23 February 2011

Greyhound, over and out

I met Nicholas Courtney in 1986.

He played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in Doctor Who in the 1970s all the way up to the character’s final appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures about a year ago.

He was warm and friendly to me, and to others, even though he had reasons to be in a bad mood. The convention, for which he was one of the guests of honor, had failed to come up with their promised appearance fees. But Courtney and the other guests went on and continued to appear for the fans, who had showed up in good faith. (I learned some years later that Courtney and the other guests never saw a dime.)

I had the fun of telling him how great it was to meet the man who played Lethbridge-Stewart, because I had come to the convention from Lethbridge, Alberta.

In one of the Q&A sessions, I asked the guests what their favourite line was. His was from his favourite story (and that of many fans), The Dæmons, and is one of his most famous:

“Chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid.”

Courtney was so completely successful in the part that although the organization his character headed, UNIT, has reappeared in the show, none of his successors have been able to recapture the magic that Courtney brought. Courtney and the writers made Lethbridge-Stewart a complex, fully drawn character, who was often difficult. Part of the Brigadier’s charm was that the was not always charming.

And he was one of the few characters who routinely got the better of The Doctor.

He said in 1986 that he would relish the chance to play someone who wasn’t an English army officer. Even one of the times I saw him outside Doctor Who, in Yes, Prime Minister, he was playing a police commissioner. Another officer. I hope he got the chances he wanted to play those other parts.

I was so sad to hear he died yesterday, at 81.

He’s pictured here in The Five Doctors in 1983, and Battlefield in 1989; three years before and after our paths crossed.

Related pages

Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, on Nick Courtney
Doctor Who website

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