Interview: Doctor Who: Elliot Chapman

M156473.0105For most of the nearly twenty years that Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who stories, there was a rule not to recast the roles of those actors who have passed away. However, in recent times that has been relaxed, with Tim Treloar playing the Third Doctor, Jemma Powell bringing original companion Barbara Wright back – and Elliot Chapman portraying Cockney sailor Ben Jackson, the role originally played by Michael Craze. With his latest performance in The Mouthless Dead just released (reviewed here), he chatted with Paul Simpson…




As someone who knew Mike Craze in the last couple of years of his life, I’ll admit I was one of those whose head thought it was a good idea to recast, but heart wasn’t quite sure…

I can quite understand that.

But so far all the recastings have worked out very well…

I’ve heard a little of Tim doing his stuff, and I’ve yet to hear Jemma, although I’ve heard lots of lovely things about how she’s doing as Barbara. It’s lovely that she’s been able to play it before with Mark Gatiss’ play…

He says, giving away his Who credentials!

I am immersed in this world now!

I really enjoyed it as a kid. I’m just old enough to have caught the tail end of the original so I have memories of it, and I remember the BBC repeating it into the early Nineties. I’ve got a headful of all the earlier Doctors anyway but when I did my research for this, I listened – and it’s unfortunate you have to only listen to so much of this, there’s only the odd episode to watch – to everything toing and froing from the theatre show I was doing. I reached the end of that season and went, “I want a little more now”. People kindly sent me things, and now after two years I’ve watched quite a bit. Bitten by the bug.

pollyI don’t know about you, but I have this faint unease about going back to things I enjoyed as a child, in case they don’t stand up. They can’t live up to what’s in your head, so I left the later stories to one side, but I was pleased when I did watch them, that it was even better than I remembered. There was so much to it.

I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and the wonderful thing about being at drama school is that they try to stretch you beyond who you are – and then you go out into the industry, and the first thing is your agent narrows what your perceived versatility is, then the casting director narrows it even further, and a director narrows it even further. That’s been one of the delights of playing Ben and working with Big Finish: usually I play a lot of young professional white collar people – doctors, solicitors, accountants. The chance to play this young Cockney sailor who has a hand in saving the universe is like, “oh thank God! I don’t have to play the white collar guy again”.

What got you into acting?

I was a bit of a late developer. I acted as a kid – did the school play, joined the acting club in the area. My parents were really encouraging but I reached a point in my teens where I thought, “Going to drama school and becoming an actor is a really stupid move, and there’s no security in it”. Boy, did I know so much more then! So I went off and went to university, read English and started off as a journalist.

I was quite lucky when I came out of university. I started on regional newspapers and regional radio. I was one of those annoyingly lucky people who came out of university and went right into something and had some security.

I was in that for a while and this voice at the back of the head would not shut up about the possibility of working in the theatre, or any of the media, so with the turn of the decade coming up, I was rapidly approaching 30, and at 28 I thought I’d audition for some of the prestigious drama schools. My thinking was, if you’re turned down by a RADA or a Bristol Old Vic or a LAMDA, then that’s the universe telling you something. Unfortunately a couple of them said yes, so I had this big reassessment and delved into my savings and went to drama school, slightly later than the average age. The range is 19-24 normally, and there I was turning up at 29. I did my time at the Bristol Old Vic and from there became a jobbing actor.

DWEA0201_theyesmen_1417The BF thing started in a way at drama school. I was selected for the Carleton Hobbs award [a search by the BBC for “distinctive, versatile radio voices to form a nucleus of new talent within the autumn season’s Radio Drama Company”]. While we were training on that, we were told it’s not just the radio rep company, not just Radio 4 [who do audio]. There are other people you need to speak to, and one of the teachers mentioned Big Finish, said it was a great company to work for, knew many actors who had worked for them and said they’re really loyal to actors if you do a good job for them.

So I did that thing actors do – I penned a letter, or did an email (we don’t pen letters any more) and it was a combination, as always with these things, of situations.

Big Finish were just looking at the idea of recasting Ben. Frazer had done an amazing job of hopping between the Doctor and Jamie. It’s all done live: he doesn’t record Jamie’s lines with someone standing in and then do the Doctor. He does it all at once. But originally, as it was formatted he would also do Ben’s lines. But it’s not just a case of getting the voice right or getting the rhythm right: it’s the intentions of each of the characters, and that’s quite a lot for an actor, even one as experienced and talented as Frazer, to do.

My voice reel hit the mat, and unbeknownst to me – as I had no idea they were recasting Ben – one of my radio pieces was from a play called Love and Money in which I was playing a young Cockney guy. Lisa Bowerman heard that and also saw in my letter that I’d been trained by two people she had an association with, who are good teachers – Sue Wilson and Sonny Ormonde, who’s also done some Big Finish and played Lilian in The Archers. So they thought “Why not try this guy, who is doing this light cockney?” and I think David Richardson said “That’s not unlike Michael Craze…” I think it all went from there…

How much did you know at that stage who Ben Jackson was?

The email arrived when I was in the half (hour) before going on stage to do a theatre show. At first it was exciting because it was a chance to do Doctor Who with Big Finish. Then I read this name and I thought, “Hang on there’s already someone called that…” and I was reaching back into my childhood. When I was watching Doctor Who in the late Eighties I had this Programme Guide: I knew who all the Doctors and companions were, and I was constantly, aged 7 or 8, thumbing my way through this battered book looking at details of stories I’d never get to see from years before. I remembered this name, and lo and behold it was, and I thought, “Gosh this means possibly more than one story…” Then I started to get very excited… “It’s a companion… it’s a companion locked into the history of the show…”

DWEA0202_theforsaken_1417Big Finish scripts and 21st century Who scripts tend to go into more emotional areas than the original series did – how do you prepare for that for Ben as a character, because you haven’t necessarily got many cues to take from Mike, or do you feel you have the handle on Ben?

I always think Mike is the governor. If there is anything that Mike has discovered and I’m good enough to pick up on it, I will use that as the foundation stone.

One of the big issues is the change of medium – and perhaps audiences have to be sympathetic to this. When Mike was doing it in the Sixties on a television set, three walls with five cameras, these were modern actors – Anneke, Frazer, Mike – who were still having to pitch their performance somewhat theatrically because that’s the way the medium worked. Their voices are quite pitched up and they are perhaps a little more expressive than we would have things now, because everything’s shot on film and HD and the technology has changed.

I just have a mike – pun unintended. The microphone is the ear of one person. I cannot – except in situations of almost hysteria (the monster’s after you, for example) – pitch up to the same level as Mike was able to because it’s a much more intimate medium.

So already I’m in a situation where the technical differences between television in the Sixties and audio radio of the 21st century mean that my performance has to be a little more vulnerable because I have to be a bit quieter, and, I guess, we associate quietness with being a little more fallible.

Ben MacraThen the scripts come in and, as you say, rather like the Doctor Who on the TV; that’s what I love about Big Finish: it’s the format of the old series with the interiority that is afforded the characters of the new series.

I only agree with you 90% of the way though; people talk about the old series as not having emotion, and I don’t know if I really buy that. When I was listening to The Macra Terror, for instance, I noticed that Mike made two brilliant decisions: one, when he was controlled, he was dialling away his accent, the very essence of who he is going, then dialling it back up when Ben fights back.

But there’s also a scene when Mike has Ben break down when he realises he’s betrayed Jamie. He starts crying, on sound; you can hear that. That character has been through immense emotional highs and lows in that one story so there’s that side of it.

And the old series should really be credited for being able to reach a different set of emotions. It was very rarely a sentimental series, but it often hit political emotions, intellectual emotions – and they’re just as important. I’ve occasionally heard people comparing and contrasting the two, saying that maybe the old series is a little bit sterile, without emotion, and I really don’t buy it.

I was thinking of scenes like the one in The Mouthless Dead where Ben’s describing the story told him about the deaths during Scapa Flow: it’s an area the Sixties series would not have gone and the actors weren’t given the opportunity to show that sort of range…

There’s been such a shift in the way that drama is made, and formatted for television and film, it’s more character driven now. I think what was really good, where they lucked in with the original series – certainly with actors like Anneke, Frazer and Mike – was if the actors weren’t given the material, they found a way, whereas now the actors are both good and given the material – like a Jenna or whoever’s playing the companion. They get the moments where they are allowed to explore something unsettling, or very joyful. Partly it’s the medium, partly it’s the scripts, and I feel lucky that even though Mike was only on it for that one season, he at least tried to reach a lot of different things.

So in that scene, The Macra Terror pops up immediately in my mind. There is a precedent here. Mike has played Ben upset, regretful, emotionally troubled. I can take that and build on it with the words that have been given me by the writer of the story.

20160417213451dwcc10_cover_1688x1500_cover_large_image_largeAre there areas you’d like to explore with Ben?

I think one of the glorious things about doing this on audio is Mike and I look nothing alike, so you’ve already taken away the physicality because of the medium. Anneke and I have said it might be interesting to explore a Ben and Polly situation where they’re in their fifties. Not only the enjoyment of that on a technical level – I’d have to find the voice again – but also in the sense of what happens to them, how the journey impacts on people like them. Are they friends? Did they choose to part ways? Did they get married because only they have an association?

I love getting the scripts. The best point for me is when the scripts arrive and you just turn the first page: where are we going to end up this time? I’ve only done four as Ben, and we’ve been in radically different situations, not only in terms of setting but what’s been required of the actor. It’s not the case that you play the character and the character floats through the action. They really do work at putting you into different situations. One of the things has been, with this story, the chance to explore that tension with Jamie. It’s clearly there, but they didn’t have the time or the opportunity to explore it.

The great thing about Ben and Polly when they arrive is, “Here’s the modern world. Here’s two kids, early twenty-somethings, which the kids watching are going to be.” They represent two different class backgrounds, they have lives that you could imagine happening. It feels very Sixties in the best possible way – it’s contemporary. Then they made this decision to have these more historical characters. Obviously Debbie and Frazer went on and did lovely things in Doctor Who, but it’s almost, “that’s the wrong way round”. You’d have thought they’d be more interested in the cool Sixties characters and phased out the historical ones. I’d love to know the thinking behind those choices. Although, believe me, I wouldn’t change a thing – Frazer and Debs are great together and then you get Wendy as Zoe, who’s utterly brilliant!

One of the nice things about this has been getting to know the cast. Somebody early on asked me if I was nervous about taking on the role and I said, without sounding flippant, no, because I’m a jobbing actor, and a jobbing actor who’s getting a chance to play a character who’s part of TV history. The only thing that made me nervous was meeting Anneke and Frazer, because they’d worked with Mike, but it’s been utterly joyful. They’ve become good friends. It’s been so easy.

Elliot Chapman Anneke Wills 5I think it really helped that as part of my training – it was drilled into me – I try not to leave any stones unturned. It’s just to protect myself really, as an actor. My research is very thorough because, particularly with Doctor Who that has such a history, I don’t want to make a glaring error as an actor and half the audience says I’ve got it wrong. That’s not where I want to go. I had quite extensive notes – they were little bits of character notes and some technical notes as well, and I think Anneke caught sight of them and it really helped us. Her only worry was she didn’t want someone coming in and not taking it seriously; her friend played this. I was very glad that the training I had really paid off in that situation because she saw all these notes and it just broke the ice like nothing else could have. It was really useful.

The Companion Chronicles: The Second Doctor Volume 1 is out now from Big Finish

Thanks to Ian Atkins for help in arranging this interview

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