Accomplished spoon-player and actor, Sylvester McCoy, rounded off an evening at the Cambridge Union Society with a captivating percussive performance: slapping a couple of stainless-steels against audience members whilst another hummed the Doctor Who theme. The seventy-year-old, who currently stars in The Hobbit films as Radagast the Brown, may have brought a walking stick with him, but this did not prevent him from bobbing up and down through the audience, seeking out questions and thrusting a microphone into the faces of those who seemed most fervent to avoid eye-contact.
McCoy entered into detailed anecdotes of how he was almost cast as Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, how his brief spell as a hippy instigated his career change, and treated us to a rendition of a WW1 song in the explanation of where his stage name came from. Glad, at least, that Sebastian the hedgehog was unable to attend – “a lovable, upstaging little bastard” – McCoy ensured that the chamber was his stage; and what a performance he gave! He was, of course, also the seventh Doctor in Doctor Who and, as a huge fan of the show, I was excited to speak with him before the talk.
Why did you decide to talk at the Cambridge Union Society?
Well, it’s quite an honour. People I know and respect have done it before. I did do it in the other university town, which shall be nameless. Many years ago I went into there and gave them a talk, so I thought it only fair to come over here to maybe balance it up. I am interested in coming to visit.
What has been your favourite acting experience?
My favourite ever acting experience… Well, I was once doing a signing in the toy department of a big department store, and there was a group of children queued up wanting my autograph, and that was really sweet – it was lovely – and I was delighted that children were still interested in watching what I was doing. And suddenly I saw this little girl, and she looked utterly terrified – I mean really, really frightened out of her life. And, I thought, oh my God what’s happened? And I looked round and behind me, a Dalek had just come out and passed behind me, and I could see she was really frightened. So I stood up, and I said with the greatest authority and calmness and best Doctor Who performance I ever gave in my life and I said, “Don’t worry, you’re safe with me. I am the Doctor.” And I ran out, and I picked her up and held her, and she stopped crying. So that, in a way, was the best bit of acting I ever did really.
You’re involved in two franchises – Doctor Who and The Hobbit – that have huge dedicated fanbases and own fan-led mythologies. What is it like being involved in the off-screen “life” of the shows?
Well I love it. I really enjoy it. I’d done hundreds of things and these are the two, as you say that have this massive fanbase. I got the job on the Monday, and I was flown out to Atlanta to a convention on the Thursday, and I had no idea what a convention was ‘cause we didn’t have them very much then. And I arrived, and then I was met by very tall Georgians wearing Tom Baker’s scarf, hat and huge coat in a heatwave. And I thought, “These people are completely bananas.” And behind them were some very, rather opulent ladies dressed as Leela. Now Leela wore just an erm, kind of a bikini kind of… well, you know, very little clothes the companion wore at that time. Anyway, it was an amazing sight. We did the convention and then producer turned to me and said, “You’ve taken to this like a duck to water.” So I liked it from the beginning and I still do. I enjoy going to them, meeting the fans. I delight in seeing young people especially, especially young teenagers who come from all over the place and they get together, they dress up in their varied fantasy clothes and they meet, they sit around the carpeted floor, they talk, they’re animated, they’re happy. And I think, “Wow.” It’s great to see them, because where they come from, some of them come from places where – I’m thinking of Australia at the moment in my mind – where, y’know, people think they’re geeks or strange and there is hardly anyone in their town that likes science fiction. But when they go to the conventions, they are all together and they are all celebrating it, and it’s a joy to see.
A lot of people draw the distinction between “Classic” and “New” Doctor Who. Do you personally draw those distinctions?
Classic and New? Well I guess thats up until the future – coming very soon – the Classic tended to be more mature, except for maybe Peter [Davison], and the new ones were all quite young. I guess that was a big change. At first, I wasn’t very keen on that really. I thought, “Well you can’t give the job to a twelve-year-old.” But Matt Smith turned out to be brilliant. Anyway, the differences are the format. It was half hour – I do kind of miss the cliff-hangers. Well they do have a couple of stories where they have cliff-hangers, where they do two forty-five minute stories. But not so much. I was always a fan of cliff-hangers; as a child, I grew up when there was no television, and I used to go to the Saturday cinema, and they used to show half-hour films with cliff-hangers. And you always liked the discussion in the playground afterwards: [in barely more than a whisper] what would happen next. I think that is missing a bit. But great writing, great actors, great monsters, great stuff!
What do you think of Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor?
Older and craggy. Maybe bring back a bit of cragginess, y’know. A bit of [growls]. A bit of Scottish cragginess. I’m looking forward to seeing him in it, I think it’s very exciting.
If you were a mythological creature, what would you be?
I can’t think; my head’s gone blank with that. Some sort of cat. Lion-y, purrry thing, with claws. Because I can rrroll my ‘r’s, so I can purrrrr.