After the first year of
Doomwatch, you won the role of John Steed in the stage production
of The Avengers. Was this a role that you were particularly
pleased to get?
"I was totally delighted to get the
role. However, when they asked me to do it, I made a point of ringing
Patrick Macnee, not least because Pat is a great friend of mine. I was
thinking that there might have been something devious going on. Were
they trying to blackmail Pat into accepting the role, using me against
him? Were they saying to him that if he wouldn't do it, we can easily
get someone to take the role off you – we don't really need you. I was
concerned because, after all, it was his show. So I rang him and
explained the situation. 'I just couldn't do it,' he said. 'It's too
energetic for me, so do it with my blessing and thank you so much for
ringing.' So I did it… and Pat was right, it was a pretty energetic
show. But Patrick Macnee – what a hard act to follow…"
Did the production turn out
quite as you had expected?
"No it didn't. It could have been
fantastic, but it was sabotaged from the inside. Had I been able to
direct it as well as play in it, it would have run for a couple of
years, I promise you. So many things went wrong. I remember pushing
that Bentley off stage at one point, when it didn't work, and there
was a sofa that was designed to make people disappear through it. I
remember saying that it could be very dodgy and one night, Jeremy
Lloyd got stuck halfway through it. So, I went down and sat in front
of him. I told him to keep still. Most of the audience didn't realise…
I'm sitting there and he's hiding behind me, trying to work his way
through the back of the sofa! Then, in several performances, the
parachute prop came down and got stuck halfway. It would have been so
easy to fix those problems, to make them work. I know all about the
stage, presentation, lighting and everything and I knew after four
days with the director, who shall remain nameless, that we were going
to get screwed up – and screwed up we got. We were carrying too much
on our shoulders. You weren't only aware of what you were doing and
what you were trying to present, but you had your eyes going around
wondering what was going to go wrong next."
Would you agree perhaps that the
ten days you had in Birmingham was too short a preparation time before
the big 'off' in London's West End?
"Totally! Not long enough. We
couldn't possibly have got the thing together in that time. If I'd
been directing, I'd have thrown the furniture about a bit and would
have got it right. It needed time but they'd booked us in and allowed
us just this tiddly running-in period in Birmingham – and I knew then
that we were on a duffer. It was like a car that was half finished.
Are the gears going to work? The brakes? You're not quite sure. We've
not tested that, no, we've not done that either. It was chaotic. I was
disappointed, but I sort of expected it really. The flow of the piece
was being interrupted all the time by things going wrong. That's my
opinion. I think my performance was alright, but then I would think
that! But we just kept getting hitches, hold ups, things going wrong.
You could feel it coming…"
How do you think the play would
have improved and evolved had it have had a longer run?
"Well, it wouldn't have had a
longer run the way it was. Had it have been improved in production and
everything was running right, it could have run for as long as it was
viable to keep it running. It was actually a good fun show with a
decent script, but it's like a stand-up going on stage and having
audience members falling out of the balcony every ten minutes, or
having the microphone or the lighting failing on them… They're not
going to get many laughs with all that happening. You're always
waiting for the next bomb to go off. I know I was, wondering what was
going to happen next and there I am, trying to play John Steed! It
The show received some scathing
press. How did the cast and yourself react to this criticism?
"You know what? I never used to
read notices until I'd been in something for about three or four
weeks. Honestly, with my hand on my heart, I've never read a notice
about the Avengers show. I know you've mentioned a couple of
rotters, but fine. They didn't affect me because I didn't know. I
don't tend to believe them if they say I'm good, any more than I do if
they say I'm rotten! No, it wouldn't have worried me. I think every
critic's column should have a little by-line that says, 'one man's
opinion'. There was probably a lot of, 'who does he think he is,
trying to follow Pat?' – and that's understandable because Pat's a
lovely man who gave lovely performances as Steed. So, in a way, I was
on a hiding to nothing before I even started, wasn't I? You think of
great performances people have given and someone has to try and follow
them, and you know they'll never be considered as good as the
It works the same way with James
Bond, doesn't it? Whoever comes along and plays the part, they'll always
be compared to Sean Connery, won't they?
"That's right. Actually, there's a
story here. I nearly got the James Bond role in 1971 and missed out on
it, unluckily, because Sean came back and decided to do one more! I
did the audition and got a round of applause from everybody in the
studio. They were all very pleased and things looked very positive.
Cubby Broccoli was talking terms with my agent – and then one day, he
telephoned me. 'Sorry, Simon. Sean's coming back,' he said. I
understood. Connery was Bond and if he wanted to do it again, they
really couldn't turn him down in favour of Simon Oates, could they?
Sean gave his money to the Highlands and the Islands – and why not –
his choice. When the next one came up, I was working, so I lost Bond – I couldn't do it. Mind you, the way my life's gone, playing Bond would
have changed the course of it and I wouldn't be where I am now. In the
end, I'm grateful that I didn't do it. I've had a smashing career and
I've got the loveliest lady in the world. I'm very happy."
A few years later, you were back
in The Avengers fold, in The New Avengers. What memories
do you have of working on that one?
"Not many! Sometimes, things that
I've been in have been on the television and people ask me how it
ends. I can never remember… I've seen programmes on telly where I've
done scenes with people I can't even remember having met! The mind's
going… You know how it is when you get to twenty-seven… It starts
doesn't it? You've got a lot of people coming through, you're doing
lots of different things and then years later, you think, I know that
person… worked with him, worked with her, but in what? I've done quite
a body of work in my time, so it's not surprising that I can't
remember all of it, really? But going back to The New Avengers,
what I do remember are the people – Pat, Joanna, Gareth … I like those
people so much. It was a joy. I loved it."
Here To Read Part Five: The Cockney Comic
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and Alys Hayes, 2009