Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Dog Days

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The slang phrase, "It's a dog's life" usually means someone is leading a life more unfortunate than the lowest bow-wow. However, don't tell that to John Leeson. He led a "dog's life" for nearly four years — and loved every minute of it! Best known to American audiences as the voice of K-9, the computer mutt on the British TV series Doctor Who, Leeson is candid about his canine claim to immortality.

"Getting the part of K-9 was entirely accidental. A director I worked with years before in repertory days had been working in a police series. I met him at a local pub and he said, 'I'm doing a Doctor Who.' The next thing I knew, my agent phoned up and asked me to go along to Graham Williams [then-producer of Doctor Who}. I did. Graham showed me pictures of K-9 — I think he had just been built — and said, 'What do you feel about it? Do you think you could do it? It's only one story.' I said, "Yes! I would love to do anything.' I put some voices on tape and sent them along, then I heard no more about it." Assuming he had been rejected, Leeson was astonished when, two weeks later, the BBC rang him and said, " 'We're still waiting! We want your acceptance. Are you, please, going to do it?' " The response was yes.

With that answer, Leeson's career started barking up a different tree. Although he was doing quite well in the theater, acting all over England in both modern and classic plays, Leeson was quite willing to give something else a try. "I don't think many actors would have actually applied to play K-9, but I'm an easy, free-wheeling sort of guy and I thought it would be worth taking on. I haven't regretted it for one moment, because it actually did turn into a really worthwhile character!"

Having decided at age five that an actor's life was the one for him ("I remember it well — in kindergarten, I was cast as the village idiot. I loved playing the village idiot! 1 thought that if I could go on playing village idiots and getting laughs for the rest of my life, that would be wonderful!"), Leeson finally managed to get accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art by giving "the worst audition of my life."

When he left RADA, he went into repertory—but not the usual, run-of-the-mill repertory. He joined a Shakespearean company dedicated to bringing culture in the form of Macbeth and As You Like It to the "natives" — those who happened to live in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. "The people who were funding this production set up a trust called 'Shakespeare on the Desert' but we kept getting letters addressed to us in care of "Shakespeare on the Rocks'! I don't know how close that was to reality, but it was a marvelous experience to come out and play to audiences who hadn't really heard Shakespeare before. In fact, I remember the Beatles had just hit the Eastern Seaboard when we were hitting the West. There's a line in Macbeth, 'The shard-born beetles that drowsy hums as 'round nights withering peel," or 1 think that's how it goes, and we could not understand why every night that line came out and the house simply fell apart! Oh, that was a great experience."

Dog Days

Leeson eventually drifted into British television. "I got into television and, because of my rather lightweight style, I tend to do TV comedy more than anything. We had to get the dynamics of working it absolutely right." Luckily, the dynamics turned out to be exactly right and the "one- shot" appearance quickly turned into the role of a companion, albeit a metal one.

"I was sort of 'loaned' for further adventures from Professor Marius [the original "creator" of the mobile computer]. The BBC decided after the first episode was shown that they were going to make a go of it. They had spent a fair deal of money making K-9 and getting the thing to work, so I think they wanted to capitalize on that as well."

And capitalize on him they did. K-9 traveled with the Doctor for the next several years, with four other companions and even through a regeneration of his own. Leeson established a solid rapport with his co- workers and, although he wasn't able to keep in contact with all of them, did meet them some years later at an American convention. "It's an extraordinary thing, this business of ours. I mean, you will work with people very closely, very intimately and you'll be bosom buddies for as long as the job lasts. Then, boom! That's it, the end, finished. Never see them again!" He pauses. "When you do see them again, you take it up exactly where you left off, exactly the same point. It's one of the very few professions where this sort of relationship occurs — an intense, very strong working bond which is instantly switched on again. You're there again after a lengthy period of time, 10 years, 20 years, and you're finishing the joke else. I enjoy it very much and enjoy the discipline very much, particularly farce." His mobile face changes and his eyes light up. "Now, there's a discipline I love because it is so, so difficult. The difference between farce and comedy is that basically comedy is a funny situation and the actor or character knows it's an amusing situation. But in farce, the character doesn't. It's for real. Holding one's line of thought in farce is a great art."

Holding one's line of thought while scampering around on all threes — with a script in the "spare" hand — as Leeson did while rehearsing K-9's lines wasn't easy either. He was just a little surprised when he began acting with Tom Baker that everything worked out so well. Leeson grins cheekily now, "You know the saying, 'Never work with animals or children' — the dog might well have upstaged the Doctor!

you started way back when."

One of Leeson's favorite stories concerns his son, Guy, then quite young, and Baker. "On one occasion, Tom came to dinner at our house. The first thing he said when he came in was, 'Where's Guy?! Where's Guy?' My wife, Judy, said, 'He's in bed.' Tom asked enthusiastically, 'Oh, can I read him a bedtime story?! Can 1 tuck him up?!'

'Sure.' So, Tom went upstairs. And he was up there for ages, reading away and chat- ting. Guy wasn't overawed because Tom was a person rather than the Doctor and he had met Tom on several occasions before." Leeson confesses he nearly had to physically drag Baker away to get him to come downstairs to dinner. The following day, Leeson's son went to school and told his friends that the man they watched weekly on TV as the Doctor had been at his house the night before and had read him a bedtime story. Leeson rolls his eyes. "Was he be- lieved for one momentV. Ha! He suffered agonies over that! But it was true!"

Working on Doctor Who with Tom Baker was an experience in itself, Leeson ad- mits. "Fantastic energy!" he says of the man who waged fierce skirmishes to keep the integrity of the show as he saw it. "There were," Leeson admits with typical British understatement, "some quite 'lively' rehearsals. Tom could be quite — tough — on scriptwriters," he laughs. "I don't think he got to meet too many of them apart from Bob Holmes — a very, very clever writer. You see, the problem that writers had, or, obviously still have, for writing science fantasy, is that they must make up their own ground rules as they go along. What occasionally happened was that their lines were crossed; they hadn't actually thought things through. By page seven of episode three, what had happened in the previous two episodes was completely thrown overboard.

Economics and departmental changes at the BBC did more to ruin K-9 and Company's Christmas than the witches that Leeson and Elisabeth Sladen faced in this series pilot.

by a mere sentence! That made rehearsals pretty difficult at times because the actors would have to fight to find their characters. K-9 would be written in such a way as to be more 'humanized' ! More of the dog and less of the computer. I wanted to keep the com- puter. K-9 was a computer! He just happen- ed to be in the shape of a dog with a will of his own and a strong identity."

Was K-9 used in the later years as a deus ex machine. "It didn't happen that way," Leeson responds. "That if you like, is the most extraordinary thing about Doctor Who. There are 'moral issues' involved with the Doctor, if he's up against a problem, in- stead of getting K-9 to blast the problem to smithereens (that lovely word Tom always used!), he would actually make a decision as to what to do at that point and try and pre- vent any danger from occurring to anybody, which is rather nice. And use an inventive way 'round the problem instead of hitting it head-on."

Dog Nights

Feeling that "the material was beginning to soften a little bit," Leeson left the series for a year and set about regenerating his career. A call from the new producer, John Nathan-Turner, caught him by surprise. "He said, 'Would you consider coming back as K-9?' I really had to think hard about it because having begun to nose back into the mainstream of 'face acting,' as I call it, I was a bit loath to go back into obscurity again. But, as I heard K-9 was going to be rounded off, 1 thought it would be worth- while finishing him off."

Leeson's own thought on just how the plucky little computer mutt should have been written out of the show may surprise fans. "Marry him off!" was his first gleeful reaction. When that suggestion was turned down out of hand, he had another idea: "K-9 should have gone out on a heroic mission and been blown to smithereens within full sight of the Doctor! Tears would be shed— but that would be THE END. That would be clean and final and heroic and good and wonderful," he continues in one breath — and then adds with dramatic pauses. "But then, as everyone knows, it. . .didn't. . .happen. . .that. . .way."

K-9's departure wasn't an unqualified success. "The fans were really broken up. Now, we have two schools of thought about using K-9 in Doctor Who. There were some who thought the K-9 element was too childish or too humorous or too 'larky' for the serious purpose of the heroic dramas. The others who liked that element, they lik- ed Bob Holmes' stories which were very, very witty and sharp. But K-9 had sup- porters. When he was dropped, there was a great outcry and a lot of press. A lot\"

If K-9's departure caused a stir, so did his return. A TV pilot, K-9 and Company, was filmed a little over a year later. Elisabeth Sladen (as companion Sarah Jane Smith) and Leeson re-created their Doctor Who characters. The show earned good ratings, but, as Leeson remembers, the series never got off the ground due to finances and a change of the head of the BBC's Drama Department. "Just at the very time they were deciding to continue with K-9 and Company, the chappie who was the incumbent said, 'Yes, it's fine. We would like to have some more.' Then, the other fellow came in and said, 'What's this? I haven't seen it — Oh, no, we haven't time for it.' It just didn't fly."

Although he isn't contemplating any more Doctor Who, Leeson takes great pleasure in visiting American fans. At the first few conventions he attended, he took advantage of his "facelessness," assumed an East Coast accent and spent the early part of the convention wandering around, replete with camera, buttons, T-shirt and cap, play- ing a fan from Philadelphia. As such, he even entered two "K-9 soundalike contests" — one of which he won, and one he lost. He smiles with delight and comments, "It's quite extraordinary, the sort of feedback American fans give. Sitting with the fans— apart from being hyped up because I'm playing a trick on them — the excitement being generated and the love, the wanting to identify, is just stunning. It's something that you don't find in the UK. It's up front! This is so refreshing in many ways 'cause we're a reserved lot back over the water.

"With our own fans, I think Doctor Who is regarded as a part and parcel of the framework of British television. It's no longer an exciting, vibrant thing. It's successful and it gets the rating, but it doesn't have the same sort of dynamic behind it as you have over here where it's new and is in quite sharp contrast to your own, home- generated science fiction in terms of films like Star Wars and particularly Star Trek, which I love. I must say I'm a great Star Trek fan, but the thing about the American version of science fiction is it's very much glossier and geared to visual action. Doctor Who is done for love and for the story's sake, rather than for the sake of being flashy and showing how clever we are in space. There's a harder edge to Doctor Who than there is to American science fiction. The marvelous thing about Doctor Who is the license it actually gives. You are licensed to be anywhere at any time! That's the marvelous, free-wheeling thing about it — an unbeatable formula."

And would he refuse the opportunity to return to playing in an "unbeatable formula?" Even as a real villain? He hesitates. "Well, if it was very far removed from K-9, a real character," John Leeson smiles. "I think maybe, maybe." He laughs, "I shall wait to be asked!! Make me an offer!!"

Through Leela (Louise Jameson) and the other companions, K-9 (Leeson) remained Tom Baker's best friend.

Heard but not seen, Leeson enjoys his anonymity at American SF cons as the fan from Philadelphia. He has even managed to lose a K-9 soundalike contest.

"There's a harder edge to Doctor Who than there is to American science fiction," notes John Leeson.

JEAN AIREY & LAURIE HALDEMAN, veteran STARLOG correspondents, are the authors of Travel without the TARDIS (Target, $3.25). They profiled David Jackson in STARLOG #140.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Haldeman, Jean Airey & Laurie (issue 143 (June 1989)). Dog Days. Starlog p. 20.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Haldeman, Jean Airey & Laurie. "Dog Days." Starlog [add city] issue 143 (June 1989), 20. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Haldeman, Jean Airey & Laurie. "Dog Days." Starlog, edition, sec., issue 143 (June 1989)
  • Turabian: Haldeman, Jean Airey & Laurie. "Dog Days." Starlog, issue 143 (June 1989), section, 20 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Dog Days | url= | work=Starlog | pages=20 | date=issue 143 (June 1989) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=29 November 2022 }}</ref>
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