1929 – 2011
With his neatly trimmed moustache, uppercrust accent and air of authority, British actor Nicholas Courtney spent a lifetime playing military men, doctors, lawyers and other authority figures on radio, television, film and stage. But despite a career that spanned seven decades, Nicholas Courtney will always be synonymous to Doctor Who fandom. In the role of beloved Doctor Who character Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, Nicholas Courtney’s devotion to the Doctor Who franchise was legendary. In fact, no other actor returned to the series more then Courtney and, for the exception of fabled Doctor Who actor Tom Baker, thought by many to be the quintessential Doctor, Nicholas Courtney appeared in more episodes then any other actor – a grand total of 107 between 1965 and 1989. Yet, if you include his reprise of the Brigadier in his many performances in Doctor Who spin-offs, fan films, radio dramas and stage shows, Nicholas Courtney’s performance of the Brigadier tops even Tom Baker’s record, making him the busiest and most devoted actor in Doctor Who history. Unfortunatly all things must come to an end, and Nicholas Courtney will never be slated to appear in his signature role again. On February 22nd, after a long illness, Nicholas Courtney passed away at his home in London, England at age 81.
There is little wonder that Nicholas Courtney took on the role of authority figures so well. The son of a British diplomat, Courtney was born in Cairo, Egypt and quickly entered into a world of high society almost immediately. Spending most of his childhood abroad, he spent his formative years growing up in Egypt, Kenya and France. He entered the British Army as a young man, but left after only eighteen months deciding that military life was not for him. Ironically, Nicholas Courtney would be typecast in military roles for the majority of his acting career. Instead, Courtney decided that he much rather enter the theater and studied acting at the Webber Academy of Dramatic Arts. Finding success on both the North Hampton and London stage, Courtney shifted gears to television in 1957 when he took a small role in the BBC military drama Escape.
For the next number of years, Courtney would remain a stock player in many of the BBC and ITV’s television dramas, appearing in programs such as The Saint, The Avengers and The Man in Room 17. But it was when Nicholas Courtney appeared in the 1965 Doctor Who serial The Dalek’s Master Plan opposite original Doctor William Hartnel that he finally found a place to call home. Oddly enough, Courtney would not play the Brigadier in his first appearance on Doctor Who. Originally Courtney was considered for the role of Richard the Lionheart in the Doctor Who serial The Crusades, but was instead cast in the following serial as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon. Courtney made a strong impression on the Doctor Who people, and especially director Douglas Camfield. As a result, when Camfield was preparing the 1968 Doctor Who serial The Web of Fear, featuring second Doctor Patrick Troughton, Camfield contacted Courtney again for the role of Colonel Lethbridge Stewart. The Web of Fear would prove to be an important episode in Doctor Who history. Not only did it feature the second appearance of the menacing yeti robots, it introduced the viewers to the military organization UNIT which, under the leadership of Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethridge-Stewart, would carry on to play an important part in Doctor Who mythos. A British military organization dedicated to investigating unknown phenomena and extra terrestrial menaces (much like an X-Files type division of the British intelligence), UNIT would become an important presence in the Doctor Who universe well into the current series.
Around the time of The Web of Fear, the BBC sought to change the direction of Doctor Who to resemble the popular ITV adventure programs such as Secret Agent, The Avengers and The Champions. Seeking to make the Doctor’s adventures more Earth bound with a stable setting instead of treating him as a wandering space traveler, the popularity of the concept of UNIT amongst Doctor Who viewers prompted the writers to bring UNIT and Nicholas Courtney back to Doctor Who a year later in The Invasion which would be a “try out” to see how viewers would react to the Doctor teaming up with UNIT again. Promoting “Colonel” Lethbridge-Stewart to Brigadier, the move once again proved popular with viewers and upon Patrick Troughton’s decision to leave Doctor Who at the end of the series, the producers hired Nicholas Courtney as a full time regular and banished the third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, to Earth where he joined UNIT as the new scientific advisor under the watchful eye of the Brigadier.
The winning chemistry between Nicholas Courtney and Jon Pertwee immediately won over audiences. The Brigadier was to The Doctor what M was to Bond, Waverly was to UNCLE and Mother was to The Avengers. He was the boss who called the shots….or was he? Not used to being under the thumb of any authority figure, The Doctor moved to the beat of his own drummer, and although a respect existed between the Doctor and The Brigadier, it often was questionable just who was in charge. Nicholas Courtney created a totally three dimensional and endearing character to the upper crusted and proper Brigadier. Although he was authoritive and business oriented, Courtney brought a sense of dry witted humor to the series with his side remarks and exasperated eye rolls when he gave up dealing with the Doctor’s excentricness and lack of interest in protocol or authority. The Brigadier could also have his softer moments, acting as a friend and confident to both the Doctor and his companions. After a few bumps in the line up, by 1971 the series had successfully revamped itself and a tight knit family was formed on the Doctor Who set including Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Roger Delgado as the villainous Master.
With this cast in place Doctor Who would gain far more momentum then ever before, moving into color episodes, and finally finding its way to the American market. However, despite the harmony on the set, the family would soon break up. When Roger Delgado tragically lost his life in a car crash in 1973 and Katy Manning was written out of the program, Jon Pertwee opted to leave the program due to the loss of his friends and colleagues. Nicholas Courtney was the only one left of the era to carry on the torch, but he was joined by immediate fan favorite Elizabeth Sladen in the role of spunky journalist Sarah Jane Smith. Little did they know that their newest co-star would not only have a bigger presence then any Doctor Who actor had ever had before, but would change the face of Doctor Who forever.
In 1974, Nicholas Courtney breathed probably the most famous line of his career when he muttered “Here we go again” as Jon Pertwee regenerated into the curly locked and googly eyed Tom Baker. Acting alongside the larger the life presence of Tom Baker would prove to be a new challenge for the Doctor Who cast, but once again Nicholas Courtney was able to find a unique chemistry between the fourth Doctor and the Brigadier. While Pertwee’s Doctor and the Brigadier were friends and cohorts, the Brigadier almost became the Tom Baker’s Doctor’s “keeper,” keeping a cautious eye on the eccentric alien and prompting him to keep his focus. However, despite maintaing his popularity with the Doctor Who audience, upon the arrival of young new producer John Nathan Turner, Nicholas Courtney’s tenure as the Doctor’s “boss” was about to end. Turner decided to once again change the direction of Doctor Who and return the program to its roots, putting the emphasis on intergalactic adventures. As a result, Nicholas Courtney and UNIT was sacrificed for the sake of the new direction. Nicholas Courtney’s final regular appearance as the Brigadier would be in 1975 in the Doctor Who serial Terror of the Zygons.
But Nicholas Courtney and the Brigadier would be far from finished from Doctor Who. When original Doctor Who companion William Russell was to reprise his role as Ian Chesterton in the 1983 serial Mawdryn Undead opposite fifth Doctor Peter Davidson, a sudden schedule change forced him to drop out of his commitment. In his place, the writers recast the role from Ian to The Brigadier, explaining that the now retried Lethbridge-Stewart was teaching at a boy’s academy in England. Later that year Courtney returned to the Doctor Who set again for the 25th Anniversary episode The Five Doctors, once again appearing alongside his former co-stars Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen. After a long absence from the series, UNIT returned to Doctor Who in 1989’s serial Battlefield where Nicholas Courtney, once again overseeing the military organization, teamed up with seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy. Considered one of McCoy’s best serials, Battlefield would be one of the final serials from the original run of Doctor Who. The long running series would face cancellation by the end of the year.
Yet even cancellation couldn’t keep Nicholas Courtney coming back again and again as the Brigadier. When a plethora of Doctor Who stars were reunited in 1993 in a Children in Need charity event, Nicholas Courtney reprised the Brigadier once again and, cleverly, the writers wrote him in a scene with sixth Doctor Colin Baker. This made Nicholas Courtney the only actor who had appeared opposite every single actor to have played the role of the Doctor up to that time. In the years between the end of the original series and the revived Doctor Who series in 2005, Nicholas Courtney stayed active in Doctor Who fandom as a visible participant in Doctor Who radio dramas, fan films, stage shows and audio plays. Oddly, when Doctor Who returned to the airwaves stronger then ever, Nicholas Courtney did not make an appearance in the regular series despite constant rumors that he would. He did, however, participate in a number of episodes of Doctor Who Confidential, and finally reprised the role of the Brigadier in a 2008 episode of Elizabeth Sladen’s youth orientated spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. In the two part story, titled Enemy of the Bane, the Brigadier was now Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart and acting as a British Ambassador. From Colonel to Ambassador, the character of the Brigadier evolved alongside Doctor Who itself. Most appropriately, Nicholas Courtney’s final acting role would be the Brigadier in a short fan film titled Liberty Hall in 2009.
Beyond Doctor Who Nicholas Courtney also had a notable and colorful career. Staying alive as a guest star on British television, Courtney appeared on popular programs including The Champions, Randall and Hopkins Deceased, The Two Ronnies, All Creatures Great and Small, Doomwatch and Yes, Prime Minister as well as appeared in the Hammer film The Brides of Fu Manchu, Take a Girl Like You with Hayley Mills, and Michael Cain and Roger Moore’s 1990 comedy Bullseye. Courtney also starred in the controversial BBC comedy Then Churchill Said to Me opposite Frankie Howerd which nearly never saw the light of day. Originally filmed in 1983, the series was buried by the BBC due to the outbreak of the Falkland Wars. Then Churchill Said to Me would stay in the BBC archives until it was finally aired, for the first time, in 2000, eighteen years after it was made, to strong critical reviews. Nicholas Courtney also released two books about his life and career, Five Rounds Rapid in 1998, and an updated biography, Still Getting Away With It in 2005.
One of the true friends of Doctor Who fandom, Nicholas Courtney was a warm and familiar presence to fans, colleagues and co-stars. A regular at sci-fi conventions and autograph shows throughout England, and the first to respond for Doctor Who reunions, Nicholas Courtney could be argued to be the most prolific of all the Doctor Who actors from the entire history of the long running sci-fi franchise. At one time he was the president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, he had action figures made in his image and he even attempted to sing a line or two in the god awful “cause rock” single Doctor in Distress that was recorded in 1986 in protest of the program being put on hiatus. Nicholas Courtney may have not played the Doctor, but he was the solid rock in the Doctor Who franchise. With his passing Doctor Who fandom has lost a true and devoted friend and he will eternally missed by friends and fans throughout time and space.