This year, two heroic pillars of Doctor Who and my childhood died. I have already written about the sad loss of Elizabeth Sladen, so it is only right that I also reflect on the passing of Nicholas Courtney. This entry may be belated, but often words that start from the heart take some time to journey to fingers.
It is not often that a man has a moustache instantly recognisable to a whole generation of boys. It is even rarer for an actor to turn a character he plays into an iconic part of a beloved cultural institution reflecting the best of a nation’s values. Nicholas Courtney, through his portrayal of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – the Brig – in Doctor Who, managed to achieve both with some style.
Almost everyone in Doctor Who fandom it seems has a Nicholas Courtney bar story. A precious memory of enjoying a pint with him. A wonderful recollection of the tales he shared over a glass. Always rich in humour, but always told a gentleman’s lack of malice.
Others will better parade the old trooper’s battalion of anecdotes than I. Whoever tells them, they will still hold a little of his warmth and a smile. Though my time enjoying doubles of Jura Superstition with Nicholas Courtney was filled with laughter and more witty one-lines about Brian Blessed than the human epiglottis is designed to endure, I took my than memories of mirth away.
In the clockless, alcohol-fuelled hours of post midnight hotel drinking, I told him how I grew up fatherless in the 1970s. How I was the only single-parent child in the school. How I looked to the television for potential replacement fathers. Looked for my male role models even in the strange universe of Doctor Who.
The Doctor was of course alien and showed no interest in marriage; he was also centuries too old for my mum. Yet the Brigadier as played by Nicholas Courtney … here was the best possible replacement TV dad you could imagine. Yes he could be stern and you knew you would not want him to catch you being naughty as we often splendidly cross, but he was everything you could want a father to be – brave, loyal, reliable. Someone you knew who would not only be a hero in your eyes, but to everyone else’s as well.
After hearing all this, Nicholas put down his tumbler, looked directly at me and said: “I have always felt proud of play the Brig. He was more than a just another character, Emblematic and iconic. He stood for things, for values. Important values you could and should be proud of. Having heard that, I am even prouder to have played him. Cheers.”
Life gives you very few moments when your childhood champions are transformed into even bigger heroes in your adult eyes. When it does, you seize and cherish them. Bank the memory and its recollection will sustain you for a long time to come.
A couple of years later, I met Nicholas Courtney again after a Mass the Actor’s Church in Covent Garden. We shook hands, but I had no expectation of him remembering me. He suddenly gestured up and around the Inigo Jones gloriousness of the church and said: “We all have a Father.”
If England has produced a sweeter, more affable and charming gentleman, I doubt if I will be lucky enough to ever meet them.