This is a transcription of a George Sewell interview which appeared in issue #5 (1982) of the US British Fantasy magazine FANTASY EMPIRE. This article was also reprinted in collector's edition #4 (1984) of FANTASY EMPIRE.
George Sewell is probably best known in England for the times he's played the hard man, on either side of the law, from such films as Stanley Baker's Robbery, or such TV series as The Sweeney. His first role in science fiction was in Gerry Anderson's film Doppleganger (American title: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), and from this he went on to play the part of Colonel Alec Freeman in Gerry Anderson's first non-puppet series, UFO.
"I'm Not Colonel Freeman":
Talking with George Sewell
By John Peel
George is fit, friendly, and perhaps a little hesitant when interviewed about the series -- for reasons that became clear as we talked. In replying to questions, he often assumed different "roles" to carry out mock-conversations and found a good deal of amusement in both questions and replies.
His entry into acting was really an accident. "I was in a pub with a group of actors," he explained, "and one of them asked me if I was working. I said no, because I wasn't, and he said to me, 'Why don't you go round and do an audition for Joan Littlewood?' They were just starting a show called Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be. So I said, 'I'm not an actor!' 'Ah, that's all right,' he told me, 'Joan doesn't care for actors anyway. She wants someone with a face like a criminal.' I went round, almost for a joke, and got a small part in the show, and then worked for Joan for about four or five years after that.
"As for my being typecast as a 'hard guy' -- this typecasting thing is much more in the eyes of the public because of the stuff which has been more widely shown -- like the film Robbery, or the series I did called Special Branch (which was very widely seen). But what I've done on stage and in foreign films as been totally -- vastly! -- different. So, though I might be typecast in the eyes of the public, I'm not typecast in the eyes of the people that matter -- that is, the people who do the casting!
"UFO was a long time ago -- about ten years ago now, it must be -- and at that time I hadn't -- solidified? -- in the eyes of the public as this 'hard guy.' I'd done a lot of things before, but not the hard guy. It was only after UFO that I started getting more and more the criminal parts -- as I say, parts that were more widely shown, and that 'set' me in the mind of the public. A lot of it is what goes on in the collective mind of the public,rather than what is happening to the actors or the business.
"In UFO, Freeman was the 'nice guy,' in fact, to Straker's 'hard guy.' Usually in a series of any type, you have a couple of people at least where there are going to be conflicts and differences. And it's done quite cold-bloddedly, knowing that a certain section of the audience will identify with one, and a certain section with the other one. It's with things like that that you can build stories up. One person makes a decision, the other thinks it's wrong, and so on, and so on. That's how stories are built up; it's all done quite consciously."
How then did he get involved with UFO? Love of the part, perhaps? He grinned widely at this. "I took the part because what appealed to me most was the fact that as a working actor it was going to be over six months' work at a good salary! Gerry Anderson had done a film before UFO called Doppleganger, and that's when I first met the Andersons. I had a part in the film and, while I was working on that, they told me that they'd been thinking for a long time about this series called UFO and asked me if I'd like to be in it. The prospect of a long- running television series? Of course, I said yes!
"Doppelganger didn't do so well, but you have to get philosophical about these things. You see, there are very few films over the last fifteen years which I have felt deeply, philosophically involved in. Most of the things are jobs, you have to understand. Once I get paid for a job, it largely goes out of my mind. You get paid for a film long before it comes out -- it may come round a year later, and you don't even get to see it, because you're working on something else, or abroad. I mean, if it's a flop, well, you think it's a flop for the producers, not for me; I've been paid. You'd feel a lot more for it if you only got paid on results! Then you'd worry about it being a flop! If you've already been paid, it's less of a problem!
"When filming UFO, we did quite a fair amount of work, but we had a good schedule. We were scheduled for a one-hour show, a lot of which we weren't concerned with. That was all the models, all done out at Slough; so I suppose we were really doing only a forty-minute show.
"The first thing is, you get a schedule for, say, episode nine. There's the script, and there's the shooting schedule. First thing is to look up and see how many days you've got off. Sometimes they would heavily slant it in favor of Ed Bishop (Commander Straker) and I'd get four, five, six days off. And the next one they might feature me a little more, and Ed would have days off, and I'd be working more. Then we'd feature the girls on Moonbase or some kind of little extra story about the aliens.
"We were a good group: myself, Ed Bishop, Mike Billington, Gabrielle Drake, we were the basics, but there were about half- a-dozen more regulars. There was a good group feeling built up; most actors manage that! When you're working together, you make an effort.
"The production people were heavily into science; they read every scientific magazine. They devoured every one they could get their hands on! So a lot of things they would read were prognostications of future things to come up, made by knowledgeable scientists. The production crew would sometimes incorporate this as if it were actually here. They got a lot of ideas from such forward-looking magazines.
"I didn't mind the clothing fashions we wore; I wouldn't like them for myself too much, because they were very warm and made you sweat a lot. They were a projection, the same kind of thing that they'd done with the sf stuff. They looked at magazines and said that there were the fashions of the future. At the time there was a style (which has now disappeared into limbo) of wearing roll-neck shirts with no ties. They considered that that was going to be the future of shirts. Of course, it wasn't! Now, you see, they look rather old- fashioned!"
He shifted in his seat and looked thoughtful for a moment when I asked about his reactions to the show. "Those questions are difficult to answer. You see, I've had this sort of thing before with 'UFO Appreciation Societies' and, very basically, the difference is that you are looking on it as the finished article, and I get the feeling that people would like me to reminisce. You know: 'Ah, I remember the afternoon when me 'n' Commander Straker shot the hell out of those three alien spaceships...' Well, it was nothing like that, you know!" He laughed and rubbed his chin. "I tend to think, 'Oh, that's the scene when I was called at eight o'clock in the morning and wasn't used till four; or: 'Oh, they did the models good this week, didn't they?' Because I never saw any of the models being done I was very impressed. It's a totally different way of looking at it. I'm not into science-fiction anyway; I've got a very, very different set of values. I often find that we're talking on a different level; we're talking different languages. I'm not trying to put you down," he explained, concerned lest I had gotten the wrong impression, "I'm just saying that you're trying to get something from me that doesn't exist. I was just working in it; I was just an actor who was given a script. And, basically, my philosophy about acting is to learn the lines, find out what they mean, do what the director tells you, don't over-act and keep your dressing room tidy! Oh -- and collect the money! I'm sorry if that's a disappointment, but I have to be frank with you. Now and again you get involved with something, but that's mostly... that's very often in the early days of your career. After a while, then you start to learn that it isn't all like that, and opportunities seldom come up for you to get heavily involved. After five o'clock, when shooting finishes, you forget about it, except when you go home to learn the lines.
"We had an easy schedule, actually: Monday to Friday, Monday to Friday; all weekends were off, except on rare occasions. I think there were only two episodes when we had to shoot on a weekend. Two weeks an episode -- more like ten days!"
There had, at one time, been talk about bringing the show back for a second year, plans that eventually led to Space: 1999. I asked George if he'd been approached about a second year with UFO. "No, never! You see, I only did eighteen of the first series, out of the twenty-six filmed, all told. For some reason -- I don't know whether it was money, or studio- space, or high-echelon decisions in the program planning or what! -- they did the eighteen and then there was a long gap. Then, when I was asked to do the final eight, I was already involved in some other parts. So Gerry Anderson just lost interest in me!"
If he wasn't into science fiction, why did he play the role of Alec Freeman? "It's part of your craft, you see. I'm in a play now, acting as a journalist. I'm not into journalism! During rehearsals, you work out what this character would do, that he'd react in such-and-such a way, but you look at it in a totally different way. I didn't look at the role as 'science fiction,' just as an actor playing a person: how he reacts to certain situations. James Cagney, I'm sure, never fired a shot in anger. I don't suppose he ever killed anybody! Yet he played some of the greatest-ever gangster roles. So did Edward G. Robinson. He played all the gangsters, the killers, the hard men -- and he was a very sensitive person, one of America's top art collectors and historians. You don't have to be into the things that you portray."
I asked him about the effects on the show, and especially one question that had always intrigued me: Why did all the girls on Moonbase wear those pruple wigs? He burst out laughing, and after a while confessed: "I hate to tell you, but I don't know! I honestly don't know! Some kind of a talking point? It certainly stuck in your mind! There were quite a few things done like that which, it seems to me, were purely for effect, just to get the audience noticing. 'You know, that series where the girls wear purple hair...' Sometimes this is also done for a more conscious reason: It could possibly start a fashion. I remember when High Noon came out, and in the background was a song, rather than background music -- and the song itself became a big hit. Well, every western for the next seven or eight years had a song in the background in the hope that that would become a hit! So sometimes they do this kind of thing, and say, 'Remember in that series they wore strange hair-dos, and the Daily Mirror took it up, and it became the so-and-so hair-do... so maybe we'll have the same thing with this.' It's rather calculating and doesn't really mean much; not in any depth, anyway. I never figured out why they wore those purple wigs at all.
"If you ever asked anyone, they'd say, 'Oh. Don't you like them?' You'd say, 'Yeah, I like 'em, but why have they got them?' 'Oh. Well, I think they look nice. Don't you?' 'Yeah, yeah. But why have they got them?' 'Well, um, that's what we were told, to get purple wigs.' 'Oh. I see. Okay.' And that just about the conversation! What did it matter, anyway? As long as I didn't have to wear a purple wig!"
Having failed to settle the question of the wigs, we moved on to Ed Bishop's sleek, gull-winged car. "Once more, I hate to upset you, but that was a built-up, clapped-out Cortina that couldn't go more than about 15 or 20 miles an hour, and they put this fiberglass body on it. It was the most unconfortable thing because of the aerodynamic shape, slanting down to the gull-wing doors. You had to lean over sideways to sit at the steering wheel and, everytime you saw it going fast, the camera was under-cranked. The gull-wing doors looked as if you'd press a button and up went the doors. If you ever see any of them again, you'll notice that at no time do you see the whole of the door -- because a technician had to lift it up! There was no mechanism for opening the doors. The edge of the frame would be just to the left or the right of the technician, and you'd see about two-thirds of the door -- and didn't see him! I would press the button, and it would slowly lift up -- as he lifted it! They were bloody great heavy things! The car was awkward to get in, awkward to get out.
"Flashing lights, doors on strings, it was effects. Just effects. That's why we both look at it in totally different ways. I think of how awkward it was to get in and out of that car of Ed's, how uncomfortable it was to sit in and drive, and... 'Cut! No, I can see his foot as he lifts the door!' 'No, cut! John, your foot was in. Can you try to lean backwards and to lift...' The cameraman giving his instructions! I'd say, 'Hurry up, and let me out of this bloody car!' I can't think of it as some sleek, aerodynamic wonder, shooting through the countryside! It's always totally different from the other side of the production." He grinned. "Maybe you'd enjoy it better if you just watched it, and didn't go too deeply into it! Sometimes it's better not to delve too deeply!" He laughed again, and settled back in his chair. "I have a lot of people who are my idols, who I would certainly like not to meet, because I don't want to be disappointed."
This difference of view is one that George feels strongly about, and it's one that he realizes that some people can't understand. To some fans, if they love the show, everyone has to, especially the actors! And to such fans, they almost believe that the actor and the role are inseparable: Leonard Nimoy is Spock; Tome Baker is the Doctor. But they aren't: Leonard Nimoy is Leonard Nimoy; Spock is only one of the many parts he's played. Tom Baker is Tom Baker; The Doctor is only a role. "You're aware of this situation. But I do get some silly letters from people who don't think that I'm George Sewell at all. They just think that I'm Colonel Freeman, I'm George Sewell. I'm afraid I lose patience a bit. No," he corrected himself quickly, realizing that this wasn't quite what he had meant, "I don't actually lose patience; that's not quite true. What I mean is, I don't reply to them. It's far better that they think maybe the letter's gone astray than I write and say, 'Look, I'm not Colonel Freeman." Rather than upset them, I just don't answer. It's not that I'm being nasty; it's better for them and for me. It saves me time and trouble, and it saves them disillusionment."
"I got a cassette sent to me at home, and there's a list, 'Please could you answer the following fifty questions...' Fifty questions. It starts off like: 'How did you feel when you first got the job?' The only answer to that can be: Good! And then it goes on as if I were Colonel Freeman, and I've got to sit at my tape-recorder, put the cassette in and answer these questions as if I were somebody different. I'm afraid I'm going to gently say to him, 'Look, I think you've got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Maybe you should write to Gerry Anderson.' I really don't know what to do without hurting the guy.
"Some people seem to say, 'Look, I'm your fan, you've got to talk to me. Give up your time, stop doing what you want to do and talk to me.' It's not quite on, is it? My feeling is that an actor owes to the people who watch him what every human being owes to every other human being, that is, courtesy, tolerance, politeness, compassion. Of course, I'll sign anybody's autograph; of course, I'll answer anybody's questions. If I asked my milkman to sign a piece of paper, I would expect him to do that; there's no harm in it. It's when they want to say, 'Look, you belong to me. Never mind if you want to be with your friends, or have a quiet drink, you belong to me because I watch you on the television; I've seen you in a film; I pay your wages. But, look, I pay my milkman's wages because I buy the milk from his company; I pay the postman's wages. If I buy your magazine, I pay your wages, indirectly! I don't own you.
"People don't own us, but very often they think they do. I say 'very often,' but it's a tiny, tiny monirity. Still, nobody likes to be treated like that. It's an ego-trip for those people; all they're concerned about is 'me.' And when they go away, it's 'I did this to him,' and 'I said this to him...' And in conversations for the next five years they bring it up in pubs, clubs, functions. About 'When I talked to Tom Baker and told him...' It's a big ego-trip, and I'm not concerned about other people's ego-trips. I've got a big enough one of my own!"
George Sewell's Credits: A Partial List
StageFings Ain't Wot They Used to Be
Oh What a Lovely War
Night and Day
Who Killed Agatha Christie?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Power Game
Diamonds on Wheels
This Sporting Life
The Vengeance of She
Sparrers Can't Sing
This article is 6 pages long and contains the following 3 photos and 2 cartoons, all in B&W:
- 1/2 page cartoon of George Sewell swatting at 4 little UFOs, which surround him like annoying insects.
- 1/4 page photo of a page from a Japanese UFO book. Caption: "UFO may have its greatest popularity in Japan, where magazines exploring the show in great detail are published. This page is entirely devoted to Sewell's character. (From Super Visual UFO, copyright 1969 by Century 21 Pictures Limited.)"
- 1/4 page photo of 3 female Moonbase operatives. Caption: "Moonbase women wore purple hair. (Copyright 1969 by ITC Entertainment, Inc.)"
- 1/4 page cartoon of Straker's futuristic car being passed by a VW bug.
- 1/2 page photo of a page from a Japanese UFO book. Caption: "Japanese fans of UFO even got an episode-by-episode film story of the series, heavily illustrated with stills. This is only part of Episode 12, "Computer Affair." (From Super Visual UFO, copyright by Century 21 Pictures Limited.)"