Interview: Michael Kilgarriff (Tomb of the Cybermen)

DWTombOfTheCybermen_Booklet.inddVeteran actor and writer Michael Kilgarriff has revisited a role he first played forty-six years ago for AudioGO’s latest reading of a classic novel: Gerry Davis’ reworking of his script for The Tomb of the Cybermen. Perhaps appropriately, he is not voicing the Cyber Controller’s lines for this version either, as he explains to Paul Simpson…

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How did you get approached to do the reading of Tomb of the Cybermen?

I had an email from Michael Stevens. My wife has worked for [AudioGO] for many years; she was a BBC radio drama producer herself, long-retired, but did a lot of freelance work for them before they went to Bath. My name is well enough known there, and of course I did a huge number of broadcasts – I was in the BBC rep three times, so I probably did a thousand broadcasts, mostly plays. And of course, I was the original Cybercontroller, so I was the obvious man to approach to read it.

Although you’re not voicing the Cybermen in this version…

No, someone else [Nicholas Briggs] is doing that. Which is history repeating itself: when I did the first Cyberman story, I didn’t speak in that either because they didn’t have the technology to put the microphones inside the costumes. The lines were spoken by a wonderful voice man, probably the best voice man I ever knew, named Peter Hawkins. He was behind the camera with a microphone and would say the lines.

Tomb leaderI got engaged to do it, mostly, I suppose because of my height, and I had done a few tellies before, so they knew I wasn’t stupid and likely to fall over all the time. My agent said they’d cut my money down and were offering a “special low” because they said I didn’t have to say the lines. That was true, but I had to learn them to know when to open the mouth: that was rather like a letterbox. It opened, the line came out, and it shut – a rather eerie effect.

You returned to the show nearly twenty years later…

I had to miss one story, The Five Doctors, where they were all in it together apart from William Hartnell, who had died and they had Richard Hurndall, who looked like him. But when I repeated the Cybercontroller a few years later with Colin Baker [Attack of the Cybermen], this rather strange thing of the mouth opening and then shutting had been forgotten. I caused some embarrassment at one stage when I said, “What happens with the mouth?” There was a nasty silence, as the costume designer wasn’t aware of it. By then I could say my own lines, as they could get microphones under the costumes. But you lost that mouth thing, which was rather a shame.

Did you look at the original version of the story before you recorded the text?

No, I didn’t. They sent me the text, and I just read that. I don’t know why I didn’t; I just didn’t. It wasn’t necessary. I found the book very interesting – there were things I had forgotten about, and there had to be some adjustments for it to be read rather than looked at.

Have you tried to emulate the cast’s voices?

KilgarriffI wouldn’t try to imitate or emulate them: it’s too close, there’s too much of it to do impersonations. If you’re reading books, and you try to do too much with clever voices, it gets in the way. People listening to it think, “That’s clever,” but they shouldn’t be thinking that: they should be attending to the storyline and the narration.

I tried to give suggestions of the different people and the different characters, or you wouldn’t know who they are but I don’t do the full-blooded characterisations because that’s distracting. One tries to give a suggestion of a young girl, and make the voice lighter and a different sort of attack to it; Jamie does have a slight Scots accent; and there are one or two others that are obviously foreigners, so you put the suggestion of an accent there.

There are different schools of thoughts about this: to what extent should you characterise when you read a book? Everyone knows it’s one person reading, so you don’t pretend that you’re ten different people. Everyone knows it’s just you.

On practicalities, did you read the Cyber-lines, and they then overdubbed them?

Yes, I did read them; the producer very particularly asked me to leave a slight gap at the beginning and end of the Cybermen’s lines so they could make sure that the editing could be clean.

Have you seen the story at all recently?

I saw it a couple of weeks ago at the BFI. I’d forgotten – some of it is pretty good. The effects are pretty ropey by today’s standards, but the ones in the Doctor Who of today you’d be hard pressed to have in a movie in the 1960s. It did rely on personality and plot – not that I’m saying the current ones don’t. I think they’re wonderful.

Does it feel like the same show today as it was when you were in it?

Not really. It feels slightly self-conscious; there’s a lot of irony, sending the whole genre up. It was all straightforward: an adventure show in the earlier days. That’s the way I feel. The plotlines are breathtaking: the one with Michael Gambon [A Christmas Carol], there was so much going on there… perhaps too much, perhaps a little too clever

Did you work with the Doctors outside of the show?

I did see poor old William Hartnell in pantomime: he’d stopped doing the telly by then but he must have had permission to still do the character. I was in Ipswich, playing the piano for a Christmas Music Hall at the rep theatre there. The local cinema had theatre facilities and they were doing this panto. Hartnell was the star, so I thought I’d go and have a look. I went to a matinee that didn’t clash with ours: we had the opening song and dance, and the comics, then [sings the Doctor Who theme], blackout and lights came up and there was the TARDIS. The door opened and out came Doctor Who. We all roared and screamed but to be honest, he might as well have gone home as soon as he had made his entrance, because he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t sing or cope with the comics. He stood there while they went on around him.

Pat Troughton played the lead in a play I wrote for radio a year or so later; I liked him very much, we got on very well, and I worked with his son David as well.

Click here for our review of The Tomb of the Cybermen

BEST LOGOThanks to the team at AudioGO for their help with this interview: check out the website: www.audiogo.com/uk

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