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Interview: David Banks, Doctor Who’s Cyber Leader

We speak to the man behind the Cybermen on the release of The Doctors Monsters! DVD.

David Banks

Now that the wide-ranging Myth Makers interview with David Banks has been re-released as part of The Doctors Monsters! DVD package, celebrating the actors who have played Doctor Who monsters down the years, it was a good opportunity to catch up with David and get the lowdown on his recurring role as the Cyber Leader in Doctor Who throughout the 1980s.

David spoke to us about his time making the documentaries, which included some recently unearthed insights into the production of I Was a Doctor Who Monster!

Of course, we couldn’t resist asking David about the mythos of the Cybermen that he explored in his Cybermen book in a brilliant collaboration with illustrator Andrew Skilleter. But you’ll also hear about what it was like stepping in for Jon Pertwee and playing the Doctor on stage, where cyber technology is heading, David’s current projects, and much more besides!

The Myth Makers team interviewed you in Brighton whilst you were touring the Doctor Who play The Ultimate Adventure. How were you approached?

It was 1989, and I was involved with the Doctor Who Stage Spectacular, which ran for about six months. Keith Barnfather got in touch, and Nick Briggs came along to Brighton to do the interview. We had a good chat, about Doctor Who of course, but also about doing live theatre, which is an unusual thing for the Doctor Who franchise.

There’s a lovely sequence where you’re sitting on stage by the TARDIS prop, drinking champagne and looking very at home. Was acting something you’d always wanted to do?

It was, from the age of four or five, when I remember playing a wizard. My teacher gave me a script she’d found in a magazine and asked me to cast it and put it on. My father was interested in the theatre, as well. But I also enjoyed writing, and fortunately that’s how my life has turned out: I’ve been able to act and write. But I remember the bit you’re talking about – possibly it was prop champagne!

Happy to take your word for it! Where did it all start, professionally?

It would have been the mid-1970s. So by the time of that interview I’d already been performing in large theatres for twelve years or so. It’s a slog. I heard Sir Ian McKellen talking about this more recently. He’s not far off 80 now. He was one of the models for us, early on. He recalled bursting into tears after Waiting for Godot, because he thought it might have been the last time he appeared on stage. It’s something visceral, acting. It gets to you. I always miss it when I have periods without stage work, because it’s so physical. It’s very different from waiting for your shot on television.

You also took television parts early on. One of the first was an episode of the sitcom Keep It In the Family, with Robert Gillespie. What’s your memory of that?

I remember one of the actors playing the daughters – I’m not sure which one – was sitting next to me at lunch, and spilt a glass of red wine all over the yellow trousers that were part of my costume. She was mortified, poor girl! The set-up was that Robert’s character thought I was effeminate and not suitable dating material for his daughter.

That’s right. There’s also a lot of comedy around you being substantially taller than Robert.

Have you seen the episode?

A few times. They’re all on DVD now!

Isn’t it remarkable? All your sins come back to haunt you (laughs)! This is so interesting! But of course I only did the one episode, so you meet other actors fleetingly, and move on to the next job.

I imagine there’s more camaraderie with theatre?

Enormously so, unless you’re on a long film shoot. The difference with theatre is you have to work it up, from rehearsing for three or four weeks, followed by three months or even six months performing, and you really get to know your colleagues. But it follows an arc, of a honeymoon period where everyone gets on, but then you might start getting irritated, or people get irritated with you (laughs)! It’s like a family, but you don’t have to stick together if you don’t want to.

Let’s talk about the Ultimate Adventure then. Did you feel the rest of the cast were supportive when you were called on to play the lead, having understudied the part of the Doctor?

It was one of those very dramatic situations. It was in one of the larger theatres we played, the Alexandra in Birmingham, about a 1,500-seater. The opening scene was in Downing Street, and the Doctor finds himself in Margaret Thatcher’s (as it was then) office. Jon Pertwee came on stage, and is supposed to have a conversation with the actor playing the Prime Minister, but he didn’t say anything, so she fed him a line and tried to help him out, but it just wasn’t happening. Everybody was electrified backstage; there was a lot of concern. The audience may have thought it was part of the show. But Jon turned to them and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry. I’m feeling rather tired and unwell, and I won’t be able to go on.” This was the matinee show. The curtain came down whilst the stage manager came and told me, “You’re on”. By this time of course I was in my costume as Karl, the baddie – all black string vest and leather trousers – it might have taken fans by surprise if I’d played the Doctor like that.

David Banks

Credit: David Banks, as the Doctor in The Ultimate Adventure.

You’d have more chance of getting away with it these days! Had you been rehearsed for playing the Doctor?

I had, yes, because Jon turned seventy around this time, so it was always thought that he might not be able to do the full run. I’d insisted on a different costume, so if I ever was required to step in, I wouldn’t have to put on a white wig and velvet jacket and try to imitate Jon’s performance. So, thankfully, we were all set. But the cast were very supportive. We’d been doing the show for a good few weeks by then, so this was a bit of novelty and excitement, as well. The audience was part of the drama too, and they’re very well aware that you’re not meant to be playing that role. There’s also the disappointment side of fans coming to see Jon Pertwee. Although I was associated with Doctor Who, it wasn’t as the Doctor, of course.

Did you have time to be fearful, or did you just have to get on with it?

No, there was no time for fear. Although I do remember not getting a line. I said it for a third time, and hesitated. Graeme Smith, another cast member, said, “Do you mean this, Doctor?” And I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!” Terry Molloy, who Doctor Who fans know as Davros, was in the audience with his young daughter that day. He came backstage and congratulated me. Then I had to do it again for the evening performance. And people told me afterward, “You’ve played the Doctor!” It’s a lovely thing to have done.

I saw the show myself, when you were playing Karl the Mercenary, at the Liverpool Empire. I remember it well! You were talking about a sense of camaraderie in the theatre. When you were playing the Cyber Leader in Doctor Who, what was the rapport like with the other actors playing Cybermen?

It was very good – though the first one we did, Earthshock – was basically just me and Mark Hardy, who played the Cyber Lieutenant, sharing the dialogue. The others were extras who were brought in for studio work. We were reinventing the Cybermen, because they hadn’t been featured for seven years, and even then Revenge of the Cybermen [a 1975 Doctor Who story] was not one of their best outings. At the time, we didn’t see clips of the old Cybermen, so we only had our memories, though Mark had never seen them at all. He tells the story that in his audition with the director, Peter Grimwade, he was asked if he’d seen the Cybermen, and he admitted he hadn’t, “but I’ve seen a Dalek”. It was enough to get him the part! I spoke to Peter Davison about this, and he said when he took over, the BBC had supplied him with tapes of previous Doctors, because he wanted to take aspects of the earlier actors and use them. We didn’t have that luxury with the Cybermen, though maybe that’s a good thing – we could start again.

But you certainly dug deep into the Cybermen and solidified the mythos around them. In fact, you wrote a book about the history of the Cybermen, which was beautifully illustrated by Andrew Skilleter. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I was already interested in artificial intelligence and what computers were starting to be capable of, and after I’d played the Cyber Leader a few times, even more so. Some of the ideas that developed out of the book I then had the chance to put into a Doctor Who novel – Iceberg. It’s about applying what it means to take away emotion. People sometimes criticise our Cybermen for not being entirely emotionless, but there was a reason for that: as artificial intelligence and exoskeletal aids develop for people who were once human, there has to be an impetus to want to take over the galaxy, which would be driven by emotion. So even if you’d had emotions excised, the framework for your survival would have to replace it with something very similar.

I’d never thought of that. But for me, it’s far more terrifying that there is some emotion within the Cybermen of your era, because it’s a reminder of their vestigial humanity. It makes the audience aware of what they once were.

Yes, exactly. I remember their appearance in the Tenth Planet [a 1966 Doctor Who serial] where they had cloth faces and naked hands, and I found that scary. It stayed with me, because I spoke to Peter Grimwade about it in my audition. Dinah Collin and Richard Gregory, who designed the costumes for the Earthshock Cybermen, built in the transparent chin so that you could see the actor’s mouth behind it, to evoke that.

In the documentary, you talk about your agent being concerned about you being behind a mask, so audiences wouldn’t see your face. You have a very distinctive voice though, so I wonder if, having to characterise the Cyber Leader mostly through the vocals, it led to the enormous amount of voice work you’ve done?

It’s difficult to say, but I don’t think the voice work followed directly from Doctor Who, though I was conscious of the effect the voice could have. It’s very important, especially in theatre. Peter Barkworth, who was a very talented actor, wrote a few books about the profession, one of which was called About Acting. He wrote well about the importance of voice, and about how, as an actor, it goes beyond what you look like. As actors, we change our voices in ways it’s harder to do with appearance, although you might think of Gary Oldman as Churchill, where it wasn’t just a physical transformation – Gary’s voice and the voice he found for Churchill were entirely different. That’s something you learn doing a talking book. You have a whole world, and you have to create all sorts of different characters. The British approach is to really characterise – the American approach is not so much. The last talking book I did was The Lord of the Rings – you couldn’t hope to get many more different types of voices for characters than that! Entering into the experience and making it your own is the challenge. So voice work was something that particularly interested me, because of the need for range and power in the voice to be an effective actor.

It was definitely there in Doctor Who. Of course, the Cyber Leader had black handle bars on the side of the head so you knew it was you, but your voice is so distinctive.

That’s kind of you, though I think John Nathan-Turner [the producer] worried that audiences wouldn’t be able to spot which Cyberman was talking, so he asked us to nod our heads a bit when we were talking!

Do you think the Cyber Leader will always be close to your heart?

Sandra Reid, who designed the original Cybermen costumes for the Tenth Planet, made this point: the Cybermen never leave you. She gets called here and there to talk to fans and give interviews about the Cybermen. I wondered, as I was wearing a helmet, if I might not be recognised or associated with it, but no, I’m indelibly associated with the Cybermen.

Credit: Jane Boyd.

Possibly more than ever, since they remain such a chilling idea, and are ever closer to reality.

Yes, there’s an interesting parallel of every day in the news hearing about cyber warfare and cyber-attacks, or cyber technology. The prefix is always with us as we move towards a cyber world, which may be different to what Kit Pedler [creator of the Cybermen] envisaged, but it’s also to do with our growing dependence on social networks and our growing electronic connectedness. Now we communicate in ways unimaginable even ten years ago.

The place of science-fiction is to explore the potentially negative impact of all this on the human race.

Yes, and the cyber warfare aspect is part of it. Look at what’s going on with Russia and target countries. We had a cyber attack on the NHS last year. There’s the capability to disrupt other countries’ energy systems. The coming of artificial intelligence is one of the six existential crises that scientists and philosophers are talking about. There’s the concern that AI may exceed our grasp, and we won’t understand how to control it for our benefit – it will control us. One of the objections is that if machines are completely digital, how could they impact the world like that? But every story of the Cybermen shows you that. There’s always a human agent who acts on their behalf, for some promised reward, like Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion, or Ringway in Earthshock. The Cybermen can’t do it on their own, they need human agency, but there will be humans who provide that agency. So there is a connection between the cyber world we have now, which is cyber warfare and cyber technology, and the cyber world that Kit Pedlar and other writers foresaw. All of this requires a lot of thought, but it’s a perennial fear – of humans gaining the power of a god but doing the wrong thing with it, or not being able to control it.

It’s great that you were able to explore such fascinating and important ideas in book form.

Coincidentally, I was reviewing some writing more recently. To give you the story, in the mid-90s I was in a soap called Canary Wharf, which was part of L!ve TV that Kelvin MacKenzie and Janet Street-Porter had set up. Its byline – typical Kelvin MacKenzie – was, “In Canary Wharf you’re never more than five minutes away from a snog” (laughs). It was that kind of level. I was on it for about a year. We were determined to raise the level and make it as good as possible on what was a very low budget. I think it was responsible for changing soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street from twice a week to three with an omnibus. We started off three times a week, but ended up doing four a week. I had a sense that it was a historical moment. It was the first cable TV as it was called then. It had topless darts and a news bunny to sit next to the newscaster. Awfully crass, but every day for six months I wrote something about my experience. I worked it up into a book. I thought I’d lost it after changing computer formats, but I’ve just been able to retrieve it, and I’m going over it now. The funny thing is, I Was a Doctor Who Monster! came along at the time I was doing Canary Wharf. I have an entry here from Sunday 25th February 1996: “I have to be in Hammersmith to film an interview for a forthcoming video entitled I Was a Doctor Who Monster! It’s a miserable day, grey and raining. Happily, the Riverside Studios where filming is taking place is brimming with old colleagues. Sylvester McCoy greets me. He looks madder and more impish than ever. The video is his idea and he shows me pages of dialogue he has to deliver as presenter, all underlined in red ink.” My concern at the time, being on Canary Wharf, was that I had so many lines to learn. I told Sophie my predicament, and wrote, “Sophie Aldred, former Who companion Ace, tells me about the technique she calls instant memory, which she had to develop to meet the demands made upon her in her current job, a regular series of sketches for a children’s television show.” Sadly, it didn’t work for me as she had three-minute slots to camera, whereas we had to learn the full scenes.

Credit: Koch Media

That’s an amazing record to have! I’m glad you mentioned Sylvester McCoy there. Out of the Doctors I grew up with in the 80s, he’s by far my favourite. I adored his rapport with Sophie.

The interesting thing about Ace was that she was kind of the Doctor’s equal. She was a really good role model – so feisty, energetic and enterprising, and she and Sylvester worked really well together. I did a pantomime with him, after the Ultimate Adventure, which had featured Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker – so I worked on stage with three Doctors in the space of a year!

I wonder if that’s a record!? The panto sounds interesting.

It was Aladdin, Christmas 1989. I turned into Sylvester during it. He was the old fakir, there’s an explosion, and then I take over as the young fakir. It was a three-month production in Manchester.

How did I not see this? Can you bring us up to date and tell us what 2018 holds in store for you?

I’m directing a performance of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets with Peter Wilson delivering the poem, from memory, as a passionate narrative. The first performance was at the Norwich Hostry Festival, where Melvyn Bragg chaired the post-show Q&A. It culminates at the Holt Festival on 27th July where Margaret Hodge MP will be leading the discussion with, I’m sure, the same rigour she brought to her role as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I also have a number of writing projects. One is connected with my Doctor Who novel, Iceberg, though I can’t say too much about that right now. There’s another one that’s connected to the Cyber Leader… but again I can’t divulge too much for now!

For more on David’s work, see our review of The Doctors Monsters! which includes the feature David Banks documentary, as well as his interview for I Was a Doctor Who Monster!

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