Interviewer: Scott Montgomery - Dreamwatch 1996
Although a veteran of film, theatre and television, ED BISHOP is probably best known for his work on Gerry Anderson's UFO and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Scott Montgomery recently caught up with the prolific actor to discuss his varied career...
Ed Bishop was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Boston University Theatre School. "I came to London in 1959 when I won what was called a Fulbright Scholarship. I studied at LAMDA for one year. When I finished I decided to stay around and see if I could get work in London. It was a lot easier to get a permit back then."
Was there work for an American in London? "Yes, I was in three West End shows back-to-back. It was also the start of the film boom. Several American companies were coming to Europe and England was one of the main casting centers. I did get homesick, around 1962, I met a girl who is now my wife." After a brief spell in New York, Bishop settled permanently in London. "I figured an actor should stay where he's employed. American doesn't need another out-of-work actor," he smiles.
Bishop supplied the voice of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. How did he become involved with the show? "I was with an agent at that time who also represented a black actor and singer Cy Grant (who would voice lt. Green). Gerry and Sylvia Anderson called the agent, wanting to speak to Cy Grant. The girl who answered the phone was on the ball. She said, 'Well, we've got a new young American actor and we know that you use Americans on Thunderbirds... would you like to speak to him?' They said, 'Yeah, OK. Send him along.' So I auditioned and that was the start of my relationship with Gerry and Sylvia. At the time I was working for Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East earning 15 guineas a week, and I was earning 60 guineas two days a month on Scarlet. I was paying my rent and all the rest of it on Captain Scarlet, and I was getting very good notices working for Joan Littlewood on the stage. I'm very grateful to Captain Scarlet," the actor says warmly.
"The puppets on Scarlet - called Supermarionation - were supposed to be an improvement on the kind that came before. One reason Captain Scarlet was not as successful as Thunderbirds or Fireball XL5 was research showed, because the Scarlet puppets were too lifelike. It worked against them. The stiffness of the other puppets kind of relaxed people. Try to work that one out!"
On Scarlet all the voices were recorded first. "We did two episodes a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, two days a month. So that was four episodes a month. We worked on it for six months. They recorded the voices first so that if we did something clever with a line, they would adjust the puppet to go with it. Tony Barwick wrote most of the scripts and he was very flexible, he would listen to you. It wasn't just a question of saying the lines, we could make suggestions. That was one of the things I found about working with Gerry and Sylvia and Reg Hill, who was co-producer at that time - they were very open. There was a good cross-fertilisation between the actors and the producers"
Bishop also appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey. "I did a tiny part in Lolita for Stanley Kubrick, one of the first films I'd ever done. When he called me in to do 2001 nobody knew what the script was, nobody had ever seen a complete script. It was all in Kubrick's head. I did seven days on the film and I was also working on a play in the West End, so I would go out to the MGM studios for the filming. We shot a lot of material and my heart was broken when I went to the premiere... We shot nine hours and cut it down to three!"
Did he find the end result pretty much incomprehensible? "A lot of it didn't work," Bishop agrees. "I saw it recently on TV and it doesn't work on television. Those missing scenes must be somewhere. And as a matter of fact when we were making the film, they were making a film of Kubrick making the film! The actors would be sitting around and you could see a stick mike coming up at the side of your chair! Kubrick had his hands on everything. He knew everything about the props and costumes, it was all in that man's head.
"As there was no script, we would just improvise it. Kubrick would say, 'You guys go away and make up a scene, come back and we'll take a look at it.' It was absolutely incredible. I kind of blew up with Mr. Kubrick. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about! I'm the kind of actor who has to have an open relationship with a director. He would start playing games with you. He'd say one thing one day and completely reverse it the next. By about day six when he said, 'Good Morning, Ed', I didn't even know what he meant by that!"
Bishop soon teamed up with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson again appearing in Doppelgänger, their first live action film. "The film was not a happy experience for Gerry. He had to hire a director and producers that he had never worked with before. He worked best when he was with his crew whom he had known through the years. I had a nice little part in that film and from that I got the job in UFO."
UFO, of course, was the story of how the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (SHADO) defended the Earth against the threat of a race of body-snatching aliens. Ed Bishop took on the lead role of Commander Straker, head of SHADO, and he agrees that UFO bore more than a passing resemblance to Captain Scarlet. "Yeah, well Gerry's formats are more or less the same," he says with a smile. "There's a secret organisation and so on. A lot of people have criticised him for that. It had worked for him in the past so he saw no reason why it wouldn't work for him in the future. Quite frankly I was delighted to be working with Gerry and Sylvia again. Also to be able to do 26 hour-long episodes was a wonderful job, financially.
"I did enjoy working on UFO. Although I could say that a few of the early episodes we did at MGM were slow and predictable, the characters were very one-dimensional and the special effects stole the show. I think that the more of them we did, the more they improved."
Did the show fall foul of ITV networks because of its violence and gritty action? "No, no, I think it was just the one episiode (The Long Sleep) that they pulled because there was a drug connotation. Two young people take drugs and they start to hallucinate. While hallucinating they see an alien and nobody believes them because they were on the drugs. There was a lot of slow-motion and psychedelic lighting and, I think rightly so, they put that one episode out a bit later. There certainly wasn't any Machiavellian approach by the producers to say, 'Hey, let's take advantage of the drug culture', which was very prevalent at that time. It was just a mistake."
Bishop agreed that the spirit of Sixties TV was for escapist fun. "Yes, Department S, The Persuaders, The Saint, The Protectors, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Champions... All of those series seem to have been made up on the back of an envelope in a pub somewhere! Although they all seemed to work, they had a kind of bizarre charm. There was also a certain kind of cynical element in that it was very cheap to shoot in the UK. Dollar for dollar the Americans found that they could buy products like Department S at a very low cost. It was an exciting time to be in England, you know. There was a break-through, a big turning over of culture. Post-Beatles time, The Rolling Stones, Carnaby Street and all that."
What about the fandom that surrounds shows like UFO? "I love it. I've been to Australia twice, Canada, Italy, doing conventions. It's really amazing. I mean, we finished making the series over a quarter century ago. Peole who probably weren't even born at the time come to the conventions. There's a whole new audience because of videos, laser discs, repeats... and I must say, it's all very endearing. Maybe I'm missing something, but there are a lot of actors who charge money to go to these conventions. As long as they pay my expenses, I couldn't take money to go and have people applaud my work. My daughter is a policewoman, she does a far better social function to society but nobody says to her, 'We'll give you some money to come and talk about your work'."
Ed Bishop's television credits range from Out of the Unknown, to French & Saunders to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. "I'm just known by the directors: 'Where can I get an American actor? Oh yeah, Ed Bishop!' I've even been on Top of the Pops!"
Doing what, exactly? "There was this group called Landscape. I may be wrong but I think they only had one hit, a song called 'Norman Bates'. It went, 'My name is Noooorman Bates, I'm just a noooormal guy... ba ba ba ba ba ba'. At the beginning of the song there was a voice drawling, 'Did Norman really kill the girl at the Bates motel? To answer that question we must go back, back to a time when Norman saw is mother in bed with her lover. This so disturbed Norman...' and so on. When they got on Top of the Pops they had to get a guy to say all of this. Dial Ed Bishop'. Jimmy Javille was a DJ," the actor laughs.
"I got a press notice once which called me the 'ubiquitous' Ed Bishop, which means 'I'll do anything', and to tell you the truth I love it all."
When I spoke to Ed he was touring round Britain, appearing in Arthur Miller's acclaimed new play, Broken Glass. "I regard myself as an Arthur Miller actor. Mr. Miller is from Brooklyn, I was born in Brooklyn in 1932. The play is set in Brooklyn in 1938. I can remember my parents talking about the Jews and Nazi Germany (the subject matter of the play). Many of his plays concern the depression. My father was wiped out in the Stock Market Crash, so I know where's he's coming from. He's a social playwright but he sets it all within a family, so it doesn't become a boring sociological lecture. In the thirty-six year career I could count the jobs that I really loved on the fingers of one hand. This play and this experience is certainly one of them."
What are Ed's plans for the future? "Who knows? I've paid off the mortgage, I don't have to worry. I've been very lucky. I've done a lot of different kinds of work."
Transcribed for the SHADO Library and Archives by D.A. Rorabaugh from materials donated by Amelia and Ed Rodgers.