Wed, Feb
23
2011

Nicholas Courtney 1929-2011

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  • Nicholas Courtney (on the left) as the Brigadier, with Jon Pertwee as the 3rd Doctor

Another hero from my childhood — from many a childhood — has died.

Nicholas Courtney was more than an actor. As the man who brought life to the longest running supporting character in Doctor Who history, he represented a bedrock of values - friendship, loyalty, bravery, and heroism. A man who embodied a character that lived and breathed everything that humanity should stand for…the kind of qualities that made Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart a worthy friend of the Doctor. Perhaps the best human friend he ever had…

His occasional moment of pomposity and military intransigence were simply a facade; a simple cover for a true man of intelligence AND action. Warm and charming, firm and steel-eyed, he was a slice of Boy’s Own adventure in the Time Lord’s travels…and to imagine the series without him is almost inconceivable.

In any event, others have honoured Nicholas Courtney with far more eloquence than I can muster. Here is a selection of obituaries, honouring the best soldier we never had…starting with his obit in THE GUARDIAN:

News today of the death of actor Nicholas Courtney has struck genuine sadness through the geek community and the world at large. A fine actor and a seemingly genuinely lovely man, he was also the longest-serving actor in Doctor Who history.

His character, the unflappable Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, was one of the most beloved characters in the entire Whoniverse. He made his first appearance in 1969 adventure The Web Of Fear, then a mere Colonel, head of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the international community’s line of defence against alien threats. When the series went Earthbound in 1970, the Doctor was employed by Unit and the Brigadier became central to the series’ “Scooby Gang”.

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The Brigadier occupies a unique position in Who lore. It is the Doctor’s defining quality to abhor violence, refusing to use weapons even when absolutely necessary. Lethbridge-Stewart was a military stalwart, his instinct to shoot at the alien threat with a catchphrase of: “Five rounds, rapid!” The two men’s differing approaches tested as much as complemented each other.

Famously, in the Third Doctor Silurian story, the Brigadier orders the destruction of the underground Homo Repltilia settlement, to the Doctor’s disgust. But he also served as a human, and humane, counterpoint to the Time Lord’s alien eccentricities, and the pair developed a professional respect and personal affection. While circumstance dictated that the Doctor’s female companions would come and go on a biannual basis, their bromance was a rare constant in the renegade’s life, and when our hero returned to travelling through time and space, the Brigadier appeared alongside every subsequent Doctor from the classic series (barring the sixth, unless we’re counting the audio-plays as canon, in which case we’ll be here all day).

When Unit turned up again in the Tenth Doctor story The Poison Sky, the organisation had toughened up and skewed its moral compass. “Sir Alastair” as he was now known was stranded Peru during the crisis. The Doctor openly pined for the Brigadier’s more honourable way of doing things.

His final appearance on the main show came in 1989’s Arthurian Legend-riff Battlefield, where the now-retired Lethbridge-Stewart battled a Jean Marsh-portrayed version of Morgan La Fay alongside the Seventh Doctor. The plan had been to kill the character off, but with all hell breaking loose, his death could only have been an incidental plot point, and producer John Nathan-Turner told Courtney, “If you’re going to die, I want your death to mean something.” This was how significant he had become, and he was allowed to live happily ever after in his country pile. A year later the series was axed.

Lethbridge-Stewart returned to the screen one last time in 2008 for a guest appearance in spin-off The Sarah-Jane Adventures. Now a retired General turned schoolteacher, he was called in to help his old friend. The warmth between the two former colleagues, their lives forever fused together by their experiences with the man in the blue box, was genuinely touching.

It was much the same in real life. Courtney knew he was part of something special, and never stopped enthusiastically cheerleading for Who, attending conventions and taking part in numerous Big Finish audio plays. He was rightly proud to be defined by his defining role. The time-space continuum feels a little bit smaller without him in it.

And…from the 4th Doctor himself, Tom Baker

Nick Courtney died yesterday after a very long and painful battle with cancer. I went to say goodbye to him on Friday at the wonderful hospice near Belsize Park in North London. The lady in charge said he was very stoical. And indeed he was. It was so distressing to see him so weak and yet so strong in resignation. My jokes were received with a generous effort from Nick to smile. I was with Michael McManus who helped me through the ordeal of seeing a beloved old pal so reduced by illness.

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Of all the characters in Doctor Who there is no doubt that he was the most loved by the fans for his wonderful portrayal of the rather pompous Brigadier. “Five rounds rapid” was the line we all loved, always addressed to Sergeant Benton. Nick’s close friends simply adored him. There was a certain innocence in his personality that was utterly endearing. He was very easy to tease, and I did my share, which made him shake his head in disbelief when he realised he had been had.

He was a wonderful companion and his friends would call each other or e-mail to relate the latest little stories of a night out with the Brig. He had a marvellous resonant voice which he used brilliantly when it was his turn to spin a yarn. And his background was fascinating too: born in Alexandria, Egypt, he was brought up speaking French and Arabic. Later he perfected English and after a few drinks he would speak in Latin tags to great comic effect.

We shall miss him terribly.

Finally, a visual obit, courtesy of YOUTUBE