Tab Meets: Sylvester McCoy

MATTHEW KEMP went down to the Union on Sunday night joining hordes of fans to listen to the Seventh Doctor, Sylvestor McCoy speak about Time Lords, Hedgehogs and Spoons.

actor Cambridge Doctor Who Fantasy Lord of the Rings priest religion sci fi studen sylvester mccoy Union

“I hated that little hedgehog! Upstaging little bastard!”

That is one of the many great quotes that Sylvester McCoy (born Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith) came out with at the Union on Sunday. As Chair of the Doctor Who Society I had the privilege of spending some time with this amazing man.

Star of stage (as the Fool in King Lear opposite Cambridge’s own Sir Ian McKellen) and the big and small screens (as Radagast in the new Hobbit film series and as the Seventh Doctor) he regaled us with tales of being a stuntman, stuffing ferrets down his trousers and setting fire to his hair.

the real McCoy

The real McCoy

A highly underrated incarnation in the ever expanding pantheon of Doctors, he pointed out that even though the show may have gone on hiatus during his watch, many of the ideas that started in his episodes heavily influenced how they made the new series.

After a brief rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune whilst he played the spoons on various animate and inanimate objects, I got the chance to interview him, trying to contain the fan-boy inside…

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In Cambridge, the only fantasy worlds that have societies devoted to them are Doctor Who and Tolkien, between which you are the bridge. Why do you think science fiction and fantasy has got such a large following?

Well, science-fiction and Doctor Who attract a lot of people, and I think it’s because it gives them hope for the future.

They can fantasise and imagine a better place. I see it when I go to conventions; people can lose themselves in those stories, and write about it and discuss it.

I mean you don’t get that with detective novels; people read them and love them but it’s not got the same feeling you know.

It kind of fulfils, I mean, I don’t want to sound too pompous, but a spiritual kind of need that people have. I think we all need spirituality, that’s why we invented religions, to fulfil this thing that we’ve got, and I think sci-fi and fantasy fulfils that need.

The Seventh Doctor’s ‘Xtreme Makeover’

Speaking of spirituality, you trained to be a priest initially? Do you have fond memories of that time?

I have nothing but great memories of it really. I went when I was 11, not because I had a deeply religious want, but mainly in a bet or to show off to someone!

It was way up in the highlands near Aberdeen, and it was cold, bleak and drab, but I loved every moment of it – although we were locked in, it introduced me to the whole wide world.

Once a month, we used to have someone read to us, which I loved. I remember he used to read us travel books, and you know, I was there, I was travelling, even though I was in the highlands.

It saved me – if I’d stayed in Dunoon I don’t know what I would have become. It wasn’t an easy place for sparky people to be in. Once, I asked to borrow my Uncle’s record player to listen to my LP of Tchaikovsky’s 1812, but he just took it out of my hands and said, “That’s not the music for people like us. Are you trying to put yourself up above us?” It was a kind of reverse snobbery.

So it wasn’t a good place for someone who was trying to explore the world, or trying to make himself intellectually sharper. 

At the end of one of your Doctor Who episodes you are seen hanging off a cliff by your umbrella…

It was my idea, by the way. I came into the set and saw it and said “Oh I could hang off that, and then we’d have a real toot; a literal and a figurative cliff-hanger!” 

How did you train to perform these various stunts in Doctor Who? 

I just said yes! I mean I did read a book called ‘How to bang a nail up your nose’.

Just hanging about.

Just hanging about

You said before how you feel like the sunshine follows you, and you always try to remain upbeat about things. What advice can you give to Cambridge students about to sit exams to help them stay positive?

Oh, I don’t know, open a bottle of wine?

That’s a difficult one… You’ve just got to think there’s a light at the end of that tunnel; you’ll get through it. If you focus completely on what you’re doing, and let nothing else distract you it’ll be gone, over before you know it.

Does that make sense? Either that or watch lots of Doctor Who.

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So there we have it. Sylvester McCoy, one of the funniest and most mischievous of entertainers, but one of the most genuinely kind and insightful men I’ve ever met.

So let the sun shine both literally and figuratively over this Easter term, and don’t get upstaged by CGI hedgehogs!