Elliot Chapman: Playing Ben Jackson – Part I

Elliot Chapman Anneke Wills Fraser HinesActor Elliot Chapman has attracted some attention among Big Finish fans for his casting as Ben Jackson in the Early Adventures range. If you’ve heard The Yes Men, you will know how good a job Elliot made of the role; he was sensitive to Michael Craze’s performance without being a slavish copy.

Elliot kindly put together his thoughts on the role, Michael Craze and the character of Ben Jackson. This article presents part I, and covers Ben’s time with the First Doctor. The words are Elliot’s own.

Enjoy!


A Sailor’s Journal – Notes on playing Ben Jackson

By Elliot Chapman

Like the writer, Simon Guerrier, it was an important first step for me to engage with the 1966 season of Doctor Who before I even read a line of his, quite brilliant, script of The Yes Men for Doctor Who – The Early Adventures.

Big Finish producer, David Richardson and actress/director/photographer (and all round too-talented-for-words), Lisa Bowerman had taken a punt on a very low profile actor to inhabit the role of a legendary classic series companion (played by the late, great Michael Craze), so I was determined to heave out even the most rusted of stops to do the job as well as I could manage.

As part of my actor’s training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the key word was always ‘research’. You research and research and research until you can reach a point when – to paraphrase the inimitable Jeremy Brett – you become a sponge that wrings out Elliot Chapman and soaks up Able-Seaman Ben Jackson.

Of course, we begin with…

The War Machines

Ben Jackson War MachinesAnd what an amazing combination Ben and Polly are, right from the get-go! Prior to them, companions had been older authority figures such as schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara, or otherworldly teenagers and space pilots from the future – all wonderful (I must confess to adoring Maureen O’ Brien’s Vicky) but a bit more distant than Ben and Polly.

With the sailor and the duchess, we see the arrival of two regular characters that are immediate and recognisable. Indeed, they are conceivably who the series’ target audience might be in a few years time – young adults from a working and/or middle class background, who live in a recognisable London many of those young viewers would either know intimately, or certainly know of.

What’s fascinating about Ben is how complete he is as a human being, by the standards of a plot and action-driven genre series from the 1960s.

When people describe this young fella born within earshot of Bow Bells, they invariably talk about his physical bravery, his scepticism, his loyalty and his what-you-see-is-what-you-get honesty. However, there’s clearly so much more to him; indeed, Ben seems to be a bit of a loner. He has a melancholy streak.

Although specifically, he’s irked because he’s on a shore posting, one never loses a sense that he is given to brooding. His initial hostility around Polly is partly rooted in their class differences, which helps explain how he can be chatted up at a bar (a lovely reversal that screams progressive 1960s all by itself!) by one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on British television… and can dismiss her! Interestingly, despite how much Dodo has been ‘poshed up’ since her debut, he strikes up an immediately warm and friendly relationship with Ms Chaplet. It’s possible that Ben isn’t all that bothered about having a trophy girlfriend. Indeed, one wonders if Dodo might have been the girl to melt his heart, had she not vanished into the country so quickly?

And yet, Ben’s relationship with Polly is as slippery as his characterisation, beneath the surface trappings. For all Ben’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get bravado, there are implications and suggestions of someone far more complex and it’s a credit to Michael Craze that he plays these implications at a time when Doctor Who characters did not enjoy the levels of interiority that they do in the revived version of the show or on Big Finish audio.

At times, there might even be the flicker of attraction but articulated in an amusingly immature schoolyard ‘I insult you cos I fancy you rotten’ fashion (again, something the young audience would ‘get’). When Jamie arrives on the scene – this young, attractive Scotsmen who’s one part Highland piper and two-parts The Fourth Walker Brother – there’s a slow build up of rivalry that comes to the boil in The Moonbase  in which they pretty much square up to each other when Ben accuses him of trying to impress Polly!

[pullquote]He’s got some snark too![/pullquote]

… So, I have this young sailor who’s annoyed by being stuck in barracks but who throws himself into a deadly scenario with passion, bravery and sharp critical faculties. He’s intelligent, he’s sardonic but he’s fiercely loyal – willing to jump into danger for others. He’s got some snark too! He is such a refreshing break from the middle-class politeness of so much BBC television output, ostensibly for children, that he feels utterly vital. And Polly is the perfect foil. We are yet to reach the level of an ensemble – Mr Hartnell is still very much in charge, while Mr Troughton seems to invite more play between them as a group a little later – but it’s exhilarating stuff!

The Smugglers

The SmugglersBeing the first audio-only story in the run, given that the tapes are missing from the archives, this afforded me the opportunity to pay closer attention to the technical stuff around Ben’s voice and delivery.

The War Machines had established him as a character but it was for me to run off and fill in the gaps about his childhood, family, friends, or his hopes and dreams. I realised we were a far cry from companions such as Rose and Donna, in which we would see their relatives and taste some of their home life.

To aid me, I found some brilliant resources on line but, given the patchwork nature of Doctor Who, events in novels might contradict events in audio stories, or comic strips, or the TV show. In the end, I decided to make some of my own decisions. I found his little house on Google Maps (although I had to re-locate it by a few miles after talking with Simon Guerrier!) and I had a long discussion with my father; he had worked for the navy in a civilian capacity in the 1970s and 1980s and actually had memories of 1966, albeit as a boy of about nine or ten. But, every little helps!

With The Smugglers, my objective was ‘getting the voice of Ben’. And I should stress, that’s a different aim then ‘getting the voice of Michael Craze as Ben’. The work of Mr Craze was, of course, invaluable to me. I wanted to create the sense of taking the baton in a relay, rather than trying to erase-and-rewind such a brilliant television performance. However, as my skills are not those of an impressionist, I had to find – if you will – the ‘voice within the voice’, which is an attitude and an energy and a continuity of believable intentions, rather than a karaoke-version of another actor.

Although it was sad to find there were missing episodes, I was delighted that they existed as audio stories and, as this was closer to what I would be doing for Big Finish, it was a great way to immerse myself in the audio drama medium.

I should say, I was never given the instruction from Big Finish to mimic Michael Craze’s Ben voice from Lisa Bowerman or David Richardson (which was very generous of them), but I was keen to get as close to the delivery as possible, without making it an exercise in trying to convince listeners they were somehow in the presence of Mr Craze, which seemed insulting on far too many levels.

What I find fascinating about this point in drama on television is just how articulate actors are on screen. Michael Craze – even with the cockney accent – makes every syllable count, without enunciating quite as one would in the theatre.  Anneke Wills recently told me that Mike’s experience at that point was at such places as the Royal Court and that Doctor Who was amongst his first television. However, he’s clearly a natural screen presence – just one with a clear voice. Hurrah!

I enjoyed The Smugglers a great deal – it was very much a romp and I loved how much Ben got into tricking the inn keeper’s assistant with Polly’s “witch craft” and noting the nice shift in traditional roles, which helped sell Polly so much more positively. (Still, Heaven only knows how Anneke could be mistaken for a boy, so perhaps it’s just as well this one only exists on sound!)

By the end of The Smugglers, I was certain I had identified clearly where Ben’s voice sat – a rather oral, over-pitched delivery with lots of forward tone in which vowels ring off the hard palette (I must acknowledge the help of one of my old voice teachers at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Gary Owston, whom I took to lunch with a portable DVD player and The War Machines to pick his considerable knowledge of how actors use their voices). What I didn’t realise then was that Ben was about to do some surprising things with his voice in just a few episodes!

The Tenth Planet

Tenth PlanetI was immediately struck by seeing how the hierarchical structure is burnt into Ben! Boy, does he snap to attention when he first meets General Cutler! This isn’t surprising, considering the strong pyramidal structure Ben has experience of in the navy. But, perhaps more than that, we’re building to a story in which Ben’s “place in society” (ie a working class boy in the Royal Navy) will cause a potentially catastrophic turn of events in The Macra Terror.

Meanwhile, let us not forget Ben becomes the leading man by default when William Hartnell fell ill for episode three of The Tenth Planet (Craze not only holding his own in the presence of even rather famous actors such as Robert Beatty but, for my money, outshining them).

Despite Ben’s independence and the ‘fire in his belly’ (he isn’t afraid to challenge authority, including Cutler, when it’s clear that those in charge are making bad decisions), he can’t escape where he’s always sat in society easily and when the Macra successfully work on his sub-conscious, it’s telling that he is the one who succumbs after being the only regular character to not really question the set-up of the colony in episode one.

Another significant moment for Ben is when he guns down a Cyberman. It’s a terrific portrayal of remorse from Craze, showing that when he’s alone and the bravado isn’t required for public show, this is a very sensitive young man for whom violence does not come easily.


 

Part II follows soon!

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