This is an interview with Ed Bishop which appeared in issue#3 (August 1995) of the UK magazine "SFX".
DEFENDER OF THE EARTH
WITH UFO BROADCAST AGAIN ON BRAVO, A WHOLE NEW GENERATION IS BEING INTRODUCED TO COMMANDER ED STRAKER AND THE SUPREME HEADQUARTERS ALIEN DEFENCE ORGANISATION. MJ SIMPSON DISCUSSES SAVING EARTH WITH THE MAN WHO PLAYED SHADO'S LEADER, ED BISHOP.
It's one of those real love-it-or-hate-it shows is UFO. Is is a soap opera or science fiction? For kids or adults? And are the actors really as wooden as Gerry Anderson's earlier puppets?
The debate about the puppetmeister's first live action show continues to run, not least because its current rescreening is bringing it to the attention of a new generation of fans...
Central to the series is, of course, Commander Ed Straker, played by American actor Ed Bishop. Born in Brooklyn in 1932, Bishop's lived in Britain since his teens, earning himself a position as one of this country's favourite American actors.
"I came here in 1959 as a student of LAMDA," he remembers. I had a scholarship there for one year. Then, when I finished in 1960, they gave me a 90-day work permit, and I got work almost immediately -- three West End shows back-to-back, and a couple of films. I got an agent, met this girl who's now my wife, and -- figuring America didn't need another out-of-work actor -- decided to stay as long as I was working."
And work he has -- you may remember Ed as the newscaster in both the TV and film versions of Whoops Apocalypse, performing a song called Norman Bates with two-hit wonders Landscape on Top of the Pops ("My name is Norman Bates/I'm just a normal guy..."), and guesting on comedy and light entertainment shows like Jasper Carrott, Lenny Henry and French & Saunders ("I've been lucky to get onto that light entertainment BBC merry-go-round, where they can just dial-a-Yank..."). All these pale into insignificance, however, next to his pivotal role as Commander Ed Straker, head of the earth-defending SHADO organisation in Gerry Anderson's TV show UFO.
Striking facially, white-haired, and forever clad in Sylvia Anderson's "21st century fashions," Straker defended Earth from marauding aliens, while running Harlington-Straker Studios, the film company which acted as cover for the top-secret SHADO. Nice work if you can get it.
So, er, how did he?
"Well, my relationship with Gerry Anderson actually goes back to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons," he explains. "I was the voice of Captain Blue. Actually, I only got that job through a girl in my agent's office. She represented this black actor called Cy Grant, and Gerry and Sylvia wanted to use him for the voice of Lieutenant Green. The girl said, 'Oh, by the way, Mr Anderson, we've just taken on a young American actor, name of Edward Bishop. And we know how much you like American voices. Would you like to meet him as well?' He said, 'Okay, send him out.' So I went out and got the job. I often wonder what would have happened if she hadn't been so on the ball..."
Captain Scarlet was by far the most "adult" of Century 21's puppet series -- in terms of characterisation, action and the puppets' appearance -- and its theme, a global organisation battling alien marauders, was effectively a direct precursor of UFO. Did Ed have any inkling, when he began Captain Scarlet, how long he'd be involved with Century 21 productions?
"Well, Gerry's very loyal -- if you get along with him, and understand where he's coming from," Ed smiles. "I admired him and his team enormously. They always paid great attention to detail. If they had the voice of a guard -- maybe only four or five lines -- for example, nine out of ten companies would say, 'Hey Eddie, can you do a funny voice for those four lines?' But Gerry would job in another actor."
After Scarlet, was it straight into UFO?
"Well, not quite. Gerry did a feature film called Doppelganger, or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in America. I had a part in that, and when they were setting up UFO they took my scenes from it to show Lew Grade and the other power brokers. They had me in mind to play Straker, which in those days was only supposed to be a ten-day shoot -- Straker wasn't meant to be the main character. Eventually he just sort of took over, though."
Although Doppelganger -- and, to a lesser extent, the obscure semi-animated series The Secret Service -- had shown that the Century 21 team could do more than just puppetry, the powers that be were still insecure about what Gerry "the puppet man" would do with real actors and a decent budget. Was Ed aware of this while the series was shooting?
"Oh, there's no denying it," he concedes. "We had some very unkind people who would make cheap jokes like 'I don't see any strings.' It's still going on because of Gerry's background. I've always found it very counter-productive -- some actors would come on the show and give less than their best simply because Gerry's background was in puppets and kids' TV, which really infuriated me."
Fans of UFO applaud the series for concentrating on characters and the psychological effects of alien attacks, rather than resorting to technobabble and dodgy monsters. The unconverted, on the other hand, point at this same stuff and see only purple-wigged soap opera hokum...
"Yes, the show concentrated on the background, the personalities, and the personal angst of the characters," Ed agrees, "and as a result some of the episodes fell between two stools -- sort of half science fiction, half soap opera..."
Do you think of it as a kids show, an adult show or what? It seems kind of uncertain what it is itself...
"It was primarily aimed at adults," he says, after a bit of thought, "but I recognise the problem. Some of the episodes were very adventurous -- long before women's lib and all the rest of it, we brought in Wanda Ventham as Straker's number two, and , of course, we had a young boy die [in "A Question of Priorities"] instead of a 'happy ending' -- that was very adventurous. On The Saint or The Protectors or whatever, Roger Moore would be back next week. We were doing something more exciting than that."
Like every Anderson show, from Supercar to Space Precinct, UFO was aimed primarily at the American market. Did this ever cause problems?
"Well, it was a kind of fascism in a way. We were certainly making something for a foreign country, to their formula, and they had a whole list of things you could and couldn't do -- you couldn't have the eyes open on a corpse, for example. I found that a little restrictive, but it was the economic realities of the day. If you didn't get the American market, you didn't get anything."
At 63, Ed is still acting -- and currently touring with the National Theatre production of Arthur Miller's new play Broken Glass -- but when asked what he'll probably be remembered for, he has no doubts.
"Whether I like it or not, it's going to be old Straker in UFO. A lot of actors think Scarlet and UFO is all water over the dam, and they don't like talking about it, but I can't understand that. If people applaud your work so many years down the pike, it's flattering. I feel very humbled by it."