Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Interviews Interview with Nicholas Pegg by DJ Forrest

Interview with Nicholas Pegg

Nicholas Pegg, keen horticulturist, although for much of this year has been extremely busy updating his David Bowie Anthology – and if you haven’t got a copy yet, go out and buy one, or put it on your Santa list, is also known by the Whovian world as a Dalek operator responsible in Dalek history for how many ‘kills’ was it, Nicholas?
But the question everyone from IMDB to the PT office wanted to know was, his connection to Simon Pegg!

Hi Nicholas.

Nicholas: Hello there.

Just to clear something up, you’re no relation at all to Simon Pegg, another Doctor Who actor, are you? I thought we could lay this one to bed now.

Nicholas: How nice to get a chance to clear this up. Yes, as a matter of fact Simon Pegg and I are identical twin brothers. No, seriously, we’re not! As far as I know we’re not related at all. I think we’ve only ever met once, and briefly at that. When Big Finish recorded their first set of Paul McGann Doctor Who episodes about 15 years ago, I was acting in one of the stories and Simon was in another, so we were ships that passed in the studio one day. Nice guy.

People do occasionally get us mixed up, and that’s understandable of course. It’s a fairly unusual surname, and as far as I know Simon and I are the only two Peggs registered with Equity, the actors’ union. So every now and then I get a tweet from somebody congratulating me on Hot Fuzz or my brilliant performance as Scotty in the Star Trek films, and I have to gently point out that they’ve got the wrong Pegg. Sometimes it can be quite funny. A few months ago I got a rather indignant tweet from someone who said, ‘Dear Mr Pegg, if you ever write another Star Trek, please please please can we have some proper character development for Lt Uhura?’ So I tweeted back saying, ‘I’ll certainly consider that, and you may also wish to mention it to Simon Pegg’ – with a smiley, of course. I’m happy to say that they took it in good spirit. I wonder if Simon Pegg ever gets any tweets taking him to task about his Dalek operating or his David Bowie book.

It’s even happened professionally once or twice. A few years ago I did a couple of episodes of Doc Martin. The director was a very nice chap indeed, and of course he didn’t actually think I was Simon Pegg, but during the first few hours of the shoot he accidentally called me Simon instead of Nick a couple of times. I didn’t bother correcting him – I didn’t need to, because each time he did it, he looked baffled with himself for an instant, and then apologised. The third time it happened, he got quite exasperated with himself and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, this is so rude of me, getting your name wrong – why on earth do I keep calling you Simon?’ To which I replied, ‘Well, because there are two Peggs in Equity, and you have very sensibly hired the cheap one.’ Got a good laugh from Martin Clunes and the crew!

I’ve been researching for the interview (the above was one of curiosity, plus I read a link at the bottom of IMDB also asking the question), you’re a very big fan of David Bowie, so much so that, that you’ve written an enormous (and updated) book called The Complete David Bowie, which must have taken a considerable amount of time to put together. Did Bowie himself ever collaborate with you?

Nicholas: I’m a huge Bowie fan, and my book The Complete David Bowie is something of a labour of love. In fact, I’ve spent most of this year working on the revised and updated edition which has just been published. While researching, and writing the book over many years, I have been fortunate enough to speak to many of Bowie’s closest collaborators, but in answer to your question: no, David himself never made any direct contribution to the book. Nor did I ever ask him to. I knew him well enough to know that that would not have been his way – he preferred to stand back from people’s interpretations of his work and let them do their own thing. Even with something like the V&A’s Bowie exhibition which has been touring the world for the last three years, David didn’t make a hands-on contribution. He gave the museum’s curators access to his huge archive of costumes and other memorabilia, and then he stood back and let them create their own vision.

I must add, however, and with undying gratitude, that David Bowie was always tremendously kind and supportive about my book. It was first published back in 2000, and it has been through several updated editions since then – this new edition is the seventh – and every time a fresh edition was published, we would always send a package of copies to Bowie’s office in New York, and David would always write a kind, funny dedication in one of those copies and post it back to me. As you can imagine, those signed copies are among my most treasured possessions. So yes, David was always unfailingly kind to me and to my book. In my opinion he was the greatest artist of his generation – and, as countless people will tell you, he was a gentleman as well.

Have you always been a fan of David Bowie, and what era of his music was your favourite?

Nicholas: I loved Bowie’s music from a very early age. The first single that I ever went out and bought with my own pocket money was ‘Sound And Vision’ in 1977, and after that I loved ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ and so on, but I didn’t really become a hardcore fan until my student days in the late eighties. That’s when I started discovering all the early albums that I was too young to remember, and getting into obscure rarities and all the rest of it. I honestly don’t have a favourite period of Bowie’s music. I love all of it. And I do mean all of it, including the very early stuff from the 1960s that a lot of people don’t bother with. Naturally I adore the classic albums like Hunky Dory and Low and Scary Monsters and all the rest, but I’m just as much in love with lesser-known things like The Buddha of Suburbia and 1.Outside from the 1990s. And his later work was just extraordinary. I think his final album, Blackstar, is a masterpiece that stands right up there with the very best of his work.

To many, like me, you’re known as one of the Dalek Operators on Doctor Who’s era from 2005 onwards, but you’re also a known actor for other roles too. What came first, the Dalek role or your other acting roles?

Nicholas: I trained as an actor – I went to drama school after university. So being a Dalek is just one acting job among many. It’s a great job and a very special one, and I love it to bits – but no, it didn’t come first. Over the years I’ve done everything from Shakespeare to pantomime and all points in between. In fact, the first two jobs I got after I left drama school in the early nineties were the title role in a theatre production of Hamlet, which is a dream role for any actor, and a tiny, tiny part in EastEnders – blink and you’d miss me. I shot the EastEnders episodes while I was rehearsing the Hamlet production. So my baptism as a professional actor involved two very different ends of the acting spectrum. They were both great experiences in their own way, and not a bad start for a young actor, I guess!
Nicholas is the cyberleader with the black handles
The Dalek gig first reared its head quite early on in my career – the first time I operated a Dalek was back in 1993, for the documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS. This would have been about a year or so after I graduated from drama school, and a friend of mine knew the director, Kevin Davies. So, one day I got a phone call out of the blue from Kevin, who said, ‘I’ve been told that you’d make a good Cyberman.’ To which I immediately replied that I’d make a terrific Cyberman, of course! So, that was the first thing I did – I was the Cyberleader coming down the steps in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, with Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant doing an interview in the foreground. And then about a week later, Kevin phoned me up again and said, ‘You’re quite tall, but do you think you could fit inside a Dalek?’ Well, I’m six foot three – but come on, I wasn’t going to say no, was I? I signed up like a shot! Luckily I soon discovered that I could squeeze into a Dalek quite comfortably, and a couple of days later I was on Westminster Bridge, operating a Dalek on camera for the very first time. Kevin also asked me if I could suggest anyone else to join the Dalek ranks, and I recommended Barnaby Edwards, who I’d known since university and drama school – so that cold Sunday morning on Westminster Bridge in 1993 was the first time that both Barnaby and I were Daleks. It was Halloween, I remember. Over the next few days we shot some more Dalek sequences in the studio at Television Centre, and that was that.

Then fast forward to 2004, when Doctor Who was revived and started shooting with Christopher Eccleston, and back we came to operate the Daleks again. We’ve been doing it ever since. And what fun we have. So many happy times. So I guess we owe it all to Kevin Davies really. We’re still good friends to this day. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I had a drink with Kevin and his son Liam, who was a baby when we were filming the 30 Years documentary. Now he’s a talented young man following in his dad’s footsteps in film and TV production. Does that make me feel old? Nah, it just makes me feel happy.

In your role as a Dalek, knowing that Barnaby Edwards zapped Captain Jack Harkness in Parting of the Ways, and zapped 10th in Stolen Earth, and not sure if Daleks chalk up major hits, like Smith & Jones chalked up road kill in one of their sketches, but has your Dalek been responsible for any major Who ‘kills’ in its ‘claim to fame’. If indeed Daleks have claims to fame.

Nicholas: Well now, hold on a minute, because I think you’ll find that I zapped Captain Jack as well! There were three of us lined up in a row: Barnaby in the middle, flanked by David Hankinson on one side, and yours truly on the other. We all shot that pesky Harkness humanoid together. So I think we can chalk that one up as a group effort. The same goes for Penelope Wilton in The Stolen Earth – that was a three-way extermination by the same three Dalek operators. 

As for definite kills of my own, let me think… oh yes, I’m pretty sure that I was the one who exterminated Nisha Nayar through that barricade in The Parting of the Ways. Barnaby got Jo Stone-Fewings, and I got Nisha. Then I was Dalek Sec in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, so anyone who gets exterminated by him in that battle scene, I can chalk that one up. What was next? 

Nicholas was Dalek on the Right of Dalek Sec Hybrid

Daleks in Manhattan. Well, it was me and Hankinson who took the Sec hybrid to the theatre in chains and exterminated him on stage. You’re right, it was definitely Barnaby who shot David Tennant in The Stolen Earth, so that’s a good chalk-up for him. 

In Victory I was the one who exterminated those two squaddies in Churchill’s bunker, so that’s two more for me. I can’t believe I’m doing this. What’s next? Did we even exterminate anyone in Asylum? I can’t remember. I can remember Rusty careering out of that corridor on a rope and crashing into me. That was pretty hair-raising. Barnaby and I both exterminated quite a few stuntmen in The Day of the Doctor. And I was the Supreme Dalek in the Magician’s Apprentice story, so I’m going to claim a big chalk-up for Missy and Clara there. Except we didn’t actually exterminate them, did we? Drat.

You’ve written and directed several Doctor Who stories for Big Finish. Which was your favourite and why?

Nicholas: I don’t really have favourites. I find that very hard to do, especially with my own work. It’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! I do have a soft spot for The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, because that’s the one that I wrote as well as directed. I was lucky enough to get a wonderful cast for that one. James Bolam was superb in his scenes with dear Maggie Stables, who is sadly no longer with us. I had acted with both James and Maggie before in separate theatre plays, and getting them together in that story turned out to be a great recipe. And of course Lanyon Moor also gave me the honour of writing and directing the first adventure that Colin Baker’s Doctor had with the Brigadier. I adored Nick Courtney, as everyone did, and it was such a pleasure to write and direct for him. What a joyful time that was.

Among the other ones that I’ve directed for Big Finish, I have happy memories of directing The Holy Terror over two swelteringly hot summer days during a London heatwave. That was a great script from Rob Shearman, who was an old university friend of mine. I had recommended him to Big Finish as a writer, and in return Gary Russell asked me if I’d like to direct the first story that Rob wrote for them. I jumped at it, of course. You couldn’t fail to see it was a brilliant piece of writing. I had another lovely cast for that one, led by an absolutely outstanding performance from Sam Kelly, another brilliant actor who has sadly since died. 

And then there was Loups-Garoux, and Bang-Bang-a-Boom, and Shada with Paul McGann and Lalla Ward… yes, I have very happy memories of all of those stories. Shada was a very special time. We had yet another wonderful cast, people like Andrew Sachs and James Fox and Hannah Gordon and Melvyn Hayes and Susannah Harker. We all went up to Bristol to record it, and stayed in a hotel together for a few nights, so it was a bit like being away on a location shoot. The social life was just as much fun as the studio!

You’ve also appeared as an actor in many Big Finish productions. Do you have any favourite roles?

One of my favourites as an actor would have to be the Big Finish production of Treasure Island, which was adapted and directed by Barnaby Edwards. Tom Baker was playing Long John Silver, and it was a really high-class production all round: if you haven’t heard it, I do recommend giving it a listen. The sound design and music are exceptional. Barnaby wrote a very clever script, and the cast he assembled was a delight. A wonderful actor called Tony Millan played Blind Pew, and made him every bit as terrifying as I remembered when I read the book as a boy. I was playing Captain Smollett, a role that was quite suited to my natural voice, but I also got my teeth into some fruity accent work on some other characters, which is always great fun to do on audio. 

Among other things I played Black Dog, who’s one of the really scurvy pirates, and in some other scenes I played a more innocent young pirate called Dick. In fact, there’s a scene near the end where Dick is shouting across the ocean to Captain Smollett, and Smollett is calling back, so it’s just me having a conversation with myself! I think we recorded it in two separate passes, so I didn’t have to keep switching from one voice to the other. We also had Nicholas Farrell, a brilliant Shakespearean actor, narrating the story as the grown-up Jim Hawkins. And young Jim-lad himself was played by a very talented young actor called Edward Holtom, who had worked with Barnaby in a play at the Globe Theatre. He was only about 13 at the time we did Treasure Island, and he gives a really first-rate performance. That character has to hold the whole story together, and Edward really nails it. I remember Tom Baker was hugely impressed by him. In fact, I recently cast Edward in another project that I directed. He’s 17 now, and I think he has a great future ahead of him.

As for acting roles in the Doctor Who audio adventures… again, lots of happy times, but a story that springs to mind is The One Doctor, which was a wonderful spoofy script about an impostor travelling around the universe pretending to be the Doctor, and conning planets out of money by defeating fake invasions. Brilliant idea. I had a few different roles in that one, and it was all quite wacky and out-there, so I was allowed to let my non-existent hair down a bit. In one section I played an ancient old man who had been a contestant on a galactic quiz show for centuries, getting every answer right until the Doctor comes along and outwits him. In another episode I played some sort of drunken reveller who greets the Doctor at a street party – I can’t quite remember the details, but I do remember that I based the voice on William Hague, who was the leader of the Conservative party at the time. It just seemed to fit!
Oh, and I have to mention another nautical escapade in which Barnaby once again cast me as a ship’s captain. Doctor Who and the Pirates was a complete hoot. We all got to sing these marvellous Gilbert and Sullivan parodies, and I played an absolute upper-class twit of a sea captain. Typecasting again. We had a ball on that one, and it was a terrific script by Jac Rayner. The silly fun and games counterpointed a really grim storyline. Proper grown-up writing.

Who is your favourite Doctor, or do you have several?

Nicholas: What’s the famous line? Splendid chaps, all of them! Honestly, I don’t have a favourite. Over the years, either on the TV series or with Big Finish, I’ve been lucky enough to work with every Doctor from Tom Baker onwards, and I can honestly say that each and every one of them has been a delight. Tom was ‘my’ Doctor when I was a boy, so he will always have a special place in my heart, but it has been an absolute joy working with every Doctor. I adore Peter Davison. And David Tennant. And Sylvester. And Matt. And all of them!

When you’re not writing about David Bowie, or Doctor Who, what do you do in your ‘spare time’? Do you have non-writing hobbies, or does writing take up a good portion of your time, so that you have no spare time?

Nicholas: Working on something like the Bowie book does take up a huge amount of time. This year, it pretty much blotted out everything else for six or seven months. But yes, I do have plenty of other interests, whenever I can grab any spare time. I love getting into my walking boots and exploring wild places. I don’t mean serious mountaineering with crampons and ropes and all that; that’s not for me. But I love long walks on remote mountains and moors in Scotland or the Lake District or the South-West, which is where I live. And, connected with that, I love visiting ancient sites – stone circles and burial mounds and so on. I’m a bit of an amateur archaeologist on the side. In fact, a lot of The Spectre of Lanyon Moor came out of that: my combined love of walking on the moors in Cornwall and exploring prehistoric sites along the way.

Gardening is another hobby. I love it dearly. Being out in the fresh air with a spade and a fork and a bit of sweat on your brow, giving nature a helping hand. In my experience, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of fulfilment that comes with sitting in your garden on a lovely summer’s day, with the flowers blooming, and butterflies flitting about, and dragonflies hovering over the pond, and thinking to yourself, I made this. Having said that, you should see the state of my little garden at the moment. It’s an absolute disgrace. That’s the fault of the David Bowie book. I slaved away on the book pretty much non-stop from March to September this year, every day, weekends and all. No time off for good behaviour, and certainly no time for gardening. You should take a look at the wilderness outside my back door right now. That’s my next project. Taming the jungle!

I’m also a very keen reader. Another downside about writing, for me anyway, is that I can’t read while I’m doing it. When I spend all day working on my own book, the last thing I want to do in the evening is read somebody else’s! My brain doesn’t seem to be wired to make that transition. So that can be quite cruel, because I love reading so much. Now that my book is all finished and published, I’m getting back to reading other people’s books in earnest.

What book are you reading at the moment, and do you prefer fiction over non-fiction, or vice versa?

Nicholas: Oh, I read all sorts: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, drama, everything. But I suppose fiction is my big thing. I studied English Literature at university, and there’s nothing I love more than burying myself in a good novel. I often have several books on the go at once, as I have now. 

At the moment I’m reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which is a novel I’ve only just got around to, ten years after it won all the awards. I’m also dipping into The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, which is a famous short-story anthology that I blush to say I’ve never read before. I love Bradbury’s prose. So deft and economical. But just today I’ve put both of those books aside to re-read a novel from my childhood by a wonderful author called Natalie Babbitt, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. She’s best known for a novel called Tuck Everlastingbut my introduction to her work was another one, The Search for Delicious.

It’s a book that I read as a boy and it has stayed with me all my life. Now I’m reading it again, and rediscovering how beautifully written it is, and how very apt it still is for the world we find ourselves in today. It’s a fantasy story for children, full of dwarfs and mermaids and magic, but at the core it’s a tale about the vanity and folly of humankind, and the madness of crowds. Believe it or not, the backbone of the plot is about a referendum that gets disastrously out of hand when it is exploited by a nasty and unscrupulous man driven by his own ambition. Does that sound in any way familiar? Anyway, that’s The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I think it’s one of the most perfectly constructed, moving, funny, haunting novels I have ever read.

With your new updated version of The Complete David Bowie now on sale in the shops and online, what are your plans now? What projects have you got in the pipeline that you can share with us?

Nicholas: I’m currently working as consultant on a major new BBC TV documentary about David Bowie, from the same team who made a programme called David Bowie: Five Years back in 2013, which I also worked on. The new film is called David Bowie: The Last Five Years, and I think it’s going to be rather special. I’ve been working with the producer, Francis Whately, and his team for several months, and it’s in the middle of production right now. It’s due to air on BBC2 in January.

The other big project that I’ve been working on for many months, and at long last is nearly ready for release, is a concept album called Decades which I have co-written and co-produced with a brilliant singer-songwriter called David Palfreyman. It’s a double album full of David’s songs, with various guest singers handling the lead vocals on different tracks – we have vocalists like the fantastic Sarah Jane Morris, who famously sang ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ with the Communards, and Mitch Benn from The Now Show, and Cassidy Janson who plays Carole King in the West End musical Beautiful, and all sorts of other people too – including a superb singer called Eliza Skelton, who is the daughter of Roy Skelton, who was the voice of the Daleks back in the day.

And in between the songs on the Decades album, there’s a linking narrative, and that was one of the places where I came in – I devised the concept with David, and I wrote and directed all the dialogue sequences. We have some wonderful actors, including David Warner and Jacqueline Pearce, and Richard Coyle, Jan Ravens, Simon Greenall – he did a Doctor Who, didn’t he? He was one of the gang in the Abzorbaloff episode. And playing David Warner’s character as a boy, we have that fine young actor from Treasure Island who I mentioned earlier, Edward Holtom. Anyway, the album is all finished now, mixed and mastered and ready to roll on vinyl and CD and download. We’re just in the process of sorting out artwork and designs and pressings and all that. Oh, and I directed the video of the first single too. That was fun. It’s one of the songs that Sarah Jane Morris sings, and she’s so great in the video. What a performer. Decades is something that David Palfreyman and I have been working on for a long time, and I have to say I’m rather excited about it all. I’m as proud of it as I am of anything I’ve ever done. We’re looking at early 2017 for the big launch, so watch out for that. So yes, it’s been quite a busy year, one way and another.

Are you going to continue with your role as a Dalek Operator for the new series of Doctor Who, or are you moving on from this role into one that sees you as a person rather than a machine? Although let’s be fair, Daleks do ROCK!

Nicholas: Yeah, Daleks do rock, don’t they? I’m more than happy to be a Dalek. If something a trifle more humanoid were ever to come along in Doctor Who, I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at it – but hey, being a Dalek is cool enough for me. As for the next series, I’m sure you know that we have to sign the official secrets act. So, I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about that. If I did, I’d have to exterminate you!

And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Thank you so much for a fantastic interview.

Many thanks to both Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg for the cover art photos.
And to BBC Doctor Who & Big Finish for the other photos throughout the interview.

Nicholas Pegg’s book, The Complete David Bowie, is published by Titan Books and is available now from Amazon and other booksellers. The album Decades, by David Palfreyman and Nicholas Pegg, will be released in 2017.

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