Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Nicholas Courtney obituary

From The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive
Jump to navigationJump to search

No image available. However there is a transcription available.

Do you have an image? Email us:


Obituary: Nicholas Courtney: Actor best-known as the unflappable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in Doctor Who

The actor Nicholas Courtney, who has died after a long illness at the age of 81, spent 40 years, on and off, as the unflappable Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in the long-running TV science-fiction series Doctor Who. Typical of the much-loved character's stoicism in the face of the incredible were his instructions when confronted by a snarling gargoyle in the 1971 story The Daemons: "Jenkins, chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid." Despite such moments of humour, in Courtney's hands the character was no stereotypical Colonel Blimp, but a brave soldier who would risk his life for his country (and indeed, the Doctor).

Courtney first appeared in the series opposite William Hartnell, as the doomed space security agent Bret Vyon in 1965. The director Douglas Camfield, a military aficionado, admired Courtney's bearing and was shocked to discover that he had risen no higher than the rank of private during his national service. Nonetheless, he offered him the role of a captain in the Patrick Troughton serial The Web of Fear (1968), but when David Langton dropped out of the production before rehearsals, Courtney changed roles, replacing him as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (returning a year later, promoted to brigadier).

When Troughton left in 1969, the budget-conscious BBC exiled the new Doctor, Jon Pertwee, to Earth to act as scientific adviser for Unit (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), with Lethbridge-Stewart now a regular as commanding officer and chief foil.

For five years he greeted successive alien invasions of the Home Counties with resigned British pluck while his pragmatic militarism occasionally threw up moral quandaries for the peace-loving Time Lord. The relationship ultimately softened, and though he appeared less frequently towards the end of Pertwee's tenure, Courtney stayed long enough to ease Tom Baker into the title role. He maintained ties with the show, appearing with Peter Davison (1983) and Sylvester McCoy (1989), and the character was even given a heartfelt nod by David Tennant's Doctor in Russell T Davies's recent revival.

Born in Cairo, the son of a diplomat, Courtney underwent a cosmopolitan, if somewhat disjointed, childhood. He was educated in Egypt, France and Kenya, and won the Margaret Rutherford medal at the Webber Douglas Academy of Drama which he joined after national service.

Following wide repertory experience, he had notable stage roles in the West End, including playing opposite Celia Johnson in The Dame of Sark (1974-75) and two stints (in different roles) in The Mousetrap (1986-87, 1993-94), and played the Narrator in the Rocky Horror Show in a 1979 tour. He was also a member of the BBC Radio repertory company.

Though theatre was his first love, and John Gielgud his inspiration, Courtney was pragmatic about the financial security offered by television, notching up a hefty CV over four decades including roles in No Hiding Place, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), All Creatures Great and Small, Juliet Bravo, Yes, Prime Minister, Casualty, and regular parts in the comedies French Fields and And Churchill Said to Me. His final broadcast roles were as the archbishop of Canterbury in the Ewan McGregor film Incendiary (2008) and a last campaign for Lethbridge-Stewart in the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures (2008). A further appearance was planned but ill health intervened.

He remained close to Doctor Who throughout his career, contributing to DVD commentaries, conventions and the Children in Need charity episode, Dimensions in Time (1993), which enabled him to notch up an appearance with Colin Baker, the one Doctor he missed from the original series run. When asked who his favourite was, both Courtney and the Brigadier gallantly always gave the same answer: "Splendid chap, all of them."

He published two volumes of auto-biography, Five Rounds Rapid! (1998) and Still Getting Away With It (2005). Despite his no-nonsense demeanour and quintessential Britishness, he was not afraid to admit to bouts of nervousness and depression, although without self-pity, and he was always the first to send himself up.

Unfulfilled ambitions included doing more Shakespeare and playing Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version, but he was happy with his lot and bore his final illnesses with stoicism and grace. He is survived by his second wife, Karen (nee Harding), and two children, Phillip and Isabella, from his first marriage, to Madeleine Seignol.

William Nicholas Stone Courtney, actor, born 16 December 1929; died 22 February 2011

Captions: Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor in Terror of the Autons (1970) Photograph: BBC

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

  • APA 6th ed.: Hadoke, Toby (2011-02-24). Nicholas Courtney obituary. The Guardian p. 38.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Hadoke, Toby. "Nicholas Courtney obituary." The Guardian [add city] 2011-02-24, 38. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Hadoke, Toby. "Nicholas Courtney obituary." The Guardian, edition, sec., 2011-02-24
  • Turabian: Hadoke, Toby. "Nicholas Courtney obituary." The Guardian, 2011-02-24, section, 38 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Nicholas Courtney obituary | url= | work=The Guardian | pages=38 | date=2011-02-24 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Nicholas Courtney obituary | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 May 2024}}</ref>