Tag Archives: doctor who

Before Gotham: interview with original TV Batman Adam West

6 May

Fox announced yesterday that it had commissioned Gotham (click on the image above to watch the trailer), a TV series which will tell the childhood origins of Batman, along with The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin. Alfred will be played by Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee, who played Doctor Who in the early ‘70s, which makes Gotham feel like some Hadron Collidor of primal geek forces. It will air next year, nearly half a century after the TV series played with the new spread of colour TV sets to produce a hallucinatorily vivid show inspired by pop art.

It’s also more than a quarter of a century since I interviewed its star, the original TV Batman, Adam West. Having been obsessed with the show as a small kid growing up in Canada, it was unbelievably weird to hear him drawling my name, “Dahminic”. Let alone to hear him say ‘f**k’.

There’s a whole generation out there who know the 85-year-old actor only as the voice of Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. So for those newbies, and the old guard like me who watched it (nearly) first time around, I’ve rescued my 1988 interview with Adam West from the vaults. It appeared as a two-page feature in Time Out magazine, where I had recently started work as a sub-editor:

Having devoted half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I tell him I am interviewing him for Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when Batman folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, f**k it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood!’

Modest though he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on Night Network and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

Adam West and Frank Miller's Dark Knight comic -- how the interview first appeared in Time Out

Adam West and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic — how the interview appeared in Time Out

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, Return of the Dark Knight. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

Ah, the Batman movie. Ever since Dark Knight appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to Batman, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of Return of the Dark Knight, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of The Killing Joke, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo Wild Bunch. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!’

But West isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: Doing Time On Planet Earth, an off-the-wall comedy; Mad About You, a romantic comedy; and Return Fire, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run (the show was produced and directed by John Gore, now a major producer and CEO of Key Brand Entertainment). West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of Dark Knight nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like Star Trek and Man From UNCLE. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the Dark Knight era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

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The Cumberbatch tapes, #4: Spielberg v. Madonna

11 May

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This is the final part of my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, told as far as possible in his own words. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here.

On how he got the part in War Horse (above): “I got told that Steven Spielberg was a fan of my work! And that was just… I mean I can’t say it without laughing. I made one of the archetypal actor’s jokes when someone said Oh you must be having a break after this because you’ve just come straight from Sherlock to this play, and I said yeah, I’m going to definitely have a two-week break – unless Spielberg calls! And then Spielberg did actually call! I had to read the script, sign a confidentiality agreement, and that was it, he gave me the part.”

…And how he didn’t work with Madonna: “There’s another rather famous woman, who will remain nameless, she’s doing a film at the moment [putting two and two together, that woman was Madonna and the film was her directorial debut,W.E.], who demanded almost a dress rehearsal with her operating the camera. And, er, being an actor you jump through the hoops, and I came out going Wow… the difference between a confident director who knows what he’s doing and someone who hasn’t got a f***ing clue is just miles.”

On Doctor Who: For once, Benedict was reluctant to talk. When he finally came out with it, it was as though imparting some great State Secret. Matt Smith had recently taken over from David Tennant as Doctor Who, and I wondered, had Benedict ever been considered for the role? Long pause, then: “Possibly yes.”

That and Sherlock are quite similar roles, in some ways, I probed. “Aaaaaah… possibly. Well. The idea of Sherlock came along before David’s recasting, we did the pilot over a year ago, that was just about when David was going to announce he was going to stand down. And David and I talked about it, but to be honest, it had to be radically different from him, and I’m not sure I’m interested in doing something… you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century before, and that was much more appetising. And Doctor Who is a ‘Bond role’ in the sense that each incarnation puts his own stamp on it, but I didn’t really like the whole package, I didn’t want to be doing school lunchboxes, I didn’t want to be known for that and nothing else.”

On meeting former Tory leader William Hague to prepare for the role of William Pitt the Younger: “It was great, a real privilege, I went to see where Pitt would have stood in the Chambers, I went to dinner with William Hague and talked about his book [about William Pitt], it was a fantastic evening, really special.”

Hague seemed too young to be a plausible leader at the time, I say. “Like a precocious Mekon, wasn’t he, like a possessed child. But he’s charismatic, very intelligent, very good company – he’s fit, focused, he doesn’t talk down to you, a very smart man. I’d like to see more of him, especially now he’s Foreign Secretary, it’s a great role for him. It is absolutely intoxicating being in the House of Commons, there’s such a feeling of power about the place.”

Finally, what does he think of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes? “I really enjoyed it, it’s fantastic, he’s an extraordinary actor… but it’s really not Sherlock in my mind. He’s not Sherlock, he’s Robert Downey Jr!”

I’ve had some great feedback on Twitter (@DominicFilm if you want to Follow me) regarding this interview series. Benedict is lucky to have so many appreciative fans! Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Come back next week, when I will be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival.

What’s up, Doc: So just Who is Matt Smith?

30 Mar
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“A wild ride”: Matt Smith with co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman in The Bells of St John

Matt Smith is not your typical leading man. Even his co-stars say he looks “odd”, “alien”, “like a mad scientist”… “everything about him is just weird”. He’s over six foot tall, yes, but thin as rake, and with a head like a shovel. You’d be more likely to use him on your garden than cast him in a drama.

And yet, as Doctor Who, he has turned his distinctive features to advantage: it’s not hard to convince viewers that he really is a super-sentient alien time-traveller with two hearts. 

When Smith was first announced as the 11th Doctor, viewers didn’t know what to make of him. David Tennant was a hard act to follow: handsome enough to have Casanova on his CV, he had made the part uniquely his own. Benedict Cumberbatch once told me he’d balked at the suggestion that he might step into Tennant’s shoes, taking on Sherlock Holmes instead. 

Matt Smith had no such fears. He threw himself into the role with such physical intensity and raw charisma that he became the first Doctor to be nominated for a BAFTA, and I’m not alone in thinking he is the best Doctor there has ever been. 

Strangely, he is only an actor by default. As Doctor Who would tell you, there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and in most of them Smith is a professional centre-back on even more than the £250,000-plus a year the BBC is said to pay him, employing those God-given gifts of gangly height and gigantic forehead to nod the ball to safety. 

In this universe, however, Smith’s career in Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s youth teams was cut short at 16 by a back injury. His doting father, the boss of a plastics company, ferried him to Leicester for treatment every day for a year, but Smith never fully recovered. 

Smith was pressured into joining the National Youth Theatre by a school drama teacher, and went on to study Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The fearless way he threw himself into his roles, as he might tackle a speeding striker, got him noticed. An agent signed him even before he’d taken his finals.

Until 2008, Smith was still playing teenagers: he acted in The History Boys at the National Theatre, and won rave reviews as Lindsay Duncan’s son in That Face. And then, suddenly, he was playing a 900-year-old Time Lord. 

Smith was still only 26 when he became Doctor Who, the youngest ever. He’s turned it into a plus: on him, tweed jackets and bow ties look more chic than geek. He’s made the series into a US hit, too, tapping into a particular brand of Britishness that appeals to Americans: eccentric, bumbling, intelligent, more likely to challenge a woman to a game of chess than make a pass at her. Smith might have modelled his Doctor Who on the famous photograph in which Einstein playfully sticks out his tongue, but Americans are more likely to think of him as a younger, livelier, space-age Hugh Grant. 

So what’s next for our Matt? He made Bert and Dickie, a mismatched-buddy-movie for the BBC about two Brits who took rowing gold in the 1948 Olympics. He’s going to be filming a US movie opposite Ryan Gosling, and he keeps hinting that he’d love to be cast as a young Macbeth. He recently directed a Sky Arts drama, Cargese. But otherwise, it’s still not so much what, as Who. 

Smith is soon returning to Cardiff to film the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, and is clearly in no hurry to hang up his sonic screwdriver just yet. “It’s a wild wave when you get to surf it,” he smiles, “and I think you have to make the most of it while you can.”

A longer version of this post first appeared in Sense magazine 

 

 

 

When Dominic Met Noel

8 Nov

Noel Clarke and Me

Noel Clarke’s a funny guy. Inspiring, too. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival at the end of October, the one-man British film industry was asked if he saw himself primarily as a writer, an actor or a director. “I see myself as a bill-payer,” was his pragmatic answer. “I only wanted to be an actor at first, then I realised it wasn’t going to pay the bills.”

That’s especially true for a black actor. “I’d be reading for the part of Bank Robber No 2, or Gang member No 1. Then, finally a character with a name! Yes!  You’d look (through the script) – what’s his first line? Oh. ‘Open the safe!’”

He started to think, auditioning for these scripts, that even he could write better. “And after a while, you have to stop complaining and start doing it.”

He wrote three or four spec screenplays – science-fiction, multiple-narrative drama —  but the first that got made was Kidulthood. No one would back it at first. “They all said, ‘take out the swearing. Kids don’t behave like that, our kids certainly don’t.’ I told them, ‘I f***ing think they might do!’”

So his team cobbled some cash together independently, mostly from the owner of a coffee shop. People liked the finished film, edgy and raw as it was, but no one dared release it. It sat on the shelf for nearly two years before finding a distributor who thought they could at least get some money from DVD sales. And the fact that Noel Clarke had landed a role in the relaunched Doctor Who didn’t hurt – another reason to diversify.

The film was a cult hit. I doubt there’s a teenager in south London who hasn’t seen it. Now, Noel thought, he could get his other scripts produced. Wrong. They kept asking, “But where’s your voice?” Meaning, why don’t you stick to writing inner-city gang films? So eventually, he gave them what they wanted: Adulthood, a low-budget sequel that made an impressive £3.7m, which he also directed.

Only now, finally, can he get other projects made: Storage 24 (sci-fi), The Knot (rom-com) and Fast Girls (sports drama) all came out this summer. Even so, he says, you have to just keep writing. He has two co-writers, and together they churn out half a dozen screenplays a year, in order to get one made.

He gave me some one-on-one time after the panel, and it’s heartening how he dares to dream big: Storage 24 was made very much with an eye to global sales on a micro-budget, and has now sold, he proudly says, in every territory in the world, including China and America. He was recently in LA for two months, acting in the new Star Trek, setting up meetings of his own. “If I was of a lighter persuasion,” he admits, “yeah, I would be living in the ‘H’ in ‘Hollywood’.”

But for now, fortunately, he’s staying. His energy is infectious. If there’s one message scriptwriters can take home, it’s don’t be precious. Write a bunch of spec screenplays, including one calling-card script that is your “unique voice”. Keep plugging away, and one day you too will have some project power. Until then, dream big.