome beard he sported was entirely his own. "Oh, yes, I always think it's best that an actor grows his own beard and doesn't have to use rubbishy make-up. I remember the director saying to me, 'We start recording in about two months; could you possibly grow some facial hair in that time, because we want to emphasise the fact that your character is a lot older that the rest of the cast.' I said 'Sure,' and I just grew the beard and told them that they could cut and style it any way they wished. Though I must say, the white streaks in it were all mine!"
Born in Glasgow in 1925, Russell Hunter served as an apprentice at Clydebank shipyard before taking up amateur dramatics. Turning professional in 1946, he went on to appear in numerous theatre, film and television productions before landing the part of Lonely opposite Edward Woodward in the television thriller series Callan. It was not, however, this success which won him his Doctor Who role, but the fact that he had previously appeared in the marathon-running drama Way To Go, Man.
"The author had actually run the New York Marathon himself, and as he had started on the last half mile, a huge man suddenly stepped out in front of him, stared him straight in the face and said, 'Way to go, man, way to go!' He'd never forgotten that, and when he wrote the play, that's what he called it. It was a very interesting little piece, and we had a lot of fun out on the road filming it, with the local people thinking we were all as mad as hatters. The director on that was Michael E. Briant, it was great fun, and I'm sure that's why he though of me for Doctor Who."
Although Russell was impressed by the script for "The Robots of Death", he initially had a problem with his character's name. "He was called Uvanov, and I remember asking whether or not I was supposed to have a Russian accent. 'Not at all,' they said, ' So he's Scottish then, is he?' 'Scottish? Are you mad? Why would he be Scottish with a name like Uvanov?' I had to laugh!
"Recently I was told that the name 'Uvanov' is derived from 'Isaac Asimov', which of course all makes sense now." Russell is quite an expert on that particular science fiction writer, being an avid reader of his books. "He was the man who devised the first law of robotics," says Russell, "which is that no robot will kill or deliberately injure a human being. All very appropriate for a story called "The Robots of Death". I think that's why it has remained so popular. It wasn't just about a lot of robots, working on a Storm Mine; it's about people, and in particular, evil. The robots were innocents, but it was positively human evil that was being put into those machines. I find that very interesting. Clever man, Chris Boucher; his script was very good indeed, there was a lot going on under the surface. I loved it."
Russell's admiration for Doctor Who stems from long before he donned his silly hat to play Commander Uvanov: "I was an avid fan of the show from the start. 'Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum!' That wonderful music at the beginnings of the episodes. I think it was a programme which almost anyone of any age and any educational background could just drop into. It didn't pull you in, you just lay back and you went down that tunnel with the music. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. It was a show that worked on a number of levels. It worked for the under-10s, it worked for young teenagers. The problem was between 15 and 18, that's when the kids drifted away from it. They came back, though, when they reached their twenties. And of course it worked for parents in their thirties and forties and grandparents, it worked for everybody, it was an amazing concept. And it still is an amazing concept, that everyone can find something to enjoy in a well-done Doctor Who. Everybody will find one level of interest, because there are so many."
Russell believes that a great deal of the programme's success lay in the casting of the title role. "William Hartnell was one of my favourites," he says, "There was something magical about him. I also liked Patrick Troughton. Then we got to Jon Pertwee. I didn't enjoy him much. I thought he was giving a sort of music hall act." Russell pulls a face, "Though that's just my opinion," he adds hastily. "Tom Baker now- he was the best"
Right from the start, Tom made a big impression on Russell. "I remember the very first morning I turned up for rehearsal, as usual I try to turn up at least half an hour early on the first morning, so that I have time to calm down, have a cup of coffee and relax. Anyway, I went in and there was Tom, so I introduced myself, he introduced himself and then said, 'Would you mind giving us a hand with this?' And it was The Times crossword. And from there on that's what happened, every rehearsal we'd came in early, sit down and do The Times crossword, and life became quite fun. Then at the end of the day we used to go to the pub. 'Can you drink white wine?' Tom would ask. 'Yes,' I replied. 'Two bottles of white wine please. Er I'd like wine glasses please; it looks crude in a half-pint tumbler. And let's have two triple vodkas to go with it. That'll do for the moment. I'll get some more vodka later, okay Russell?'
"Tom was a tough drinking man when he wanted to be," smiles Russell, "but he never showed it in the morning, and he would never start drinking until he was finished for the day, and knew that there were no more words to learn. That's when he'd have a drink."
Although directors and production staff could sometimes find Baker difficult, this experience was not shared by Russell. "I personally found Tom one of the easiest people in the world to work with," he recalls. "I remember floundering a bit in one scene and he nodded to me and said, 'Stop trying to act it. Just be it.' He said that because that was what he was doing. He was 'being' Doctor Who. I mean he knew the character backwards, he didn't have to think about it, because that was who he was." When Russell's children discovered that he was appearing in Doctor Who, their response was predictable. "Both Charlotte, who was three and a half, and Adam, who was then almost six, kept asking 'Can we go to the studio, please?' So I got permission, and they came in, you know, just on a walk-through, and the minute they appeared Tom Baker took them in charge. With the long scarf and with all the gear on, there he was, carrying the little girl and holding the little boy by the hand. He spent at least an hour with those two kids. But he didn't speak to them as kids; he talked to them as grown-ups. He talked to them as the Doctor. They didn't think they were meeting an actor, they thought they had actually met the one and only Doctor Who. They didn't ask for his autograph, and nobody photographed the three of them together. That was the great thing. It was two kids and Tom Baker. Nobody else was engaged in it, and I just found him a totally loveable man."
After finishing work on Doctor Who, Russell was booked for a panto in Manchester. Unfortunately, this meant that he wouldn't be in Glasgow for his annual visit to the children's hospital. "'What do you do there?' asked Tom. So I explained to him that the local Cinemas and the local evening newspaper collected toys, and every year they were handed out just a couple of days before Christmas. Then Tom said, 'Well I wouldn't mind doing that!' So I said, 'Right, you've just got yourself into trouble, I'll phone up and tell them that you'll do it!' Well, of course the local newspaper went mad about it- the idea that they had got Tom Baker! And he did it very successfully. In fact Tom wrote to me about three times afterwards saying, 'Thank you for encouraging me to go. I feel I really did something!'"
Russell first became aware of how popular "The Robots of Death" had became when he was invited to a Doctor Who convention in the early 1990s. I was amazed at the reception I got," he says, "but to be totally honest it shouldn't have been a surprise to me at all, because people were still coming up to me and saying, 'Excuse me, weren't you in Doctor Who?' This often happens to me in Aberdeen, Peterhead, in fact all the fishing ports," for this, Russell adopts a thick Scottish accent, "'Saw your story last week. Saw it on the rigs.' Apparently they get bored with the telly and so they put on a lot of oldies that they remember from their youth. And these are men in their thirties and forties, and there are some pretty rough guys among them. But they watch things like, "The Robots of Death", and think it's wonderful." Russell drops into character again. "'Got all the tapes, Jock. Aye, great. And the big boy with the scarf- love him.'"
In spite of all this however, nothing prepared Russell for the day he was asked to play Uvanov again, in the Kaldor City CD audios, a thriller series which picks up the character's story ten years after "The Robots of Death" and plunges him into a scenario which is equal parts Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Bladerunner. "I was amazed," he laughs, "I couldn't believe it. And it's such a walloping big part. It's fun in that studio with my own little script-stand, bellowing at Paul Darrow!"
So how did Russell take to the storylines, and the ways in which Uvanov has developed? "I think the Kaldor City scripts are very good indeed, and I think the set up between Uvanov and Paul's character, Iago, is a splendid relationship. I mean, you don't really know which one is the biggest baddie, and yet also they are both goodies in a way. I think Uvanov is very subtly written in that he's a good deal cleverer than he pretends. I think he knows a bit more then he says about most things. He's also got a quick temper, and thinks, 'I am the boss and I'm going to make sure you know that I'm the boss.' I don't think Uvanov sees himself a villain at all. I mean look at the people he's up against! I'm sure Uvanov sees himself as a hero of sorts. Yes, he's a very interesting character, I think."
Audience reaction appears to have been as good for the CD series as for the original TV story. "Someone came up to me recently," Russell comments, "and said, 'I watched "The Robots of Death" last night, and then I listened to the first Kaldor City. It was like Uvanov had just stepped out of one story and into the other.' I was flattered, but it's also a lot to do with the writing. Again, like Doctor Who at its best, the stories work on many different levels. I also think we have a great cast. There's Scott Fredericks as the wonderfully manipulative Carnell, there's Paul Darrow of course, there's Peter Miles, and recently we were joined by Nick Courtney, David Collings, and Taren Capel himself, David Bailie! Even Peter Halliday came in the other day for a guest appearance. There's always a lovely atmosphere in the green room. And we even have sing-alongs. Well, I do anyway! 'Everything's up to date in Kaldor City'" choruses Russell, bursting into song, "and yes, in fact I do believe it is. All in all then, it's a wonderful series to work on and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what's going to happen next!"
This is an extended version of an interview that previously appeared in issue #324 of Doctor Who Magazine.
Photographs copyright Andy Hopkinson/Alan Stevens/BBC 2001-3