On Friday 15th July, I had a lucky day. I had been invited by Michael McManus who was the autobiographer that chronicled Nicholas Courtney’s life in and out of the Dr Who series. I have, as you viewers to our website already noticed been able to return to England and that is where this blog is coming from. The wonderful thing about being here in England at this time of the year is that I have been able to come home to my medieval city that we still like to call Sarum but which most people know as Salisbury in the south of England, known for Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. So here I am now, on the 5th August 2011 and I was recollecting as it has been quite a busy week. My mother has had an eye operation to remove a cataract from her one good eye, the other being blind for the last four years so. Of course I did understand her apprehension at the mere thought of anyone tampering, looking at, taking out, poking, jabbing adding anything to her one existing good eye. Having turned down my biggest television part in the early seventies because the need was to have a full eyeball cover like Michael Jackson had in Thriller, because I was to play a spaceman who was to break the sound barrier, I refused the part as I knew I could not take the full contact lens. It was not just one that went in the front of the eye, but all over and I could not risk it. A silly choice--other actors may have said yes, but never mind, I still believe I made the right decision.
So here I am back on the 15th July, I got up really early that morning at five thirty. I can tell you why I was up so early... I was full of trepidation, full of self consciousness, not full of a lack of awareness, but incredibly full of the sensitive feelings that you get when someone you have known for many years passes on. And having been invited I thought there was going to be dozens of speakers, but there were indeed only four and I was one of them. In fact I was third on after the organizer Michael McMannus and a wonderful song performed by one of the West End’s best singers, which was one of Nick’s favorite songs I believe called, On The Street Where you Live—a beautiful rendition indeed, and I had to follow that.
The day turned out to be so splendid because I knew that I had it in me to give my speech the very best I had in terms of voice, performance and in all fairness, entertainment value.
When I arrived at the drinking men’s club where the actors go, when they sneak off during the day (these places are in the bowels of the city in these little streets usually on the third floor with a front like a Greek takeaway and it is where I imagine people go on a daily basis to get the courage it takes to get on that stage in the evening.) one can only imagine the pain suffered by some performers. But then you have the opposite of that which is the utter unbridled joy of having put in a performance in a play or musical or whatever genre you are lucky enough to be working in. It is a spectacular feeling, after all it is the driving force of the average or should we say all performers that seek perfection. Anyway, got to the club and was very warmly received. It is moments like that you can forget who you really are. It did not occur to me that at that moment I was John Levene. I saw myself as a middle aged man, sweating with the weight of the overcoat and briefcase that I carried. Loaded with the things one needed for the 3hr train journey, I ended up getting there exhausted and the one thing I wanted was a nice pint of lager, but because of suffering from migraine I daren’t risk it, knowing that I was one of the principal speakers of only four that were chosen to share their words, their feelings and their emotions on the passing of their acting friend, their loyal friend or their family friend--the actor was Nicholas Courtney. After all, how many people can say they were part of the classic series of Dr Who in the early seventies? It is a wonderful tribute and I wear it like a gold medal such is my pride at my own personal success as Sergeant Benton. So there I am, hot, bothered and bewildered, and suddenly this lovely lady helped me. Now I know that bar ladies are meant to be convivial, and I know they are supposed to get people relaxed to get them drinking, because that’s where the money is, and I do understand that. But this lady had a kindness about her asking me, “You look exhausted, can I help you with something?” without me having to say anything. It was like, with no insult to the lady at all, it was like your mother when you grazed your knee for the first time at the age of seven and she holds you in that special way that says “this is your life my son you will get many bashes and cuts, bruises and stabbings. If you like, even if they are emotional ones yet to come in your life, don’t worry too much I know it hurts. Lets just put this plaster on it..” and somehow the pain just went away didn’t it? And within five minutes you were back yelling and screaming with the other children and hopefully still in favor. As there is nothing worse, is there, to you younger viewers than when you have said something stupid that you cannot back up. And haven’t we all at some time just lied about something and been caught? Like when they said “Well, where did you do that downward skiing in 11.3 seconds?” and you say a mountain that has no bleeding snow on it! You know the kind of thing ... Anyway back to the day. It was ten minutes before they went off. As usual the tension began to grow. After all, I was about to go on the stage and as in the words of Shakespeare “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts...”
I hung back at one of the tables of really nice people that befriended me, and I would like to thank them in retrospect for making me feel so welcome in an atmosphere that I am simply not used to at all. But all the celebs were there along with two big names that I am going to end my story with. So this is the moment that I was glad that I had gotten there early and could take my script out of my briefcase to have it safely looked after in the club where Nicholas used to frequent as a member for over fifty years. It made me feel very safe—a couple of people I really adored, you know there’s always those personalities that were hitherto forgotten faces. Memory of them was sparked by their voice and being so close to someone that you used to idolize on television when you were younger is always to me an exciting moment, and I believe if I may just write a tiny piece of my own testament, I believe that is why my fans are so welcoming to me. For I do have empathy for pretty much a whole spectrum of fandom from what used to be called frightening and obsessive. Some are eager and just in awe of anyone who has helped feed their dream fantasy. And at Dr Who, we are maybe one of only five or six shows that have captured the imagination. Others are Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 99. These shows, renowned and imbedded in our psyche. It has always thrilled me and I have said it in many interviews but I look back in awe at some of the images that I have seen, and I think “My goodness, that was me!!” And I think back to what it was like to get the bus on any particular day to go and pick up Jon Pertwee, and then driving his car to pick Katy up and doing our lines in his car, and driving down Cheswick High Street to our rehearsal halls where “Monty Python” were four stores below us. “Are You Being Served?” were four stores above and “The Last of the Mohicans” was being made with John Abineri, who turned out to be a marvellous actor in British television, and there were Mohican Indians having lunch with you. They were fascinating days to meet people like John Cleese, Robert Wagner, Rex Harrison--people who were huge stars in those days, and I remember that Jon Pertwee was as much in awe of the big stars as we were, which made it easy for me, as he always asked me to go up and make the initial introduction.
Having achieved success in what I thought may have become rusty, [i.e. my performance on stage in front of my peers, the likes of Tom Baker, executives from the BBC and actors from the West End Theatres of all the major plays running at that time.]. It seemed quite a feat for someone that has just recently returned to England after 22 years in Hollywood, and there I was in the very heart of the English theatrical world, right behind Shaftesbury Avenue, right in the heart of the most precious of jewels of what makes the West End such a powerful force in London and indeed other cities around the world in terms of entertainment. I sat down with that moment of huge relief that you get when the dentist tells you that it is just a filling and not a root canal, or like when that patch on your skin was not cancer, rather just a bump, and you think “How lucky can I be”? That was how I felt, sitting there next to Richard Franklin who played Captain Mike Yates in U.N.I.T. along with me back in the seventies. He had yet to get up and do his piece and I could see that even he was much more of a theatrical person. He had nerves too and it made me feel good that mine were no more severe than this gentleman, who has trodden the boards of many a West End theatre. So, sitting there very much enjoying the rest of the show, the end arrives, as it inevitably does, and I was very much looking forward to walking outside in the sun because the church had enlivened me. I do not want to call it Christianity, but there was something wonderful about the freedom of the actors’ church where in his opening speech, the reverend of this church called St Paul’s, stood up and said “Ladies and Gentleman, this is an actor’s church and God and Jesus would have loved actors and in here you are allowed to break down some of the boundaries that hitherto prohibit us from acting in a normal way when something is said that is enormously complimentary or enormously funny.” And to be prohibited from laughing or applauding in a church when something wonderful has happened seems to me to be rather short sighted and will surely push people away. Anyway, that is not my issue and I am not even going to begin to attempt to change any religious events for anybody. I am just here to express the freedom I felt as a so-called closeted Christian. So as mentioned, I had finished my speech and was so pleased with the result, my delivery was spot on and the round of applause was wonderfully gratifying. Our collective dedications to a man who whatever else he did in his life achieved stardom playing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in Dr Who for longer than any other actor in the history of the show.
And so, as the final speech was read, the congregation slowly emptied the church, and I too walked out into the gleaming beautiful warm sunshine knowing that all of us who had taken the pulpit had done awfully well considering the audience was formidable in terms of power, talent, critique and stardom, and all of the other metaphors that go along with show business at the top end of the scale. So I was elated, there is no point denying it. However, it was time to return to Sarum, which meant getting from “The Strand” at rush hour to Waterloo Station. “No big deal”, you may say if you live outside of London or even inside of it. But at 4.35pm in the afternoon wanting to get a 5.15pm train back to Salisbury? It is quite a task!!
Anyway, just by good luck, I remember thinking that I was going to treat myself to a taxi, to help me through all the awful traffic jams from Trafalgar Square onwards. So I walked into the sunlight and began walking very gently down the steps to join the throng of so many popular performers and actors of the West End theatre, and of course British movies and television. So, walking down the steps I get half way down and I see several people looking at me with that kind of “well done” look and we all know that feeling, don’t we? After the exam when you know you have done well, and you go on holiday and the sun actually does shine, you get that deep feeling of satisfaction knowing that you made the right choice at the right time. I am now down at the bottom of the steps and I am amongst the crowd of about 180 people. Some people have had to rush off to get home to distant locations. But suddenly, before I could even think of wishing and wondering and rather hoping that someone would come up and congratulate me on how well I had done, (I mention that because you are allowed to want that. You are allowed to wish for it, but you are not really allowed to ambush anyone into saying it.) there I am looking around at all the people and realised that I was one of the “celebrities”. I was one of only three living actors of the Dr. Who of my time, Richard Franklin, Katy Manning, Tom Baker, and myself. I realised there were lots of photographers and children wishing to get our autographs and I always do that as that really is the cherry on the cake, they give you so much joy. You can make some child’s day. They have come up to London and they have met their hero at a memorial service of another hero of theirs. That to me is a majestic way of being able to absorb this fandom. Fandom is short for fanatic and I don’t really like that word. All of us that love and adore certain shows I like to call “enthusiasts.” I would much rather be called an enthusiast than a fanatic! Although I know fan is acceptable, the word fanatic gives the impression of something other than an intelligent, broad minded devotee to a show that gives them such pleasure.
So, I am at the bottom of the steps and suddenly there is a hand in my hand. And shaking my hand and holding my elbow in the other hand like you do when you really like someone, he looked me in the eye and said “That was one of the nicest speeches I have ever heard. You really moved me! Well done indeed!” It was, yes, ladies and gentleman, it was David Tennant. I was more than amazed. Not so much that David Tennant had come up to John Levene, Sgt Benton of U.N.I.T., especially as there were so many top-end actors, producers, and writers that are watching and listening to your every word. Suddenly, I realized, and I am not afraid to admit to you, that it surprised me to death that David was so tall!!! His great hair and teeth, and his brilliant expressions that were just so enormously watchable when he played the Doctor so magnificently. I said “David, first of all thank you so much for your praise. I was in Hollywood the whole of your time on the show and I want to tell you that you were the only Doctor next to Jon Pertwee, that really blew me away, and I want to tell you something... Jon would have loved you!” And I noticed that he squeezed my hand in a way that you only do when your mother and father have given you the keys to the car. That handshake of decency, loyalty and respect and recognition of things given and taken and a balance held through decency and integrity, and all of the words that make a good “human being” good. He said “Honestly? Really?” And I said, “Oh David you have no idea. You were so on the ball with your interpretation of the Doctor. He said “My God, coming from you--someone I grew up with along with Jon and the Brig.” And then he was gone, of course, because being David Tennant, there were many people he needed to say hello to. It really did make my day. It is now about four weeks later and I am still reeling emotionally from that day. I have asked myself “Why did David Tennant impress me so much?” I think it was his deep Scottish sincerity.
So ladies and gentleman in closing this blog, thank you very much indeed. I do love doing these blogs, but with our lives changed at the moment having moved from Hollywood to the South of England, I must say that this summer has been bleak in terms of the 360 days of sun that we used to get in Los Angeles. But apart from that, the summer has been enchanting. I have rediscovered my old city of Salisbury, which has really pleased me, and I am looking forward to a better year next year.
So, thank you to David Tennant. David, if you do see this, thank you so much for giving Dr Who that sense of wonderfulness again encompassing all of the things that I feel Sidney Newman intended him to be. You had a touch of William Hartnell, a brief aspect of Patrick Troughton, and a lot of Jon Pertwee. But that is my view and I am so pro Jon, I could be a little biased here. And of course Billie Piper, let me just add—Billie, you will not see see this blog, but I had a photograph taken next to Bessie, Jon Pertwee’s car down in the Air Museum in Yeovil. And there was a cut out that we were able to make look almost real. Thank you for adding intellectual glamour to our photo.
So, in closing viewers, the amount of you that are tuning into our website thrills me, but I have to say that we organised our site to inform, entertain and hopefully amuse you. The reason I feel that we have done it with such spectacular success, looking at the numbers, is because we have not put advertising in. I hope you enjoy our most recent productions. As you can see I have become quite nifty with the camera, which was given to me as a gift by Kent Edens. He knew when seeing a picture of me back in 1971 looking through the camera on the set of The Daemons, that was how he started when he became a camera man. So, God Bless you for visiting us. May your own particular God go with you and whatever you have done this year be as nice to that many people again and add a few – especially the lonely and distressed. Take good care of you and yours, and with Christmas almost upon us, we at John Levene.com wish you all a Merry Christmas.
To each of you out there, thank you for so many hits on our site. We have now passed the quarter of a million and that is remarkable! What we do know here at John-Levene.com is the constant quest to bring you the unusual and original product. For myself, it was the Barry Letts tribute that gave me the most exquisite feeling of accomplishment. Add to that “Our Return to Aldbourne”! Thanks to Kent Edens’ talent to bring this piece alive with research. So to all of you hopeful minded people out there in Web Land, bless your creative hearts for visiting in such quantities.
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