Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Nicholas Courtney (1986)

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The beloved Brigadier, the only actor to co-star with all of the first five Doctors, remembers leading UNIT against the Master and monsters alongside Dr. Who.


Jon Pertwee once said of Nicholas Courtney, "He's afraid of loud noises, he can't shoot straight, and he can't drive."

"He would say that, wouldn't he? Well, I don't like loud noises, that's very true," responds Courtney, who spent five years alongside the Third Doctor as Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart in the long-running BBC SF series, Doctor Who. "But I think I can drive, and I can shoot ... he said that, did he? Well, you should see him running! After all the lovely things I've said about Jon.... "

Any animosity displayed between Courtney and Pertwee is a sham. The mustachioed actor, who portrayed the head of UNIT, a crack alien-investigation team, admits that the Pertwee era was a great deal of fun for all involved. "During that whole time, with the UNIT team, there was an enormous family spirit. We had many laughs together. We worked very hard, we played very hard. The great thing about Jon Pertwee was that early in each story's production, when the new cast would arrive, he would make absolutely certain they all sat down during a coffee break so he could find out about them. He wanted to know what made them tick, what sort of people they were, to share the family feeling with them. That has always been true of Doctor Who, no matter which Doctor was the lead."

Appearing at conventions, Courtney is often asked about practical jokes or bloopers that occurred on the set in his years with Doctor Who. Generally, he must defer to others for such tales. "I don't remember jokes very much, or things that went wrong," he says. "As [current Who producer] John Nathan-Turner has said, at the time they happen, those situations are very funny, but if you try to re-create them, or tell others about them years later, they've lost the humor. 'Wasn't this a gas when such-and-such happened?' If you weren't there, the humor won't strike you particularly.

"Sometimes, when people ask me, 'What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on Doctor Who?' I reply, 'The BBC fee.' But that isn't really true."

Pressed, however, Courtney does recall one incident—a practical joke on himself that didn't quite pan out. Perhaps he remembers it because it occurred during production of his personal favorite adventure—"Inferno" —wherein he played a dual role: the Brig and his alternate Earth counterpart, the Brigade Leader.

"It's my favorite story because it gave me the chance to play two diametrically opposed characters," he comments. "Villains are great fun to play. It took an hour and a half in makeup having that duelling scar put down my cheek.

"I also wore an eye patch. In one scene, during dress rehearsal, the Doctor, Liz Shaw [Caroline John], and Sgt. Benton [John Levene] enter my office while I have my back to the door. I swung around to them and they all had eye patches on. So, I just began my dialogue, and they responded, and I just went on with my lines, and one by one, they all broke up. They were hoist on their own petard. John Levene went first, then Pert-wee, then Caroline John. And I asked them. 'What's the matter? What's funny, hmm? Don't you know the lines?' "

Another problem for Courtney during the period was the Brig's mustache. "Right at the beginning, I could have saved myself grief if I had grown my own mustache. I've always thought that my own didn't look military enough, like the kind of mustache the Brigadier would sport," he recalls. "So, I didn't grow my own. That was probably a mistake. I had so many false mustaches over time and some of them were pretty horrendous. And they changed—there were five or six different styles, maybe more. Jon finally said to me, 'For heaven's sake, why don't you grow your own?'

"He was right, I should have. We would be doing a scene in the pouring rain or damp conditions, and the damned thing would start to droop, and soon I would be wearing half a mustache. I had to hold it up.

"Finally, in 'The Five Doctors,'" Courtney says proudly, "I used my own mustache."

One Pertwee era family member didn't finish the five-year run. Roger Delgado, who originated the role of the Master—the Doctor's arch-nemesis—died in 1973. "My memories of -Roger are all very treasured ones," Courtney says now. "For a man who played the world's embodiment of evil, he was the kindest, gentlest, nicest person one could ever wish to work with. The only person he ever criticized was himself, never anyone else, which is the sign of a very well-put-together human being. When he couldn't get something right, it really used to bother him, he would go mad about it, because he wanted to get everything exactly right.

"When he entertained us at home, he always had his slippers on," Courtney remembers, chuckling. "Here was the Master, evil personified, padding around in his slippers. He was really something of a home bird. It was very shocking to all of us when we heard he had been driven over a cliff in Turkey while shooting a film."

Doctors & Daleks

Courtney grew up in such exotic lands as Egypt and Kenya, moving from post to post with his father, a career diplomat. After a stint in the army (a private), he moved into acting, spending 10 years on the British stage. He turned to television in the late 1950s, landing his first role on Doctor Who in 1965's "The Dalek Master Plan."

"My introduction to Doctor Who came through director Douglas Camfield. I played Bret Vyon, in 'The Dalek Master Plan,'" says Courtney. "Camfield, who was also responsible for bringing me back as Lethbridge-Stewart, directed more Who stories than anyone else; unfortunately, he died a few years back."

"The Dalek Master Plan" was Courtney's first appearance with the First Doctor, William Hartnell. (His second was in the 10th anniversary adventure, "The Three Doctors.") "Bill Hartnell wasn't a very well man, so he tended to be a little tetchy," he comments. "We got along very well, though."

Courtney returned to Who three years later, guest-starring opposite Patrick Troughton in "The Web of Fear," introducing Lethbridge-Stewart, who was then just a colonel in the British army. Later in 1968, Lethbridge-Stewart showed up again, now leading the UNIT forces against the Cybermen's "Invasion." The Brigadier became a regular in 1970, when producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks (STARLOG #107) decided on a series of Earthbound adventures for Pertwee's Doctor.

"When he was first introduced, the Brig was just an army officer barking out orders," Courtney remembers. "That was very boring to the audience, and very boring to the actor because there was no character to work with. I used to write a couple lines that would give him humor. Over the years, I was eventually allowed to rewrite some of my lines to flesh the man out. Even if the lines weren't there, I tried to think the Brig's character out on my own, and let that show through gestures and reaction shots."

How did Courtney see the relationship between Lethbridge-Stewart and the Time Lord? "The essence of their relationship was the clash between the military and the scientific minds. As far as the differences between the five Doctors I worked with, I reacted the way an actor reacts to any other actor replacing someone in a role.

"Over time, the Brig began to accept the Doctor's oddities: 'Oh, here we go, he's changed his face again.' At first, the Brig was absolutely outraged that anyone would pull that sort of trick—It's not on, really not on at all.'"

Courtney points to a scene in "The Daemons" as representative of the Brigadier's attitude toward the bizarre world he was forced to inhabit. "The Brigadier is faced with Bok, a stone gargoyle come to life, and he summons his corporal and says, 'Jenkins—chap with the wings: five rounds rapid.'"

How much of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is Nicholas Courtney? "I don't know—it's all unconscious, isn't it?" he replies. "Quite a lot, I suppose. At the same time, I have no ambition to be a soldier—I'm a celluloid soldier, not a serious soldier.

"My father was a professional army man before he was a diplomat, so something must have rubbed off there. It gave me a chance to observe army life and I remembered the way they talked, looked and acted."

MacArthur & Math

Courtney's last appearance as the head of UNIT came in a story he also counts among his least-liked: "Terror of the Zygons," with Tom Baker as the Doctor. "Some of the monster shots were not the best," he comments. "There were many script problems and, above all else, I had to appear in a kilt. No wonder I didn't like it so much.

"During the whole thing, I was very much aware that this was the end. I was very depressed, I thought I was going to be like Douglas MacArthur and simply fade away. They didn't give me any great stormy scene to go out on—saving the world or being killed off or something. It's just as well they didn't—or John Nathan-Turner wouldn't have been able to bring me back."

That return came in 1982's "Mawdryn Undead," Courtney's chance to appear with the fifth of the first five TV Doctors, Peter Davison. Courtney had worked with Davison before, both on All Creatures Great and Small, and on a British situation comedy called Sink or Swim.

Once again he played a dual role, with a difference—both characters were the Brigadier, but from different time periods. The earlier mustachioed Brig had just retired from the army and became a math teacher at a private school. The later one, much depressed and clean-shaven still had the job, but remembered little of his UNIT career.

"In doing 'Mawdryn Undead,' I filmed all my scenes as Brigadier 1 on one day, and all the scenes as Brigadier 2 on the next," Courtney recalls. "That meant that we filmed and taped even more out of order than usual. It was a complicated story at the best of times and was made even worse by the necessity of my doubling up. Basically, there was not time to be fussing with my makeup for the two roles."

Most amusing to Courtney and his friends was the idea of his teaching mathematics. "I'm very bad at math. When I was in school in Egypt, I got a report from my headmaster, which said, 'I defy anyone to get mathematics into Nicholas' head.' History was my subject. But it didn't matter, because it was quite a fun moment between Peter Davison and myself, as he raised his eyebrow, saying, 'Math, really? You?' And my reply, 'Well, you don't have to be a Time Lord to understand mathematics!' "

Warming to the subject, Courtney continues, "I played a bank manager recently in a training film, and I told my own bank manager. 'That's three bank managers you've played now,' he said. 'Yes,' I replied, 'and I still don't understand the banking system.' That's what's called giving a performance—acting—pretending you know about these financial matters."

And Courtney's future? "I would like to do more drama. It's a long time since I did serious drama. I feel starved for that. Something emotional—I don't mean I want to scream and shout and have nervous breakdowns—but something where you can get to the audience. I would like a real meaty part, that I could get my teeth into."

Beyond acting, he has ambitions in directing and writing. "I want to direct in theater. I haven't considered telly or films—mechanical media—at all because I'm singularly inept with regard to mechanical objects. I think I'm more interested in writing prose than a screenplay."

At the moment, Colin Baker, the current Doctor, remains the only one that the Brig has never co-starred with, but Nicholas Courtney is anxious to make an appearance with the Sixth Doctor. "I'll do a story with Colin Baker as soon as they ask me," he says. "I hope they do so—it would be a shame to spoil the record."


PATRICK DANIEL O'NEILL, veteran STARLOG correspondent, examined Marvel Comics' 25th anniversary in issue #110.


Caption: Nicholas Courtney. He's the Brigadier, fearless leader of UNIT in the never-ending battle against alien evil.

Caption: The Brigadier (Courtney) and the third Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee) examine a clue that's likely to point them to a new adventure, not in time or space, but on Earth itself.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: O'Neill, Patrick Daniel (number 111 (October 1986)). Nicholas Courtney (1986). Starlog p. 34.
  • MLA 7th ed.: O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "Nicholas Courtney (1986)." Starlog [add city] number 111 (October 1986), 34. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "Nicholas Courtney (1986)." Starlog, edition, sec., number 111 (October 1986)
  • Turabian: O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "Nicholas Courtney (1986)." Starlog, number 111 (October 1986), section, 34 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Nicholas Courtney (1986) | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Nicholas_Courtney_(1986) | work=Starlog | pages=34 | date=number 111 (October 1986) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 September 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Nicholas Courtney (1986) | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Nicholas_Courtney_(1986) | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 September 2019}}</ref>