Doctor Who star on a mission
Actor's can usually count on their mums to say nice things about their productions, but not Mark Strickson.
When Doctor Who was given a multi million pound reboot in 2005 Strickson's mum tuned in to see how it compared to the 1980s shows her son appeared in and thought the reboot much better.
Strickson told his Mum her thought the new series, which has starred Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith, was really good.
''Mum said, 'yeah, it's much better than when you were in it','' he said with a smile.
''What my mum meant by that was that they had spent a lot more money on it . . . the graphics are amazing . . . it's written more as a drama . . . in like a movie form . . . and there's lots more opportunities for character development in that way when you're not slicing it in-between Look West and Softly Softly. You look back and we got fantastic ratings.''
Part of the new show's success, over the old, was putting writers like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffatt in charge of the production instead of someone who was not a writer.
''I think Russell's great,'' Strickson said. ''There are three things that are important for a film. Number one is story, number two is story, number three is story. Good actors can save a bad script and make it bearable but good actors can't make a bad script good they can just make it bearable.
''You have to be humble as an actor. The BBC used to make about 12 or 14 comedy pilots a year and only one or two of those would ever get chosen to do the run. They were all very well acted, nothing to do with the actors in them on their success, it was all to do with the writing, with actors it was pot luck. I have never really believed that acting is very difficult. I think some people have a skill and are able to act and if you have that natural gift it's not difficult.
''As an actor you want to do the best job possible and you want the best scripts possible because it makes life more interesting. Strickson's Doctor Who character was something of a departure from the Doctor's usual travelling companions. His agenda, at first, was to kill the Doctor.
Despite that Strickson thinks he was a good guy.
''He was an intergalactic political exile. I think he was a nice guy. Just needed a big hug from somebody and he wasn't getting it.'' ''He had a brain,'' Strickson joked. ''He had his own space ship. That was designed to bring an interesting character, other than the Doctor in, with a life of their own and create more independent plots. The problem with that is that within a 25 minute program and you've got the Doctor and a female assistant and a baddie and another character like Turlough you really haven't got time for it. And that, in the end, was the problem it turned out. He was too strong a character.'' ''They had him captured by the enemy and locked up in episode one and he came back in episode four.
''In terms of the 25 minute programme we made there wasn't really time for Turlough. I honestly couldn't expect the writers to write the best role for me, once I stopped killing the Doctor because there wasn't time.'' Strickson said the working environment, headed by the late John Nathan-Turner who produced the show in his day, was very pleasant.
''Being an actor is often very tedious which is why it helps hugely if your fellow cast members are also good friends. The BBC rehearsal rooms, at the time, were on a traffic island in North Acton in the West of London.You couldn't walk to a shop. There was nothing there. It was designed to make actors concentrate on their lines, or concentrate on what they should be doing. It wasn't a pleasant place to work by any stretch of the imagination.
''Then you would go into the studio and the acting was enjoyable, but a lot of the stuff going on around it wasn't. Long days.'' Strickson, however, was surprised how his Doctor Who shows stood the test of time after watching them again to record commentaries for the DVD releases.
''I didn't watch my Doctor Who's for many, many years after I made them . . . to be honest I was surprised about how good they are. I thought, because we were making them so quickly at the time that they weren't that great, but no. I mean they stand the test of time and I quite enjoy watching them particularly with the new graphics.'' It's probably one of the most British institutions there is, I suggest: ''Yeah, Dr Who and pork pies. Yeah. It is very British, and that's one reason it works as well.''
Asked whether he thought the show would return after so long off screen, Strickson said: ''No I don't think anybody would have thought it would. I mean, let's face it, it's a weird enough thing that it exists in the first place: a man travelling around in a telephone box. It's peculiar that it was, in any way, successful. So for it to be reborn again . . . I mean try selling that as a format, try and get it in to a commissioning editor: 'I've got this brilliant idea, it's about this guy from a different planet and he travels around in a telephone box and he goes through time'. It's not going to work is it?''
Man on a Mission
Mark Strickson has a secret. The TV executive producer, known to millions of Doctor Who fans as one of the Doctor's sidekicks from the Peter Davison years, chooses his words carefully as he shares details of his latest project with me over Skype.
Strickson, who was instrumental in the late Steve Irwin's rise to fame as the Crocodile Hunter, lives with his family in Dunedin these days but was speaking to me from Doha, Qatar, where his latest project is taking shape.
''It's top secret at the moment,'' Strickson says. ''It's a big project persuading children in this part of the world to do something with their lives. It's visually complicated, it's visually Disney, and very, very hard to make.
''We're trying to inspire children to do positive things with their lives, which totally ticks all the boxes for me because I make television because I want to change the way people think.
''Because the business is so young here I'm going to take it back to New Zealand, for four weeks, to finish off.'' Strickson, whose wife, Lisa, and son Tom are in England at the moment to escape the summer heat in Doha, has a December 18 deadline on the series and hopes to be home for Christmas.
''New Zealand has fantastic media resources and skilled people to draw on, which is another reason why I like living there. I can make top-quality, world-class television in Dunedin. And there aren't that many towns you could say that about, even in England. Dunedin's a great place to live.'' Strickson moved to New Zealand about seven years ago, having met his future wife, a television production manager, here.
''I came to New Zealand for four weeks to work for the film-making company Natural History New Zealand and I met Lisa. She's worked at BBC Bristol, and all sorts, but she's from Timaru.
''We met again in Vietnam and had a lovely holiday together and decided that one of us had better make a move and I got in touch with Natural History New Zealand and they offered me a job.'' When it comes to making wildlife documentaries Strickson has an exceptional pedigree, having produced documentaries for the BBC, ITV and the Discovery Channel.
It was while preparing for one such documentary, from Bristol, that Strickson discovered Steve Irwin.
''We sent out letters, emails, actually faxes, to reptile parks and zoos in Australia, because it was about Australian snakes, and we were wanting to find a good snake handler.
''Steve's wife, Terry, sent in a home video of him, and we watched this video, and we thought we had either discovered a star or it would be a complete disaster. Very soon into the film I realised that Steve was very good. But it took a lot of persuading, when we came back with the rushes, to persuade the producers.'' The problem was Irwin's presentation style was so radically different to what the world was used to in nature documentaries.
''It was certainly one of the first presenter-led programmes in any genre that took the camera off the tripod and is now accepted as the way you shoot presenters,'' Strickson remembers.
''That was absolutely revolutionary. It wasn't because I am a creative genius, it was because I had a great cameraman and I was probably so inexperienced that I didn't understand what risk I was taking . . . it was a huge risk . . . we actually got told, by one senior person, that the rushes were incompetent . . . this became one of the most popular natural history programmes ever made.
''My skills as an actor and director as well very much came into getting the performance [from Irwin]. It all came together and all worked well and I have been making those sorts of films ever since.
''I love acting, but I would never have had the experiences I have had in my life if I had continued to be an actor. You can act when you are in a wheelchair, you can't run around jungles and that sort of thing if you are in your wheelchair.'' Strickson's passion for nature documentaries comes from growing up in rural England.
''I was born a country boy, went to the village school, was brought up in the country . . . I love nature. I'm never happier than when I'm out in it, and I'd like my son to live in a beautiful world. It's as simple as that.'' Strickson went to the same school as William Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon and credits his interest in acting partly to this.
''Having said that, very, very few people went into theatre from that school. I can count them on one hand.'' Tim Pigott-Smith, who is best known for Jewel in the Crown, was one.
Strickson studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London before landing a part in the medical soap Angels and then Doctor Who.
Strickson said he thoroughly enjoyed his time on Doctor Who.
''Why do you enjoy a job? Usually it's because of the people you work with. You can have the best job in the world, but if the people you work with are a pain in the arse you won't enjoy it. I had some lovely people to work with.'' Strickson still works with Davison, who recently became 10th Doctor David Tennant's father in law, Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), on audio adventures being made by Big Finish Productions in Britain.
''We still love each other, we're still good friends,'' Strickson says. ''Big Finish have done loads of audio books. They're completely original stories. It is a massive business and it's doing really well. I must had made about six and I'm only little bit of Doctor Who.
''Big Finish are very nice to me.
''I tell them when I have got five days free and they get Peter and all the other actors to work around me when I'm in England. You can either work around me or not have me. I have a very busy schedule.''
Strickson, who puts his new series to bed in December, hopes to be back in New Zealand for Christmas before jetting back to Britain in the New Year for his next Big Finish role.
''I'm doing some Big Finish things in London for a week, so that will be my Doctor Who contribution for the year.'' Despite being audio only, it's not the sort of acting that can be done remotely, Strickson says.
''You need the reaction from the fellow actors you're working with. That's what acting's all about. It's about feeling vibes.
''When I was in Doctor Who I always said it was one of the most difficult acting jobs in the world, and the same is true of any sci-fi. I came from soap opera.
''It's perfectly easy to have reactions in the soap opera because they [have storylines that] are part of your life. You have girlfriends, you eat meals, you have some sort of reference to those sorts of things, and you're reacting to the emotions of the person you are acting with, right?
''When you're running down a corridor with a jelly-like monster chasing you, that is not what real life is about.'' Despite being a safe bet for conventions, like the Armageddon Expo in Hamilton next April, Strickson says he will have little time next year for anything other than producing.
''I can't have a life as a TV producer forever, it will kill me. I can manage another couple of years, I should think,'' he says.
Spending most of his time behind the camera these days, he seldom gets recognised in the street.
''I did an appearance in Christchurch and this guy said to me, 'I hear you live in Dunedin, but I haven't seen you there.' So I said 'you haven't kept your eyes open, I go shopping in Countdown every week, I walk around the streets, I drink in the Duke of Wellington; if you keep your eyes open you'll see me walking around town.' A few months later this guy walks past me in the streets and I said, 'hi, you're the guy who said you never met me and you've just walked past me in the street. Nice to see you.' ''Obviously I look a bit different to the way I did. I do walk past shop windows and see my reflection and think my father is coming to town. That happens to us all. I've still got my own hair.''