Doctor Who Blog

RIP Nicholas Courtney: Splendid Chap, All of Him

imageThe Doctor Who world has been rocked by the sad news that one of its elder statesmen, Nicholas Courtney, who played Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart from 1968-onwards to his last appearance in 2008 in The Sarah Jane Adventures has died at the age of 81.

The BBC, finally, have an obituary, though the best obituary is by actor Toby Hadoke in The Guardian. There are many lovely tributes to this lovely man, but Tom Baker has one of the first and most touching. Some of the better fan tributes come from Keith Topping and The Middleman creator and TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Additionally, Doctor Who DVD content producer Ed Stradling has a YouTube tribute.

For me, Nick Courtney wasn’t just the Brigadier. He was the gentleman who gave one of the most haunting, memorable performances I’ve seen on television in an episode of All Creatures Great and Small as a despondent man who has to put down his dog who represented the man’s life. The look on his face when Christopher Timothy’s James Herriot tells him the grave news is astounding: it’s totally understated but packs an emotional punch that has stayed with me for decades. Coming to Doctor Who a little later, I was flabbergasted when I realized that was the same actor best known for saying “Chap with wings—five rounds rapid!” But that was Nick Courtney all over—the man was a talented actor who I wish had been given more opportunity to showcase his considerable abilities, particularly after the 1980s.

I met Nick Courtney in 2004, where I interviewed him on stage with Richard Franklin at the Gallifrey One convention. It wasn’t the most optimal of circumstances—Nick was in the middle of some kind of a dispute with Richard which made the whole interview a protracted, odd, somewhat difficult affair (I was asked to interview them separately though they compromised on coming together at the end). And yet, two things stood out to me from that experience. The first was, whatever the dispute was, I never learned what it was from Nick himself, who was too discreet a gentleman to talk about such private matters and was pleasant, cheerful and professional about the whole thing.

The second thing that stood out to me happened later that afternoon as I sat and had a drink with him, his friend (and biographer) Michael McManus and others. When my gin and tonic came, I reached for my wallet. He gestured for me to hold fire. “This round’s on the Brig,” he said.

That was Nick Courtney from my brief experience of him: Cordial, convivial, thoroughly decent. And he loved Doctor Who and its fans.

He will be missed.


8 Comments...

Considering the Doctor Who franchise is nearly 50 years old, we have been remarkably lucky. Poor Bewitched fans had lost all of their favorite stars by the 1990s. Trek fans have lost Bones and Scotty. If you think about it, the loss of Nick Courtney is the first major loss fans have had to endure since his colleague Jon Pertwee passed away 15 years ago. Of course that doesn’t mean the loss of any other actor or someone like Sydney Newman or Verity Lambert in the interim is no less important, but you know what I mean.

It means when we lose someone of the stature of Nick Courtney, who has been an active face in fandom, and in the many spin-off productions, from the movie Downtime to Big Finish, and who played the longest-serving Doctor Who character outside the Doctor himself, it seems to hit doubly hard. For me, I’ve generally only ever seen him in Doctor Who. I remember his appearance in an obscure Michael Caine/Roger Moore comedy called Bullseye in the 1980s, and that’s about it. To me, he was the Brig, pure and simple.

It’s a shame we never got to see more of him in the modern Who. His appearance in Sarah Jane was a treat, and the thought of him being on a special mission in Peru brings a chuckle. And if anyone remembers the New Adventure novels, according to them at some point around this time (i.e. 2010 or something like that) the Brig is supposed to have his youth restored. What’s nice about that is this means the franchise has already figured out a way for the Brigadier to live on. Not that fans of Nicholas Courtney will have any difficulty in this.

RIP

Posted by Alex  on  02/23  at  08:24 AM

A true sad loss. My early Doctor Who exposure was PBS Channel 17 Buffalo and all they played for a number of years was Tom Baker’s era from Robot to Logopolis over and over. So for a long time my earliest Brigadier memory is at the opening moments of Robot with him saying, “Now just a moment”...and “Well, here we go again.” After eventually experiencing the Pertwee years and so on he really became a part of the Doctor Who Mythos. When I watched Mawdren Undead the very first time and The Brigadier turned his head around from the car wreck I let out an “Oh My God!” because at that time I really didn’t know the character was in that story and it was a nice suprise. If only he could have made an appearance of some sort in the new series besides The Sarah Jane episode. Perhaps now Matt Smith’s Doctor could meet The Brigadier in his younger years when he was a young man at the age of 18 and perhaps just joining the army and long before the UNIT days.

Posted by Doug Grandy  on  02/23  at  11:47 AM

This was truly a huge surprise, and a very sad one. I haven’t seen much Doctor Who episodes featuring him, but from what I have read and seen so far he seems to be one of the most iconic characters (and his actor one of the most iconic) in this long-lasting show. We can no longer see Mr. Courtney chatting with Doc 11 on their past days, and there is no consolation on the Doctor meeting a much younger (and non-Courtney) Lethbridge, no matter how many times the contrary is emphasized and repeated. Yes, he will be missed.

Posted by Pinoy_TARDIS  on  02/23  at  02:16 PM

The Brigadier is one of the third Doctor’s companions, along with Sarah Jane and Jo that I remember watching when the BBC showed repeats in the 1990s. I don’t recall there being another character like that in that era of television - in the 70’s perhaps there was - but when I got around to being introduced to the era, there certainly wasn’t a character like the Brigadier in my ‘present’. Mention the Brigadier to a Doctor Who fan and they can instantly conjur up his image in their minds. For me it’s often with the third Doctor.

I certainly missed his presence in the UNIT related stories that we were treated to with the tenth Doctor - that truly would have been another bridge between the past and present. We can hope that perhaps in the Whoniverse, the Brigadier will live on offscreen.

Posted by Rachel  on  02/23  at  06:04 PM

Like all of you, I was shocked and saddened by this news .. like Alex said, we keep losing the BIG influences on original classic WHO - Pertwee, Barry Letts, Verity Lambert, now Nicholas Courtney - but what a life he lived!  And his contributions to DW will live on forever ..

I’m so very very sad to lose the Brig today.  I know I will appreciate him 100X more now every time I see him on DVD’ s and elsewhere.

I have never bought any of the audio adventures thus far .. maybe its a good time to start!!  And I will start with Courtney’s ..

RIP Mr. Courtney.

Posted by Ian  on  02/23  at  10:17 PM

Reading back what I wrote about major losses, I should reiterate I was speaking about the actors. Of course, the loss of Barry Letts and many of the others is just as sad.

Rachel brought up a good point. I still am mystified at the reluctance to call the Brigadier a companion by some aspects of fandom. Some have this rather elitist set of criteria a character has to meet, though they seem to turn a blind eye to, say, Liz Shaw who never travelled in the TARDIS, and they accept at face value the fact characters such as Lady Christina and Astrid Peth are de facto companions in the eyes of the BBC. Personally, if the BBC has declared one-offs such as them companions, then there’s really no excuse for the Brigadier not to be considered one - and, in fact, the longest-serving companion of the entire classic series.

Fortunately there are many who do view Nicholas Courtney and the Brig’s place in the series in the proper spirit, such as in this wonderful companions tribute video by Brian Rimmer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=publs5vuGJs

Posted by Alex  on  02/25  at  10:17 AM

Rather than a companion of The Doctor’s I would say that that the Brigadier is a companion of The Series.

Posted by Doug Grandy  on  02/25  at  12:14 PM

I think the fascinating thing about the Brig is his uniqueness in the show.
On a show where change is one of the fundamental principals (the doctor changes, the theme, the tardis interior, the companions, etc) it’s interesting that the Brig is one of two constants (the TARDIS exterior being the other - although both it and the Brig do undergo changes they are in a very narrow range compared to everything else, enough so that I feel comfortable calling them constant).
In this sense he is almost more important than any single Doctor, since he transcends any single Doctor in his commitment to the show - and, further, having the Brig acknowledge a new actor in the role (“Here we go again”) is instant validation that, yes, this new actor - though he may look or speak strangely - is in fact the character we love; a powerful statement on his importance and integrity as a character.
I deeply regret not being involved in fandom earlier as I have now missed the opportunity to meet Mr Courtney - who is universally lauded by fan and colleague alike, and whose likability shone through both in his portrayal and his interviews.
He will be missed indeed.

Posted by David L  on  03/02  at  07:38 AM

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