Stephen Thorne has played numerous roles as part of his long association with Doctor Who, but he's best remembered for the definitive portrayal of the legendary Omega.
[Published in The Essential Doctor Who Issue #7 THE TIME LORDS (Panini UK Ltd, March 2016), pp. 28-31. Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]
Letts must have liked his performance as a year later Stephen was asked to play an Ogron in Frontier in Space and then the main villain in the next story to be recorded (though it was broadcast first). The Three Doctors marked Doctor Who’s tenth anniversary and for the first time showed all the different incarnations of the Doctor together.
“That part – Omega – was another big character and needed a reasonably big voice,” says Stephen about how he got the role. “I think I did myself a bit of good when I played Azal but you never know with these things.” He’s also keen to make the distinction that Omega is not a villain. “Oh, he’s not. He’s just very angry at the way he’s been treated.”
Did that affect how he approached the voice? “Well, yes. You think about the character. But I also had the whole thing of acting with a mask, which does a lot of the work for you. The danger is that if you do too much it becomes ridiculous and cartoonish, but if you do too little it becomes funny. You have to pitch it somewhere in the middle.”
But presumably he didn’t get to wear the mask until he came to record the story. “No, not until the dress rehearsal. But you see the design beforehand so you know what’s coming. In rehearsals, I just had to bear in mind that I would be wearing it and not be too over the top.”
Did the distinctive design of the mask help shape the character? “It did, yes. It looked vaguely ancient Greek. But there was line [of dialogue] that gave one the idea of exactly who he was: ‘A hero? I should have been a god!’”
Omega needed to be a strong personality to take on more than one Doctor at once. “Yes, he did. That was interesting because [Third Doctor] Jon Pertwee, being Jon, worried that he wouldn’t be seen if I got in his way – because I was tall and had the mask on. He kept coming up and moving me, saying ‘I can’t see the cameras.’ I said, ‘Jon, I’m sorry, I can’t see you in this thing so I’ve no idea.’ But [Second Doctor] Pat Troughton was wonderful. He said, ‘What on earth are you going on about, Jon? It’s not you they want to see, it’s the monster.’”
What was the relationship like between Troughton and Pertwee? “Troughton was this mercurial character, as we know, and Pertwee tended to be a little bit pompous when he got on his high horse. Pat would send him up a bit and he didn’t really like that. There was no sort of argument or any dreadful animosity. But I think Jon would possibly have preferred it if Pat hadn’t been there.”
Apart from its leading men, Stephen says The Three Doctors didn’t always feel a particularly special story. “We’d been in the rehearsal rooms and we went into studio to see the set that had been put up for the first time. Lennie Mayne, the director, was very disappointed. He said it wasn’t splendid enough for Omega. He thought they’d been too parsimonious, it should have looked much more palatial. But there we are.”
Stephen’s fourth and final appearance in Doctor Who was as Eldrad in the closing episode of The Hand of Fear (1976) – another shouting part with his face largely hidden. When Omega returned in the 1983 story Arc of Infinity, he was played by Ian Collier. “Nobody asked me if I wanted to do it,” says Stephen. “Or perhaps I was doing something else and my agent just didn’t tell me.”
But Thorne did keep a connection to Doctor Who as a guest at conventions. “Not at first,” he explains. “Early on, conventions weren’t interested in those of us who played monsters – people you didn’t see the face of. That’s all changed now. These days, I benefit from rarity, because there aren’t many of us left who worked on those stories.”
Going to conventions meant Stephen kept in touch with Doctor Who’s former producer, Barry Letts – who in 1985 cast Stephen as Daniel Peggotty in the BBC’s lavish adaptation of David Copperfield. “Oh yes, that was splendid,” he enthuses. It was very different from Thorne’s work playing monsters. “Yes, well, one’s an actor and turns one’s hand to anything that comes along. I really thank Barry for that part because it was great fun.
“He was a lovely man,” he continues. “He was a great autodidact and he wanted to pass on his knowledge. I remember on David Copperfield he would give these talks to the child actors on acting and his acting heroes.” In the role of Micawber was Simon Callow – who would later play Charles Dickens in Doctor Who. “At one point Simon got quite cross with Barry,” says Stephen, laughing. “He’d say, ‘For God’s sake, we’re not at school – we’re here to do a job! Why doesn’t he get on with it?” But Barry couldn’t help himself. If he had some fascinating information germane to what you were doing, he’d have to tell you all about it. That was an endearing quality of his.”
In 1994, Letts cast Stephen again, this time in the audio Doctor Who story, The Ghosts of N-Space (first broadcast on BBC Radio 5 in 1996). “That was quite extraordinary,” says Stephen. “I don’t think anybody else who was in it could tell you exactly what it was all about. It was very peculiar, but great fun. I got to know Jon Pertwee much better during that as well. He was wonderful, and the most amazing raconteur.”
In 2015 Stephen was again playing Omega, in the Big Finish audio adventure Gallifrey: Intervention Earth. “That was a very welcome return,” he says enthusiastically. “He’s the same character – an extremely angry man who’s been hard done by – but in this he seemed more villainous.”
Was it easy to recreate the voice – especially without wearing the mask? “I asked Scott [Handcock, the co-writer, director and producer] if I could listen to some of The Three Doctors when I got into the studio, which he arranged. It was nice to hear it and it gave me a lead, but that was so long ago I couldn’t really remember what had been in my head. So I provided what I thought was needed and they seemed quite happy. He’s a character I’d like to revisit again if ever the chance came along.”
In fact, it’s been announced that Bob Baker – the co-writer of The Three Doctors – is working on a film that would pit Omega against robot dog K9. “Yes, I did know about that,” says Stephen. “Bob and I were at a convention together last year, in fact. He was further down the line signing autographs and somebody asked if he would bear me in mind. He said he would – but I’m probably too old and decrepit to be considered!”
Would he not be upset if he didn’t get to play Omega on the big screen? He wouldn’t, perhaps, get angry? He laughs. “I suppose that would be fitting. But part of the business of being an actor is being able to cope with reaction. So no, I shall take it with great sangfroid.”
“During the recording of The Ghosts of N-Space, somebody asked if I had any of my old scripts from the television Doctor Whos I’d done. Most of them had been used as drawing paper by my children, but apparently scripts were in demand at conventions and could raise a lot of money for charity at auction. So I thought I’d get everyone on The Ghosts of N-Space to sign the scripts for that. But I knew Jon Pertwee signed things with this huge signature, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, Jon, but would you mind using smaller writing so that I can get the rest of the cast on here?” I quickly added: “But you can make it abundantly obvious you’re the star.” I went off to do some other scene and came back to find he’d written in very neat, very small writing, ‘Jon Pertwee (AOIS).’ I said, ‘What’s this AOIS?’ He grinned and said, ‘It’s Abundantly Obvious I’m the Star!’”