Mark Strickson ("Vislor Turlough") (II)


While playing the Doctor's sometime enemy, Mark Strickson faced a number of dangers!

[Published in Doctor Who DVD Files #57 (GE Fabbri, March 2011), pp. 21-24. Posted here by kind permission of the team at Eaglemoss and also Mark Strickson.]

Actor Mark Strickson, who played the Fifth Doctor's companion Turlough, talks to us about the hardships of making Doctor Who in the 1980s.

In Enlightenment, we learn Turlough's secret – he's working for the Doctor's enemy, the Black Guardian, as played by Valentine Dyall.
It's funny, Valentine was really a lovely chap. One of the reasons he had that deep, dark voice was because he smoked a pipe continuously. I remember him coming out of his dressing room and there was a cloud of pipe smoke behind him. These days it would set off every smoke alarm in the building!

Was it a relief to finally tell the Doctor your secret?
It was odd. For my first two stories, only I spoke to the Black Guardian. We all rehearsed together, but on the filming days it was always just me and Valentine. I was very fond of him. On Enlightenment he was there with everyone else. I loved that final scene, me having the choice to kill the Doctor. And getting rid of that crystal!

The crystal the Black Guardian gave you?
It was made of fibreglass and if you attached it to a battery, it glowed. But we used very strong, white studio lights. They were so powerful they drained the colour from your face. That's why we all wore so much make-up. Even newsreaders needed the 'fake tan' look!

And the lights meant you couldn't see the crystal glowing?
Yeah. So they thought, "Okay, we just need more power." They attached the wires to a big car battery. The crystal was in my hand, they had a wire from it running up my arm, down my body, out of my trouser leg and attached to a car battery – sometimes two! Have you ever tried to pick up a car battery?

They're heavy.
Right, so you can't run very fast. You've also got a wire going round your body so you can't really move anyway. And it doesn't take brains to realise that, hooked up to a car battery, the crystal will get incredibly hot.

What happened?
What do you think? The thing burned my hand! You can see it in the out-takes, I cry out, drop it. The script writers had to learn – and it certainly didn't happen in the first or second scripts – that I could only hold it for so long.

But they still made you hold it?
This was 1983, aeons before health and safety.

It was a different world back then.
Completely different! We now make television in a very different world. The things you can do today! There's a new version of Enlightenment on DVD with new graphics. But the graphics for one episode of that cost more than the whole of the entire original budget for making all four episodes!

So Doctor Who was made very cheaply?
Yes. John got the job as producer because he promised he could make it for less money than the BBC thought you needed for that sort of television programme. He did an amazing job, bringing it in on budget and on time. He was a very disciplined man in that way.

How much did that affect you as an actor making it?
It hit everyone working on it – writers, actors, directors, everyone. You had so little time and so little money, you couldn't be arty about it. You just had to get the job done. For an actor, that meant knowing your lines, being on time, being ultra-reliable. That's what John was after when he cast me.

How did you get the part?
I'd been on a soap opera called Angels. John's partner Gary had been production manager on that, so I think he put in a good word for me.

Was making Doctor Who different to making Angels?
In Angels I had a girlfriend called Alison and we had conversations like, [he puts on a Birmingham accent] "I hear there's a new wine bar opened up down town..." - that's a lot easier than working with a green, slimy monster chasing you down a corridor and trying to make it look real!


Mark recalls the challenges involved in making Doctor Who on a budget...

Doctor Who had more technical challenges than other shows.
Yeah. Before I started on it I visited the studio to watch. You'd never believe how quickly they filmed it. I thought, "I'm never going to be able to do that!" I was really frightened because it was made like live theatre. There was one take for the actors. Unless something technically went wrong you went straight on with it.

And did things go wrong?
The easy example is Warriors of the Deep, with the Myrka. When we got into the studio the Myrka costume was still dripping with paint. It wasn't dry! They hadn't had the time. They lowered the costume on to the actors and it was too heavy for them to move!

So what did you do?
What can you do? You just had to make it up as you went. Janet [Fielding, playing Tegan] had the first scene with the Myrka, and it was a fight scene. She had to kick it or something, and she got paint all over her.

Do you watch your old stories?
I hardly ever watch anything I've done. By the time I've finished making something I don't want to watch it for 10 years. But because we do commentaries for the Doctor Who DVDs, I've seen my stories again. And I am amazed, given the circumstances we worked under, how brilliant it is. It's amazing.

Was making Doctor Who frustrating?
Sometimes. It was exciting in other ways. You got caught up in it. We were hoping to make good, entertaining telly. We all worked really hard and pushed it. But we'd come into studio at six o'clock in the morning and wouldn't finish until 10 o'clock at night. They were long days.

Is it different now?
They still do long days. But back then there were unions in the UK and the process was regulated. You'd start at a certain time and finish at a certain time. A man would pull a lever at exactly 10 o'clock and all the lights would go out. Sometimes you could negotiate for an extra 15 minutes. We couldn't afford to bring the sets back another day.

What did you do if you ran late?
You sped things up. In Planet of Fire we had something like 48 seconds left in the studio and this whole scene still to do. Fiona Cumming, the director, told me to just get the important plot lines in. I cut lines in my head as I went.

How did that feel?
It was great. It was like working on stage – live and energetic. There was an enormous energy in Doctor Who at that time. Now there's a different energy. You get a second take if you want it as an actor, maybe a third take. We didn't have that at all.

Planet of Fire was your last story. What have you been up to since then?
When I left Doctor Who, I acted for five or six years in the UK. But my then-wife wanted to do something completely different. I was perfectly happy to go with her to Australia and I did a zoology degree there. I then came back to London because our relationship had broken up and I wrote scripts for three documentary films.

Using what you'd learned in your degree?
Yeah, and from having worked in television. One was called The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World – which are all in Australia. We looked for somebody to present this film and Terri Irwin sent a video of her husband - Steve Irwin, the "crocodile hunter". It was his first film and it was incredibly successful. Since then I've been knocking around the world making natural history programmes and adventure programmes and sometimes history programmes.

But not acting?
I sort of act all the time! In order to get a presenter to do the right thing, you have to have the same energy level - it's about getting a performance.

You've also been playing Turlough again in new stories for Big Finish.
That's lovely to do. It's lovely to see Sarah, Janet and Peter and we all get on so well. So yeah, Turlough is still out there.

Thanks to Paul Ballard, Tony Jordan and Dexter O'Neill.

Mark's company, 5to9 Productions, is currently making a documentary about dinosaurs.