Tuesday 28 July 2015

Splendid Fellow! A tribute to The Brigadier

A few days ago, I put out a suggestion; an invitation for people to write a guest post for the blog. What follows is the first submission, which I am proud to present, entitled simply "Splendid Fellow"; which is a warm, heartfelt tribute to the irrepressible Nicholas Courtney, better known, simply, as Brigadier Alistair Gordon-Lethbridge-Stewart. 

Splendid fellow. Written by @ATrueDoctorWhoFan

In the fifty-two and a half years that Doctor Who has been on, off and on again, The Doctor has had many companions through the doors of his wonderful police box. Some are invited in. Some barge in. Some arrive by complete accident, and some stow away.  But none of them can say that they have been in the Doctor's life as long as one;

Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart.

Actor Nicholas Courtney first portrayed the Brigadier in Doctor Who in 1968 and over time was threaded through the many future eras of the series. Even though both Nick and the Brigadier are sadly no longer with us, both of them are immortal.

In this post I share my memories of the Brigadier, how I found out that Nick had sadly died and a life lesson we all could learn from.

Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, head of the British section of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, (later changed at the request of the real life UN to UNified Intelligence Taskforce) is a character that shouldn’t ever work in Doctor Who. He is head of the military and The Doctor is a renegade, an anti establishment figure who laughs at and regularly mocks authority. But The Brigadier does work and that is all down to not only the skilful writing but Nick Courtney's wonderful performance.

The Brigadier started life as a straight laced, no nonsense character, barely fazed by anything he encountered, and while he always retained those qualities, it was nice to see him become more rounded and loveable. Keep an eye out next time you watch a story with The Brigadier in for those little moments that made him so good. All of these were added by Nick to enhance his character and they always make me smile.

There are the sideways looks, the well timed mutters, the constantly raised eyebrow, every punch line delivered 100% seriously (which made them somehow even funnier), and my personal favourite: every single slightly doubtful 'mmmm' whenever The Doctor produced a gadget or another way of stopping the alien menace that didn't involve troops, bombs or shooting at it. It made the Brigadier much more loveable and human.

Nick's first little part of self-made humour came in "The Three Doctors", the utterly spectacular anniversary serial that kicked off Series Ten in 1973. Its one of my personal favourite stories.

On seeing that now there is an alien world outside his headquarters, (the building has been transported into a black hole on the wishes of the villain Omega), The Brigadier refuses to accept it and ignores the Second Doctor's insistence that they are somewhere else. He is confidant that they are still on earth. He starts talking about how they are all now miles from London, most probably Norfolk. He is sure this could be seen as an invasion and that the building is in danger of being over run with holidaymakers. This wonderful little rant finishes with the simple but brilliant self written line of:
'I'm fairly sure that’s Cromer.'  See? Nothing fazed The Brig! Nick was sure of that.

This really wonderful punchline was followed in the final episode by another treat of a scene as The Brigadier sees the two Doctors he knows of with the First and realises who the old, white haired man on the scanner screen is:

'Miss Grant. That old chap? Is he...?'
'fraid so.'

A raised eyebrow and then a beautiful line delivered straight:

'Three of them. I didn't know when I was well off.'

(Many of you will know that this line was repeated by the president of the Time Lords in the 50th anniversary special Day of the Doctor, which I hope was put in by Steven Moffat as a little tribute to Nick alongside his picture seen earlier in the black archive.)

However, my two personal favourites of these self-penned lines by Nick are at the very end of The Third Doctors life and the beginning of the Fourth.

Firstly, The Brigadier witnessed the regeneration in Planet of the Spiders. The original line of 'well bless my soul' was deemed not 'Brigadier-ish' enough so it was changed by Nick with consent of then Producer Barry Letts, to the much better 'Well, here we go again.'

Then, at the end of Robot, Tom Bakers debut serial, The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry pile into the TARDIS and it leaves. As it dematerialises, The Brigadier enters the UNIT lab to tell The Doctor about dinner at Buckingham Palace. He sees the battered old police box vanish before his eyes and with one of those sideways looks I mentioned, says, 'yes. Well I'll tell them you'll be a little late.'

This is character development at its finest and Nick was right on the button. He knew by then that Lethbridge-Stewart had been in the Doctor's life long enough to know exactly what was going on and would react perfectly to whatever unfolded in front of his eyes, no matter how bizarre.

Thinking about it for this post, I have realised that, in discovering the Brigadier and his life with The Doctor, I feel I can understand what River Song went through, as I saw his life all out of order.

Starting with the repeats on the cable channel UK Gold with the start of Tom Baker's era as a child in the dark days of the early 90s when Doctor Who itself wasn't on BBC1, I only saw the end of the UNIT era and the Brigadiers on screen active service. This was followed by his retirement and teaching life in Peter Davison's time and the call back to service with Sylvester McCoy's. After several watches, I finally got to see the middle of the Brigadier's career with the Jon Pertwee era and heard the beginning and first meetings with the audio soundtracks of Patrick Troughton's time. Finally all those translating hints and glimpses in the later (but earlier for me) stories made sense.

I suppose you could say I was travelling in time backwards while watching a series about time travel!

It was not until the DVD edition of 'The Invasion' came out that I got to see The Brigadier at the start of his UNIT life. I thought that was it until 2013...

In the early to middle of 2013, rumours began to spread across the internet and social networking sites that lost Black and White episodes of Doctor Who had been found, and fans were excited but cautious. After all, there have been rumours and speculation for years that lost episodes still existed, but many, if not all, were hoaxes or false leads. I confess myself that I regularly swayed between the thoughts of "I wonder what has been found" to "this is a load of rubbish". However I was happy to be proved wrong this time, as we know in that October, the missing presumed wiped adventure "The Web Of Fear" was 99% found (alas as I write, Episode Three remains missing) and returned to the BBC in a blaze of publicity alongside "The Enemy of The World".

I shall never forget the first time I watched a YouTube clip of The Web Of Fear, at 12.10 am, after the news had been released at midnight, and saw Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart as he then was for the very first time. I really have no idea if it was Patrick, Frazer Hines or Nick I was most excited to see more footage of. Though I had heard it many times, to finally see it and it's finest scene, with Nick as he tried, and failed, to save any of his men in the Yeti battle at Covent Garden, was breathtaking. Writer Robert Shearman once said dreams do come true and getting to press play all on the DVD of "The Web of Fear" was totally one.

How ironic that Nick's first was the last one I had gotten to see, though I do dearly wish Nick was here to see it returned as well. In what became his final interview for DWM, Nick expressed deep sadness that it was missing and regret that he himself never got to see again the first story of him in his most famous Who role.

I also really wish Nick had done more serials with Tom Baker. The plan had been I believe to have The Brigadier return every so often but Nick was so busy touring in plays he couldn't. So all we got in stories that featured UNIT were fill in officers.

Sadly soon after, producer Phillip Hinchcliffe left and new incoming producer Graham Williams had no desire to return to UNIT, or to the Brigadier.
I personally think it is a terrible shame as I would have loved to see The Brigadier's reaction to Leela and K-9, and maybe to have seen him help find a section of the Key to Time. The Stones of Blood was set on earth, and as it was the 100th serial to be made, to have the Brigadier make a guest appearance would have been great.

Though off the air in the 1990's, Doctor Who just refused to die and Nick was there every step of the way. He saved the nonsense of Dimensions In Time by ticking off another Doctor as he finally met on screen Colin Bakers Doctor number Six. It's the one scene I genuinely want to rewatch if I ever search for it on Youtube. Not that I do very often as it really is terrible.

The medium of radio seemed to be the natural home for Doctor Who after 1989 and Nick starred in two radio plays alongside Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen. As someone who studied acting in college, I fully sympathize with Nick's confession that although he was happy enough to reprise the role, he didn't really understand the scripts. This is something I fully agree with as I've heard both "The Paradise of Death" and "The Ghosts of N Space" and both plays are completely potty!

Thankfully however, the same cannot be said for the Big Finish audios that later followed. Nick did all in the range. He did stories with official Doctors. He did the UNIT spin off series. He performed several Companion Chronicles and was even whisked off to Skaro for a meeting with Davros due to an alternative Third Doctor. If you can, please seek out these stories with Nick. I promise that you won't regret it.

In 2005 when Doctor Who returned to TV, many thought it may be a reboot with little or no connection to the original series. Thankfully that frankly terrible notion was blown out of the water not just by the return of the Daleks but with episode Four: Aliens of London, where The Doctor specifically mentioned UNIT and Mickey added that The Doctor had worked for them.

As the series progressed and old faces began to return, many hoped that the Brigadier would be seen once more. Though sadly it never happened on TV, he got a name check in "The Poison Sky" (where The Doctor confessed he could have done with Alistair being there and proved that, even all those incarnations later, he still needed his oldest friend). Later on the Brigadier met Doctor Ten in a DWM comic strip. At the end Doctor Ten salutes him. Take that Moffat with your terrible my-father-wished-you-had-saluted-him-just-once! Stupid nonsense line!

It was a terrible shame that after being so wonderful and rather sprightly in the second series finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Nick's failing health forced him to miss the next series and robbed us of seeing the wonderful meeting of him and Doctor 10 as they attended the wedding of Sarah Jane.

I was recently asked by a friend where Lethbridge-Stewart could have fitted into a New Who story and this is the answer I instantly gave: The Stolen Earth.

Now I adore The Stolen Earth. It’s a wonderful, scary rollercoaster of an episode that never stops for breath. Its 45 minutes of awesome Doctor Who and has everyone we love in it from across its (then) four series. While I really love that it’s Harriet Jones at the head of the Sub-wave Network, only having The Brig controlling it would have topped it. Who else could have commanded The Doctor's secret army better?

I can see it now. Sarah Jane so happy to see him and telling him about Luke. Martha saying she has read so much about him through UNIT files. Jack flirting with him! Ah, what a scene that would have been. Though the scene in "the wedding of River Song" where The Doctor discovers that Sir Alistair has died truly is heartbreaking and one I cannot watch without a tear, to see him lay his life down for The Doctor to save the world would have been just as fitting.

But, although the Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart era has passed, I am glad that his legacy continues today with his daughter Kate. Anyone who follows me on Twitter must know of my intense dislike for the 50th Special (I'm not exactly quiet about it!) but one element I remember with fondness was the moment of focus on The Brig's picture as Kate talked about him and his legacy. Even although Alister was no longer with us, he was still there. Still saving the world.

It's a disgusting shame that his memory was so tarnished a few months later on at the end of the latest series with him (or at least his physical dead body) when it was disgustingly turned into a Cyberman. Not my idea of honouring the past of a legend. Every time I think of it I shudder. I will always find it so disrespectful to both Nick and The Brigadier. Nobody, not even Steven Moffat has the right to turn the longest serving regular character that is threaded throughout the history of Doctor Who into a Cyberman!

And now, I turn my thoughts to a terrible day in the history of being a Doctor Who fan.

Tuesday 22nd February 2011.

It was a day like any other. That’s all I remember. I got up, went off to work for 8am. At 5pm, I finished and went home. I returned, made myself some tea and toast and prepared for some mindless TV and a chill before washing the dishes. (I honestly do lead an exciting life. Sometimes)
I turned on the red button to look at the showbiz news and there it was at the top of the screen. The news that shook the day apart and jammed my brain.


I cannot begin to tell you what went through my mind at that point and when I read the article, I burst into tears to hear that Nick. The man. The actor. The legend to me and so many others, was gone forever.

I don't mind telling anyone who is not a fan and asks me just why I cried when I tell them that I did. Nick wasn't my family. I never got to meet him. Why would I shed tears over his death? Well here is my answer. It may seem a cliché but it’s true, and I know it’s true of others. My childhood was troubled and I was bullied in school. Doctor Who was my escape from it all. My escape from the hell of the school yard and all that was in it. Well Nick was so much a part of that escape during those years so that’s why I felt I had lost someone in my own family.

The very next day was my day off work and I scrapped what plans I had and instead had a Nick Courtney day to honour him. First was my audio of The Web Of Fear, then The Invasion, then Inferno (Nick's favourite story as he got to play his evil double), then The Daemons, Robot, Mawdryn Undead and Battlefield. This was followed by his journey into the Sarah Jane Adventures with the story Enemy of the Bane.

A lot of tears were shed that day and,although it may sound silly I was so steeped in grief and sadness, I didn't watch episode two of the Daleks Master Plan, which of course Nick was in as Bret Vyon because I completely forgot. I really felt ashamed until a friend said "you watched so much of Nick anyway I'm sure he didn't mind."

The Nick Courtney tribute issue of Doctor Who Magazine issued a few weeks later had me in tears again. Nick worked with so many different people over the years and all of them said the same words about him.

Nick was the kind of person we all aim to be. He was kind, honest, level headed, always professional no matter what and a friend to all who worked with and loved him. Nobody had or has had a bad word to say about him.

In that, or a very close issue of the magazine was a little memory from a fan that has always stayed with me. A life lesson that, should I ever somehow become famous, and I will stick to.

Through the years Nick attended millions of Doctor Who conventions all over the world. Goodness knows how many times he signed his own name over an image of himself.  He loved the fans as much as we loved him and he always went the extra mile to make sure all the fans were happy. He was often found after official convention hours at the bars of the hotels where conventions were taking place, surrounded by fans and telling sometimes naughty jokes. Many have said Nick loved being the life and soul of any party.

At a con a small boy missed his chance to meet Nick and outside the venue saw him heading to his car. The boy went up to Nick and asked him for an autograph. Though clearly pushed for time, Nick spoke kindly to the boy for a few minutes and happily signed his autograph.

This was Nick Courtney summed up to me. He was never too busy to make someone happy or please a fan. He appreciated all his fans so much as we did to him. It’s something I think we, and a lot of so called celebs and so called heroes today can all learn from.

It’s still hard to think that Nick is gone forever. I continue to think his name will be on convention lists in magazines and I know in my heart that if he were still with us, he would have been at the big 50th anniversary conventions.

The Dimensions convention I attended in 2013 was packed with companions from all eras for the 50th and I know Nick was there in spirit as he and the Brigadier truly spanned every era.

I know in years to come fans coming to Who will discover the Brigadier and Nick as I did and I know they will love him as much as we do now. The love he had for the series and its fans will never stop shining through the commentaries and interviews he did.

And for me personally, Nick once made me a very happy fan despite never meeting him, as he said that despite knowing absolutely nothing about football, he supported Newcastle United as the fans from the North East of England were lovely.

Nick spent his Doctor Who career filling in for other actors when required. He replaced Freema Agyeman in The Sarah Jane Adventures. He replaced William Russell in Mawdryn Undead.

But if Nick hadn't been considered to replace David Langton in "The Web of Fear" then this post, and a wonderful creation brought to life by brilliant actor would never have happened.

Rest in Peace Nick. You are forever missed.

Nicholas Courtney and The Brigadier. Splendid fellow. Both of him.

Follow the author on Twitter, @ATrueDoctorWhoFan

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