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So late last night as I was catching up with my timeline the horrible news came in. Nicholas Courtney, our solid dependable right-hand man to many Doctor Whos has died.
Like many of my generation Doctor Who was not a programme which came along and we decided to watch one day, it had always been there. From before we were born and it would live long after we died. The show was ingrained in us, it was immortal. My earliest memories are of Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker. Not my earliest memories of Doctor Who, but my earliest memories. How on earth I was even aware of Doctor Who and what regeneration was (I knew) at only 3 years old I have no idea.
But Nicholas Courtney was there. He was there at the pivotal moment in history as a Doctor became another Doctor. Twice. Not many can lay claim to that. And he would continue to be there for years to come. Disappearing in 1975 to reappear in 1983 it never felt like he was away. The Brigadier, or as he’s become known over the years – The Brig – is a stalwart. He is… he was the oldest friend of the Doctor. Assistants and Companions come and go, travelling and leaving, travelling and leaving. The Brig was always there. Even when he wasn’t. If the Brig wasn’t in a story, it’s because he was at UNIT HQ or Geneva, he was never “not there”, just away from his desk.
Of course as the years went on this very British institution of a tv show which had regularly pulled in extremely respectable ratings was sidelined and denigrated by the powers that be at the BBC. They hated it and did what they could to cancel it. The first time they tried it was “resting” rather like a certain ex-parrot. Everyone could see through this and thanks to a mystifyingly orchestrated campaign by the tabloid newspapers the public outcry forced them to recommission the series and pretend nothing had happened.
So the BBC got smart, they scheduled it against the big hitter of ITV, Coronation Street. It had no chance. The show’s popularity dwindled and the once giant loved show turned into a bit of a joke. I couldn’t even begin to count the times the big lie was repeated about “wobbly sets”. There were never wobbly sets. But the damage was done, the show spiralled down until the BBC could cancel it with no fuss.
And in those wilderness years Doctor Who fandom held out. Like the Resistance we held our ground and did everything we could to keep the show alive. Books, CDs, Magazines, action figures, even audio stories from Bill Baggs’s BBV and later, Big Finish. Fandom had many conventions, primarily in the UK but a strong presence in the USA too. The stars of the show were always busy, always sought out.
People like Nicholas Courtney were given their due. We realised their worth and hopefully these actors recognised the ongoing happy feelings we radiated towards them.
But I never realised the sheer scale of this until today. Twitter has been talking all day about Mr Courtney’s passing. It has trended in the UK and Worldwide for pretty much the entire day, a feat only equalled by the likes of Justin Bi*ber and Lady Gaga. Reading the comments from those involved with the show and those of us who merely watched it has been astonishing. Nicholas Courtney was loved by so many people. His quiet modesty and affable demeanour has resonated with a far larger audience than many of us who lived through the dark days of the 90s could ever have imagined.
When the show came back in 2005 there was a definable schism between Old Who and New Who. At first the show made no links with its former entity, many spoke of it as a reboot rather than a continuation. By the time David Tennant came on board in 2006 the production team had loosened the strictures and the return or Sarah Jane Smith (and K9) opened the floodgates. Suddenly “Old Who” was rebranded “Classic” Who in a rather worrying reminder of New Coke and Classic Coke, but it stuck. The new fans who are only used to the whizz bang and whoosh of zippy, shiny, expensively neatly costumed actors were keeping their distance from the Classic series. In time the persistent protestations of long-term fans that there was a vast untapped back catalogue tempted the young people into the past. Amazingly, they enjoyed it! Resistance was diminished and now the audience for the old stuff has grown.
The popularity of the Tennant era has done many wonderful things but if nothing else it has brought love back to the show. In a written entry on Tom Baker’s website he states
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. “Five rounds rapid” was the line we all loved.
He is absolutely correct. Tom Baker is not a young man himself and when he goes we will grieve for him too, but not in the same way. Nicholas Courtney was a flawed vulnerable man, as can be heard from his very frank (and inexplicably deleted) autobiography, A Soldier in Time. He talks about his difficulties with women and marriage, his distant unloving mother and his nervous breakdown during the filming of Terror of the Autons. The late Barry Letts also gently touches on this incident in his autobiography. In the years that followed things got better for Nicholas Courtney and by the time he died he was happily married and very popular with an enormous amount of people keen to befriend him.
We mourn him more deeply than we have mourned anyone involved with Doctor Who since perhaps Patrick Troughton. The Brigadier was the Doctor’s Rock. Steadfast, dependable and utterly decent.
Nicholas Courtney was our Rock for exactly the same reasons. With his death another era closes forever. We have lost our father figure.
Thanks to @tvcream for perhaps the most poignant image in the last 24 hours: Nicholas Courtney lost in his thoughts on the W7 bus between Crouch End and Finsbury Park.