By Sarah Chase and Nick Chase
There are few characters from the original Doctor Who series that still resonate in the “new era” as much as Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and that may have as much to do with the man who played him, Nicholas Courtney, as it does with anything that ever happened on the screen.
William Nicholas Stone Courtney died February 22, 2011, after a battle with cancer, in a hospice near Belsize Park in North London.
Although he had appeared in numerous other television shows as diverse as “The Avengers”, “All Creatures Great and Small”, and “Yes, Prime Minister”, he will probably always be best remembered for his role in “Doctor Who”, and you get the feeling that that might not have bothered him very much.
Courtney’s portrayal of the upstanding military man always rang true. Perhaps it had something to do with his background. His father was a British diplomat, and he was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up speaking French and Arabic. Maybe it was just that he’d had his fill of military attitude during his National Service – he left a Private after 18 months, wanting nothing more to do with it.
Or perhaps it was just that he was one of the most genuine people you would ever meet, and it always showed through.
Nicholas Courtney was not one of those actors who does a role and tries to stay as far away from the fans as he possibly can. Quite the opposite, in fact. Throughout the years, he made numerous appearance
at science fiction conventions, and even appeared in independently-produced Doctor Who videos such as Downtime and Wartime. In 1997, he was made Honorary President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.
Nicholas Courtney’s association with Doctor Who was perhaps the longest of anyone; he first appeared with William Hartnell’s Doctor in “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, directed by Douglas Camfield, as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon. Three years later, Camfield remembered him and brought him back for “The Web Of Fear” – but not, originally, as
Lethbridge-Stewart. He was cast as Captain Knight against David Langton as then Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, but when Langton pulled out, Camfield decided to recast Knight instead, and put Nick in the role for which he would ultimately become known. Later that year, when UNIT was introduced, it was the newly promoted Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who was in charge.
Since then he has appeared in 107 episodes of Doctor Who, and counting the Big Finish audio adventures, the Brigadier has appeared with every single Doctor up through Paul McGann’s. (He also did a Big Finish production with David Tennant, but it was before he was cast as the Doctor, so ironically, this time it was Tennant playing a different character, Colonel Ross Brimmicombe-Wood.)
Even after the show moved on from UNIT-based stories in the 1970s, the Brigadier re-appeared numerous times, including “The Five Doctors”, “Mawdryn Undead”, and the seventh-doctor story “Battlefield”, which was originally intended to kill off his character. Thankfully, plans were changed, so the Brigadier was still alive in the “modern” era. He was mentioned several times, both in “Doctor Who” and in “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, before actually appearing in the SJA two-parter, “Enemy of the Bane,” where he was introduced to a whole new generation of fans.
Ironically, the part he played in “Mawdryn Undead” was originally written for teacher Ian Chesterton, and his part in “Enemy of the Bane” was written for Martha Jones; in both cases, the actors were unavailable, and the call went out to Nicholas Courtney. The Doctor Who universe is richer for it.
But that kind of longevity doesn’t just come with acting talent; show business is a business, sure, but it’s made up of people, and people don’t keep bringing you back after 45 years unless you’re a pleasure to work with.
While we may not have been intimate friends with him, we considered ourselves fortunate to have enjoyed a more than the average acquaintanceship with Nicholas Courtney, or Nicky, as I was privileged to call him. I was working in the media at the time and had been attending conventions for many years. I was also fortunate enough to have worked with a lot of the Doctor Who cast behind the scenes for many a convention and fund raiser. Once, in 1985, I was at a convention and nearing the end of a high-risk pregnancy. Nicky and Colin Baker knew this and had conspired to keep me as rested as possible at the convention’s opening party. When I got up to do something important, the entire gathering turned at the sound of Nicky’s sonorous voice booming, “Do sit down, Sarah Jane, you know you have a condition!” Up until then we had been having a quiet discussion about the hazards of trying to travel as a person yet having to deal with being a celebrity as well. The irony of having every one there suddenly staring at me and laughing wasn’t lost on either of us.
I saw Nicky at other conventions and I always loved talking to him about what was going on in his life. Then, one December in the late 1980’s, I got a long distance call at work. It was Nicky. He’d be in Ohio for Christmas; was our group having a Christmas party, and if so, could he please come? I teased him a little about inviting himself and he made me promise to have snow waiting for him, as he was bringing his wellies along.
And we certainly did get snow. Along with detour after detour, to the point that poor Nick, who’d volunteered to drive down with me and pick Nicky up, was a wreck by the time we actually got there, 40 minutes late. But Nicky was his usual gracious self. He took it all in stride, complimenting Nick on being able to find his way anywhere through Cleveland road construction, turning what could have been an awkward disaster into a pleasant conversation in just moments.
In the end it was a Christmas none of us would ever forget. It wasn’t business. He didn’t get paid. He just came, and had a great time, and told stories, and made everyone happy.
Perhaps Tom Baker said it best: “Nick’s close friends simply adored him. There was a certain innocence in his personality that was utterly endearing … We shall miss him terribly.”