Alan Stevens talks to actor Trevor Cooper about fighting the Daleks, working as a Star Cop and becoming the toughest security operative in Kaldor City.
ALAN STEVENS: What was it that made you decide to become an actor?
TREVOR COOPER: Oh God, I had one of those Saul on the Road to Damascus moments. I was studying law at Kingston Polytechnic and got involved with theatre, because the law department used to do the pantos for some reason. I got to write a panto one year, and the following year someone in the drama society said that they were doing a production of The Threepenny Opera, and did I fancy being in it? I said, "But I don't sing opera" and they said, "But it's not opera, it's a sort of musical. Brecht and all that." And so I said yes, and got a part. I played the lead in fact-- Macheath-- and while we were rehearsing, I was enjoying it so much that I suddenly thought, "God, there are people who do this for a living! This is a potential job!" and I'd not up until that point considered being an actor. I really hadn't. I thought, as I was studying law, I'd probably end up as a lawyer, although I hated law and lawyers, and still do. And so from then on, in the back of my mind, I thought, "I'll give myself a chance to have a go at this, and if it all falls through, then maybe I'll go back to the law and make a living out of that." What made me become an actor was nothing to do with fame or money, although that's quite nice. It's just having fun and getting paid for it.
ALAN: Did you go on to drama school?
TREVOR: Well, I'll tell you what happened. After doing my Masters in law at Warwick University I lectured in law for two years at South Bank Polytechnic in order to earn enough money to go to drama school. In the end I didn't save any money from the lecturing job as I spent it all on gambling, so I went and got a bank loan instead, and then I paid that off over the next ten years [LAUGHS].
ALAN: How did your part in Doctor Who come about?
TREVOR: Somebody had suggested me, I think, to the director Graeme Harper for "Revelationof the Daleks". And I'll tell you, the person I was in competition with was a guy called Pat Roach, who, back then, was appearing in [the original series of] Auf Wiedersehen Pet. He was a great big guy from Cornwall-- about six foot twelve and was about as wide and he was tall, twice as big as I was, and I remember seeing him going in to meet Graeme for this part, and thinking,"Oh well, I've lost that then, I won't get that. He's perfect." And then Graeme gave the part to me! I said, "I thought the other guy was going to get it," and he said, "No, no, I thought you were more interesting than he was, and he does enough work as it is." So I worked for Graeme there, and then the next year Graeme did his first ever stage play in a tiny little theatre at a pub called The Rose and Crown in Fulham Road. It was called Schoolboy Blues.
ALAN: And what did you play?
TREVOR: [LAUGHS] I played a schoolboy! It was about a bloke looking back over his life. It was about Catholic guilt, really, and the main character kept having these flashbacks to him and his mates at school. And we adult actors all played little boys in school caps and things.
ALAN: A lot of actors were very keen to appear in Doctor Who. Was there any thrill when you realized that you would be doing one?
TREVOR: Oh, God, sure. Particularly with Daleks, because I'm old enough to remember the first one. As with everyone, the first Doctor they see is the Doctor for them, and for me that was William Hartnell. I mean, all the others have been very good, but he's the one I remember. And I hid behind the sofa and got frightened in that sort of thrilling, apprehensive way that you do. Rather than actually running out screaming it's actually, "Oh, god, I'm frightened, but I love it." And I remember the very first time the Daleks appeared, when they all came out of a laboratory or something, on Skaro. They came out of a laboratory and suddenly there they were, these metal things with those metallic voices and you thought "Cor! This is really very scary!" I was ten years old when that happened. And so actually to be able to be in aDoctor Who with Daleks, some twenty-two years later, was a huge thrill. And that first thing, when you walk into the studio and you see the four Daleks lined up against a wall, then, you know, your heart misses a beat, and then you get closer to them and they're not quite as horrible as you thought they were, because they are a very simple design and a couple of them were falling apart a bit as well.
ALAN: What was it like to act with the Daleks?
TREVOR: Not difficult at all. In fact in rehearsals the four operators would just glide about in the bottom half of the Dalek sitting on little benches and paddling it along with their feet,holding an arm out like a plunger [LAUGHS]. So you get to know the actors before the studio recording. And Royce Mills and Roy Skelton would be at another table doing the Dalek voices. I remember there was one scene in the studio where a bunch of Daleks had to come towards me;they only had about four working props, and the director wanted me to be surrounded by them. So he positioned the camera behind my head, so that you could see the Daleks in front of me and then got a couple of stage hands to sort of hold plungers at my shoulders so it looked like I had two more behind me as well. And Graeme said, "Trevor, when you look into camera, I want a real brown trouser job, as you realise you are surrounded by these fearsome things." So I did brown trouser acting, and then a voice came from a Dalek saying,"Why-have-your-trousers-gone-brown?" It was Royce Mills having a gag.
I also remember that Terry Molloy, the actor who played Davros, was a real hoot! He used to say gags all the time. On the first day we walked into studio, Terry wheeled himself over to us in full Davros make-up, and said, "Ohhh, have I got a head on me today!" He was very funny as he was always cracking gags, and gags coming from that extraordinary skull, well, it was incredible.
ALAN: Apparently at the time, "Revelation of the Daleks" was criticised for being too violent. Did you know that?
TREVOR: No, I didn't know that. It was quite violent, as I remember. In fact it was quite brutal. What it was quite brutal about was setting up characters and then killing them off. I think, apartfrom the Doctor and Peri, obviously, me and my sidekick were about the only people who survived it out of the main cast, and that's quite a high body count really for a Doctor Who. I guess, as I hadn't seen all the Doctor Whos around then I wasn't sure what point they were at, but certainly there was more violence in it then I remembered as a kid. I suppose it's the sign of the times, and it didn't upset me; whether it upset kids, I don't know. I guess by that stage kids were already watching things that were far more violent than Doctor Who, so it didn't have much effect. I think Doctor Who could stand to be a bit harder.
ALAN: "Revelation of the Daleks" was that last story to be shown before the eighteen-month suspension.
TREVOR: Well, I don't think it's any secret that Michael Grade didn't like science fiction, and he was running the BBC at the time. There are all sorts of stories; one of the stories as to why it did come back was pressure from across the water. So, it was all very well getting lots of remonstration from British fans, but when the Americans started getting in on the act the BBC thought that maybe they were missing out on something by not making it again. That was one of the stories I heard. And that was probably one of many. Then a couple of years later they cancelled it. Which was really quite sad. I suppose I was lucky in getting to do one. I tell other actors that I was in Doctor Who, and they say, "Wow! That's a very cool thing to have done."
ALAN: I understand it was Graeme Harper who recommended you for the part of Colin Devis inStar Cops.
TREVOR: Yes, that's right. Graeme talked about it when we were doing that stage play in the pub, and he said, "There is this series and I'm really pushing you for it because this part is actually perfect for you." And a few months later I went to see the producer Evgeny Gridneff and Christopher Baker, who was the other director working on the series with Graeme. And so I met with them and talked about it and I got the part, which was great because it was the first regular part in a series that I had been given. I'd done a lot of telly at that point, but it had always been an episode of this and an episode of that. So to play a character that actually went through an entire series was a break for me, no question about it.
I always thought it was a great pity that Star Cops didn't go on to a second series. It was a great shame, though I think the first episode of Star Cops that went out was not a good one.
ALAN: Originally the opening story was meant to be in two parts, but Jonathan Powell told Chris Boucher to condense it down into just one episode.
TREVOR: Yes, I'd heard they'd chopped it down, but after that it didn't really work, and it also looked wrong. There were two design teams on that series. There was one good design team and one not-so-good design team, and then there were two directors on it and one was excellent and one was just okay. And it's very clear in the episodes who did what. Half the episodes are over litand the sets look crummy, and the other half are beautifully underlit, and the only light you get is from computer screens. It made it look more like the spaceship in Alien rather than a duff set in Studio One.
ALAN: Didn't the show go out at a rather strange time?
TREVOR: It went out on BBC2 at about half past eight and our competition was Terry and June.I always remember that, and of course we would lose heavily to Terry and June in the ratings. I think most of middle England would rather watch that than us. But I remember there being a lot of people writing us off after the first episode, and then a few people crept back. That was thething, so by the end of it there were people saying, "Actually, this is rather good." And newspapers as well were saying, "This is a rather good series now, and I hope it carries on," butit didn't. We were "booked" to do another one, in the sense that we were "optioned" for another one. We didn't get paid or anything, but we were asked to put some time aside to do another series, but it didn't come about.
ALAN: How did you get on with the rest of the cast?
TREVOR: We had a ball. I mean, people always say that about those programmes, but I mean we did, they were fantastic. I still see David Calder [Nathan Spring] quite a lot, and he told me that Erick Ray Evans, who played Theroux, isn't with us anymore. He went back to America and died a couple of years ago. As for the others, Linda Newton [Pal Kenzy] has gone back to Australia, though she does pop over occasionally; I've seen her once or twice. Jonathan Adams, who played the Russian, Alexander Krivenko, still knocks about, and Sayo Inaba [Anna Shoun], the Japanese girl, I've not seen since.
I thought David Calder was a wonderful cast leader. He was one of those guys who always liked everyone to be having a good time. And we spent a lot of time in rehearsal making sure we all understood the script and knew what was going on, and we used to do a lot of work on the scripts, cut things and add things. I remember once Philip Martin coming in and being very upset that we had changed so much, but in the end he was fine. I think that he realised that we were continually changing lines. And David was a great one for that. He was perpetually saying,"Well, does this work? And do we understand what this means? And why are we saying this?" So he was always questioning various things, trying to make it better, which I think paid off.
ALAN: Apparently there was originally meant to be ten episode of Star Cops, but one got scrapped.
TREVOR: That's right. That was one by Philip Martin and it was going to be directed by Graeme Harper, but there was this strike at BBC studios, and so although we rehearsed the episode for about a week, they suddenly said, "we are pulling this one." Of course we all got paid to do that episode because we were booked for it, but sadly it was never made. Then when we came to do the last episode Erick Ray Evans got chicken pox. Literally-- we'd rehearsed it all and we got into studio and he said, "I'm not feeling very well," and I think Erick recorded one or two scenes and then we noticed that he was coming out in these big spots. And if you get chicken pox whenyou are over thirty you get very ill with it. So he was carted off, and there was no way we could rebook the studio, apparently, so we had to make it. Chris Boucher, who had written the episode,wasn't available, so David Calder and I went off into a side room and rejigged the entire episode, so that basically Linda Newton got nearly all of Erick's lines.
ALAN: Did you like the character you played in Star Cops?
TREVOR: Yes I did. I could relate to Colin Devis suddenly being stuck on the moon and havingto deal with all this new technology, because that's how I feel about computers and the internet today. I mean on the one hand he was a cop and did everything like a cop, but on the other handhe was a kind of buffoon in space who had been landed with all this technical equipment to deal with, which always strikes me as quite funny. Sort of muddling through, and thinking he can do things with a pencil and a piece of paper. It was a nice character to play.
ALAN: When I was casting for Kaldor City it was Chris Boucher who suggested you for the part of Rull, the Security Chief, because he remembered you from Star Cops.
TREVOR: That's very flattering! Certainly playing Rull brings back memories of Devis, though Rull is a bit nastier than Devis, and he's a lot harder. Although I suppose Rull is a product of more violent times and so has had to become more violent as a result. So he's tougher in that way. In a lot of ways. There is perhaps less to like about Rull, on the other hand, hopefully, he also comes across as well, "sympathetic" is not the right word, but you end up quite liking him for all his bravado and unpleasantness, and at times he is actually quite funny.
ALAN: It was interesting to see the way that relationship between Rull and his deputy Cotton developed during the writing and then from the performances.
TREVOR: Well, there is the sense that Cotton and Rull come from the same background, but that my character had done better then he has. So I'll let Cotton talk to me as an equal to some extent and then I'll suddenly stick one in there to remind him that I'm his superior. So, that was fun and it was nice to work with Brian Croucher on that, he's great and we had quite a laugh. I've listened to the Kaldor City CDs and they are very good, sharply written with amazing production values. It's interesting, but I was doing a tour for the Royal Shakespeare Company where we didA Midsummer Night's Dream with an orchestra, and one night we came out and these autograph hunters were only interested in me, and there I was being asked to sign copies of Kaldor City. It was the same kind of thing when I was appearing in the West End. The other actors would say,"What's so special about you?" and I'd say, "Look, if you do Star Cops or Doctor Who or anything like that then there are going to be lots of people who want your autograph."[LAUGHS]
ALAN: Recently you appeared in the Hollywood film Gangs of New York.
TREVOR: Yes, I had to go to Rome for that one. I had one line. One scene and one line. My line was "My plague box fends off pestilence. Its elixir combats ill humours." It's a fucking terrible line. Very difficult to say, but that was my line and I had to say it in an American accent. I then received a note from Martin Scorscese saying he loved me, but could I do the line with morepride. So I did the line with more pride, and they cast me, and then, when the film was finished they cut my line. You do see me in the film, if you watch very closely, there's a scene where I'm in a room with Jim Broadbent's character. And there I am with a great big beard standing in the middle of the room looking a bit surprised, probably because my line had just been cut.[LAUGHS] But it was great to work on it even for the little that I did.
ALAN: Booking you in for a Kaldor City is always quite difficult. How is it that you get so much work?
TREVOR: I'll tell you what it is: I'm lucky looking the way I look. I mean I'm a fat, bald bloke, and although there are quite a few fat bald blokes, a lot of them can't act. A lot of them are just fat andbald. So there's not enough competition for that kind of part and they always need a fat bald bloke, always, always, always. Sometimes I try and get my hair cut and try and trim my beard, but people say,"No, we love it as you are," and this is all very good for period of course. Lorna Doone, perfect, Napoleonic wars, perfect. So that's the secret recipe. Being fat and bald and able to act!
ALAN: Trevor Cooper, thank you.
TREVOR: It was a pleasure.
This interview has previously appeared in Shockeye's Snack Bite 14 (April/May 2003).
Images copyright Andy Hopkinson 2001-3; BBC