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John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien

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WHILE the name John Woodnutt may be familiar to fans of cult tv, some might have difficulty in recalling the face. More often than not the actor, who has enjoyed guest spots in a diverse range of British fantasy shows, has played monsters, covered head to toe in costumes and prosthetics. But Woodnutt is not complaining: "Give me the monsters every time!" he smiles

Aside from a supporting role in the fondly-remembered 1966 series The Master, Woodnutt's first appearance in a Science Fiction series was in Jon Pertwee's début Doctor Who tale Spearhead from Space. He played Hibbert, the owner of a plastics factory, whose business was being subverted by the alien Nestenes.

"I hesitate to say it, because it turned into something rather special, but it was a run of the mill sort of a job," says Woodnutt, when asked how the part came about. "I didn't know the director, he'd seen me do various things, and rang my agent and said would I like to be in a Doctor Who.

"Actually I was a little bit disappointed that it came so late. I would very much have liked to have worked with the previous two Doctors, because William Hartnell I first knew when I was seven years old as Billy Hamel! who was a brilliant comedian and I saw him as a child at the Richmond Theatre. Of course, Patrick Troughton I worked with many times before he became Doctor Who."

Film Recording

Aside from the change in leading actor, Spearhead from Space is remembered for being shot totally on film as a result of a technicians' strike at the BBC Television Centre.

"We all had to go down to the West Country and film at the BBC's training establishment, the actor recalls. "I thought it added extra excitement and gave it a bit of an edge. [Shooting on film] made a huge difference and it was very spooky some of it. It's very rare that actors find what they're doing frightening, because they are the manipulators of the emotions. I can still remember the shooting of the mannequin scene as being very spooky to watch."

That unsettling feeling was particularly acute during the night filming for the scenes in episode four, when Hibbert and Charming visit Madame Tussauds.

"That too was highly atmospheric. I seem to remember we were there at two o'clock in the morning. It had to be, because the thing was in use during the day.

"You think, 'Oh they're only dummies', and we were actually downstairs in the dungeon part. One of the things I love about filming, and one of the things I particularly love about Doctor Who, is that the ambience does have an effect on the actor."

The Auton facsimiles were criticized by parents at the time as being too frightening for children. Does Woodnutt agree?

"No, I don't think so," he insists. "One of the great things about Doctor Who is we drew the very fine line between unhealthy fear and healthy trepidation, which is not quite the same thing. They kept that balancing act going very well over a great number of years."

Despite the fact that this was Jon Pertwee's fledgling outing in the role of the exiled Time Lord, Woodnutt believes that the leading man was instantly settled in the series.

"He was quite remarkable really, because he brought to it that extraordinary panache for which he's celebrated. He gave the impression that he'd been doing it for years."

During the same year John Woodnutt recorded a guest role for another Science Fiction series, the short-lived LWT satire The Adventures of Don Quick. He appeared as Goolmarg in the pilot episode The Benefits of Earth, directed by Mike Newell, now best known for his work on Four Weddings and a Funeral.

"That was extraordinary!" smiles Woodnutt as his memory of the series is jogged. "I'd been on holiday and I came back and the script was on the mat. It was written by a man called Peter Wildeblood, and he asked me to do it because a few years before I was in a thing for Granada Television called Rogues Gallery. It was because of appearing in that and getting to know Peter Wildeblood that he asked me to play this character in Don Quick."

"It was a clever script, but never really worked properly, and they didn't do a second series:*

Just three years later John Woodnutt was back in Doctor Who, this time disguised by a superb latex half-mask as the Draconian Emperor in Frontier in Space.

"I remember we decided that to give it this reptilian quality we would extend his s's. Somehow you associate reptiles with hissing, and it seemed to work. AHied to the excellent costume and the sharp movements of the head — we decided that reptiles do tend to move their heads at enormous speed before dashing off — that's how we achieved the finished result?'

Woodnutt has happy memories of working with the late Roger Delgado, whose interpretation of the Master remains the show's finest villain.

"I was extremely fond of Roger and worked with him on many occasions in the mid-Fifties. He was a man of great dignity and skill. It's a curious coincidence that I was doing The Tomorrow People at Teddington Studios and Roger lived near the studio, and I decided to go and say hello. I phoned and his wife said he'd be delighted if I popped round and had a coffee during my lunch hour. I slipped over there and he was frantically packing to go to Turkey. I saw him on the Friday, and he was dead by Sunday. It was a tremendous shock. It was a great, great loss because he had an extraordinary quality."

Mention of The Tomorrow People brings the conversation around to The Vanishing Earth, the final story of the show's first season, in which Woodnutt portrayed the monstrous Spidron.

"It was a weird costume wasn't it!" he chortles. "I was in a sort of glass booth with vines and things growing everywhere, up my leg and around my neck. In order to be heard at all they had the sound cable up my costume from the feet and trailing off through a little hole. I was stuck in this and surrounded by what seemed to be ivy everywhere, and it was very uncomfortable. They all went off to lunch and forgot me, and I was stuck in the wretched cubicle in an empty studio. I was very cross and I remember behaving very badly and shouting a lot. There was no way I could get out myself. But The Tomorrow People was fun to do."

Latex-Covered Body


Only two years passed before John Woodnutt was back working on Doctor Who, this time for his favourite story Terror of the Zygons, in which he played the dual roles of the alien leader Broton and the human Duke of Forgill. Set near Loch Ness, the script required Woodnutt to affect a Scottish accent, which he achieved with precision.

"There's a little story there," says the actor of the Scottish dialect. "[Director] Dougie Camfield I liked very much and I'd known for some years. When we came to discuss how we were going to play this Duke we had a very friendly disagreement. I wanted to make him sound as though he were an old Etonian, because all the old aristocracy of Scotland lose their accents in public schools in England. But Dougie said, 'I don't agree with that. We're going out to an audience of children and they're not going to know that. That's a rather sophisticated attitude which may be OK for an adult audience, but they're not going to realize you are a Scottish laird unless you have a slight Scottish accent.' I realize now he was absolutely right in making the decision.

"In those days I used to specialize in accents. I'm very English indeed, my family comes from the Isle of Wight. You can't get further away from Scotland..."

On the other hand, his role as the hideous Broton required Woodnutt to be completely disguised by a costume created by the Oscar-winning designer James Acheson.

"It was quite extraordinary," he says, adding that the Zygons were his favourite Doctor Who monster. "I was assured by the designer that it was based on a four month old foetus."

Despite the intricacy of the design, Woodnutt insists that the costume was extremely easy to apply and never became uncomfortable.

"It was so skilfully made you just stepped into it. One of the clever things about the designers is that they not only make it look good but the practicality of the thing is of the essence.

"It was kind of loop-buttoned at the back which melded into the colour and I think it was in two pieces. The head went on first, with that great bulging forehead. It was made of very lightweight combination of fibre glass and latex. I had elevators on the feet so I really was pretty tall — I was about six foot six I think."

Thanks to the taut direction of Douglas Camfield, Terror of the Zygons retained a tangible atmosphere of menace. A similar quality was evident in the HTV children's drama Children of the Stones, which Woodnutt recorded some two years later.

"I thought it was rather effective," says Woodnutt of the show, in which he played Link, the butler to the enigmatic Hendrick (Ian Cuthbertson).

The show was partly filmed in Avebury, utilizing the village's impressive stone circle, and the actor remembers the shoot for being a happy time.

"We were on location one day, and the property department had a made a wonderful plaster hollow rock which sat over one of the smaller real stones and matched in wonderfully well. We all went off to lunch one day, and as we came back we looked down and there was an American gentleman photographing his wife. He cried to her, 'Put your hand on the stone honey, just a little higher..' She did, and the whole lot fell over. They were absolutely astonished!"

In 1981 John Woodnutt made his last appearance in Doctor Who. This time, however, he was playing the good guy as Seron, one of the Consuls in The Keeper of Traken. Ever eager to play the villain, the actor admits that this story is his least favourite appearance in the show, although, nevertheless, he was happy to be working once again with Tom Baker.

"Tom had only two more to do and then he was handing over to his successor, and I was pleased to be doing another with him because I enjoyed the first time very much indeed. There is something especially mad about this man which is most beguiling, and made him perfect casting for Doctor Who. I think the casting of Doctor Who has always been very clever. Each brought his own peculiar idiosyncratic personality to the role and made it very much their own."

Did he feel that Tom Baker's interpretation of the role had changed much in the six years between Terror of the Zygons and The Keeper of Traken?

"No, oddly enough I didn't," Woodnutt muses. "I think that is because he put so much of himself into it. Anyway, I don't think you want to develop a character like the Doctor when you're playing it. It's not that kind of a role. It wants to be very sharply drawn, and it was by all of them."

John Woodnutt's most recent appearance in a Fantasy show was a segment of ITV's Dramarama slot. In Mr Stabs, a sequel to the popular 1970s' show Ace of Wands, he portrayed the sorcerer Melchisedek opposite David Jason's Stabs.

"That was huge fun," he enthuses. "I played a Warlock, an old man of 350. That was the longest make-up I've ever done: an hour and a half. It was bits of latex stuck all over my face, and a bald pate over my own hair and wispy wig over that and tons of make-up and loads of latex to appear to shrivel the skin.

"It was interesting to work with David Jason then, because I went on to work with him subsequently in Porterhouse Blue. I liked him very much indeed, and admired his talent greatly, and everyone had high hopes for this. But you can never tell if something is going to take or not."

These days, of course, British television shies away from Science Fiction, preferring instead to import from the United States. John Woodnutt misses the opportunities of appearing in the genre, and his enthusiasm, particularly for Doctor Who, is quite evident.

"I loved it. I'm delighted there are so many Doctor Who associations and I go to conventions up and down the country. I'm fascinated by the interest and enthusiasm being shown by people who could not possibly have seen the originals, who have been introduced to it through videos. It really does hold a special place in my heart. They were very special to lots of people."


Captions:

As the Duke of Forgill / Broton in Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons

Doctor Who: Frontier in Space John Woodnutt (seated) as the Draconian Emperor

Roger Delgado, a friend of John Woodnutt, as The Master in Doctor Who

John Woodnutt as Hibbert in the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space, available from BBC Video

John Woodnutt as the sinister butler in Children of the Stones, and as a 'new' character at the end of the story

Atmospheric filming in Madam Tussauds

The Zygons' design was based on a four month old foetus

John Woodnutt as the Zygon Broton pretending to be the Duke of Forgill

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  • APA 6th ed.: Richardson, David (issue 72 (November 1995)). John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien. TV Zone p. 16.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Richardson, David. "John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien." TV Zone [add city] issue 72 (November 1995), 16. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Richardson, David. "John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien." TV Zone, edition, sec., issue 72 (November 1995)
  • Turabian: Richardson, David. "John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien." TV Zone, issue 72 (November 1995), section, 16 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/John_Woodnutt,_the_good,_the_bad_and_the_alien | work=TV Zone | pages=16 | date=issue 72 (November 1995) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=8 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=John Woodnutt, the good, the bad and the alien | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/John_Woodnutt,_the_good,_the_bad_and_the_alien | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=8 December 2019}}</ref>