Colin Spaull is a veteran character actor and former child star who, in the course of a TV and film career spanning six decades, has worked from everyone from Peter Sellers to Todd Carty. I caught up with him to talk about working with his old friend Graeme Harper, his time filming with the mega-famous, and acting – with bells on.
CS: Hello, my lovely.
EL: Hello Colin, can you hear me OK?
CS: Sorry, what was that?
EL: Can you hear me OK?
CS: Sorry, Erica, I can’t hear you.
EL: How about now?
CS: It’s no good, I can’t hear you. Tell you what, you ask me some questions, I’ll give you some answers, and with a bit of luck you can match them up after.
EL: It’ll do. So tell me, which did you enjoy more, doing old Who or new Who?
CS: Well, they were entirely different. For a start-off, in the old series – the one I did with Colin Baker – we actually had rehearsal time; you had a weeks’ rehearsal, and then you went into the studio and you shot it, and it rattled by. The one I did with David Tennant and Billy Piper, you just learned your lines, turned up on set and went for it. So you didn’t have that much of a guide to your character…you had to have a pre-planned character and just hope it fit.
EL: And both times you were directed by the great Graeme Harper…
CS: I was, yes!
EL: So was it different working with him in the new Who – did he work differently?
CS: No, it was exactly the same. The way Graeme directs is the way Graeme directs. He was just as enthusiastic when we did the last one as he was thirty years ago. And he’s brilliant, of course…the reason Graeme is such a good director to work with is because he was an actor before he started directing, so he knows what we go through. And the camera’s definitely kinder to him when he’s behind it.
EL: Of course, you and Graeme go back forever…how many years have you known each other now?
CS: Erm…I am seventy now…and I met him when I was eleven or twelve…I think I’m slightly older, but we’re very much of an age, me and him. We met in the Italia Conti stage school, which used to be quite famous, and we learned our trade there together. It was in Soho, we had a ball.
EL: Did you just hit it off straight away?
CS: Oh, immediately, yes. He’s just such a nice guy. And then we lost contact for a while, and I bumped into him again…probably in the BBC Club or something like that…and I said “What are you doing at the moment?” and he said, “Oh, a bit of TV. I’m doing Doctor Who”. I said, “Fantastic! Is there anything for me in it?” and he said no.
CS: But then I got a call from him saying he’d found a part for me, it was the Mutant and he warned me it was only at the start of the story. But I said I didn’t care, I just wanted to be in Doctor Who, I loved it. Then he rang again and said there was a change of plan, they wanted me to play this guy called Lilt – I think the writer was on the pop at the time – opposite Takis, played by Trevor Cooper, quite a big chubby guy, and of course I’m only little; we looked like Laurel and Hardy.
EL: So Graeme’s got you two jobs; have you ever given him a job?
CS: No! No, it would be nice but I don’t know how an actor would get a director a job…I was supposed to be dragging him to America about eight weeks ago, to a convention in Long Island, but he couldn’t make it because of work commitments.
EL: You do quite a few American conventions these days…
CS: Oh yes. I’m off again in four weeks’ time to Los Angeles for Gallifrey.
CS: I’ve been after an invite to Gallifrey for years, they’ve never asked me before!
EL: So how long is it now you’ve been acting for?
CS: Oh, er…seventy seven take away…no, add the three…sixty-eight years, man and boy. Well, man, boy and carcass.
EL: And what was your first ever job?
CS: I distinctly remember, it was a BBC Workshop think called The Beggar’s Opera. I was in with ten or twelve other kids, just a street scene it was, we were a bunch of urchins plaguing the street. That was my first ever television and the next thing I knew I was being cast to play Pip for the BBC in their serialisation, and that was my first lead role.
EL: Was Noddy before or after that?
EL: You played Noddy.
CS: Oh yes, you’re right! That was something the [Italia Conti] school did in the West End. It was called Noddy in Toyland and I was dressed as Noddy with the little cap and the bells…my god, that takes me back. I was forty-nine at the time. The school did a panto every year back then, it was on for about six weeks over the Christmas period. At the time there was a very famous group called The Crazy Gang, who were huge in the West End and on radio, and I had to share a dressing room with them. Just for the afternoon, I was never in any real danger. I’ve still got the pictures somewhere…I’ll have to dig them out for next time I see you.
EL: You’ll have to send me one for the article.
CS: All of a sudden I’m having trouble hearing you again…
EL: I said…
CS: No, definitely didn’t hear anything about putting Noddy photos in the magazine. Shame really, I’d have been up for it.
EL: I can take a hint, we’ll move on. What was Peter Sellers like to work with?
CS: He was a really, really nice chap, we got on very well. I was madly jealous of him because of his cars – he had a Ferrari back before anyone had them, and a Rollie that he’d had done out with all the leather seats and walnut…it was beautiful. He could see I loved it and he used to drive us round the studio grounds in it during breaks, he was such a nice man.
EL: That was in the early sixties, wasn’t it?
CS: 1963. We were filming Heavens Above! on the sound stage at Shepperton and on the next stage they were shooting a film called I Could Go On Singing, which starred Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde, and a mate of mine from drama school was playing The Boy in that. He introduced me to this lovely girl who was in the film and I used to put her on the back of my moped and we’d zip about the backlot. Her name was Liza Minelli, she was on her mum’s film.
EL: And thinking of greats of course, when you did your second Doctor Who you got to work with the much-missed Roger Lloyd Pack. What was that like?
CS: Oh, he was a lovely man, but the thing is that these days you don’t get to spend the time you used to, because you don’t have the rehearsals. But we used to chat on the trains between London and Cardiff, and he was a lovely, lovely man. And such a sad loss at such an early age. He didn’t make it public he was ill, you see, so it was a shock when he went.
EL: When you first did Doctor Who back in the eighties, did you think you’d still be talking about it today?
CS: No, not at all. I knew nothing about the fanbase, nothing about the conventions…nothing. My agent rang me and said that Graeme Harper had asked me to drop in to talk about a part in an episode of Doctor Who he was directing. So I went along and met John Nathan-Turner, who was there, and about three weeks later I got the call. I was really pleased to be asked, I was a jobbing actor – still am – and I had a great time on set and that was that. Then it must have been twenty, twenty-five years later I bumped into Frazer Hines and he said “I don’t see you on the conventions” and I said “what conventions?”. Then I got an invitation to one in Glasgow and I said “Well, it’s very kind of you and I’m very flattered, but are you sure that anyone would even know who I was?” He said, “I can assure you, Mr Spaull, they will know exactly who you are”. And I went along, and they certainly did, and it was amazing. And then there was one in America…and then I heard about this about this cruise they do in the Caribbean, and I was lucky enough to do that last year with Frazer and Sylvester, and we had a ball.
EL: It does come across when we see you at conventions, and when you come up to mine, how much you enjoy the conventions.
CS: They’re fantastic, I have a terrific time. And if it wasn’t for the fans, we wouldn’t be doing this – and the Who fans are incredible. I’ve met so many of them, and they’re always so lovely, so if anyone asks if I want to meet some more I say no problem. It’ll cost you a gallon of beer, but I’ll be there.
EL: And apart from conventions, what are you doing at the moment?
CS: Sweet FA. It’s always bad this time of year, but I’ve just changed agents and I don’t know if that’s a good thing; as the saying goes, changing agents is like changing deckchairs on the Titanic. So we’ll see how it goes. But there’s good news in the air, fingers crossed; there’s a couple of films have been mooted, but nothing’s set in stone.
EL: Speaking of big films, have you ever auditioned for anything really big and just missed out?
CS: I think there must have been, but you don’t really remember the roles you don’t get…in my younger days I did audition for the big parts, but these days I’m more supporting cameos. Walt Disney asked me to audition for a film called Kidnapped. I still have the screen test script and I’m waiting on the call.
EL: You’ll have to drop in on Walt when you go to LA for the Gallifrey con.
CS: I am going out a bit early, as it happens, to see some of California because I’ve never been there. I’ve been to most other parts of America in the last few years but not there, so I’m going to have a look round before they want me in the hotel.
EL: How about the latest Doctor – have you had a chance to see Peter Capaldi in action yet?
CS: To be perfectly honest, I haven’t. I saw the first one and I thought he was adequate. No, I didn’t, I thought he was really good, and he brings a sense of menace to the Doctor that’s new. That’s something that’s great about the Doctor, every actor brings you that new something.
EL: Of course, you’ve worked with two Doctors yourself. I won’t ask you who was best…
CS: No. Good.
CS: Oh, right. Damn. Well, they were both the best at playing their own Doctors. But the thing they had in common was that they were also full of ideas for what the Doctor should be doing and how we would feel. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; every Doctor is top at what he does and your favourite is just a matter of personal taste. But Sylvester was the best.
EL: Sylvester was the best. Apart from Peter Davison.
CS: I worked with him on something called The Last Detective. It was after Doctor Who and these days no-one remembers it. He seemed like a very nice chap, although I barely got to speak to him.
EL: Well if you’re not going to talk to me about my Peter then I think I’ll leave it there. Thank you very much Colin.
CS: You’re very welcome. Don’t forget to thank the fans for me – you know, flying around the world, doing conventions…it’s a great life and without the fans we wouldn’t get to do it.