To one generation, he’s best known as Mike Tucker, the character he’s played on the Radio 4 series The Archers for nearly 40 years. To another, he’s the third and longest-lasting incarnation of Davros, the evil scientist responsible for the creation of the Daleks on Doctor Who, a part he’s returned to repeatedly for Big Finish. And to others, he’s Professor Edward Dunning, one of the eponymous Scarifiers in the Cosmic Hobo series, starring opposite Nicholas Courtney.
This month, a new Scarifyers adventure is released. The Magic Circle introduces David Warner as Harry “Thumper” Crowe, a move necessitated by the sad death of Courtney earlier this year. The story doesn’t shy away from acknowledging Courtney’s passing – his character, Lionheart, also dies although there are moments when you’re not quite sure of that…
How did you get involved with The Scarifyers in the first place?
Simon Barnard rang me up out of the blue, and said he’d had this idea for a fantasy series about two aging people who get involved with paranormal investigations. He’d got Nick Courtney playing the detective inspector; would I be interested in playing Professor Dunning? He sent me the script through, I took one look at it and said yes, absolutely.
It rang a bell with me right at the beginning, the way it was written. There was a light touch to it. I knew that it was something Simon wanted to do in his spare time, and if he sold a few CDs around the convention circuit, all to the good – and that’s basically how it’s funded itself over the years.
We’ve only done one a year: get the money together, do it, and then get the money back in to do the next one. [Radio station] BBC 7, now 4 Extra, took it up and that’s given it a wider audience and another lease of life.
The people who’ve worked it on right from the beginning have grown so fond of it, like Nick and myself, David Benson, actors who have been there right from the beginning, crafting these characters and being very much part of the feel and the essence of what makes it The Scarifyers. It’s grown in its own way and it now has a place where it knows how to exist.
And we’re starting a new chapter now with David Warner, which is fantastic, because he’s so lovely to work with. He’s a consummate actor, of course, and a very nice guy, and he fits into the feel and the mode of what we’re doing.
We’re hoping The Magic Circle is going to get a good response from everybody, and looking to take it forward with a new tranche of adventures, which I think [writers] Paul Morris and Simon have got slated in. We’ve just recorded another Scarifyers which won’t go out until next year, called The Secret of Loch Ness, in which Harry Thumper Crowe comes to the fore. It also features the return of Aleister Crowley, which is always good.
In some ways, Dunning is like putting Denholm Elliot’s character from Raiders of the Lost Ark as a central figure… someone who is always slightly out of his depth.
That’s the joy of him, that’s what I love about playing him. He doesn’t quite get it half the time; he’s not quite there. There’s an absent minded professor element to him, and a total child-like naivety about some things – like in The Magic Circle where he believes he’s got a rabbit talking to him.
There are times when he does take charge a bit, and have his own little frisson of knowing what to do, but he relied so much on Lionheart. He’s always been rescued by Lionheart from every situation he gets himself into.
It’s similar to the opening of The A-Team movie where Face is waiting for Hannibal to turn up…
I won’t say that The Scarifyers is not above pinching movie ideas! The Devil of Denge Marsh stands out head and shoulders as a rewrite of The Wicker Man – the Wicker Fish! There are lots of little homages that they put in, either vocally or in the plot, that pay tribute to lovely moments which we’ve all enjoyed, and there are some coming up in Loch Ness as well. It’s like those little nuggets that you dig out: you know we’re having a laugh, but we can laugh along with you.
That was a tour de force, that one. Stephen has known Nick for many years; they were great friends. I think he was an obvious choice for casting when Simon was looking for someone to take that part.
The story of the Magic Circle was on the slate to be done with Nick – not with him dying, obviously! –and the decision had to be made when Nick did sadly pass away, are we going to fold it? Are we going to carry on? We felt that, at least to honour his name, we should carry it on and see how it went.
It became evident that the only person we could really bring in who could fit the bill was someone like David Warner to stand in Nick’s shoes: obviously, a slightly different character, but associated with him. I think Paul and Simon did an absolutely brilliant job.
For me, it was a very emotional thing to record. In fact when I heard the finished CD, I was on my way up to the north-east and playing it on the A1. I had to stop and pull over, I was weeping. I had to ring Simon up and say, “thank you for making my journey so wonderful.” It was a highly-charged moment.
Between this and the tribute to the Brigadier in The Wedding of River Song, it shows just what a mark Nick Courtney made…
As a friend of mine said and I quote it regularly, “Nick was an officer in his workplace, and a gentleman in real life. “ He had that quality. There was no side to him, he was just a delight to be with, whether you were working with him or in a social situation. He always had so much time for the fans: Nick really took time to chat to people, in the bar or wherever it may be.