Ed Bishop (Part 2)
Go back to Part 1 of this long interview
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 Saville 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 ninety-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.”
In memory of Ed Bishop (1932-2005)
Go back to Part 1 of this long interview where Ed Bishop discusses Arthur Miller and Captain Scarlet