Peter Purves

Dashing 60s companion Steven Taylor shares his thoughts on peanuts, the pill and Star Trek

This interview originally appeared in DWM 418, published in February 2010.

Hello, Peter. Has Doctor Who always taken pride of place on your CV?
“Oh yeah.”

Even in the 80s and 90s, when it wasn’t as in vogue as it is now?
“Well, I think it had outrun its life. It had got somewhat stilted, a little bit silly – it had run its course. Now, when [former showrunner] Russell T Davies reinvented it – they’ve changed the ethos of the show. They’ve changed the serendipity of the TARDIS being an uncontrollable piece of technology. In the 60s, the Doctor didn’t know where the hell he was going. And the sonic screwdriver is now as much of the plot as the Doctor, which I just think is stupid.”

But hasn’t Doctor Who always depended on reinvention?
“Yes, of course – and it’s a reinvention that’s made the show work. It fits into modern times. It’s far more successful now than it ever was. When I was in Doctor Who, the first Star Trek came out, and that was so much better. Well, it had money thrown at it, so it was a much better-produced piece. I thought Doctor Who was in for its final sessions back then. But I don’t think the [Star Trek] stories were better. The stories were crap. The Doctor Who stories were always excellent.”

Your first story, The Chase, aired in 1965, and it’s out on DVD this March. What do you think modern audiences will make of it?
“They might still enjoy it. But you can only enjoy it as a period piece. You can’t enjoy it in any other way.”

It hasn’t aged well?
“Well, TV in the 60s was terribly primitive, and not terribly watchable, really – but it was all we had, so we watched it. But we recorded a commentary track [for the DVD], so there are some nice insights on there. I’m on with [director] Richard Martin, and Russ [William Russell, who played Ian], and Maureen O’Brien [Vikki], and I think it’s fascinating – but I’m on it, so I would find it fascinating.”

You star as Steven opposite Maureen in The Suffering, this month’s Companion Chronicles play from Big Finish. Is it daunting reprising a role on audio that you last played on TV over 40 years ago?
“No, no, it’s delightful. I absolutely love it. I can’t wait for them to ask me again. I haven’t really acted for years, so it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

You sound fearless, Peter.
“Fearless? Yeah! It’d take an awful lot to frighten me now. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor all your life, basically.”

Now, it must have been awesome to be young and famous, and living in London, in the 60s.
“It was. The pill had been invented, there was no AIDS, great rock music was happening – it was fantastic! If you were lucky, and I was, it was a splendid time. They say that if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Not true. But a lot of it passed in a haze.”

What sort of place was the BBC like to work in back then?
“The BBC was the place to work. Of course, they paid peanuts – they always did, for many, many years. It’s only now that people receive huge salaries for being absolutely awful. In those days, it didn’t matter how good you were: you didn’t get much money. That was a bone of contention right the way through to Blue Peter [which Peter presented from 1967 to 1978 – Ed]. I don’t think people respect the BBC in quite the same way now.”

According to some of your colleagues, William Hartnell [the First Doctor] could be a bit of a git to work with.
“He didn’t take prisoners. He was cantankerous, because he was losing the facility to learn his lines. That made him crotchety, because he didn’t like to get things wrong. He was awkward and difficult with people he didn’t like, and he took against people quite easily. If he took against them, they might as well forget it – he treated them with contempt. I watched this happen, but I never experienced it. He was always delightful with me. He liked me a lot. He was a perfectly normal human being, good company, entertaining – and he was partly responsible for me getting the job. I’d had this ten-minute cameo in The Chase, as a hillbilly, Morton Dill, but they were looking for someone to replace Jackie [Hill, who played Barbara] and Russ, who were leaving. After the recording, [producer] Verity Lambert and [story editor] Dennis Spooner invited me for a drink, and offered me the part of Steven. Apparently, Bill had said, ‘I like Peter. He’s great. Let’s have him.’ So, he was part of the triumvirate that cast me, and I’m grateful for that. He was never unpleasant to me. I watched him be very unpleasant to some people –”

Shouldn’t you have intervened?
“I had my own agenda. I had to learn my lines. If anything was kicking off, you just don’t get involved. Besides, it was never that overt. It was done on an individual basis. I remember Matt Adrian [King Priam] coming over to me on The Myth Makers and saying, ‘I don’t understand it, Peter. I’ve known Bill for years. He won’t speak to me.’ Bill didn’t talk to him all the way through, except when he had a line with him on set! That was strange.”

Peter Purves was talking to Benjamin Cook. The Suffering is released by Big Finish on 28 February. The Space Museum/The Chase is out on DVD on 1 March.

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