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Nicholas Courtney 1929-2011

It is with sadness that I learned of the death of Nicholas Courtney. If you are a Doctor Who fan, you won’t need me to tell you how important he was to the series’ success. Although he was most famous for his portrayal of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, his first appearance came in the epic William Hartnell story, The Daleks Master Plan playing Space Agent Bret Vyon who was later killed by his sister, Sara Kingdom (played by Jean Marsh, who also started alongside Nicholas Courtney in his final Doctor Who appearance as the Brigadier in Battlefield).

His next appearance on Doctor Who was as the aforementioned Lethbridge-Stewart (he is a Colonel in his first encounter with the Doctor, this time played by Patrick Troughton) and the character hasn’t yet been developed into the Brig we all know and love, in fact we may think that HE is the character who is in league with the Yeti and the Great Intelligence. His first appearance as the Brigadier,  was in the Cyberman story, The Invasion, opposite Patrick Troughton again. This story also introduces UNIT and is a kind of blueprint for what the show was to become. Although the Cybermen were the monsters in this story, the chief villain is Tobias Vaughn played wonderfully by Kevin Stoney. One constant in Nicholas Courtney’s appearances so far is the director. All of these stories were directed by Douglas Camfield.

Douglas Camfield had originally cast Courtney as Captain Knight in the Web of Fear, a character that was killed off during the serial but the original actor chosen to play  Lethbridge-Stewart dropped out (David Langton, who went on to star as Richard Bellamy in Upstairs, downstairs,  which was co-created by Jean Marsh). Nicholas Courtney was given a promotion from Captain to Colonel and history was about to be made.

Many of my favourite Doctor Who storylines featuring Nicholas Courtney are those directed by Douglas Camfield, including one which was partly directed by Camfield but due to ill-health during production, the directorial duties were finished by then producer, Barry Letts. That story was the finale to Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor, Inferno. Surprisingly, this was Doctor Who’s first attempt at a parallel universe story. This gave Nicholas Courtney the opportunity to play both the Brigadier and the Brigade Leader (in this universe, the fascist Brigade Leader is free of facial hair). He plays both roles wonderfully.

At the start of the 70’s, Doctor Who underwent a drastic change, not just the change from black & white into colour but the Doctor was grounded on earth. Whereas before, the Doctor was free to roam anywhere and anytime to encounter strange worlds and threats, now the threats had to come to earth. It would be a new challenge with a new Doctor. A fresh start. I think that the contribution Nicholas Courtney made as the Brigadier has been of vital importance. In the first season of Pertwee stories, the Doctor is more concerned with getting the TARDIS to work than to bother with invading aliens or unearthed beings. The Brigadier brings a human element to the storylines and also gave the Doctor someone in authority to argue with, something that hasn’t occurred very often in the new series.

I became a fan of Doctor Who after the UNIT years but I do remember being very excited at the prospect of seeing the Brigadier in the Peter Davison story Mawdryn Undead and delighted at the team up of  Nicholas Courtney alongside Patrick Troughton in the 20th anniversary story, The Five Doctors. Those days were free of DVD releases and repeats of earlier stories were few and far between with my only way of catching up with the previous stories were the target novelisations. These were excellent companions to me but they didn’t match the sheer thrill of seeing the Brigadier in the flesh. Nicholas Courtney brought to life a great character and managed to give the character a warmth and human-ness that enhanced the series.

A wonderful story to listen to is by Big Finish;  part of their Companion Chronicles Series. It is called Old Soldiers and I would like to finish by repeating the first words spoken by Nicholas Courtney as Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in this story, “to absent friends”.

From interviews I’ve read and heard by Nicholas Courtney himself and others, he strikes me as being a very kind-hearted man with a great sense of fun and a twinkle in his eye. He will be missed and my thoughts are with his family and friends.

Now about that 21  gun salute…five rounds rapid.

Recommended listening

The Daleks Master Plan*

The Web of Fear*

*surviving episodes of these stories can be found on the Lost In Time DVD set

Old Soldiers

Recommended Viewing

The Invasion


Mawdryn Undead

The Five Doctors


Enemy of the Bane

Recommended Reading

Still Getting Away With It

Greyhound Leader

 I would also suggest looking at the sites listed on the right hand side for more tributes to this great man. Please feel free to leave some comments about your own memories about Nicholas Courtney. Thank you

UNITs Brigadier

And defender of the earth

Friend of the Doctor


4 Responses

  1. Good post Simon. Nicholas was able to give the Brig a dignity, weight & charm that was vital to the success of the Pertwee era. If the Brigadier had been badly portrayed young Whovians would have been disillusioned. Think about it – the U.N.I.T. years portrayed the Doctor with a military supporting cast while the Cold War & the Vietnam War raged! “The Silurians” ends with a character, whom we love, commiting genocide!
    I love Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, but, let us face it, by the conclusion of “The War Games” the show had an uncertain future. While Dicks/Letts/Pertwee played their part it must be remembered Courtney fleshed out a character that could have been an “Aunt Sally” for its often politically liberal fans.

    My thoughts are with Nicholas’s friends & loved ones at this sad time.

  2. […] funeral for the late great Nicholas Courtney will be held on Saturday 5th March 2011. It will take place at Golders Green Crematorium. He will […]

  3. […] splendid fellows at the Doctor Who Podcast have posted a special podcast about the sadly departed Nicholas Courtney. It is worth a listen as they reminisce about their favourite adventures featuring the Brig. Click […]

  4. […] *Episodes 5 and 6 are missing but have been animated (as was the Patrick Troughton story, The Invasion. Click here for more info on the lost stories. The animation will be done by a different company than that which did the Invasion and it will be interesting to see the results. (This information was brought to my attention in issue 436 of Doctor Who Magazine, which also has a tribute to Nicholas Courtney). […]

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