This is an interview with George Sewell which appeared in issue#19 (Spring 1988) of the UK magazine "S.i.G.".
Transcription courtesy of Rob Hemmings & Chris Freeman.
SOLENOID SPOTLIGHT: The S.i.G. Interview
FOLLOWING OUR "UFO" INTERVIEW LAST ISSUE WITH ED BISHOP, WE FOLLOW-UP THIS TIME WITH A CHAT WITH GEORGE SEWELL WHO, OF COURSE, PORTRAYED ED STRAKERS' ABLE LIEUTENANT, ALEC FREEMAN.
GEORGE SEWELL: UFO's Colonel Freeman.
PAM CLARKE SPOKE TO GEORGE IN JULY, 1985, AT THE THEATRE ROYAL NEWCASTLE WHERE HE WAS APPEARING IN "Pack of Lies"
SiG: VERY FEW PEOPLE SEEM TO KNOW MUCH ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND. WHAT DID YOU DO BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR ?
I was born in London and had a very conventional upbringing. I left school at 14 and went into printing - my father was a printer. Then there was the war and I worked repairing bomb damage. Towards the end of the war I went into the Air Force and afterwards did all kinds of jobs... anything that came along!
SiG: A DRUMMER IN A RHUMBA BAND?
Yes...! Then I was eight years in the Merchant Navy and for about five years I was a travel courier. Then I became an actor; That was 25 years ago!
HAVE YOU A KNOWLEDGE OF LANGUAGES ?
Yes, I speak French and German.
HAVE YOU EVER PUT THEM TO MUCH USE IN FILMS ?
Yes, I played parts in German and a couple of parts in French.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO ACTING, BECAUSE IT WAS RATHER LATE IN LIFE TO BECOME AN ACTOR... IT WASN'T A CHILDHOOD AMBITION, OBVIOUSLY!
No, definitely not! I was just in a pub with some people and they were all actors. One of them said, "Why don't you go round and do an audition for a show with Joan Littlewood, 'Fings Ain't What They Used To Be.' I went along for a joke, more or less. It wasn't a very big part anyway. I sort of got work and it went on from there.
IT WAS ALSO JOAN GREENWOOD WHO GAVE YOU YOUR FIRST FILM PART, 'SPARROWS CAN'T SING' IN 1962...
Yes, that's right.
I SUPPOSE MOST PEOPLE WILL REMEMBER YOU FOR 'SPECIAL BRANCH'. WAS THAT THE BIG BREAK FOR YOU?
Yes, I suppose it was. Get your face well known... get known in the business more than anything.
THE START OF TYPECASTING TO SOME EXTENT? THE "COCKNEY COPPER"...
Well, yes, in the eyes of the public to some extent but, fortunately, not in the eyes of the people who matter, that is the Casting Directors. I've played lots of other things but twelve million people see one episode of television. If I were to tour this show for ten years it wouldn't get twelve million people.
YOU SEEM TO TURN UP AS ONE OF TWO VARIATIONS - THE COCKNEY COPPER OR THE COCKNEY MOBSTER WHO'S MADE A BIT OF MONEY AND TELLS EVERYONE ELSE WHAT TO DO. DOES THAT BOTHER YOU AT ALL ?
Not as often as I get asked that question! [laughing] As I say I made lots of other things, I just take what comes along but people remember those. In 'Bleak House' I played a northern business man of the 1870/80s. When I was up here before working for television I played a German businessman. So it's just people who say, "Oh, look, he's playing a copper again," and then that sticks in their mind. When I play other parts it doesn't stick in their minds.
TURNING NOW TO 'UFO', DID YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT GERRY ANDERSON PRIOR TO THE SERIES ?
I first worked on a film with him. It was originally called 'Doppelganger' and then it was called 'Journey to the Far Side of the Sun'. It wasn't a bad film as space films go.[laughing] Wasn't bad at all, I thought.
HOW DID THE PART OF ALEC FREEMAN COME ALONG?
I think it was through that film. Gerry liked my work and he was looking for somebody to do this. It was about six or eight months before but he had it all in inception and both Ed (Bishop) and I worked on the film, he liked our work, so he chose us.
HOW DID YOU SEE ALEC FREEMAN? COMPLIMENTARY TO ED BISHOP'S STRAKER? ONE DESCRlPTION WAS THAT FREEMAN WAS THE FIRE TO STRAKER'S ICE...
That's very good. I wish I'd thought of that! When you have two leading characters you always have to have them different. It's a cardinal rule so you can have contrast and quarrels and drama. That was basically the thing... Fire to his ice [pause] Yes, I wish I'd thought of that!
ANOTHER DESCRIPTION OF FREEMAN IS THAT HE BLENDS "OBSTINATE LOGIC WITH CALCULATED INTELLIGENCE".
IS THERE ANY GEORGE SEWELL IN THAT DESCRIPTION?
I don't think I can give an objective answer to that. [laughing] You know, it's the gift they give us to see ourselves as others see us.
HAVE YOU ANY INTEREST IN SCIENCE FICTION ?
No. Well, I believe they're possible; I'm agnostic about them. There's so many amazing things in the world that if it were proved true then I wouldn't be terribly surprised. On the other hand I don't really believe in them.
AT THE FANDERSON '84 CONVENTION ONE CHAP QUOTED SOMETHING ALONG THE LINES OF 'UFO' BEING JUST A PART, YOU WEREN'T REALLY BOTHERED ABOUT IT, THERE'S NO WAY YOU WOULD EVER, FOR INSTANCE, GO TO A CONVENTION...
That, actually, is true. I don't want to go to a Convention but I'll tell you why. Nothing to do with putting down fans or anything like that. The reason is that they are not interested in me as an actor, they are interested in me as Colonel Freeman. I am not a space fan, I don't read science fiction books. I didn't even go down to Slough to see the models, those wonderful models they did. I'm just not terribly interested. What they want to talk to me about is "How did it feel being on a space station?" I've never BEEN on a space station! I've been on a set which was meant to look like a space station. It's nothing to do with fans. If it was a Convention for actors I would gladly go and give a talk on my experience, my view of acting, certain directors or something, but they're not interested in that, they want you there as a spaceman to talk about "Do you remember when you shot those aliens out of the sky in episode 36?" All I remember is that was the episode when I had to work an extra three hours overtime. It's a job and I felt I would be a phoney if I went to one of those Conventions because they're more about space, Gerry Anderson, s.f., than they are about me or actors. Can you see the difference?
YES. I THINK YOU'D BE A LITTLE SURPRISED AT WHAT PEOPLE WOULD ASK YOU. THEY WOULD ASK YOU A LOT ABOUT 'UFO' BUT, FOR INSTANCE, BARRY MORSE WAS THERE AND HE WAS ASKED ABOUT 'Space: 1999' AND HIS REASONS FOR QUITTING BUT HE WAS ALSO ASKED A LOT OF QUESTIONS ABOUT WHERE HE WAS BORN, HIS CHILDHOOD, WHAT KIND OF ACTING HE DID... HE WAS ON FOR OVER AN HOUR !
Well, maybe I would come along if you say that but, I mean, I never, ever put fans down.
I THINK THAT IMPRESSION CAME OVER AND ED BISHOP SAID YOU WOULDN'T DO THAT.
I don't do that! I don't treat fans any better than anybody. We're all human beings and we owe every other human being things like courtesy, compassion and tolerance. If somebody wants to talk to me, and I have time, I am very pleased so to do. If somebody wants me to write my name in a book, why not? If I want to catch a train and that person wants to stop me and talk to me, I don't want to. If I want to be on my own in a pub when I'm having a quiet pint and somebody wants to come over and talk to me about 'UFO', I have the right to say, "Excuse me,I'm just having a quiet drink." That sometimes makes people look rude but I'm not. I'm naturally a gregarious person and, generally friendly and amiable and I don't put fans down... well I'm doing what I said I wouldn't do; I can't be objective. What I mean is that I was slightly upset by what you said. I'm so pleased my mate Ed said he didn't think I was like that. I'm very happy to be with fans but what I didn't want was to go and people want to talk to Alec Freeman. Alec Freeman is finished. He was a job, a very good job which I was happy to do but it's now finished. I would be prepared to discuss it to an extent but not at a Convention where they don't think of him as me, it's me as him. That's all. [laughs]
SINCE YOU GOT INTO THE BUSINESS, IN 1959, YOU HARDLY SEEM TO HAVE BEEN OUT OF WORK...
Yes I have, touch wood. I've been very lucky.
YOU'VE WORKED ACROSS THE BOARD; DO YOU HAVE A PREFERENCE ?
Not really. I would sooner be in good television than a bad play. I'd sooner be in a certain film with a very good Director, or a film where you went to Hong Kong with lots of dolly birds. [laughing] I like being in musicals and I think that's where I enjoy myself.
'OLlVER' IN 1983 WAS THE LAST MUSICAL YOU DID.
Not really, after that I did 'The Wizard of Oz' (as the Tin Man).
DO YOU ENJOY PANTOMIME?
That wasn't strictly a panto, that was a Christmas show, it was a musical, not in the generally accepted English term pantomime.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY SINGING TRAINING, OR IS IT A "NATURAL GIFT"?
[laughs] Well, I don't really sing! I can "hold a tune", sound as if I'm not actually flat or sharp. Writers of musicals often do write songs like that because they know that there will be some people who are going to be chosen for their singing ability and others for acting, because they're big names, or something like that. They're usually the numbers I get to sing.
IN THEATRE YOU LAYS YOURSELF OPEN TO THE CRITICS MUCH MORE. ARE YOU VERY CONSCIOUS OF THEIR OPINION ?
I suppose so, yes.
DO YOU READ YOUR REVIEWS ?
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR WORST ?
It was down in Winchester and I think the critic had got the concept of the thing wrong. It was a play about a weirdo murderer with lots of funny lines and I played him slightly funny and "camp" because that made the contrast; in fact he was a cold-blooded murderer. The critic said that he couldn't for the life of him see why I was trying to play it like Arthur Askey who, at one time when I wore glasses, I resembled. I'm taller than Arthur Askey!!!
IS THERE ONE THAT HAS PARTICULARLY PLEASED YOU ?
Oh, the very first I got... in a book that's now defunct or changed form, called 'What's On In London'. When I did 'Sparrow's Can't Sing' the critic said I was the best thing in it, he was very surprised to find it was my first film.
IF YOU HAD RECEIVED BAD REVIEWS EARLY ON DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE SWITCHED FROM ACTING ?
Oh, no, because I didn't care! I wasn't even going to stay being an actor. When I was in 'Fings Ain't What They Used To Be' - I was in that for two years - I never said I was an actor. I never put "Actor" down on hire/purchase forms when it said "profession", or "job". I figured when the show closed I was going back to being a travel courier. If any of my mates said, "What are you doing now ?" I just used to say, "Well, I got a job in this show."[laughing] I never said I was an actor because I didn't think I was. I can say it now, I think; I've got enough experience to say it. I wasn't ashamed of the profession of actor. I went along and worked for two hours a night; it seemed like the easiest job I'd ever had!
THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR TIME.
IN 1986 GEORGE EMBARKED ON A TOUR IN THE IRA LEVIN PLAY "VERONICA'S ROOM" AND HAS, OF COURSE, APPEARED REGULARLY ON BRITISH TV SCREENS IN THE SITUATION COMEDY "HOME JAMES" WITH JIM DAVIDSON.