Michael Sheard

Friday, 22 February 2008 09:03

One of the last ever interviews with the much-missed actor behind Mr Bronson ...


With over 750 television appearances and 35 feature films to his credit, Michael carved himself a niche playing authoritarian figures. Guest starring in cult classics such as Jason King, The Persuaders!, Space:1999 and Blake's 7, he had a long association with Doctor Who, appearing in six adventures, alongside different incarnations of The Doctor.

Best known for his portrayal of hard-nosed French teacher Maurice Bronson in Grange Hill and the luckless Admiral Ozzel in "The Empire Strikes Back", Michael became a cult personality, witnessed by the success of his autobiographies "Yes, Mr Bronson - Memoirs of a Bum Actor", "Yes, Admiral Ozzel", "Yes, School's Out!", and "Yes It's Photographic - The Party Goes On".

A celebrity guest at the Cult TV Festivals in 1998, 1999 and 2003, he was scheduled to appear once more in 2005. Sue Griffiths interviewed him for the official Cult TV newsletter, The Contact earlier this year, in what has since tragically proven to be one of his last ever interviews.

SUE: I have a few questions… and I’m pleased to say I’m familiar with your first two books.

MICHAEL: Well that should answer most of them I think!

Do you have any time for acting any more with all the conventions and appearances that you do?

The convention circuit and conventions and appearances, etcetera all take second place to performing. That’s what it's all about.

With all the conventions you’ve done, have you got any tips with regard to surviving all the fun and games?

At conventions? Well, having just returned from "Celebration 3", which is new - it's the big George Lucas "Star Wars" convention that they hold before the release of every new film - that was very, very hectic. It was in Indianapolis and what with jet lag and five days of non stop chatting, signing, parties and what have you, it takes about a week to get over it. But my tip is to have a good wife who looks after you and when you get back, put your feet up in front of the telly and watch the Grand Prix, as I intend to do tomorrow.

Anybody can keep going on adrenaline for 48 hours and the most important thing, and I do mean this sincerely about conventions, for a guest to remember and indeed an organiser, is that the organiser is not important, and the guests are certainly not important. It's the lovely people who come through the door that are the important ones. If you cannot enjoy yourself as a guest then don't go. If you don’t enjoy doing them as an organiser, then don’t do them, because it isn’t fair to the attendees – it really isn’t.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Celebration Event?

It's like any other convention but it's on a grander, larger scale. If I were to be absolutely honest, from my point of view as someone who likes to mix with all the attendees and chat and have a drink at the bar, it was almost too large. I prefer a convention that's about 600 to 800 people. With this one we had something in the order of 25,000, which is quite a jump, but the way of coping with it is to get in touch with your particular chums and then you spend time with each group. When you’re doing the signings, you get to meet lots of lovely new people as well.

We did Q and A's as well, ours went particularly well, so I'm told - the Imperial Officers together. Aside from that, it's beautifully run, nicely presented, held in a huge convention complex and our hotel was just across the road. I could look out of my window every morning and see this long queue that went round and round the building of the convention. Your heart almost skips a beat – you think: "my goodness, am I going to see all those people today?" But it’s great fun. You just have to put your best foot forward and work on adrenaline, and then relax when you get on the aircraft – and the week afterwards – if you can.

How does an event like Cult TV compare with such a massive event as that?

Indianapolis is a one off. There are no other conventions I can think of that have such a huge attendance figure. My experience of Cult TV is that it's just about right in numbers. Aside from the fact that it embraces every sort of TV which I took part in, the difference comes in the organisation and what is on the programme and who is attending. Having said that, I meet an awful lot of people – friends of mine – at conventions I've attended and they attend other conventions that I'm going to. It's a great time. Certainly Cult TV is one of those. The first one I did was held in a hotel although I was only able to be there for a short while as I was doing Gencon the other side of the country and Cult TV sent a car for me as I remember. I was only there from midday on Sunday to midday on Monday, but I did return the following year by public demand.

Do you see many of the same faces again and again?

I'm very good with faces – not so great at names. I don't think I can be blamed really because you meet so many people. In my new book for example I have a little competition going because – it sounds pompous but it's not meant to – my latest book is my gift back although it does follow my career, to the lovely people I’ve met at conventions. There are over 700 photographs and if you recognise yourself you write to the publisher and you say "number 493 is me", then you win a prize. I had a couple sent down from the publisher this morning oddly enough, and he said Number 493 is blah blah and so on, and I looked them up in the book, and I recognised them and I could not put a name to them. That’s my one failing. It gets a little bit awkward when you get someone rushing up out of a crowd at, say, "Celebration 3" and saying "oh, Michael, how are you – lovely to see you again!" And you haven't a clue who they are. That can be embarrassing in a way, but I always take Jon Pertwee’s view. He said "I can’t remember all the people’s names – I call all the girls 'love' and all the men 'mate'", and I said that's okay until you come to introduce Love to Mate. Then he said "oh well, excuse me, introduce yourselves I'm off for a pee."

I was reading about all the different appearances you’ve done – is there any type of character you like playing the most? For example good guys or villains?

I always say the villains are the most interesting characters to play, and it's true to say that I wouldn’t have liked to be a leading man, as they tend to be rather soppy – there’s not much substance to them. But having said that I go by the script, and if the script is interesting and I think I can do something with it then I will. We had no idea, having said that, that "Star Wars" would turn into what it has done and that all these years later we would have 25,000 people coming to see us, and I suppose the same is true to a lesser extent with Doctor Who and certainly dear old Mr Bronson.

It must be interesting to see how the following of certain characters develops throughout the years – for example through events such as Cult TV which celebrates shows which haven’t been on in years but still have a place in people's hearts.

Oh, Good Lord, yes – in a way it's what I certainly have done in my last book, because I tried to cover as many conventions I've been to as possible, which is only a very small snippet. Earlier this year I was in Memphis, and the weekend before that I was in Holland which is an absolute doddle – you just go to Waterloo and get on the Eurostar, and it's like going up to Manchester. I will do conventions if I can, if I'm free but if something comes up you always have a clause in the contract which says if legitimate work comes up then you must be released to be able to do it. I do tell the organisers that I won’t pull out with anything less than a fortnight because that is really not fair on them. The only thing that could come up within a fortnight is maybe a day’s filming so you say: "I’m not going to be able to be there on the Friday but I can be there on a Saturday" because films don't film on a Saturday – well, usually anyway.

Changing the subject a little, how does directing compare with acting?

If I have one regret, it's that I didn’t start directing earlier. Not because it would have taken first place particularly, but a lot of actors direct and I thoroughly enjoy it. I did "Shirley Valentine" as the first one, and I can only work with very small casts as they have tp fit in with my schedule. I did the first outside London production of "The Woman in Black". The difference is whereas you are only really responsible for yourself when you are acting, you are responsible for everybody when you are directing, and all aspects and so on – from the lighting to the make up - and I found it very stimulating and most enjoyable.

With directing, would there be a dream project you'd like to take on?

I enjoy the whole thing – I enjoy the casting even. The very first commercial production I did was Christopher Fry's "A Sleep of Prisons" which has a cast of four and the casting for that – I took my time and it was very, very enjoyable. Sometimes it’s a little difficult when you say "sorry mate, not this time, maybe next time", but I’ve had that said to me on a few occasions throughout my career, so what the heck. Now it’s my turn to say it to somebody else. It happens to everyone – even the so called stars – I won’t call them stars – leading actors. I did a film with Ryan O’Neal and he was sixth choice for the part so you go down the list and people can’t do it or they turn it down, and eventually they wound up with him. It hasn’t to me of course – I’m usually first or maybe second choice!

What new projects have you got in the pipeline?

A couple of movies - one in America which is a horror film called "Voices from the Forest", and there’s also a lovely, lovely movie called "Economara Days", which has got to get off the ground sooner than later, let’s put it like that. It’s a movie about the making of "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne, which was made in about 1952 – it was hugely successful about the troubles in Ireland – but the troubles in Ireland long before the Troubles in Ireland that we know. A lovely film – a love story really.

This new one is a love story between one of the technicians on the movie and an Irish colleague, and there’s so much to be got out of it and with the new technology I get to play a scene with John Wayne. You know what they can do now… my wife and I watched "Singing in the Rain" and I don’t know if you’ve seen what they’ve done in the advert featuring "Singing in the Rain" with Gene Kelly – it all goes sort of funny - they put strange movements in. It works very well but I think it's sacrilege in that case as the original was so perfect, but they can do anything with all the modern equipment they have now. As I say I could get to play scenes with John Wayne which is exciting, I think the word is, although I would be playing it to a blue screen.

Aside form that, there’s another series upcoming, and another one called Star Hyke. I don’t know what that's going to be like. They’ve done principal photography on it already. This is initially a six part series but hopefully it will develop into a long running series – Claudia Christian's in it.

What role do you play in that?

Would you believe, an Admiral? The producer got on to me and said would you like to do it? And I said "yes" – I was unavailable for the last four months of last year so we had to do my bits later on and slot them in. He said "it’s the part of an Admiral", and I said "is that because I played an Admiral in Star Wars?" He said "no, it’s just the part of an Admiral". It's quite interesting because he hasn't got a great deal in the first episode but the character develops into an important running character from episode two onwards. He’s the chief baddy and instigates things all over the place. Interesting again – baddy, you see.

I was interested to hear about you working on a horror movie – what do you think of the horror genre?

Well, my philosophy is give me a script, put me in a costume and nine times out of ten the costume can be futuristic, it can be Wild West, it can be the twenties or it can be modern day and the dialogue will probably fit almost any situation. The secret is to play the characters from the heart and it will fit in. As far as what I think about horror, I think it certainly has a place and that is when the expertise of the director and special effects come into it. You get some horrors like Ed Wood in America – "Plan 9 From Outer Space" - and in a funny sort of way they are now Cult movies in their own right and most enjoyable to watch with the spinning paper plates going around the place. I suppose the one I’m making in the States, which I do a bit of every time I go out there is of that type in that in America it's slightly different from here. There's no such thing as an amateur movie in America. There are people making movies all over the place – it's only when you get up the slippery slope that the Screen Actor’s Guild and green cards and so on and so forth come into it. I do have a green card but this one is below green card level. The films that are made below the green card level in America turn out to be really very good and that’s what we’re trying to do with this one.

As I say in my book, whoever says that the camera never lies is talking the biggest load of hogwash ever, because the camera lies all the time. I remember doing a series made in this country with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis called The Persuaders! and I had to be following the baddy - I wasn’t playing the baddy this time - through a wood. I arrived at the location and we were using a copse, literally a dozen small trees in the middle of a field, but if you change the camera angle you can turn that into a dense forest, no problem at all.

What do you think of the new Doctor Who series?

I've only seen two and a bit – I saw the first one and was really quite pleased as I have worked with more Doctors than any other actor. I felt that it took a lot from the past but added some dimensions from the present and it worked very well. I am sorry that things have developed in that he’s only going to do one series although perhaps I'm being over critical as a lot of people would disagree with me. I do feel that he’s playing him a little bit flippant in the later episodes I've seen, but having said that he’s a very good actor and I’m sorry he’s leaving, but who knows the politics behind it. There's a guy David Tennant – who is apparently taking over and again was apparently wanted by the producer right from the start. The BBC said this guy doesn’t have a big enough name, we must have somebody with a name and that’s why they got Chris. Now David has played Casanova, he has a big enough name and he is going to take over. I just hope that he will keep a strong hold on the piece and not let it go marching on as did the movie they made with Paul McGann. I thought that was a great disappointment frankly – I mean imagine Doctor Who kissing his assistant? It's wrong. This guy has got quite close to saying well, if you want to come with me so you think there's some attraction there but I do hope it doesn’t go further than that.

With all of your writing, are you interested in writing any fiction?

A long, long time ago I my wife and I started reading whodunnits. We used to pick them up at the penny stall – probably all we could afford in those days and we always said we could do better than this. So to cut a long story short she does most of the writing, but I do a little bit of adding, imaging and everything. There are now three Inspector Day books waiting for a lively publisher to say "my God this is what I want" but it's very, very much a hobby. As indeed are my "Yes" books, although they have taken up a lot of my time but they’re my relaxation, just to sit in front of my computer and tap away. As the Times reviewer said "it is amazing that Michael can go back to the well so many times and come back with something completely different", which I take as a compliment. Which indeed I believe it was meant to be! I enjoy doing them, people enjoy reading them. As for the fiction ones, I hope that one of these days we will get a publisher – maybe my publisher – he knows about them – and I'll sling them over to him and say "what about these mate?" and we’ll see what happens.

It sounds like quite a challenging thing to do – putting together fiction and getting to the stage where it's an actual book

I think the main thing I would say about writing is it’s not something that can be forced – you’ve got to enjoy it. There are times when you’ve got to write to a deadline for example. There’s a magazine that amazes me from this group of appreciators - I hate the word fans as the word fan stands for 'fanatic' and people who go to conventions are not fanatics. There may be one or two exceptions but there always are so I have coined the word appreciator. These appreciators came up to me and said "Michael, we would like to form the Michael Sheard Appreciation Society", and I quite truthfully said to them: "That’s fine, chums, but I do like to be hands-on and I deal with my own fan mail and so on, so I don’t really think there would be any purpose in forming an appreciation society because I go to conventions etc, etc."

They said "what about a magazine" – a fanzine I think they’re called – and lo and behold they came up with it. It’s called "You, Boy" and it’s still going after all these years. I had an e-mail from the editor just a few days ago and he said "the new one’s coming out shortly, I’ve got a half page that needs to be filled – can you write something?" I had to write something in about half an hour flat, which has its thrill if you like but I’d rather not write like that. I’d rather tap away as the mood takes me.

Michael Sheard. Thanks from us all for the memories.


Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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