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Stephen Thorne has one of the most recognizable voices in Britain. He has worked on radio for over thirty years but he has also made some memorable contributions to British TV. He played three of Doctor Who’s most notorious villains and he took on the role of Aslan in ITV’s much-loved animated version of C S Lewis’ classic novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Kieran Kinsella recently had the opportunity to speak with Stephen and began by asking him about his time on Doctor Who.
Your first appearance in Doctor Who was in the Jon Pertwee story The Daemons in which you played Azal. How did you come to get that part?
“I was asked to do the voice of Azal but when I went for my audition, they decided that since I was very tall that rather than just doing the voice that I could actually play the part. Michael Kilgarriff, who is a close friend of mine, had been asked to play the part prior to that so I did him out of a job but he did not mind and we are still great friends. We actually worked together on the Doctor Who story Frontier in Space a couple of years after that when we both played Ogrons. ”
What are your memories of working on The Daemons ?
“It was very interesting because it was my first Doctor Who part. I was made to feel very welcome by the Doctor Who family of cast and crew. The costume was very uncomfortable because I had to wear these hooves which were like stiletto heels. I had to wear a wig of chest hair and back hair and these long talons on my nails. I could not really go to the BBC canteen when I was dressed up in this costume. Someone very kindly offered to bring me lots of cups of coffee but the result of that was that I needed to go to the loo. So I went to the bathroom and stood there poised, only to realize that there was no way I could do anything without giving myself a vasectomy! I had to go to the make-up department and get my nails removed just so that I could go to the loo.
I never got to go to the famous village of Devil‘s End during filming as none of my scenes were done on location although I did go there for a convention this year to mark the 40th anniversary of the story. During the filming of that story, I also met Nick Courtney for the first time. Sadly, Nick died earlier this year but he was a very good friend of mine. ”
You obviously made an impression as Azal because not long after that, the producers hired you again to play the villain in the 10th anniversary special The Three Doctors. How did you like playing Omega?
“It was wonderful. That was the best role I played on Doctor Who. The danger with wearing a mask is that the mask does a lot of the work for you and if you are not careful, you can end up going over-the-top. So it was important to accept that the mask did some of the work for me and I had to hold back a bit.
It was great to work with the different Doctors although I never got to meet William Hartnell since he filmed his scenes separately. Pertwee and Troughton were splendid together although they were like chalk and cheese. Pertwee was very precise and wanted everything to be exactly right whereas the mercurial Troughton was jolly and fun. I remember that at one point Jon Pertwee asked me to move because he said he could not see the camera and Troughton said ‘For goodness sake Jon it is the monster the viewers want to see, not us.’
The story was splendid and the only negative was the set which was not as good as it was supposed to be. The director, Lennie Mayne was quite upset the first time he saw it. Other than that, Barry Letts asked me to tone down the scene when I removed the mask because some school children who saw the dress rehearsal got a little bit scared but it was a great part to play.”
You played another memorable villain in The Hand of Fear which was the last Sarah Jane story. How did working with Tom Baker compare with working alongside Pertwee and Troughton?
“He was a delight. It wasn’t difficult to work with any of them but Tom Baker is Tom Baker and you accept him as a force of nature. He was great fun and I have worked with him several times since on Doctor who audio stories and he is always fun to work with.
I had to wear another extraordinary costume in that story. I wore a latex suit but beneath that I wore a pair of Wellington boots. Whenever I took the costume off, I had a few inches of water in my boots from all of the sweat that trickled down my legs while I was wearing that hot rubber costume so I would empty the boots into the sink every time we stopped filming.”
After Doctor Who, you had a stint in the soap opera Crossroads. From an actor’s perspective, how does working on a soap compare with working on a series of one-off projects?
“It was extremely hairy as there was very little time to rehearse. There was limited time and no over-time so everything had to be filmed quickly. It was nerve-wracking but people used to say that if you could handle working on Crossroads then you could handle anything as an actor.
I remember being slapped in the face by a woman who was wearing a bobble hat on my way to the studio. The woman who hit me was upset with me because my character wasn’t very nice onscreen. I went into the studio and told everyone but one of the other actors said ‘that is nothing. I had my tires slashed,” and someone else said that a viewer had smashed his car windscreen so I suppose I actually got off quite lightly.
I was on the show for three months and that time period happened to coincide with an electrician’s strike at ITV. Since we were all under contract, they had to pay us for those three months even though we didn‘t do anything but then when the strike ended they paid us again for another three months of actual filming. Being paid twice for Crossroads was one of the few perks that I have ever had as an actor!”
One of your most memorable TV roles was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for ITV. You provided the voice of Aslan. What was that experience like?
“It was rather like doing a radio show because the sound was not done to the picture. The only time I got to meet the whole cast was during the read-through but we each recorded our own sections separately. The American producers didn’t like having an English cast so they re-recorded it with American actors for its US broadcast. I was retained though because they felt that God should have an English accent! The Americans also wanted me to use the word cordial as in juice and to pronounce it as cord-yall which is the American pronunciation as opposed to cord-ee-al which is the English way of saying it. I watched it recently with my grandchildren and that line just sticks out like a sore thumb because it isn’t how English people talk. It was nice though to be the only actor retained when the rest of the cast were replaced by Americans.”
Why do you think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has such an enduring appeal?
“It is because it works on two levels. It is a good children’s story but it is also a Christian parable of the crucifixion so that gives it an extra depth. It is one of those classic children’s stories with a great narrative and the other side of it is not immediately apparent to children but as a children’s story it is timeless.”
Although you have played many memorable roles on TV, you are best known as a voice actor and you’ve spent many years working on the radio. How does radio work compare with TV work?
“It is great fun. You don’t have to learn all of the lines, which is nice. It is a medium that I love and I actually listen to the radio a lot. There is the old cliché that ‘radio has the best pictures’ and I like the fact that you have to do everything with your voice. The audience actually have to do a lot of the work and you can do things that you cannot do onscreen or on stage because the audience do not actually have to see it. If they hear on the radio that you dropped an atomic bomb then they believe it. On TV, you would have to have some major special effects to pull that off.
I also like the variety of radio because you have everything from Shakespeare to Pinter. The radio has been sadly diminished though. When I first joined the radio rep in the 1960s there were 45 people who were gainfully employed in it whereas now there are about six. The output of drama has been diminished because it has been deemed that people cannot concentrate for more than 45 minutes, which is rubbish because people can easily concentrate for an hour and a half. You can listen to the radio and do other things at the same time. Radio is thoroughly enjoyable though and I have had the chance to work with some wonderful people doing radio over the last 30 years.”
What projects do you have on the horizon?
“I am working on some unabridged audio books. I have already narrated about 400 audio books over the years so those keep me quite busy. I am also going to narrate a show about Evelyn Waugh in the Ashcroft theatre. So I am busy with that show and the audio books.”