Mark Halyday had the opportunity to sit down with Classic Doctor Who star John Levene, who played Sgt Benton alongside the Third Doctor John Pertwee, companion Katy Manning and UNIT’s Nicholas Courtney.
Good morning John. You’re going to be in Australia soon to see all your fans at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo. Are you excited to see all your fans?
Oh yes indeed, cannot wait to come down and see everybody. I’m one of the few that love the fans more than I love myself.
Isn’t it wonderful that Doctor Who is still running and that there is this whole new generation that can go back and see your stuff as part of the same story they’re seeing on their TVs now.
It is incredible and this is one of the best months of my life with Doctor Who, given that I was in it in 1965. A wonderful new book released called Directed by Douglas Camfield. Now he is the biggest and most professional director of Doctor Who in the show’s history. He did Invasion, The Dalek’s Master Plan, Terror of the Zygons, all the big ones. The author Michael Seely called me and he knew I knew Douglas almost better than anybody else apart from his wife and his son.
So what’s happened is that one fifth of the book is to do with me [talking about Douglas] and how he helped me. He references me all the way through so it’s a beautiful read, like a hot knife through butter. I purposely had to stop reading it as I nearly got through it in a whole day.
And the other thing is that my biggest Big Finish Productions have just been released, called UNIT: Assembled.
[For the uninitiated, Big Finish have been publishing licensed audiobooks of extra adventures about the characters from Doctor Who for decades. They are extremely high quality and have a large and devoted fan base]
I was reading all about UNIT: Assembled, the newest audiobook, with yourself, recurring Doctor Who characters Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver and Third Doctor companion Katy Manning. It’s a fantastic cast that they’ve assembled.
Oh boy! You should see it! We recorded it and it sounded fabulous. I haven’t heard it yet. I’m waiting to hear it tonight with my son, his wife and his two children. We’re having a little premiere for it.
Awesome. Now twelve years after Sgt Benton departed Doctor Who you returned for a spinoff movie Wartime. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I don’t mind taking a bit of credit for that. I was the first actor that dared to go away from the BBC and to do an independent production. The production company was called Realtime Films. Sadly the man who runs Reeltime Films, his name is Keith Barnfarther, he ended up taking quite a bit of money from all the actors and he ended up not being very well liked and I see he’s now resurfaced after fifteen years of cheating everybody out of their money.
But Wartime was the first time I was ever a leading man. And of course Michael Wisher was a leading man in it too. It was the first independent production of Doctor Who and I could have lost all my work from it but it turns out they liked it so much that they carried on making more independents.
So Wartime was very good to me because it taught me how to be an independent leading man.
You were part of The Three Doctors, the first multi-Doctor story, which kind of acted as the show’s tenth anniversary. Is it true you were invited back for the twentieth anniversary The Five Doctors?
You know that story? Do you want to hear the truth?
Yeah! Because I’ve read bits and pieces but I’d love to hear it from you.
Okay I’ll tell you and I won’t exaggerate or under-exaggerate because I don’t do that any more. What happened is that my love of [Third Doctor] Jon Pertwee, my admiration for Katy Manning – because I was never romantically involved with anybody, I wasn’t that kind of actor – and my regard for [the Master] Roger Delgado made my life complete because it’s the first time I’d been happy in my life.
So what happened with Doctor Who is you get a script in a big brown manila envelope. And it’s so exciting it makes your tummy turn and you want to go to the toilet because you think ‘wow, could this be the episode I’m really big in’ or ‘Could this be a new part for Sgt Benton? How many parts will I have? How much do the new writer and the new director trust me?’
The Five Doctors script came and I’d just had an awful divorce at the time, I was living with my eighteen year old daughter and she said ‘Dad, look at this huge envelope. It’s another Doctor Who’
I opened up the envelope. It was about the thickest script I’d ever seen, because as you know it had about every Doctor Who character in history of man it in, as thick as the bottom of your leg. [When I was a regular on Doctor Who] I’d look at the cast list and obviously Jon Pertwee was at the top, then Katy Manning, then Nicholas Courtney and I about the fifth lead.
My daughter said “I’m so excited” because I’d been so sad over the divorce. She thought it would do me good to get back to the studio. So with The Five Doctors I turned to the cast list and looked at the page where all the characters are detailed looking for Sgt Benton. Looking at #1, #2, #3, #4, #7, #8, #15, #20, #21 and I’m still not there and right at the bottom of the cast list was a character that was going to play a sergeant off-camera, in other words a voice-over only. And the line was this:
As the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) tries to enter: Excuse me sir, you can’t go in there. It’s private.
And I had to do was yell at Pat Troughton not to enter this building. And that’s all I had in the whole show.
After all the years you put in? (1968-1977, and later 1987 and 2017)
Right. Well I phoned up the director and said I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to come in and do one line out of camera. On that same day I had fourteen phone calls from fourteen of the actors including Jon Pertwee and Nic Courtney, and the director said aside from the Doctor that Sgt Benton was his favourite character.
I am aware now that Sgt Benton was so popular because he saved the Doctor each week. I hadn’t realised that back then. So long story short the director said “I’m so disappointed we’re not going to see you but we understand”
The reason I know I made the right choice is this: Ten days before Jon Pertwee died in his last interview he raved about me and thanked me for convincing him to come back and do the second series. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to come back after the pressure of the first year. My friendship with him – given I picked him up in the morning, drove him home at night, ironed his shirt, went and did all of his cabarets with him – we were very close, joined at the hip, and in the last interview and he said “I quite enjoyed The Five Doctors but I have to agree with John Levene, he was so badly served and insulted by one line out of vision that I can’t blame him for not doing it.
So I know then I made the right decision Mark.
Absolutely. But with UNIT back in the fold on Doctor Who and with you working with Jemma and Ingrid on this recent Big Finish book, would you consider coming back to the BBC series?
Let me put it this way: I would be there in about one second. I would run all the way with bare feet to be in one of the Doctor Who episodes now. I would give anything. And I will say one thing: millions of fans have said that if Sgt Benton came back that the viewing figures would go up by one third, by hundreds of thousands of people if they invited either myself or Katy Manning to the new show.
One final question before you go: what has been your favourite episode of Doctor Who? Let’s say one of the classic series and one from the revival.
Absolutely The Daemons. Without doubt my absolute favourite three weeks of my entire life. I love the Daemons so much. It’s the one that made me famous.
But I also loved Time Monster. I love Inferno where I have three parts. I absolutely adored The Green Death.
And the story I think was the most powerful of the David Tennant or of the newer series is the Weeping Angels’ Blink. I mean that is horrifying, even today.
Oh definitely, that’s a classic. Thank you for time today John.
John Levene will be at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo Sydney June 16th-18th. UNIT: Assembled starring Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver, Katy Manning and John Levene is available now through Big Finish Productions. And to learn about John, Katy and the director that made them famous, Directed By Douglas Camfield is available from all good bookstores.