Chris Guard is an actor, musician and artist known amongst Whovians for his role as Bellboy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I caught up with him over the weekend to ask what it was like working on Who, what he was up to at the moment, and what he had planned for Christmas.
CG: This isn’t being broadcast, is it?
EL: No. No, it’s for print.
CG: Oh good. It’s just in case I say “fuck”.
EL: We won’t write it down. So the first thing I wanted to ask you was, did you enjoy your time on Who?
CG: Yes. It was a bit of a kick, because John Nathan-Turner had hand-picked an electric bunch of people who were all very talented in different ways. And they were right across the generations, from Peggy Mount to Gian Sammarco, so it was socially really great. We all had a lot of fun and the weather was fantastic, which helped. And all the problems seemed like a sort of…fated process, I suppose; it seemed like it was meant to be. It didn’t seem like a normal job, for which I blame John.
EL: How was he to work with, John Nathan-Turner?
CG: Well, I’d worked with him before when he was an AFM [Assistant Floor Manager] on various BBC jobs, so I knew he was quite fearless, in a very jolly, cosy sort of fashion. He had an interesting mix of being very benign and cheerful, a big social animal, but when he wanted something and had made up his mind, he was absolutely tenacious, he would cling to it. He insisted on directing that scene between me and Dee, you know, with the snog? He said, “I’m directing that!”, he was adamant.
EL: Was that the best part of the show, snogging Dee?
CG: It was a good bit. But there were lots of good bits. In the middle of this fairly ludicrous story, John took it as seriously as if we were making some searing Hollywood movie, and for that I respected him. It felt important.
EL: And was that because of the atmosphere that John created?
CG: Definitely. When he wanted to be he could very intense and very focused. That was kind of belied by his general demeanour, which was much more social and outgoing. He had a lot of facets. When he put on the charity show I was in, he was still an AFM and he had all these big stars – Richard Briers and Peter O’Toole and people – all of whom he had to persuade to be in the show. I was astounded; I said “Who’s in charge of all this?” and when they said “John” I said “What?”. As I say, he was only an AFM at the time. But that was him. RIP.
EL: I’m going to get a little controversial now…have you heard about the book that came out which made certain allegations about John?
CG: No, I haven’t read it.
EL: There were allegations made that he was a little inappropriate with some of the younger male cast members.
CG: Yes, I remember hearing about all that. I think Gary Downey came out a bit worse, as being more predatory, but I worked with Gary – he was the choreographer on the Tom Brown’s Schooldays musical in the West End – and I never had any problems with Gary or John. Gary had quite a temper, he could be quite waspish, but he was surrounded by all those boys on Tom Brown and I never saw or heard of anything inappropriate going on. I’m going to be controversial now, but some of these historic abuse cases – yes, of course something has to be done, to set an example, but why are hundreds of thousands of pounds being invested in prosecuting some of these high-profile figures when what isn’t being done is looking into innumerable cases of people who aren’t high-profile doing all sorts of things, kids are being trafficked around and all sorts of abuses going on today, now? I think that’s where the effort needs to go. Someone like John Nathan-Turner, I’ve got no idea what he might or might not have done, but I think we need to channel our energies into stopping abuse that’s going to happen in the future.
EL: So back to Greatest Show: I was going to ask if you’ve seen any of the cast since, but I know you have because it was at my convention. Was it nice seeing them again?
CG: Yes! You asked me if I expected to see them all again and I said yes, and the reason was that nothing would have surprised me about that show. If we’d been in Hoylake and John Nathan-Turner had entered the room, even though he was long dead it wouldn’t have surprised me because it was that kind of show. If he’d come in as a translucent wraith and bought us all a drink I wouldn’t have been shocked. There was a little bit of love still – certainly with Chris Jury, he seemed genuinely moved to see a few of us again.
EL: And we had Sophie Aldred and Andrew Cartmel…
CG: Yes, and one fucking microphone between us!
EL: Yes, well that was because…that was a cock-up.
CG: But we struggled along. We struggled along when we made the show on that budget, with the use of a few clever tricks – that’s the resourcefulness of the people who worked on Who. Not complaining, soldiering on.
EL: You all seemed very friendly. Did you get a lot of partying done on that show?
CG: Well, when time permitted, yes. When we were on location we’d go for a pint at lunch, but you did in those days. John was always in the pub at lunchtime, he’d have a pint, maybe two, go back to work and be fine. You don’t do it these days. But some of the greatest actors I’ve worked with – including John Hurt – would cane it at lunchtime and beyond. Of course, when he did The Elephant Man he had to give it up, because in that mask he had no access to his mouth. But I think there is a breed of actor or performer who, when time and money permit, will party. And then when it’s necessary to pull yourself together and discipline yourself, they will, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. These days we’re perhaps not trusted to monitor our own behaviour as much as we were. You can calculate your own risks.
EL: What did you do after Who? Did you go straight into Casualty?
CG: Oh blimey, now you’re asking. This is like when you’re writing a CV and trying to remember what you’ve done. Doctor Who was 1988 and Casualty was about 1991 so there was a definite gap. I was living down in Cornwall…oh, that was the time when I went down to Bath Manor to make a film with Hugh Grant. We spent a long weekend on it and then the plug was pulled for financial reasons. This was before Hugh made Four Weddings, when he was mainly known for schlock films in Europe.
EL: He’s another Fulham fan, isn’t he?
CG: I knew him from school and he came to a few games with his brothers. But that was back when he was only Hugh Grant.
EL: Speaking of Hugh, did you know that there was a poll a while back to find the sexiest male in Doctor Who?
CG: Oh right…
EL: And you came seventh.
EL: Out of about forty.
CG: Oh well, that’s not bad I suppose. That’s all right.
EL: Peter Davison was above you, I’m afraid.
CG: Well he had more opportunities to prove his sexiness! I only had a few lines. And it still doesn’t explain that ridiculous wife of his. I always thought of him as quite a down-to-earth, normal sort of guy – which he kind of is – but when I met him, before Doctor Who, he had this strange little woman who talked in a voice like Pinnochio, it was so affected.
EL: At least he divorced her. He’s married to Elizabeth Morton now.
CG: Oh, I did that Turn of the Screw thing with her! We were doing this weird French kissing. It was called The Haunting of Helen Walker. Diana Rigg was in it.
EL: My husband’s a bit of a Diana Rigg fan.
CG: I think it was the first thing where she decided to play older. She’d come into work still looking quite glamorous, and then dowdied down for the character. I think she’d made a conscious decision that she couldn’t be in the Avengers black leather forever.
EL: And you’re moving on too. It’s all about the music now, isn’t it?
CG: Oh yes. And the art, of course. I go into the school and do the painting and drawing. It’s difficult when you do more than one thing. I’m having a great website built where they bring together all the art and the music and the acting. In a way I feel it’s mistake to try all these lots of things, but I’ve been doing them all for some years now and it seems appropriate to try and bring them all together. But I’m very keen about the band now and I like singing my own songs, albeit rather late in the day…I blame other people for saying “Chris, you can still do it, why not own your own world?”. So we’re having the website built.
EL: I loved the music video, it was very Peter Gabriel.
CG: Yeah, I think it’s the best one. And there’s a definite Bellboy aspect to it – those wonderful flared trousers. The director, Roger, chose the costume – he send me a link to a picture of David Bowie wearing very similar things and said “Just by them and wear them”. I felt like Lenny Kravitz, but that yellow jacket did make me think of the old Bellboy. That’ll be out as a single soon, online and what have you. It’s had some really good reviews, some people loved it.
EL: So that brings me to my final question: what are you doing for Christmas?
CG: Well, between you and me, I hate Christmas. I’m a bit of an old Scrooge. It can be fun when you have small kids, of course, but it just starts too early and drags into New Year and leaves everybody exhausted. You’re broke, tired, probably hungover…and then you’ve got January and February to get through. I think the timing of Christmas is appalling. We usually go down to Cornwall just after Christmas and get together with my brother and his family, a few neighbours and extended family…maybe a dozen of us. When mum was alive she would come…but last year it was just the three of us. It’s a terrible thing to say, but sometimes I can’t wait for these festivals to be over so I can get back to what I want to do. But I like the food and the drinking. I haven’t got any little kids left so it’s not the same.
EL: And will you be watching Doctor Who on Christmas Day?
CG: I didn’t know it was on. I do have an affection for Doctor Who, but because I was involved in it so long ago and I’m so old, I remember all those wonderful early black and white episodes, and how scary and weird it was…but since the show was reinvented I’m not a religious follower. But my daughter likes it, so we probably will watch it. I’m not really addicted to TV, but I do watch Eggheads. I get excited when they lose.
EL: Me too! Especially the arrogant one. CJ.
CG: Oh, him. Do you know, the first time I saw him I thought, oh my God, what an affected, camp, vain, smug, horrible guy, but actually if you read about him he had the most appalling upbringing. He grew up on the streets, his dad beat him up – he had a completely Addams Family background. I don’t remember all the details, but he had a very weird early life, he ended up in France sleeping rough…he had quite a struggle. Not that that’s any excuse, he’s still a pompous bastard.
EL: On that note…thanks very much, Chris. That was great.
CG: Well, you know. I just waffle on.