Saturday, 2 February 2013

interview: Ed Bishop

I was very shocked to hear that Ed Bishop passed away on 8th June 2005, especially as it came only a couple of days after the death of his UFO co-star Michael Billington. By an extraordinary coincidence, Ed’s death was ten years to the day after I interviewed him in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, Bath for an early issue of SFX. He was at the theatre in a production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. I found Ed to be a real American gentleman and he was even happy to come across to the Future Publishing photographic studio the next day and pose for a picture in the stance of the figure in the SHADO logo. This took longer than expected as we tried different ways of generating the shadow; eventually we discovered that it was physically impossible in a studio setting - and we added it in Photoshop!

You're here doing an Arthur Miller play, and I notice you've done a couple of other Miller plays. Are you a fan of Miller?
"Well, I certainly am a fan. I feel that my background is so similar to his. What he writes about, the class of people he writes about in America is my class, my background, my social strata and all the rest of it. For example this play we're doing now, Broken Glass, is set in Brooklyn in 1938. I was born in Brooklyn in 1932 so I was a six-year-old kid when this was happening. You're quite aware at six, with the influences of your parents and all the rest of it. And the messages, the things that he talks about in many, many of his plays were redolent of my family background. Certainly in Death of a Salesman - we had my brother and me, that's all there was - like the Loman brothers. And also in Price which is another famous Arthur Miller play which I've done, there was two brothers involved in that.

"And the family, always the family. This is very strong in his writing where he uses the family almost as a metaphor for America or the wider world. And he's still writing at 79 these themes which are so powerful and so revealing, and people all over the world identify with them. I saw a production of Death of a Salesman in Norway, in Norwegian, which is the most incomprehensible language in the world. It was so moving, the audience stood up and just raved about it. He just is a man who writes for people to respond to."

I studied a couple of his plays at school. He's a terrific writer who gives good parts that actors can get into.
"He's a man of the theatre; he uses the theatre in an extraordinary fashion. And to be able to finally meet this man at the National Theatre when he came to rehearsals. I was ... devastated. I'm not impressed by celebrity, but I went week at the knees - and I'm in my sixties - to actually meet this man. I thought he would speak in rhyming couplets! And he was just, ‘Hi! How are ya?’; puts you completely at your ease, there's no pretence, no edge, he's Arthur. And it's a wonderful, warm, outgoing humanity. It's not a 'luvvie' thing, it's not showbiz, it's just genuine from the man. The way he helped us in our rehearsal, it was very generous of our director David Thacker who's really the English director for his work. The two of them have got a relationship which is extraordinary. The mature American and this young English director, they just hit it off, they speak the same language. It's really fantastic. And he was able to talk with us - the author to the actors - and that was a wonderful experience. Gosh."

Do you have any preference for stage acting over film work or TV work?
"I must say, what I really like is motion pictures; working on film. There's an energy about it, there's an immediacy, a pressure with that lens coming into your soul at 8.30 in the morning. You have to tell the girl you love her and maybe you've just met her - there's a hell of a lot of demands, and I like the challenge of films."

Our readers are going to know you best as Ed Straker in UFO. How did you get the part?
"My relationship with Gerry Anderson goes back to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. I was the voice of Captain Blue. It was just that a girl in my agent's office happened to be on the ball. She represented this black actor by the name of Cy Grant and Gerry and Sylvia wanted to use him."

He was the voice of Lieutenant Green, and one of the Interceptor pilots in UFO, as I recall.
"That's right. And they wanted him to come along and meet them for a part because they thought they would have a black actor. This was back in the early '60s. And the girl said, ‘Oh by the way, Mr Anderson, we've just taken on a new, young American actor’ - shows you how long ago it was - ‘a new American actor name of Edward Bishop. And we know how much you like American voices. Would you like to meet him as well?’ He said, ‘Okay, send him out.’ So I went out and auditioned and got the job. And I often wonder what would have happened if that girl had not been on the ball, like that. Just a professional caprice, that's all.

“So we did Captain Scarlet, and then... Gerry's very loyal, if you get along with him, if you understand where he's coming from, and I did. I respected him enormously, the way he worked. He was so professional on Scarlet, I can't tell you. As an example if they had the voice of a guard, maybe only four or five lines - now, nine out of ten professional production companies would have said, ‘Hey Eddie, can you do a funny voice for those four lines?’ But he would job in another actor. And we were all the same professional fee, so there was never any tension about who was making more money than anyone else. I admired Gerry and Sylvia enormously, their attention to detail. They were very attentive, discussed the characters. It was a very rewarding experience. So I got along! Then he did the feature film Doppelganger which in America was called ..."

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.
"That's it! I had a part in that, and then after that they were setting up the UFO thing, and they took my scenes from that film to show Lew Grade and the other power brokers. And when they were setting up SHADO and all the rest of it, they said, ‘By the way, we thought of this guy to play Straker.’ Because in those days Straker was only supposed to be in on a ten day shoot. They thought Straker would only be around for a few days, because I was supposed to be the guy in the office, sending all the guys out to do all the 'zam-bang-wham-dam!' and I would be in the office driving it. Eventually the character sort of took over, and I got out more and more, rolling round and getting wet!"

Was there, among the crew, any mistrust of Gerry because he was seen as this guy who worked with puppets?
"Yes, there's no denying that. We had some very unkind people who came on UFO and would make cheap jokes about, ‘I don't see any strings.’"

It's still going on.
"Yes, it's still going on because of Gerry's background and all the rest of it. I've found that very, very counterproductive and destructive. I just didn't like it at all. There was a feeling of that."

For my money, UFO is one of the best science fiction series ever made because it seemed to concentrate on the characters and, rather than being all about aliens and spaceships, it was how that situation affected the people. When you've got an episode like ‘Confetti Check A-OK’, which is just about Straker's marriage breaking up, there aren't many other series that would deal with that level of humanity.
"Yes, they were very, very adventurous, as I say, by bringing in that black actor well before that, and Symphony Angel. Long before women's lib and all the rest of it, they were very adventurous in that area. And then later, when George Sewell left the series, they brought in Wanda Ventham as Straker's number two, and I thought that was innovative. Yes, they did concentrate on the background, the personalities, the personal angst of the characters. I'm pleased to hear you say that you applaud that, but I did hear people say that they felt that somehow dragged the series into another area, and as a result some of the episodes fell between two stools - whether they were science fiction or soap opera. But you pays your money, you takes your choice; it's as simple as that."

Are you surprised at the cult following that the show's still got?
"Yes, I think that all actors if they're working on a project do their best. Going back to this puppet thing, some actors would come onto the show and they'd give less of their best, which infuriates me. Most of the professional actors I've met, whether you're doing a schools radio for BBC for 49 quid or something, you do the same as if it’s a bloody West End or Broadway opening! How can you discriminate? I mean, a plumber comes in, I don't care where he's working, I assume he wants to stop the leak the best way he can! That attitude would come in simply because Gerry's background was in puppets and children's TV or whatever. That really infuriated me."

On the original broadcast and on the repeats, the ITV regions always seemed to have a problem whereabouts to schedule the show. When you were making it, what was the impression? Was it an adults’ series or a kids’ series?
"Well, it was primarily aimed at adults, I must say. But I recognise that problem because some of them, they hadn't settled down into which area it was; let's go into Straker's marriage, let's do this. Some of them were very, very adventurous. To have that boy die, in the syndrome of the 'happy ending', I think that was very adventurous. It might have added to the confusion of the series. I just felt that there were so many more mould-breaking things than the usual, comfortable TV series that were being made at the time. On The Saint or The Baron or The Protectors or whatever, you always knew that, no matter what happened, Roger Moore would be back next week. There was a nice wrap-up. Maybe that's what the market applauded at that time.

“All of the British series were made with an eye to the American market, and this was a kind of fascism in a way, that might or might not have been counterproductive at that time. You were making something for a foreign country to their formula: you can't have the eyes open when the corpse is there, you can't have too much blood, there's a whole list of little things that you must or must not do. I found that a little restrictive but... the economic realities of the day; if you don't get the American market, you don't get anything."

Gerry always had his eye on that, doing Stingray in colour about five years before the UK got colour TV. Have you seen any of Gerry's latest series, Space Precinct?
"I haven't seen a complete one, but I've done a lot of work on the promo video for it, doing the voice-over work - ‘From the producers of UFO and Space: 1999...’ - to get the industry interested in it."

The other series that people might remember you from - certainly one of my favourite series - was Whoops Apocalypse, when you were Jay Garrick, the newscaster.
"Oh yes, that was great fun, that."

And you were in the film as well. I think you were the only person who played the same part on TV and in the film.
"Yes, I was doing a play at that time. I remember when they were filming it I had just opened a play at the Tricycle Theatre, a very demanding part. I wanted to do it, the writers wanted me in it. It was great fun to do, but then they wanted me to do some more sequences and I wasn't available. It was a bit of a mix-up on that, on the film. But I was certainly very happy with the series, and I don't know why more hasn't been seen of it, more repeats."

I wish they'd repeat it, it was a terrific show.
"Those guys have gone on to write some wonderful stuff."

Andrew Marshall and David Renwick. Now they're writing things like 2.4 Children, which you were in, and One Foot in the Grave.
"I think the only criticism about Whoops was that there was so much in it. It was very, very compact. There were so many strong storylines; about five series in there, struggling to get out."

Do you prefer dramatic roles or comedy sketch shows?
"I like doing comedy, I really do, but because I've got a serious kind of aspect I've always played heavier parts. But I was very lucky to get in on that light entertainment BBC merry-go-round where they can dial-a-Yank. I've done Jasper Carrott, and the Lenny Henry Show, and Kenny Everett, French and Saunders. I enjoy that enormously, I really do, because there's a sense of improvisation there. Right on the floor, when they're filming it, if it's a little bit better to say a different line, they say, ‘OK, yeah, well say that.’ It's kind of an exciting thing, especially when you've got a live audience. I've actually done Top of the Pops."

What did you do there?
"There was a group called Landscape and they had one hit called 'Norman Bates'. The lyrics went on and on, saying [sings] 'My name is Norman Bates / I'm just a normal guy...' And they had a guy talking on the record: ‘Did Norman really kill the girl at the Bates Motel? To answer that question we must go back, back to a time when Norman found his mother in bed with her lover. This so disturbed...’ When it got on Top of the Pops, the guy who recorded it was in LA so... dial Ed Bishop. So I was actually on there in a white coat doing my psychiatrist thing to camera. And I was absolutely delighted, because they had a very exotic dance group on at that time - Pan’s People or Legs & Co - wow! And I got there and they were on vacation. Jimmy Savile was the DJ at that time. It was great fun - it was live."

You do seem to be British TV's favourite American actor. How long have you been based in the UK, and why did you come over here?
"I came here in 1959 as a student at LAMDA. I had a scholarship to study at LAMDA for one year; Donald Sutherland was at LAMDA at that time. Then I finished in 1960, and it was a lot easier to get a work permit in those days, they weren't so strict. So they gave me a 90-day one and I really got busy almost immediately; three West End shows almost back-to-back, and I did a couple of films, got an agent. And I met this girl who's now my wife, so my keeping busy has carried on since that day. I didn't think America needed another out-of-work actor so as long as I was working I decided to stay. It's been a good, wonderful career."

What have you got lined up next?
"I've got a script being sent to me for a fringe play which will be done at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, which is a new theatre that's just opened up. They're sending it to Cardiff which is our next port of call, and I'm looking forward to doing something like that, another stage play. And there are a few things floating around. I do a lot of voice-over for commercials, television, radio so that keeps me going. My three girls are up and running, and the mortgage is paid off, so I take it easy now. I don't worry so much as I used to when I was young. But I keep busy."

I noticed you were in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Which episode was that?
"I don't recall the episode. We shot it in Spain, I was out there for a week and I worked with the two young guys which was great. I just had a small part as this wizened old man. It was great fun, I must say, I did enjoy it. I don't recall the episode title, but they shot it all over the world. It was a real mega-thing."

Of all the things you've done, what do you want to be remembered for?
"Well, whether I like it or not, I'm afraid it's going to be old Straker in UFO. It's extraordinary, even today going round Bath, I'm having some fish and chips and the staff spotted me. Just before we started this play, rehearsing at the National Theatre in June last year, I'd just come back from America, from a big convention in LA. I've been to Australia twice, I'm going out to Canada in the Fall, they want me to come over to Italy for a convention. So I think they'll probably remember me from UFO, whether I like it or not. But I don't mind it!

"A lot of the actors, they think Scarlet and UFO, that's all water over the dam, and they don't like talking about it, but I can't understand that. People applaud your work that many years down the pike, it's extremely flattering. I feel very humbled by it, I really do. My eldest girl is a policewoman and I think the work she does for society is far, far more rewarding. You get in trouble, dial those three digits, and she turns up and has to sort it out. Actors, they get paid for something they love and people come up and praise them, and I think it's wonderful, I really am humbled by it. I go to a lot of these conventions and I just enjoy it enormously.”

interview originally posted 9th June 2005

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