Gary Files interview

garyfilesBack in 2004 I had the opportunity to interview actor Gary Files. Probably most famous in his native Australia as Tom Ramsay in Neighbours, he was involved in providing voices for many of the Gerry Anderson puppet series produced in the late 1960s including yokel gardener/secret agent Matthew Harding in The Secret Service, and Captain Magenta in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

Can you tell us a little about your early life and what inspired you to become a performer?

My inspiration was actually self defence. At one point in my schooling in Oz, I went to a very rough Technical School. As I’m rather short (168cm) I was a perfect candidate to be picked on by resident bullies. In order to prevent daily harassment, I developed the ability to make them laugh. And I have to say I rather liked the power (and the kudos) it gave me in diverting them. Then I discovered the school drama master a brave soul. Or rather I was put onto him by one of the toughies who had the nouse to suggest that I could do as well as some of the oiks that had been chosen for the last play the school drama society had done. This master, a certain Mr Whitelock, was a marvel. For one thing, he was shorter than I was (about five feet one inch in the old measure) and in this cultural wilderness at Preston Technical School devoted to the world of sheetmetal, engineering and woodwork he was fostering the performing arts. We did everything from a one act play like “The Monkey’s Paw” to his version of Dickens “A Christmas Tale”. Later he was rescued from this purgatory by landing a job with the ABC (our version of the BBC) doing schools broadcasts on radio. I thank him over and over for introducing me to the wonderful but very eccentric world of the performing arts.

I then went on to the world of Amateur Theatre in and around Melbourne and became rather successful as a “character juvenile” as we were called then. Even at that time I had an ability with accents and as most of the plays we did then were from either the U.K. or America, because sadly our own playwrights weren’t being acknowledged at that point. I got to do things like American young men who were killers or would be toughs, as well as a lot of funny and very different English characters. I just loved doing comedy. Then just as I was discovered by the Australian budding T.V. industry landing a juvenile lead in an episode of a running T.V. serial I left for Canada on my way to England.

Canada proved to be more than a whistle stop. I actually found myself back in the Amateur theatre scene in Toronto. The group I was in won a Dominion Drama Festival Award. To do which we had to go to Montreal, where the judge of the festival was none other than Michele St. Denis. He was there keeping an eye on one of the first co-lingual acting schools he had founded (The National Theatre School of Canada) with two of this old students one from his Bristol Old Vic School and the other from the school he ran at Strasbourg in France. I became so impressed by what I saw as we were shown around the school that I decided to try to get in there instead of continuing on to theatre schools in London. I did get in and it changed my life. I graduated and worked in the Canadian theatre and T.V. scene for a year before finally continuing on to England. In doing that I had to fine tune my accents to sound Canadian when needed or to do Cockney and whatever else for “Oh What A Lovely War” which I did just before leaving for the U.K.

On reaching London, I was lucky enough to be included (because of having done it in Toronto) in a touring company for Theatre Workshop London of “Oh What A Lovely War” which included such luminaries as Brian Murphy, Gaye Brown and Nigel Hawthorne. Not too bad for a lad from Melbourne I thought. We even had Joan Littlewood herself direct us at one point. I just seemed to drift on into the theatre scene from then on. I used to bewilder a lot of the British producers by hopping from one pond to another as we did in Australia and Canada, because there was so little work and you had to be versatile to make a living. In the U.K. you had the theatre pond, the radio pond, the television pond, the film pond, etc, etc. which in those days tended to be rather separate from each other. Not today thank God. And that was how I came to work for Century 21.

Had you heard of Century 21 and their work before you joined them?

Not at all. I was down at Bristol with the Bristol Old Vic. Company and my six month contract there was coming to an end. No work loomed and I was desperate Someone in the company told me there was this T.V. puppet outfit that used actors with an ability with accents especially American ones. So I borrowed someone’s clunky tape recorder and worked up a tape with me introducing myself as a Canadian and doing a whole slew of accents including several bursts of Australian, of course. Gerry told me later that what got me in was his curiosity at just having to see this Canadian who could do such a good Australian accent.

Were you with Captain Scarlet from the beginning, as the first few episodes dont feature you. Were you engaged on Thunderbird 6 at this time?

I was given the parts in “Thunderbird Six” (as I understand) as a try-out. I was just knocked out to be working with people like Geoffrey Kean, and those other marvellous people involved. I had such an extraordinary day recording it at Denham. Then afterwards we had a real ‘film actors’ lunch at this picturesque little pub nearby. It was very English and a bit exotic for this particular lad from the colonies.

Quite frankly I don’t remember not being in the first episodes of “Captain Scarlet” that were recorded. I just remember that we went to the same studio where we recorded the film. It was like working in a small room in an aircraft hanger. That, and being fascinated with what Francis Matthews was doing with Captain Scarlet using his Cary Grant voice. I was also very impressed by Ed Bishop’s work and followed his career from then on as much as I could. We have sort of stayed in touch over the years. He phones when he gets to Australia and I try and do the same when I get to England.

What character from Captain Scarlet did you take the most enjoyment out of voicing?

That’s extremely hard to say from this distance in time. I do know that we all used to love the challenge of trying to make each character as different as we could. I think that we once worked out that some of us had done a bewildering number of different characters in our time with Gerry and Sylvia at Century 21. I came up with something like 146 different characters I thought that I had done, aside from my basic characters, Captain Magenta and Matthew Harding.

On the whole you voiced more characters in Captain Scarlet than any of the other cast. How long would it take you to record all the lines for your characters in an episode?

We had to finish each episode in half a day. That was it. We did have some hysterical moments getting there. Waiting script in hand poised, tense, falling behind timewise, for the rumbling wheels of yet another vegetable handcart to pass by our studio near the Covent Garden Market. It was still a big veggie market in those days. Or, much more exotic for me, being flown down from the Edinburgh Festival to do a day’s recording of two episodes, (less than half a day each that time) and then just making it back for the performance that night.

Were you disappointed that Captain Magenta was a relatively small part compared to the other main characters, or was this just because you were so busy voicing much of the guest cast?

No, you guessed it. I was too busy having fun being the exotic villain of the piece or his henchman in whatever episode we were doing at the time. Plus, I had a new baby daughter to support, and really needed the work. So I was more than happy to do anything.

Many people have called Captain Magenta a comic relief part. Do you agree?

I honestly can’t remember the scripts from that time. But I must say that I always tend to skew whatever I’m doing to give as much light as shade. In other words, to look for the comic moments to give weight to whatever dramatic moments that may be there. It just works better that way. And I’m sure that a lot of the directors that we worked with encouraged me to do that. It was always a good working environment. So yes, he may well have been the ‘comic relief’.

Did you find it challenging to produce convincing accents on a regular basis?

No, I had lots of practice. It seemed that for most of my life it worked out that I needed to do accents to make a decent living. …I did, and do, a lot of commercials using them. I have done a lot of dubbing using them as well as animated films. Plus, I had always been ‘the foreigner’ working overseas. Not so now, thank God. Obviously it’s so much easier to work in your own accent but I didn’t have that choice. In those days (and I’m sure even now) you would limit yourself completely as an actor, if you stuck only to your own accent.

I mean, look at all the British and Australian actors working in Hollywood today and having to use an American accent. I had an accent for every occasion. I HAD to sound Canadian to work in Canadian television, for sure. And that’s not American. There’s quite a difference, and Canadians hate to be thought American. They live too close to big brother as it is.

When I did my first “Softly Softly” for the BBC with Allan Stratford Johns (who was a South African by the way and a fellow colonial) I had just finished living in Bristol for many months and the character I had to do was a full blown Bristolian. So I just went in and chatted with the director as a Bristolian. I only loosened up and spoke as me when I was certain I had the job and was actually on set. Alan (Stratford Johns) thought it was a real chuckle as he had to do the same sort of thing when he started out in England.

I did also the same thing in Canada doing a role in a 13 part series called “The Frankie Howerd Show” for the CBC in Toronto in about 1974-5. I was supposed to be this Canadian idiot called Hardin I. Otterby. (Get it, get it?) The spaced out son of the Canadian household that Frankie was living with. I got the part using a Canadian accent and some outrageous over-the-top acting. The only trouble was the producers for the CBC were also the writers, and they were there all the time on set. So I had to use the accent both on and off the set. It was very exhausting and I often went back to where I was staying pleading with my Canadian friends to please just talk to me so I could answer back in my normal Australian accent. The show was recorded over several months and I lasted all right until we went over to a friend’s house with Frankie one night for a late meal after a recording session. Alas, one red wine too many found me saying “Ah to hell with it, this is the real me Frankie!” in a good old Aussie accent. “Oooo!” he said, “Oooooo!!” but then laughed like a drain. Thank God, he kept the secret and I kept the job.

Were you disappointed not to be voicing any of the regular characters in Joe 90?

No. Again I was just thrilled to get the job and also touched at the loyalty that Gerry and Sylvia showed in choosing not only me but most of the same team from “Captain Scarlet” to work on “Joe 90”. At one of our early read-throughs we had to go out to Gerry and Sylvia’s house which was in the country. It was all so very English catching this train to a little station in the very outskirts of London. But then (how exotic) being taken the rest of the way in Gerry’s Roller.

I was tickled pink to be working with Rupert Davies. We became quite friendly and on one memorable day we had to drop by his house on the way to somewhere and he showed me some of his collection of vintage cars. Amazing! He also used to take some of us to the BBC club for the occasional lunch or for a drink after work when we were recording in town. I hated the way that so many so-called producers wouldn’t meet his eye. He was Maigret forever you see, in their eyes. He was a terrific warm human being and a very talented classical actor, as well as anything else. Why do those who should really know, still assume that you can only play the last character you did? It’s an insult to the profession.

Of your two regular characters, did you prefer Captain Magenta or Matthew Harding?

Oh Matthew without a doubt. You see, thanks to Gerry and Sylvia’s openness to us actors I got to help create him as well. I suggested the accent on one of our early production meetings and Gerry really liked it. It just seemed so right for the character. Then once I had the voice, the rest of Matthew followed. It was also terrific working on that character and some others I did in “Secret Service” with Dave Lane, our director.

What was it like to be Stanley Unwins costar on the final Supermarionation series, The Secret Service?

An absolute pleasure. He was always such a gentleman and a gentle man as well. How many people can you say that about? He also made me feel that it was a real partnership between us. He wore his stardom with genuine surprise. So many people would recognise him in the street and it always surprised him. If they got lost remembering who he was he would take devilish pleasure in admitting to being that uncle of someone in the family, or whoever else they came up with… “because they really did know him.”
But always, more than anything, he was the consummate professional. He did some terrific stuff for the show and it was an education for me to watch him at work and learn by it. He had some wonderful stories but unlike many, chose the right time to tell them. We all loved working with him. How could you be otherwise with a man who answered his phone with “Who calls?” and when you said who you were replied, “Deep joy.”

Did you ever watch any of the shows on their broadcasts and did you have a favourite?

I can only remember watching the first episode of “Captain Scarlet” at a wide-screen ‘film like’ preview set up for management by Gerry at the Colombia theatre in Shaftesbury Ave. I looked at it with total and utter amazement. Some of us ‘voices’ had been shown around the Cent. 21 studios in Slough not long before this, and had watched the tower that is blown up in that episode being demolished in model form and in controlled conditions using a high speed camera. It was a supreme disappointment. Just a quick “Paff!!” and the thing shattered before our eyes. Very wimpy, very unsatisfactory. Boy, you should have seen it on the wide screen! They had laid in incredible sound track to go with it. That, along with first slow, then normal speed did the rest. We all tottered out into the night, convinced that we were onto a winner. As I was doing a lot of theatre at that time and was often not around a television set in ‘normal hours’, I sadly never did see another episode until I saw a couple, years later on VCR in Australia.

Following the end of the Century 21 Supermarionation series, you had a brief role as Phil Wade in the first episode of UFO. Can you tell us how this came about and if you felt any noticeable difference between the atmosphere on that programme compared the puppet ones?

I was in a West End musical called “Your Own Thing” at the Comedy Theatre and sharing a dressing room with a terrific Canadian actor called Les Carlson. We ran for at least three months and as he and I chatted more and more, I formed a desire to return to Canada where I had really started out professionally. So my little family and I made preparations to decamp to Toronto. I called Gerry to more or less say goodbye, and he invited me to be in one of the first episodes to be shot before I left. So, grateful as ever, I did it.

Of course there was a totally different atmosphere for the “U.F.O.” series. We had to learn the lines for a start. Having been on a couple of film shoots by this time including “The Dirty Dozen” also done at the MGM Borham Wood studio (I think) I did have some idea of what to expect. The other actors were very professional but a bit remote. And I had to admit to being somewhat nervous at the big studio feel to the whole thing. Bells ringing when we were about to shoot, special lights flashing etc, etc. Quite frankly, despite Gerry’s reassurances I was just relieved that I didn’t mess up and that the simple scenes I was in went off smoothly.

With all the Supermarionation series it was just like working amongst a team of friends in a very user-friendly radio studio. I had by that time done quite a bit of radio drama in both Canada (for the CBC) and in England (for the BBC) and felt very much at home there. As well, working for Gerry, we were using our scripts in the same way as we did for radio. All that was different was that (as I was told) we were recording onto film stock. Maybe that might have been recording on very high fidelity for film stock.(?) Certainly the mikes were set up in much the same way as for radio drama and it all seemed to be rather the same for us. One thing though, we couldn’t EVER overlap each other’s lines or they would have had two puppet heads ‘speaking’ at the same time.

Would you have liked to have been involved in Andersons later live-action series, The Protectors and Space 1999?

Very much, it was always so good to work for Gerry and Sylvia and both projects would have added to my development as an actor. In reference to that, I worked with Nick Tate when we did a big T.V. series together called “The True Believers” years later in Australia, and he and I swapped many stories about working for Century 21. He told me how much he too had enjoyed working for Gerry as well as lots of stuff about “Space 1999”. So I know it would have been good.

What have you done in your career since the Anderson programmes?

Oh what a question. For a start, that has turned out to be six and a half years in Canada and twenty seven years in Australia. Well, like any jobbing actor anything I could get my hands on at times. But better things when I was in a position to make a choice. As dear old Charles Laughton is supposed to have said: “An actor’s vocation is looking for work, his vacation is finding it.” That’s how it was for me. Central to everything though, was the fact that my abilities with accents and voice work supported both my lifestyle and my ability to wait for better jobs.

And in the middle of everything else I discovered that I could not only write for what I loved doing, ie: radio drama, plays, television, film but that that writing itself might be, in the end what I preferred to do. …Enough said, here’s a quick whizz around:

In Canada I went from one side of the country to the other doing mainly theatre work. I think I saw more of Canada than most Canadians. Theatre highlights for me included working with the Stratford Festival Theatre first of all playing the Hostage in “The Hostage” at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for them then doing a season with the company at the Stratford Shakespearian Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. My other very favourite theatre experience was playing Butley in “Butley” at the Bastion Theatre in Victoria, British Colombia. As well as a season with Theatre Calgary in Calgary, Alberta. All the time I worked a lot in radio drama with the CBC in whatever city I was in. Be it Montreal, Calgary, Toronto or wherever. During my time there I also managed to work with not only Frankie Howerd, but also Keenan Wynn on television. Both terrific experiences. Keenan was a bit of a wild man who loved cross country motorbike riding like Steve McQueen and sometimes rode with him.

On my return to Australia I managed to get myself into a couple of Bruce Beresford films and eventually one for Fred Schepisi (“Evil Angels”) and was very glad to have been around for that period of exciting growth in Oz films which has led on where they are today. In theatre I actually joined the South Australian Theatre Co in Adelaide in time to work with both Judy Davis and Mel Gibson who had both just come out of theatre school. Theatre-wise I didn’t do too badly either. I was involved with some interesting companies in both Melbourne and Sydney. Eventually I ended up playing the famous Opera House twice. First as part of a festival doing a sleezy Southern senator in the Terry Johnson play “Insignificance”. Then playing the lead, Harry Brock, in “Born Yesterday”. It really is a magical place to be with those stunning views of the bridge and the incomparable harbour.

Still doing the jobbing actor thing, I did all the other media too. Radio drama mainly for the dear old ABC was always a great pleasure. And television has been very kind to me over the years. Of course, like so many other Australian actors, I have done my stint on “Neighbours” and very happy to have got it. My time coincided with Guy Pearce, Peter O’Brien, Jason Donovan and that wonderful talent Kylie Minogue who was my niece. My longest run was two years on a children’s Sci-Fi series called “Pig’s Breakfast”. Also for T.V. I manipulated and voiced a muppet called Simon Smedley who had two series of his own. I ran my own theatre company (Period Pieces) for three years and a Radio comedy series I wrote and played in, won an AWGIE award. God, this is bigger than Ben Hur and I still haven’t covered England. Enough. I should have just said that I’ve worked in three English speaking countries as an actor, writer, director and survived for 35 years since working for Century 21.

Recently there has been talk of a revival of Captain Scarlet as a CGI feature film and of Thunderbirds as a CGI television series and live-action film. Would you like to be involved in any of these projects, hopefully as Captain Magenta?

Of course or any character really. I have read what Francis and Ed did for the short pilot film and as long as they can (using our facial movements only) make us all look like our original puppet characters, we should (with our experience) be able to get the right effect with our voices. It’s a wonderful fact that the voice doesn’t seem to age quite as fast as the body. But anything else would be macabre. It might actually be a bit of a chuckle if they showed us as we really are now.
A bit like that “Star Trek” film where all those geriatrics came back for one final shot at doing a star trek.

Do you feel that the film and TV industry of today can revive these old series to the same degree of success that the originals have enjoyed over the last few decades?

I have to say that ‘reviving’ an original idea which was ahead of it’s time in the 1960’s using the best technology of what they had then, is (for me) never going to make it. There was a wonderful naivete to the originals. Trying to ‘update’ the scripting, the clunky technology, etc, is a bit like reviving a corpse. Technology and tastes have changed so much since those far off days. I think it’s infinitely better for those in the industry now to make their own ‘leading edge’ Sci Fi series which will, in turn, become the cult programmes of the future.

How do you feel about being involved in these programmes?

I loved being involved. Gerry and Sylvia made the experience so good for all of us, and I hope, (I’m sure) that we responded with good, and at times, inspired, work. The fact that so many Century 21 productions have turned out to be such successful cult programmes so many years after they were made is, for most of us actors involved, bewildering. But then, that’s show business.

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