John Leeson Interview
Reproduced with kind permission of Outpost Skaro

We’re very lucky at Outpost Skaro. Whovian Royalty seems to be chatting to us thick and fast. This week, we are blessed to be in the company of none other than John Leeson – THE voice of K9! For this fanboy it was another thrill to sit down and spend time with a man who is genuine, honest, open and truly iconic and who’s enthusiasm for the part he has made his own shines through at all times. His love for fandom too is obvious, and, as you’d expect, it is entirely reciprocated. I interrupted John’s gardening to chat about all things Who – from his early association with the programme to his triumphant, punch-the-air return, to his increasingly starring role in The Sarah Jane Adventures. We even managed to chat about the new K9 series which, at last, he is on board with. Let joy be unconfined! John Leeson, Outpost Skaro salutes you!

Looking at your CV is an impressive job – I didn’t know you’d played Bungle in Rainbow for instance! And Dad’s Army too!

Given that I started out in 1964 following a training at RADA, I seem to have covered many bases including several years as a character actor in repertory theatre; an amazing time as a supporting actor during the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties in what I call ‘the golden age of TV sitcom’; a clutch of West End productions, and a parallel career in voiceovers and television presentation including TV commercials, I’m just thankful that the ‘phone has rung for me from time to time across all those years.

What made you want to become an actor?

Now that simple question begs a rather complicated answer in my own case: There are in my view two kinds of actor: those who are natural ‘displayers’ and those who are natural ‘hiders’. I think I come squarely into the second category as someone who is keen to ‘submerge’ into a character rather than to strut my stuff. For me, acting provided initially a means of escape from the dilemmas of the real world, until I discovered (very quickly) how the business of acting brought one squarely up against them….and then some! So, possibly, acting is a means of ‘problem solving’ on behalf of whatever character I am playing. Arguably, this is fun!

And of course then came The Invisible Enemy and a certain tin dog… how did that come about? Was it always going to become a recurring role?

My engagement in DR WHO as K9 (and the voice of a large prawn-like creature called the Virus of the Swarm) was as a result of a chance meeting with a director friend of mine who knew I was not averse to earning my crust in offbeat ways (Bungle Bear in the original series of ‘Rainbow’, for example). He introduced me to Graham Williams, at that time the producer of DR WHO, and the commission to voice K9 followed. At the time of my initial engagement K9’s character was due to appear in just one storyline, but during the course of rehearsals the BBC decided that there was enough mileage in K9 to have him appear subsequently as a regular companion.

Tom Baker speaks very highly of you. As you know, Tom is bonkers and liable to make stuff up for a laugh. So when he talks of you doing rehearsals and actually playing K9 on all fours, I wonder... apocryphal or true?

I’m not sure I know that Tom Baker is ‘bonkers’ – as you suggest – but he was perfectly right to mention that I ran around on all fours in rehearsals ‘being’ K9. There was a good reason for this, as the physical module of K9 was still being built and finished, and as I was engaged for the production as an actor – not merely a voiceover artist who would otherwise ‘phone in’ a performance – so I obliged by ‘acting’ as K9. It may have looked ridiculous to see me scuttling round on all fours, but it gave K9 a vital ‘live’ dynamic in rehearsal and performance… a quality that has kept the character alive to this day, perhaps, even though I am no longer required to scuttle! The additional benefit to the other actors was that they could see where the real K9 was supposed to be moving to once the ‘real’ K9 was active on the set.

What’s he like to work with? Mary Tamm says infuriating and genius in equal measures.

I can honestly say that although our own temperaments are possibly ‘chalk and cheese’ I found Tom one of the most enjoyable actors to work with. He was ideal casting as The Doctor who, for me, has to be an iconoclast, a bohemian wilfully at variance with the strictures of convention, with an effervescent energy both mentally and physically to carry the huge weight of playing a Time Lord. You simply cannot cast a ‘suit and tie’ actor into such a role – and Tom’s phenomenal physical and mental energy allowed him to ‘celebrate’ the unworldliness of the character he was playing which, as I hope you’ll agree, was the hallmark of the ‘regeneration’ period he occupied.

And of course you had a number of glamourous leading ladies… Louise, Mary and Lalla… oh, and Matthew. How were they to work with? Did they approach working with you – or K9 – differently?

Hey, didn’t I just! I was very lucky indeed to have such wonderful female companions (even though, as K9, viewed at knee-height!) It would be impertinent of me to advance opinions on their different merits because each of them had very distinctive and hugely entertaining offstage personalities. Needless to say their own personalities naturally affected the way they played their characters. It is probably worth remembering that they all had an uphill task when each of them joined the series: the characters were already pre-set by the writers, so each of them would have had to surmount the difficulty of finding their own ‘voice’ at a very early stage of their engagement….all credit to each of them for having done so. Louise Jameson told me that for her K9 was the next best thing to ‘phone a friend’! At least K9 helped Mary Tamm with crosswords, even though he didn’t get all the references for the phenomenally cryptic ones Lalla Ward used to sail through!

Tom is on record as being very frustrated with the prop… where you onset during recordings? How did that go?

You have to remember that studio time is phenomenally expensive, and that ‘the clock is king’ when it comes to recording. Yes, indeed, the physical K9 module was SLOW, noisy, underpowered, and therefore subject to frequent breakdowns. No wonder frustrations arose, and not only on Tom’s part but mine too! I was on the set and, curiously, feeling embarrassed that the ‘other’ part of me – the body to my voice- was behaving in such a dysfunctional manner….eating up hugely valuable studio time in running repairs. From time to time this was an embarrassing agony!

You left the role after The Key To Time (when you appeared onscreen too in The Power of Kroll…)… what made you want to leave?

Oh yes, so I did… thanks for reminding me. Bearing in mind the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get – ed) nature of any character in sci-fi or science fantasy (the latter being probably closer to the WHO genre) I realized quite quickly that in performance terms there was no-where else for the character to go. He was set. K9 has no emotional life, no inner depths to explore or develop which might enhance his character. He is what the audience sees and expects from him. On the one hand I could sit back and keep taking the BBC-sized paychecks until the character had reached its ‘sell-by’ date; on the other I could take a risk of staring unemployment in the face in a bid to broaden my acting career in the outside world. This was my choice. I didn’t know what lay before me … possibly months of ‘resting’ as my face hadn’t been around the business for awhile. From the point of view of my own career this move was a ‘must’. The rash move paid off- and I can report that having left DR WHO I had one of the busiest years of non-WHO work I can ever remember!

Then JNT talked you into coming back…?

David Brierly, who had succeeded me, decided that for him, one season of playing K9 was enough. As there had been a change of producer in the interim I was prepared to hear arguments why I should return. Briefly, JNT told me that K9 was being run out of the series in a graceful fashion across a few upcoming stories and, as his original voice, would I mind coming back to ‘wrap him up’ in a decent fashion. I guess I weakened, as I’d enjoyed creating K9’s character in the first place, so I returned. In hindsight it seems to have paid dividends, as K9 is still very much alive even now, over thirty years after his initial appearance!

And suddenly you were getting your own show! How did K9 & Company come about?

You may remember that Lis Sladen as ‘Sarah-Jane Smith’ had charge of K9 in “The Five Doctors”, even though K9 himself was kept within the bounds of her own garden fence and not allowed by her to take part in the subsequent adventure. This nexus between the two characters seems to have sparked off the idea for a follow-up series involving Sarah-Jane and K9. “K9 and Company” never got beyond its pilot episode stage, partly through budgetary restraints (though the initial story was hardly awash with production money), and partly because of a personnel change at the higher levels of BBC production management.

Was filming that different to filming the parent series?

Location filming is filming, whatever. The story was filmed mostly in darkest Oxfordshire – “A Girl’s Best Friend”, as I seem to remember the story was called turned out to be somewhat earthbound tale involving covens and witches, rather than anything with an extra-terrestrial fantasy element.

I know you came back to Who specifically to “wave goodbye” to K9, but if K9 & Company had taken off, would you have stayed with the parent series too? Or was that never an option?

I don’t know the answer to that one. Presumably the WHO series would have continued without K9 as he ‘left’ the series in “Full Circle”, remaining with RomanaTwo in E-Space. (Memo: wrap up well if you’re visiting E-Space, it is beyond very cold!)

You’re famously very enthusiastic about the role and about your association with the programme – more than some others. What’s your opinion of fandom and being associated with your vocal work as apposed to your physical presence?

You are right to credit me with enthusiasm… it is one of the qualities that rubbed off Tom Baker, i.e. the ability to ‘celebrate’ what you do. This applies right across the board to life in general, of course, not simply to acting. As I mentioned earlier, as a ‘hiding’ kind of actor I have never sought the kind of recognition accorded to some of my peers who prefer the limelight! I am delighted, of course, to be indulged by fan audiences for having provided a life and soul for a pretty inanimate character, purely in terms of a voice characterization … and I am sure that were it not for their continued support and enthusiasm for what has turned out to be one of the most iconic series on television DR WHO wouldn’t have made the great leap forward into the 21st Century broadcasting schedules. I feel very honoured to have been invited to cross that ‘great divide’ myself. (How many DR WHO fans did it take to turn on a lightbulb? …. None! They all stood around the lightbulb hoping and praying it would come on again, and after a gap of ?18 years, it lit up again all by itself!)

You’ve also come back to Dr Who as a Dalek! How did that come about, and how do you approach such a creature? I know some bloke called Nicholas Briggs does all the Daleks now, but, when you did it, you were all specific creatures with an actual hierarchy…?

Thanks for the reminder. I’d forgotten. Yes, I think I was the voice of Davros on one occasion – I can’t remember when, though.

And you’ve made a few cameos in the New Series… how was that? I know David (Tennant) bemoaned the fact you weren’t there for the filming of School Reunion as he was dying to meet you…

Given what you say, thank goodness I met him at a DR WHO convention shortly afterwards otherwise he’d probably be dead by now. Now there’s a star!

What’re the differences with working on the new series compared to the old?

Given the way you frame your question, I am no longer a required ‘live’ presence during recordings in the studio complex. Unless they forget me completely there’ll usually come a point following the completion of filming when I’ll get a call from the post-production supervisor to book me into a dubbing session in London. On one occasion I think they forgot me! However, I have been generously invited to the WHO studios on a couple of occasions to provide my own guide track for subsequent ADR (additional dialogue recording) work to follow at a later date.

And of course from that School Reunion appearance came The Sarah Jane Adventures and a brand new lease of life for K9!

I think you’d have to ask Russell T. just when a decision was made to float the ‘Sarah Jane’ strand.(oh we will...ed)

Were you disappointed not to feature more heavily?

Not really, no. I am well aware of the physical difficulties K9 has been known to cause in the studio and on location, so I could easily accept a sparing use of his services. You have to remember, too, that copyright in K9 is not owned by the BBC but is vested in the writer Bob Baker (and presumably the estate of his co-writer, the late Dave Martin) from whom permission would have to be sought for his use.

I understand that in the new series however you appear in at least half the stories… That must be fun…? Did you manage to work with David again in his guest starring role?

Yes and no! It was great sharing a to-and-fro of dialogue with David, but he had already filmed his exciting contribution – and I was voicing K9’s responses to his screen presence weeks later, sitting in a dubbing theatre in Soho.

Is K9 appearing in David’s swansong? It seems that everyone and their mum is…

Unless you know something I don’t, I don’t think so. (I don’t! Honestly! Ed) Mind you, I’m generally the last person to hear anything!

And now we hear from our friend in Skaro Bob Baker that you’re reprising K9 again in the new Australian show… did that come about?

By invitation. The Australian version of a K9-led series with an all-singing all-dancing CGI K9 had been talked about for years, and given the lengthy passage of time I’d assumed all the casting (and voice casting) had been sewn up, done and dusted. I thought no more about it until I received a call earlier this summer from Bob Baker’s associate, Paul Tams, to inquire if I’d be interested in providing a ‘new’ voice for a ‘new’ K9. I guess I must have answered in the affirmative! How could I not?

I have to tell you everyone we’ve spoken to is thrilled that YOU’RE doing K9 again. To Whovians, you and that little tin dog are inseparable.

Well, I’m genuinely delighted, hence, I dare say, the invitation I allude to above.

How different is the new K9 series to the original and of course, K9, who “regenerates” in episode one… we understand from Bob he’s a little, em, “trendier” in dialogue. And of course, it proves that K9 Mk1 at least escaped the Time War! Or is it Romana’s Mk2?

I guess you’re going to have to wait and see! The Australian series is certainly different, and, as Bob says, K9 is certainly trendier and amazingly more energized than the original. Without breaching the official secrets act I think I can say that the new series is likely to target the same general market as “Sarah-Jane” … but as it hasn’t even been broadcast in Australia yet I imagine it’ll be a while before we get to see it over here assuming a broadcast network picks it up.

What do you have coming up in the future?

Broad beans, waxy potatoes and courgettes – I just need more sunny days for them to flourish in my garden….but who can beat fresh homegrown veg?

Do you have a message for the members of Skaro?

Imperative you keep the faith!

You heard it from the tin dogs mouth! My great thanks to John Leeson for taking time to talk to me. He can be heard from mid-October in the return of The Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC.