So how did you cast Mark Elstob?
It was a gargantuan thing to do to recast the Prisoner. That was the main thing people were commenting about when we said we were going to do it. I was confident I could find someone, but setting about the task I realised that casting is my least favourite thing. When I do the Doctor Whos I get as many other people to help me as possible – and it’s usually David Richardson, and he’s usually full of loads of suggestions.
I did have a number of conversations and a number of meetings and a number of ideas, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘I’m missing a trick’. I had that feeling, and it’s not rational, that there was a solution staring me in the face that I just wasn’t seeing and I said to myself, and I think I said it to my wife, “There must be someone I know who loves The Prisoner and would be brilliant”.
There was one particular actor I saw, who I was really keen on doing it. He wasn’t a huge name, but he had a fantastic CV and had done many many things. People would have gone, “oh him!”, and he would have been brilliant in his own way but he just didn’t have the enthusiasm for The Prisoner. I thought, ‘I don’t know – I may be working on this for the next four years! I don’t want someone who is a bit too cool for school for the show. I want someone for whom this is a dream job.’ It’s lovely to work with people who are enthusiastic and you don’t feel you are forcing them to do it.
I don’t know how the idea came in to my head, but 20 years ago I had done a tour of Brideshead Revisited where I met this actor, Mark Elstob. We weren’t great friends but we always chatted because we were both Doctor Who fans. That was always our point of contact. We were good acquaintances for the whole of this six month tour, which feels like a life sentence especially when a production is as poorly reviewed as Brideshead Revisited – the Charles Vance Tour – was. We had a fantastic review from the Telegraph that I still keep, and I know Mark keeps it, where the last line is “The show is a disgrace.” It was a terrible production – there were so many bad decisions made in the making of it – but great performances from some people. One of the great performances was Mark Elstob as Charles Ryder.
So I contacted his agent and she said, “No he’s busy” and told me where he was busy. I thought ‘I have a feeling he might be interested’ so I sneakily contacted the theatre he was working at in Vienna and said, “I’ve just contacted your agent and she says you’re busy but I just wanted to let you know.” Her diary for him was full – he was going straight from Vienna to Pitlochrie to do some rep up there.
Mark eventually got back to me. She had mentioned The Prisoner but he imagined that I wanted him to play the taxi driver or the shopkeeper, and so he said, “I’m really sorry I’m not available.” I said, “That’s a shame because you would have a brilliant number 6.” The next email was almost a bit [brakes-being-slammed-on noise in the way that only Nick Briggs would do] “What? Oh number 6 you say? Well, hold on. I can probably get back from Scotland on the night train on Sundays”, which is what he did mostly. He said “I’m not in all the performances and the productions”, and he immediately had the commitment.
He confirmed my suspicions that he was a massive Prisoner fan and revealed to me that when we knew each other all those years ago, he was in fact reading The Prisoner programme guide and accidentally left it in Wolverhampton under the bed in his digs. I had bumped into him a year or so ago late night on a train; he was going back from a performance, I’d been out to dinner or something. We recognised each other, and he gave me his phone number – he says he made a shameless pitch for work and as expected, I didn’t get back to him. I searched around for his email address and couldn’t find it but when I finally got it and typed it in, it came up on my system that I already had it.
I just had a little meeting with him just to make sure that he’d still got it! I didn’t want him to audition because I already knew he was brilliant. I wanted someone who looked right as well for the publicity and he still is a handsome chap who looks great as a leading man. Looks nothing like Patrick McGoohan but he has a look about him… I looked at him and thought, ‘Yeah I can believe he’s number 6. He’ll look good on the cover.’ And he is a triumph, isn’t he! He’s a really brilliant actor who loves the role – obviously I checked with him that he wanted to do more and he made it quite clear that it was a pointless question, of course he did, I didn’t have to ask.
It occurred to me that were I to cast someone very famous there would have been the problem of a star persona getting in the way of the character, however unfair that is, but I think we can discriminate against famous people from time to time because they seem to get all the work these days!
What concerned me that it would be someone from the Big Finish repertory company – I love hearing the familiar voices, but there are certain voices that come with so much baggage from BF productions, particularly people who have gone across a number of series. This needed to stand alone. It isn’t a “World of Big Finish”.
Absolutely. I wanted it to do that. I don’t think I considered giving it to any of our regulars. I was worried that a famous person would be always filming a movie or a TV series, and certainly one of them whose agent immediately said, “That would be brilliant for him and I know he would be interested in doing it. Can you change your entire schedule though, because he’s filming in this in x country for this number of months?” And I thought, ‘Yes, he’s always going to be doing that. He’s always going to be somewhere in the sun filming some enormous film or series and he’s got enough work…’
And then the irony was that Mark was completely busy for almost the whole of the year but luckily he was prepared to do this mad dash every Saturday night for three of the four recordings. He came on the sleeper and just got to us in time and then went straight back to rehearse the next morning. He had to love The Prisoner in order to make that effort.
Yes, almost exactly the same mix but maybe in a different order. My plan is to do one new one and three adaptations. But I say this tentatively because I haven’t yet written all the synopses and sent them to ITV. They may raise some concerns and I may have to change my plans, or we have a conversation about that. But hopefully not.
I’m having a fantastic time working with them because – and I’m not just saying this for PR reasons – they’re very nice and enthusiastic about what I’m doing. I definitely get the vibe from them that they’re thinking ‘this is good, thank you very much’, rather than, “Hold on, let me scrutinise every semi-colon.” They tell me that they were particularly pleased about my initial proposal document as the spelling and grammar was very good. I love that! I’ve never had a proposal accepted on the grounds that my spelling and grammar was good. (It’s not that good – I just check it and rewrite it.)
Finally your own script, Your Beautiful Village, rang bells from a McGann Who you wrote – Embrace the Darkness…
There are certain elements, that’s true – the not being able to see thing. Except in Embrace the Darkness they didn’t have any eyes. It was a bit harsh.
So what’s the thing about darkness for you?
I think everyone is afraid of the dark, but also putting your characters in darkness puts them in the same position as the audience because the audience can’t see the characters on audio so suddenly the audio characters can’t see the characters either. And it gives them a very very good reason for describing something without it being spurious.
I wanted to do the archetypal audio episode that would only work on audio. That episode would not work visually, or not without changing it considerably. Likewise all the visual episodes of The Prisoner don’t work on audio; after I watched them I recorded them on audio so I’m very familiar with their soundtracks.
But as I said at the beginning, I really believe there are no limits to what you can do on audio – you just have to find a way. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes perhaps it’s not the ideal thing to do but it’s always possible in some way or another.
That’s what I find thrilling – that’s why I love audio so much, and not been pining after a TV career. I am really happy with creating stuff on audio… Strange, isn’t it…
The Prisoner is available now from Big Finish Audio; read our review here
Coming next week: The Prisoner Unchained – Mark Elstob discusses playing the role in a new exclusive interview