In a world where whole nations are being rocked by earthquakes and other calamities, and great people go to their graves every day, it seems trite to sing the praises of one celebrity, but some people positively touch lives and their passing raises a smile at the idea that they did what they did.
I never met Nicholas Courtney, although I knew who he was from a young age, even though he was no longer a regular in the Tv programme I loved. For reasons aplenty, BBCTV’s science fiction series Doctor Who became my very favourite thing on television from the age of about five, even though it occasionally veered into quite child unfriendly territory (or most likely because it did). In 1977 it was just leaving its much lauded ‘gothic period’ under producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and its tales of Hammer-esque horrors in wood pannelled rooms and dark war rocked bunkers were not your usual kids viewing. But the imagination of these stories kept me riveted, and occasionally a little scared. The series changed its format and style a few times, until 1981 when the biggest change occured- lead actor Tom Baker decided to leave and in his final episode (Logopolis) a collection of old companion flashbacks showed us ‘The Brigadier’. Who was this military man and what was his relationship with the enigmatic Doctor? My questions were answered that autumn when a BBC2 repeat season (“the five faces of Doctor Who”) included The Three Doctors from 1972. Made to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary, and the previous actors in the role, the serial was made at the zenith of the UNIT years- UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) was the fictional military outfit headed by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, as played by Courtney, and was the key element of Jon Pertwee’s mainly Earth bound early ’70s incarnation of the role. With The Brig, the renegade alien Doctor fended off alien invasions and subterfuge, rather like The X-Files meets The A-Team, by way of Quatermass. Ten million were regularly watching every Saturday, and they weren’t all kids!
As played by a lesser actor, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart would have been a pompous ass with no heart, but as played by Courtney he was a rounded ‘real’ character with as many positives as negatives. A huge military row would be followed by an offer of a lift in his jeep, or a mention of his wife, and his sympathetic human fiobles were often very welcome in these tales of the bizarre. In 1971 story The Daemons, after capturing renegade Timelord The Master, and liberating a whole village from pseudo-witchcraft, The Brig wearily announced he was going for a pint in the local. The magic of the character, as brought to life on screen, was that you would be quite happy to have joined him. Some of Courtney’s oneliners as the Brigadier are legendary, particularly as they were usually delivered in that droll, no nonsense, stiff upper lip manner that made him a true British ambassador. No matter how strange and surreal the events around him became, The Brig always kept practical common sense at hand. His most famous utterance, in the aforementioned The Daemons, was when faced with an animated gargoyle. To his private, he bellowed, “Jenkins! Chap with the wings there; Five rounds rapid!”
Director Douglas Camfield, a man behind many Who classics of the ’60s and ’70s, was a man with substantial military background, and couldn’t believe Courtney had only risen as far as private himself. Yet, Courtney had the bearing of a military man, and his scenes ordering around the ever reliable Sgt. Benton (John Levene) were never anything but convincing.
Born in Egypt, the son of a British diplomat, Courtney was educated in France, Kenya and Egypt, but his move to England was where his acting career took off. From theatre in Northampton, he moved to London to gain recognition, and any fan of ’60s TV will know his face from many episodes of The Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Champions. In 1982 he starred with Frankie Howard in the wartime comedy series Then Churchill said to me, unfortunatly shelved due to the Falklands crisis. Success continued elsewhere, however, in the likes of French Fields. He never stopped working, particularly in theatre, and as late as 2008 appeared in the film Incediary, opposite Ewan McGregor.
But it is for Doctor Who, that most of us will remember him so fondly, appearing in over 100 episodes (more than many Doctors and companions). although his most ubiquitous period remains 1970-75, taking a break from the show for much of Tom Baker’s run before returning for welcome re-appearances in the ’80s and beyond. In 2008 he returned to the role of Lethbridge-Stewart, appearing in spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, although in its mother series, David Tennant’s Doctor made a point to mention The Brigadier’s absence in a story featuring UNIT.
It shows how much he was held in high esteem by his profession and by his fans, that the internet was buzzing with news of his passing, with hundreds offering words of condolances to his family and friends. I shall now join them. On the 24th February ‘Nicholas Courtney’ was the fifth most mentioned subject on Twitter. He leaves behind his wife and children, who are sure to be proud of his popularity and creative achievements.
Next to the character of The Doctor himself, and his many enemies, no one was as affiliated with 47 years of Doctor Who as Nicholas Courtney and The Brigadier had been. He was the only character The Doctor took orders from, or even worked for, and the closest the character had to a brother. Infact, their bromance became the heart of the show during the early ’70s and his subsequent appearances with other Doctors always held the weight of expectation and adoration. The girls came and went, but The Brigadier was his best mate.
When asked about his friend, The Brig uttered the immortal line, “Splendid fellows. All of them”, a line Courtney often used in real life, when discussing the show he loved so much. Without it, he admits, his life would have been so much different. An embassador for the series ’til the very end, he was the president of the Doctor Who society and a regular convention guest. Sadly, however, Nic was to succum to the cancer he had fought for some time. In his tribute, Courtney’s friend Tom Baker, who had visited him in hospital just last Friday, spoke fondly of their association:
“Of all the characters in Doctor Who there is no doubt that he was the most loved by the fans for his wonderful portrayal of the rather pompous Brigadier,” Baker said.
“‘Five rounds rapid’ was the line we all loved, always addressed to Sergeant Benton. Nick’s close friends simply adored him.”
He added: “He was a wonderful companion and his friends would call each other or email to relate the latest little stories of a night out with the Brig… We shall miss him terribly.”
I suppose the sadness at Nick Courtney’s passing says a lot about many of us. Many of us fans never knew him, although I have one friend who testifies he was a lovely man; a true gentleman. Perhaps the curmudgeonly, stubborn charms of his most famous role say more about us than him. We grudgingly sympathise and like him, because he reminds us of who we are; reminds us of our own relationship with reality. When your best mate is a 900 year old alien with a time machine and two hearts, it’s best to keep two feet on the ground. He was the most human element of a show that has always emphasised our strengths and weaknesses. We probably love The Brig because he is an imperfect character trying to get along in a crazy world. We all have our own Daleks and Zygons to overcome; they might not be alien invaders, but our problems and how we overcome them define us, and a chap like The Brigadier is a fine fellow to have looked up to as a kid.
In his final appearance in the original series, demonic adversary The Destroyer taunts, “Are you the best this pitiful planet has to offer?!”
The Brigadier stands his ground and calls back, “Probably not. I just do the best I can!”
Nicholas Courtney was an accomplished actor who always did the best he could, and was humble in his success, and for that many more people than I expected are smiling at his memory today.