Exclusive Interview with Doctor Who’s John Levene!
Back to Supanova, and this time we’re sitting down with John Levene, best known as Sgt. John Benton in the original run of Doctor Who. We also learned that he’s a very, very funny man. Try and listen to the audio if you can, because the transcript can’t capture his patter.
G-Funk: We are the House of Geekery and we’re at Perth Supanova 2017 and we’re sitting with, correct me if I don’t get it right, John Levene.
John Levene: That’s right.
GF: (Off to other interviewers) Levene, got it guys?
GF: We were trying to work out if we had it right before you came in.
JL: It’s not my real name, that’s why.
JL: Well, when I went up to my agent and said “I’m John Levene, I’m an actor” and he said “don’t worry John, your secret’s safe with me.” No, I was born Jonathan Woods, 1941, when I became famous there was already a John Woods, who was a famous Shakespearian actor, so when I joined Equity, which was a closed shop in those days, I couldn’t have my own name. I tried every name in the book but when the boss came back I had to leave otherwise I’d get the secretary into trouble. She was going to let me fill the card out and put it at the bottom and in six months I’d have got my Equity card. I ended up walking out of the office not having a name. I tried Anthony John, John Anthony, but every name I came up with they already had. I was walking up…not Savile Row…um, Harley Street, where all the surgeons are, and I saw ‘Harry Levene: Boxing Promotor’. I ran back and said “John Levene”, which is the most Jewish name next to Rosenberg you can get. So I ended up John Levene. John Woods has actually died, so I could have my name back but it’s to bloody late now, isn’t it! (In response to his language) Oh, excuse me!
GF: No, by all means! We don’t answer to anyone.
JL: Oh, ok then!
GF: Yeah, I’m the boss.
JL: Sod them, then.
GF: Yes, screw them.
JL: Screw them all! Let’s march to the beat of our own drum, eh?
GF: Absolutely! That was always a part of Doctor Who, wasn’t it? By the way…John Levene was on Doctor Who!
JL: Yes, I played Sgt. John Benton from 1969 to 1974 and… (laughter from the room while John smiles broadly for the camera). To put in a nutshell…I just did my panel and I told them this…I was born literally at the start of World War II, 1941, and I had a very rough childhood so I never imagined that my life would amount to anything. You can imagine that when I left home and went to London and met this big movie star named Telly Savalas, he was making The Dirty Dozen at the time…
GF: Yes, he came into the clothing shop?
JL: Yes, he came into the clothing shop I was working in, and the irony is that the stuntman…if you’ve ever seen The Dirty Dozen, and it’s one every five minutes in England, there’s a scene in the toilet where these two big guys try to beat Charles Bronson up to find out what they’re actually doing…one of these chaps actually broke his wrist. So all the stars were told by the director, because Equity closes on a Friday night and doesn’t open until Monday morning, they needed another stunt man to finish the scene off. In those days I was six foot three and quite well built and he came into the shop. They were all told, Lee Marvin and everyone, “go into London, if you see anyone who looks good”. Telly Savalas said “what a great face”, and I thought he was trying to hit on me. Not that I’m suggesting that he was gay but he’s giving me all these compliments. I went down to the studio the next day and said “Telly Savalas, one of your stars, told me that I was going to come in and play one of the stunt men because he’d broken his wrist”. The bloke at the door said “Mister Levene, if we let everyone who said that someone said they can make a movie in this door we’d be out of a job”. So I didn’t get in the movie, but in a way the rest is history because two months later I was a Cyberman, then a Yeti, then I got offered the sergeant.
GF: Wait a minute, you played a Cyberman first?
JL: I was a Cyberman first, then I played a yeti.
GF: Was that with Patrick Troughton?
JL: Yes, it was called ‘Invasion’. I’m the one in the front when they’re coming down Salisbury in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral? I’m in the front on the right.
GF: That’s an iconic image.
JL: Oh, absolutely, and I was right there in that tableau. And I think the yeti must have been before the Cybermen. The truth is, one can hardly remember. It was 54 years ago. And that’s it, it made my life. I’ve never been so happy and thrilled and of course Jon Pertwee came along and became the father I always dreamed of having because he basically adopted me as his son. It was just a sensational seven years working in Doctor Who.
GF: So you worked with Troughton, and Pertwee and Baker as well?
JL: And Baker, I did a year with Baker. And five minutes with William Hartnell when we did ‘The Three Doctors’, which was my favourite story because I had such a big part in it. It’s been a glorious ride all the way through, really.
GF: What was it like being on the set of Doctor Who, what was the environment like?
JL: Well, it was electric. First of all, all of the politicians would come into the viewers windows all around the studio. Keep in mind BBC, at the time…well, I still think BBC makes the best television in the world. Well, I would think that. We had the best series, we do drama better than anyone else. We never dreamed that Doctor Who would become the phenomenon that it is today.
GF: How could you predict that? It was unprecedented.
JL: When Pat Troughton finished, and the figures had gone down so far, I was very happy to be one of the five people who brought it back up to 18 million people. All in all looking back I still can’t believe it was watched by so many people. 18 million people worldwide, every single day…
GF: Even the Queen.
JL: Even the Queen. As you know I had dinner with the Queen of England last month.
GF: Oh! Just drop that in there!
JL: Well, he said he was the Queen of England. You can never be sure. Someone asked me if I was gay yesterday. I said “gay? I’m not even fucking happy”. That’s my little gay joke out of the way. Sorry. Although I do have to thank the organisers, by the way, I’ve got a lovely room at the hotel. Sliding doors, wall to wall carpet. I’ve never slept in a fucking lift before. I’d only been in the room two minutes and there’s a knock at the door, it’s only the fucking manager. He said “have you got a woman in there with you?” I said “no”, and he threw one in. What a hotel!
GF: Ok, um…right, I’m derailed.
JL: I do that to people.
GF: (Indicating clothing) Is this a TARDIS blue jacket?
JL: No, I’ll tell you exactly why I wear these. And these (pulls out purple handkerchief and swirls it around) are about 20 thread, they’re Indian silk, I’ve had them for years. I’ve always been a smart dresser. When I was 16…when my father came back from the war in 1944, he was in the Russian convoy for what it’s worth, he was not a good father and I ended up not being a good father, funnily enough. Although now I’ve fallen back in love with my son, so everything’s alright. But back in those days we had the Teddy Boys and there’s a lot of beating up, everyone beating everyone up. In those days when you had an affair with another man’s wife the police would let you beat the fucking shit out of the man who ruined your life. I believe that’s justice.
So the reason for the jackets is nothing to do with vanity, it’s got everything to do with fans. First of all, I love being smart. I could never wear tee shirts and go on stage. But the modern thing is that you just wear a tee shirt. These (the jacket) were on sale, they were 10 quid apiece in a junk shop. When you see the photograph (mugs for the camera again), when you develop the photograph this blue comes out beautifully. That’s why I wear it.
GF: It’ll pop next to bland, black tee…
JL: Right, any more…(noticing the recording device) that’s a nice little machine, isn’t it?
GF: It’s cool, isn’t it?
JL: Someone was saying…I’m 75 now…there was a newspaper article a couple of months ago in England…all the people who are over 65, do you realise what we didn’t have when we were young? No VCR’s, no phones, nobody could afford a telephone. Only one in 25 families could afford a car. I grew up literally, back in 1941 to 1944, with a radio with a big 12 volt battery which you had to carry up from the town. It was crippling. You had to plug it in and of course it went in and out…there were things like ‘Journey Into Space’ and ‘Top of the Pops’ back in those days. I grew up without any of this new stuff and I have not enjoyed it. I don’t have a computer and I don’t have a cell phone because I notice that people are utterly addicted. Nobodies talking to each other now and it’s gonna go bad, isn’t it? How can you not communicate?
GF: Well, I’m an internet based media provider…(JL laughs)…FINE, if you’re going to be like that!
JL: I think the interview’s over! But you know what I mean. The children are not talking to each other and they’re all texting each other. Let me give you a quick example: Jon Pertwee. I love Jon Pertwee, and you can say you love a man these days, Jon taught me, well, not everything. I was a funnier comedian than he was, naturally, but Jon as you know was a mate to me. He was incredible. Whenever we did cabaret’s, that’s where I’d learn comedy. Jon used to take me along, we did the Royal Family there and he was their favourite comedian. He had three sets of jokes, like A, B and C. ‘A’ was for posh people who spelt ‘fuck’ with a ‘ph’ (that’s my little joke). The second one was for mass audiences and the third was for when you go blue. All comedians like to go blue now and again. Very quick story. Jon always used to say that I had a great gift of knowing what the audience was. I would look out the curtin and say “oh, Jon, you don’t touch A or B, stick to C tonight”. Or “don’t touch C, we do A”. We had to do a show in Tattersalls, which is the expensive horse racing where you buy stallions for 50 million quid, and some of the Royal Family were there. Jon asked me what act he should do, and I said “don’t touch bloody B or C, you keep on the A”, which was all clean. Well, his favourite joke, we all have a favourite joke that we get out as often as we can. His favourite joke was about a tramp walking down the road in Piccadilly Circus picking up dog ends (for non-Brits: ends of cigarettes with a scrap left on them) as a tramp would do and suddenly he saw this stogie…a cigar butt…
GF: I can translate this.
JL: I didn’t know it was a stogie until I heard…um…there’s a song, a bloke who sings about stogies…
The Next Interviewer Waiting Their Turn: ‘King of the Road’
JL: Yes! Thank you very much, I owe you ten dollars. Anyway, Jon’s favourite joke. This tramp’s going up and he sees this stogie about that long. As he picks it up and about to put it in his mouth he notices that he’s standing next to a Rolls-Royce, and the bloke in it just lit this great big ten-incher up and the tramp looked at the bloke and said “you’re lucky to be able to smoke these all the time! How can you afford that!” And the bloke, this is supposed to be the gag, the bloke looked up and said “well, I work for Cunard” (meaning the shipping company). The tagline is that the tramp goes “I work fucking hard and all and I don’t have a Rolls-Royce and cigars”. Jon let it out and it died a death. Everyone…they almost fucking hung him. What I’m saying is that no matter how great big you are you can still make a mistake. We better get to another question.
GF: That sounds fair. I’ll pull out my best question, this is my favourite.
JL: Go on, I’ll get serious now.
GF: You’re best known for Benton on Doctor Who, can you tell us if there’s a project or a role you wish people knew about more?
JL: I can tell you now, I’ve just helped an author and if any of you love Doctor Who as much as I think you do, they just produced an autobiography of the man who made me. The director Douglas Camfield. He was this huge director and he was fantastic. I do a jag where I say that when I first met him he fell all over me. I was kissing his feet the entire time. He’s the one who gave me Benton, he saw how hard I worked. I was almost the lead in The Sweeney and quite a few others, and as you know I was almost James Bond when Sean Connery gave it up but I wasn’t leading man material. Clint Eastwood said in one of his movies “you’ve got to know your limitations”. Leading men are totally different to the ones who I meet who are support actors, but no, there’s many roles I’d love to have played. I’d loved to have done a bit of Shakespeare, I love Shakespeare. I get his books as soon as they come out. Apart from being James Bond, I can’t think of a lot. I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do and I have just made a quick movie for Dreamworks. They asked me to visualise one of the characters in one of their animated movies. I’ve spend over 12 months and lost my health over it, but I’m back now. When you’re director, producer and cameraman it’s hard work. My health went down, working 18 hours a day. I want to say in closing: thank you for your wonderful interest in Doctor Who. As you said before, we never dreamt we would become a franchise as big as this but you’ve got to know that our hearts are with you. As Jon Pertwee said “you put us up on the screen”. If we’re no good when we get there you ignore our program and walk away and we don’t get any more work. So you’re actually the stars, I’m just an ordinary man in an extraordinary job. That’s how I look at it.
GF: Thank you for everything you’ve done on the show, and thanks very much for a great interview.