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DOCTOR WHO (1984-1986)
Van Helsing (Dracula touring play, 2005)

I meet Colin Baker backstage at the Grand Opera House in Belfast during the final stages of the pre-West End run of a new stage adaptation of Dracula. As the interview begins the first calls are being made over the Tannoy system for the performers. During the course I can hear Richard Bremner’s voice as Dracula softly in the background, and our conversation is interrupted sporadically by assorted messages. Colin is playing Van Helsing, having taken the role over from Christopher Cassanove half way through the play’s run. He’s not due on stage until 50 minutes in. Tomorrow the company goes back to England for the final two weeks.

portrait of Colin BakerColin is best remembered for his colourful and somewhat short-lived tenure as the sixth Doctor Who, and before that for his performance alongside Kate O’Mara in tv series The Brothers. I’ve resolved beforehand to talk mostly about the Dracula adaptation that I saw the day before, and if possible to get through the interview without mentioning Doctor Who once. The plan works for about a minute and a half. And its not me that brings it up….

I’m never quite sure whether to present a straight transcription, or edited highlights. As we aren’t limited by space, and I thought you might enjoy it, I’ve presented the interview moreorless as was. A few comments have been cut, and some asides. Just as we were wrapping up, we ended up going back into the interview, and so there is more on Dracula towards the end. I was very impressed with the show (my review should be elsewhere on the site shortly), and was interested to talk about the practicalities of his work.

Robert Simpson: So what attracted you to the role of Van Helsing?

Colin Baker: The script. I’d had a couple of scripts offered to me for touring, and I was on the verge of accepting a kind-of bog standard thriller when this Brian Lavery Dracula adaptation came through the door. And it was significantly different from what one might expect in terms that its written in an almost blank verse style. So it kind of mirrors and echoes the original Bram Stoker, in the sense of the storyline is the same; and the language is kind of heightened, but nonetheless it was set in the modern day, so it was quite a fascinating project.

R: You’ve done quite a lot of different things over the last year; this is what, your third time in Belfast in the last year?

C: Yeah, in the last couple of years. Yes I did a play called Corpse.

R: Yes I missed that one.

C: Which was a 1930s comedy/thriller. Which was great fun. Which I did with Louise Jameson, and Peter Duncan. And HMS Pinafore

R: Which I did see…

C: You did see…about 8 months ago. So, its very different. The first one I was playing an inept assassin, it was basically a con-man. Then I’m playing the Lord of the Admiralty, again, inept [laughs], so I obviously collar the inept part. And now I’m playing Van Helsing who is the professor who fights evil and… its a bit like a certain other character I played in the past.

R: Yes. I was hoping to get through the interview with you without mentioning that [Colin laughs heartily]. I guess it’s a fair point; I was looking at the posters outside and its emblazoned “starring former Doctor Who, Colin Baker”. Is that something you find that dogs you now?

C: ‘Dogs’ implies I object to it, no, its a fact, I did it. I was proud of it and if by putting it on a poster they help the theatre sell more tickets then it doesn’t b:other me in the slightest. I know there are actors who on and on about [adopts grand voice] “oh, that’s something I did 20 - in my case it is twenty years ago, but you know what other job do you get credit for something you did 20 years ago?

R: You’re still doing it

C: So, I’m very happy to.

R: Its a role you’re still playing on, for Big Finish.

C: Yep. Yeah, I enjoy doing those, they’re great fun the Big Finish’s. You don’t have to learn it. The monsters are really scary, ‘cus they’re restricted only by the imagination of the listener really, and the ability of us too. ‘Cus if we say ‘Look at that, it’s 10,000 ft high, and those tentacles are 16 miles long’, then they are. Whereas if you try and do that with special effects for television you’re stymied. And a lot of the writers have very sensibly been used by Russel T Davies for the new series, in fact I think all the writers who…

R: …I think so….

C: …have written for Big Finish are now writing for the tv series, and quite right too because they write some thumping good scripts.

R: Do you find that being associated, that role in particular has maybe influenced decisions that directors have made since, you know, you maybe haven’t had the full choice open to you - of parts? In the sense of you are capable of doing a lot more, and….

C: I’ve always been very lucky in the kind of breadth and depth of roles I’ve been offered. So, I think its restricting me from being used in television, because rightly or wrongly producers don’t want those watching their program to go [adopts Cockney accent] “Oh isn’t that Colin Baker who played Doctor Who?!”. I don’t think audiences are that unsophisticated, I think they accept people playing new parts but its certainly true that the balance of theatre and tv has shifted. I used to do a lot of television and a bit of theatre, now I do a lot of theatre and a bit of television, but, that’s the nature of this job anyway.

R: I was going to ask if you found it easier to get the theatre work now?

C: Theatre work, yeah, comes along pretty regularly. And of course a theatre job lasts for months, whereas a television job - I’m doing a guest spot, for instance, in Little Britain in three weeks time, and that will take me one day. So that’s one day’s work, nice work, but I have to get 35 of those to equate to six weeks work in the theatre.

R: This play in particular, you said that for a change you’re not playing an oaf [Colin laughs softly] after the last couple of plays. Van Helsing - he’s quite stand offish I think…

C: Yes

R: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was Van Helsing’s character and Mina - there seemed to be something strange going on when I was watching yesterday, but couldn’t quite work out what it was.

C: [enthusiastically] That’s exactly what we intend you to be thinking. And so at the end of the play, there’s question marks hanging, I don’t want to go into too much detail because of spoiling it for people who come and see the play, but there’s a large question mark at the end of the play which involves Dracula and Van Helsing and Mina and Jonathan Harker and… that is part of it. Its an ambivalent relationship. Dracula is the same Dracula from 200 years earlier, is Van Helsing the same Van Helsing? Is Mina the same Mina? And, its kind of a banal comparison but if you’ve seen the film The Mummy. In The Mummy there’s this, are they reincarnations of people who’ve been through this battle before? Or, are they the same people? Or are they just descendants of those people who happen to have some genetic memory of past events, and we leave that for the audience to fathom out. Bit of cheat really.

R: At least I know now if I was on the right track in my head.

C: So Bryony, the writer, did make the relationship between Mina and Van Helsing ambivalent.

R: She’s very uncertain of it anyway, as to the whole relationship. Van Helsing certainly seems very aware…

C: Interestingly we have an understudy going on this afternoon playing Mina and she plays it differently, and perfectly valid. And its a bit clearer with this Mina what’s going on.

R: I wish I’d seen it today! It’s quite a frenetic paced play as well, do you find that difficult to learn and to…

C: Its hard to learn, but as with all things, once you’ve learnt it, you’ve got it under your belt, and the mental and physical muscles as well. This set, ‘cus the set is a sort of 45 degree ramp with bits sticking of it and its a very….its a muscle destroying set and various members of the cast are carrying the scars….

R: Mina [Laura Howard] had a bandage yesterday, I noticed.

C: She twisted her ankle fairly early on, and needs the support to get round. And there am I, the oldest, overweight member of the company and I’m scampering about it like a good ‘un.

R: Its certainly an interesting set. I don’t think I’ve seen a play that’s been staged quite that way before.

C: And the scenes flow into one another, so you can barely tell when one’s finished before one starts.

R: You’ve got to be very aware of the spaces.

C: Which works fine when you’re doing a film of course, because cutting can be controlled. You’ve got to hold an audience’s attention with you when you go to a new space. It works extremely well for Dracula, because he does literally vanish several times, and some of the times he vanishes are so devastatingly simple in terms of illusion – its all about making an audience look at something, and audiences do do things together, you’ve got to be iron-willed, when there’s a loud bang for instance on the left hand side of the stage, not to look, and while you’ve looked somebody’s legged it. [laughs]

The Tannoy comes on for the fifteen minute call. I’m very aware of the time, but Colin happily chats away…

R: I know there were points when I was watching yesterday - I know it’s probably all very simple when you’re standing there on the stage - but I was watching and Dracula’s suddenly not there, and he used the coffins and that kind of clever staging was…

C: Yeah. Scott Penrose, who is a Magic Circle magician who did the special effects – [he did] the conjuring tricks on Jonathan Creek, so he’s a good guy. He designed two or three of the things like the decapitation and blood-letting of the poor girl who’s a vampire and that sort of stuff…

R: Its certainly cinematic. I think that’s the word for this production. How do you prepare for a role like this?

C: You learn it. [Laughs]

R: You don’t look at other performer’s versions or anything like that?

C: No, no. Because what I’m being employed to do is this version. And of course I’ve seen various versions over the years. I’m aware that Peter Cushing has played it, and Anthony Hopkins has played it, people like that, but this time its me, and I want it to be my version, so in fact I studiously avoid… In fact I came to see, ‘cus I’ve only done the second half of the tour, Christopher Casenove did the first [half]. I did come to see that, and our performances are very different which is good. Chris made some choices and I’ve made different choices. And its an adaptation which makes that possible. I’ve got a kind of, as you interestingly said, a detached… a lighter, detached touch perhaps.

R: Its hopefully transferring to the West End as well isn’t it?

C: I don’t think it will happen on this [run]. I think it needs more work, I think we all acknowledge that, and Bryony hasn’t had time to spend as much time with us as she would like. It needs to go back to the drawing board a bit. Some people have said it was variously… either there was too much humour, or you should have gone for more humour, or its not scary enough and those are things we have to take onboard and in order to go to the West End it would have to address some of those issues and make some decisions.

R: Yeah. If it does transfer to the West End would you be looking [to continue].

C: I love to carry on playing Van Helsing yes, I don’t think I’m ideally suited for Dracula. Dracula tends to be, like Richard Bremmer, tall, slim, cadaverous and mean-looking.

R: He’s very intimidating to watch from the audience, what’s he like to work with?

C: He’s, well he’s not intimidating, but he is onstage and that’s what he should be. And he has fantastic malevolent presence.

R: The whole cast seems to come together well. The version I saw yesterday seemed to come together very well.

C: It does, they’re a good bunch.

R: Certainly your point about the humour… its something that sits a little bit uneasy perhaps.

C: Yes, the humour has to be… it’s the humour of Dracula, and it’s the humour of arrogance. He’s so arrogant that he can be flip and dismissive, but you have to - and it’s not his fault - you have to earn the right to do that by being bloody frightening in between. And it needs to concentrate on that a bit more.

R: Its certainly I guess, not that dissimilar to your work on Doctor Who where that humour…

C: …Yes…

R: …is necessary to put the audience at ease and then give them the shocks.

C: Yes. For instance, watching the new Doctor Who, I think its fantastic and I think it’s beautifully cast, beautifully acted, beautifully written, and the special effects and the pacing are all fantastic. And the one thing, a lot of it is, “Yup, that’s Doctor Who”, and the one thing that is new for me is the Doctor’s glee. Whenever he sees an alien spaceship arriving, instead of going “Oh my God, there’s nasty aliens here!” he goes “Goody. Aliens.” And I thought, why didn’t I think of that. That is fantastic, to actually relish the battle, and to have a kind of unholy glee at it. That’s great, and in a sense maybe something that could be investigated with Dracula too. That there is a perverse enjoyment.

Indeed, Richard and I have been trying different endings, ‘cus without giving too much away, golly gosh, Dracula gets beaten at the end… or does he, question mark. And it’s how we deal with that.

We’ve tried a shock ending where he appears to die and then sits back up again, and says a couple more lines and grabs me, and we’ve jettisoned that at the moment for an actual genuine reaching out and touching of hands at the end. A bit like any couple of boxers at the end of a bout – saluting the defeated. Interesting.

R: It was certainly quite touching. I think it shows Van Helsing has a real human side to him. But it shows at the same time, he was… I felt that you were enjoying the chase as much as anything else, because there was that “I’ll tell you later” side of things, when you could reveal the hand and you don’t. It’s a choice that…

C: And guiding these young children through, ‘cus he doesn’t actually do much himself. He gets other people to hammer the stakes in, and reads the odd prayer, but he doesn’t use his own hands.

Colin Baker as Van Helsing in 2005 stage adaptation of Dracula - photo by Nobby Clarke, used with permission

R: He’s quite controlling and manipulative maybe.

C: Yes. Interesting. Its very interesting.

R: Very. What’s next after this then?

C: After this I go to Australia for a month with Sylvester McCoy. We’re doing a kind of whistle-stop tour of Australia and New Zealand, doing kind of shows where they show clips of Doctor Who and we talk about it and get interviewed and sign a few autographs. So we’re visiting Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, Christchurch and Auckland, which should be quite fun. So that takes me up to the middle of August, and then I don’t know. In the autumn, wait and see.

R: You’re back here for a day aren’t you, for a…

C: I’m doing a…

R: …one day convention.

C: I’m doing a one day convention in Bangor, in middle, just after I get back from Australia. So that will be nice. For my friend Colin Dowling.

R: That’s the second or third of those you’ve done here isn’t it?

C: Second I think.

The event (Banopticon 2005 has now been postponed indefinitely – as of July 2005)

With talk about the play and future plans dying down, I start to wind things up. I’m already over my allotted 20 minutes. Just as we’re chatting we get talking about the Hammer site and horror films, and Colin’s own experience with the horror film – The Asylum which also features Patrick Mower, Ingrid and Stephanie Pitt, and Robin Asquith. It’s yet to see the light of day in the UK, but has been made available on DVD Stateside

C: I was really disappointed, because I was acting in the 70’s, and I never got asked to do a Hammer horror and I would love to have. I did a horror film about four years ago…

R: The Asylum.

C: … Asylum. Have you seen it?

R: I’ve got it.

C: You’ve got it, I wish I had it. How did you get it.

R: I bought it from America.

C: Ahhhhh. ‘Cus I thought it was rather good.

R: Its interesting. It’s a shame it hasn’t been released here.

C: Yeah!

R: I don’t think its had any kind of UK release on dvd, video or…

C: It hasn’t at all. It was only released in America, I can’t imagine why, because I thought it was a really good film of its genre. And I enjoyed my part. I’ve always wanted to die horribly in a horror film, and I finally got to do it. It was edited down a bit, I filmed a lot of time crawling about in blood, whimpering and begging, and perhaps they felt it was a little too pathetic.

R: It was a bit similar to, what’s the film, The Zero Imperative [produced by Bill Bagg’s BBV company in 1994, written by Mark Gatiss – a Doctor Who spin-off video], I think with that whole similar situation.

C: The old asylum.

R: Yeah.

C: Yeah. That place was scary as well.

R: Was it?

C: Dunhead in the south of Croyden.

R: Was it an actual asylum then?

C: It was an actual asylum. Its going to be redeveloped and turned into flats, but I wouldn’t want to live there. ‘Cus some of the cells were exactly as they’d been left. The notes of the patients are hanging outside, they were cells, they were like.

Tanoy: Ladies and gentlemen of the Dracula company, please note that Miss Maria will be firing the gun onstage at the end of the show, and Jane will be on standby in the wings. Thank you.

C: ‘Cus the Mina you saw ruptured her eardrum firing the gun, the blast has perforated her eardrum. She was away for a week, she’s back now, but she has cotton wool in her ear as well.

R: It is quite loud and surprising when it happens.

C: Its in the wings. She’s been firing it in the wings, so she hasn’t actually been firing the gun. Ecki [Maria] is playing it today. She’s very interesting isn’t she, it’s a very passionate performance that she gives, and in some ways its more interesting for Van Helsing because she’s very touchy-feely. Quite nice, I enjoy that.

R: Is film work something you want to do more of?

C: Yeah. I enjoy film, I like being able to spend the amount of time to get the detail right. I did a French version of Three Musketeers last year which I filmed in Canada with Emmanuelle Beart– I had a kind of pseudo-love scene with her, but she killed me. She was playing Milady in Three Musketeers, and I like being able to get it right, you know, which you can do in film, cus they’ve got the time to do it..

R: Yeah. Usually.

C: And I like the fact that that camera gets schwooomp, straight in there and you can tell if…. On stage you can get away with blue murder, but you can’t on film…

Tannoy: Ladies and gentlemen of the Dracula company, this is your five minute call. You have five minutes.

C: Thank you.

Tannoy: This is your call Christopher, thank you Christopher.

C: I have a little more time than that.

R: You’re not on for about fifty minutes or something?

C: Exactly.

R: Time to rest. No. Asylum was a good film, it’s a shame you’re not getting a chance to do any more…

C: [sighs] Yeah.

R: And it’s a very different kind of acting as well. Its em… some people say its more subtle, but its not in a way, its just different.

C: Yes it is. Its… A lot of theatre is quite hard actually to bring it down small enough to be…. The best film actors are people like Michael Caine, people like that. [indicates his face] Nothing happens on there at all, absolutely nothing. And even if I think I’m doing nothing I’m doing too much I find.

R: You’re becoming [as I look for my words very carefully, worried he’ll take this question the wrong way] I think you’ve become quite a gregarious performer in your…

C: Yes I am. I’m kind of… big. [C&R laugh] Not as big as Brian Blessed, but big.

R: No. Definitely not. Who you’ve worked with as well a few times.

C: Well I took over from him in a play last year, I did a play called The Haunted Hotel. And he collapsed on the first night, and two weeks later I took over, and did practically the whole tour.

R: Big boots to fill.

C: That was a, yes, that was a [in Blessed tones] “bombastic actor manager” which I managed to fill.

R: I look forward to seeing more. I’m just seeing if I have anything else I missed out [flicking through notes]. [I wanted] to talk to you about what interests you… as a performer.

C: Just doing something new and different all the time really. Erm. I’ve reached a point in my career where, when I started I very definitely lived to work, I just adored the job. But now I’ve got a family, four children, I work to live. It’s a job I enjoy, but if someone said “look, we’ll pay you twenty grand a minute to stay at home, I’d take it gratefully.

R: Are you thinking about retiring then?

C: I can’t. Actors can’t retire. I’ve got no pension to speak of, so I must keep on.

R: Not that they’re worth having these days anyway.

C: Exactly. I mean, fortunately I bought a house way back when that’s worth a bit so if things get bad I can always downsize, but I shall be working, well my youngest child is thirteen at the moment, so I’ve got at least another eight years yet, having to earn a living.

R: Do you not find it difficult to be away from home so much?

C: Yeah. I don’t enjoy it. I’m looking forward to going back to see them tomorrow.

R: I was reading an interview you had done, it must have been last week, saying I think you were thinking about visiting Cork, you’ve family down there as well.

C: I decided not to do that. That’s ancestry. I’ve got heavily into digging up my ancestors, not literally of course, but in terms of information, and I’ve ground to a halt on the internet in Cork with my paternal great-grandparents. So I naievely thought Ireland is terribly small, I’ll be able to pop down to Cork in half an hour, and of course its not like that.

R: Its not at all.

C: It’s a little longer than that. So I’ll have to leave that for another time.

R: I did read a book by someone once who obviously had never been to Ireland, and I talked to him about it later on and he hadn’t, but I think he thought it took three days to get from Belfast to Dublin. [Colin laughs] So he had the other perspective of this island [Colin laughs louder], that its huge. Which its not.

C: I suppose if you walked it could take you that long.

R: Could yeah. I wouldn’t fancy it.

TANNOY: ACT ONE call [huge list of names follows]

C: This goes on forever… Big cast… That’s all these peasants they have to pay. I’m excused peasantry. I think I’m too identifiable. So they all have to dress up as Romanian peasanats and wander around in that first section.

R: It was nice that they included those sort of sections in this.

C: Yes.

R: They’ve really covered the…

C: And the Renfield plot which gets missed out in a lot of Dracula adaptations and which I think is a very strong and tragic little sub-plot, the Renfield one.

R: Its very well done, and contained in that section of the theatre as well. I also liked the use of mobile technology to convey the origins of the novel and…

C: … Cus its so rooted in memos and diary entries, letters and telegrams.

R: I wouldn’t have though…. Now, I’ll steal the idea for a film version. But to use palm pilots and everything else. Is mobile technology something you would use yourself a lot?

C: I do. Yes. I’m a great internet user, I have my laptop that I tour with, and I log in everyday and pick up my emails. I love it.

R: Do you read your own reviews then?

C: Yes.

R: You do then.

C: Yes. Always. I’ve never worried about that, ‘cus I’m sufficiently arrogant to totally ignore the bad ones and bask in the good ones.

R: It’s the same then presumably with your own performances, you would watch them on television if they were on?

C: Yup. And cringe, cus “oh….No oh” You never like when you mess up, I can’t miss it. And I think everyone - people who never read reviews, course they do. But if they say they don’t read them then they don’t have to discuss them.

R: I do. I did some stuff a while back, and the first thing I did was go straight for the reviews. Didn’t let on I was doing it! But I wanted to see what people say.

C: Its only natural.

R: I like to watch myself and say “Oh, that was bad”

C: And also, if you get the opportunity of monitoring your own performance, you should take it, so you can do better next time.

R: I guess that’s a shame why you can’t, you can’t watch yourself back in a play.

C: There are some theatres where they do have, there’s about a dozen around the country, that have a monitor in each dressing room, and occasionally I’ve plugged in a video recorder and recorded off those, so I’ve got a copy for future use. Sometimes you do a play again, its quite useful to have a copy. I always do it with panto, cus you remember all the gags that went better, watch it back.

R: See what works, what doesn’t.

I really enjoyed [the play]. Surprised at just how rich it was and how well acted it was…

C: Yeah. Its, interestingly, it pleases young audiences. And all the theatres we’ve been to have said, we’ve had people come to the box office who have clearly never even bought a theatre ticket before. You can tell from the way “How do we, what do we?” And they’re all young people, a really good reaction from young people. Cus it’s a set book as well I think in English.

R: I think so. I saw a big crowd yesterday of school-kids.

C: Yeah. And some adults are offended by little bits of it. But that’s okay. I think if you offend a few people and delight a few other people its better than apathy. I’d rather have polarized, the reviews have been polarized as well. Some have really hated it and some have really loved it, so that means we’re doing something right.

R: I was reading some stuff this morning and I was listening to the people behind me last night, yesterday when I was watching it. Very mixed it was, people’s opinions the whole way through. I think, you know, Christopher Lee is always harping on about how its never been adapted properly, I think he should come and see the play, and he’d probably be quite impressed and wish he’d done it.

C: Oh, that’s nice.

R: You know, I think he should, because its that kind of accuracy. I think it would be really nice, if you could cut that somehow… its more filmic than a film is. And I think to convey that onto celluloid or videotape is very difficult, but if you could then I think you’d have the adaptation of Dracula we’ve all been waiting for.

C: That’s heartening to hear that.

R: I liked it, and it was fresh for a new audience, it was brought up to date just enough, but still the same story.

C: Oh good. Well, thank you.

Whilst the recording ended here, Colin was kind enough to talk on about his work, whilst we sorted out arrangements to get a copy of The Asylum on dvd to him (which I have now done).

Its perhaps of no interest to most of the readers out there, but I suffer from huge doses of stage-fright, and I asked Colin whether he suffered from it. He told me that first nights can be bad, but that everything was put into perspective when he heard about Sir Laurence Olivier, who was very very sick when doing Hamlet, and had to physically force himself to go onstage, having driven half-way up the motor-way home.

Colin was certainly a pleasure to interview, friendly and happy to talk. The play finished its run just two weeks after the interview, and is currently in redevelopment with a view to the West End at a later date.

©Robert JE Simpson 2005

Page first posted 8th July 2005
reformatted and reposted 23 August 2006


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