MICHAEL E BRIANT
Michael E Briant was a hugely prolific director during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. He worked on a number of prestigious shows such as Hideaway, Secret Army, A Tale of Two Cities and The Onedin Line. He directed some all time classic episodes of Doctor Who and directed key episodes of Blake’s 7 from the first series including the very first episode. He currently lives in France.
Michael recently wrote his memoirs which can be purchased here: http://www.classictvpress.co.uk/briant.htm
This interview first appeared in Scorpio Attack Issue 1, 2005.
SA: How did you come to direct Doctor Who?
MEB: I first worked on Who as an AFM back in the Hartnell days. I also worked on quite a few Pat Troughton episodes which was always fun. In fact I invented the sonic screwdriver! The first one I actually directed was Colony in Space, which came about because Barry Letts had seen some episodes of Z Cars that I’d done. It was very daunting let me tell you! But it must have gone well as they asked me back the following year by which time I was much more confident.
SA: What do you recall of The Green Death?
MEB: Maggots, maggots and more maggots. I also remember Katy Manning going off into the sunset with her real boyfriend at the time, Stewart Bevan.
SA: What was it like working with the Daleks in Death To The Daleks?
MEB: The abiding memory is getting the wretched things to move. We were on location for that one in a sandpit and had to lay down rails for the Daleks to move along. Jon Pertwee took great delight in pushing them along a little too hard. He never had much time for Daleks!
SA: What was it like working with Tom Baker?
MEB: An absolute pleasure. Rehearsals were always great fun. He cared very deeply about the character and was very keen to avoid violent action for his Doctor.
SA: You have directed some all-time classic Doctor Who episodes. Which was your favourite?
MEB: I liked the Robots of Death. Although it was not a particularly good script, the design ethos of making the entire thing Art Deco and casting it all a bit off beat made it great fun. The robots were closer to my idea of what there could be in the future - robots that look like us, are pleasant looking to have around – but deadly!!
SA: Did your work on Doctor Who lead to you getting Blake’s 7?
MEB: Absolutely - David Maloney had done a lot Sci-Fi and was keen to have directors who knew how to make effects work - the art of the possible. Pennant had done several Doctor Who episodes as well. Although Vere had never done any, he was a very experienced director.
SA: Was it a big responsibility directing the first episode?
MEB: No more so than any other episode - I was trying to establish a style for the series that should not be Doctor Who for grown ups; that was what David was looking for. It is certainly more interesting and more attractive to start with a clean canvas than to have to work with someone else's ideas.
SA: Were you involved with casting for the series?
MEB: The casting was a joint effort between David, me and Pennant (I think Vere joined later) David took the lead as producer but like most things in the show it was a team effort.
SA: Were the financial limitations frustrating?
MEB: They were ridiculous. We were supposed to be doing a science fiction series - set in the future - on foreign planets with space ships and monsters for the same money as the police series, Softly Softly, we took over from! It sort of worked out in the end but created limitations that did not enhance the programme. It would be very different if we did the series today.
Of course it helped that we had such talented people at our disposal who could work wonders with such limited resources. The set designer on The Way Back was Martin Collins who managed to redress the same set to give the illusion of many different locations. He was brilliant. I was also very pleased with the shots of the domed city.
SA: Did the release of Star Wars around that time give you cause for concern?
MEB: Yes. I decided not to go and see it until I had made my first couple of episodes. Pennant went during the preparation period and was found in his office the next morning – sobbing. Star Wars were spending, on just one effect, the entire budget we had for the first series. There was no way we could compete so we just had to do our own thing in our own way.
SA: How did you get along with the cast?
MEB: Very well I think - nice group of actors - all keen to make the best possible production. It was very hard work and it certainly helped having a cast who were willing to muck in and get the job done.
SA: What are your memories of Jacqueline Pearce?
MEB: A very good actress, with a sense of humour who also happened to be drop dead gorgeous and sexy! I think she was only supposed to be in one episode but she was so good they decided to keep her on.
SA: What did you think of the Liberator set?
MEB: I was saddened by it - I think Roger did a wonderful job for the money available but I really did not want us to go into Flash Gordon territory again - Steering wheels, buttons and leavers with control seats et al were I felt very passé and boring - I wanted something computer controlled by voice - and 'thinking areas' rather than manual areas. Later on the various computers became more like my concept.
SA: Can you tell us anything about the “head in a tank” in The Web?
MEB: Long before stem cells the concept of eternal life existed; that the mind is the person - so it should not be impossible to maintain a brain 'eternally' in system even if the body atrophied. I think the constant renewal theory of stem cells replacing worn out bits has made the head in the tank less likely. Was that what you meant?
SA: I was thinking more about the realisation of the concept on-screen!
MEB: Oh yes, very disappointing. But at least it was cheap!
SA: Blake’s 7 had a large central cast. Was it difficult finding enough for everyone to do?
MEB: Yes. I think some members of the cast felt underemployed sometimes - that was a problem for the producer and as a director I kept out of that. Inevitably, in any series, some characters become easier to write for - easier and more interesting to develop. I know the girls in the show felt particularly hard done by.
SA: What do you recall about Project Avalon?
MEB: Well, it was back to Wookey Hole which I’d used as a location in Revenge of the Cybermen on Who. It was a great location – despite the curse! That was also Glynis Barber’s first television part. It was lovely to see her return as one of the leads years later.
SA: Was there a particular reason why you didn’t return after the first series?
MEB: I cannot remember - I was doing lots of other things - It is always more interesting to do the first episodes than the later ones. But I had an absolutely lovely time on the show. Chris Boucher and David Maloney were both a pleasure to work with.
SA: Would you like to direct an episode of the new Doctor Who series?
MEB: Yes of course. Like everyone I look forward to seeing how the new series/Doctor pans out - I think quite rightly the producers have tried to make the new Who 'new' and not use the directors or writers of yesterday. I absolutely agree that if it is to succeed in this modern TV environment it needs to be fresh and original and not just a re-hash of the old days. It also has to strike the right note with audiences - all very difficult...
Thank you Michael.
Find out more about the episodes Michael directed by following the links: