Catweazle: Interview: Geoffrey Bayldon

ITV’s children’s series Catweazlemay have recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, but its star, Geoffrey Bayldon, has lost none of his enthusiasm for the show. The sprightly octogenarian actor looks back at a career that has encompassed Shakespeare, wizards, 007 and a certain renegade Time Lord…

Words: Paul Simpson

What did Catweazle creator Richard Carpenter tell you about the show?

I knew he was writing something for me, and I thought, “Poor dear, he must be hard up. It’s going to be dreadful.” But my agent rang and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve read the first page and I’ve never read anything so magical in my life. I tingled with joy. I’m sending it to you straightaway.” I read the first page and was in the same state as her. I thought it was wonderful.

It was a new idea, at the time of boring kitchen-sink drama. Everything was serious, working-class, and the idea of magic didn’t even occur, let alone humour. With the two together I thought the world would be mine!

Richard stuck to me when the television people said, “We want a Name”. He said, “I don’t want a Name, I want Geoffrey. I wrote it because I know what he can do.” They all wanted somebody else. But he said, “Will you see Geoffrey?” So they agreed.

How did the audition go?

I started by doing him as an old man, but I thought that wasn’t very interesting, so I said, “Can I stop this? Can I put it on as if it were an old language – it could be North Country…” They said okay, so I did, and suddenly the words changed. It was the word “book” that did it – and from then on this marvellous director, Quentin Lawrence, said “Geoffrey you’re putting new sounds into this, we’ll have more of it.”

What’s your best memory of shooting Catweazle?

In the first few days, they were doing a scene with the Normans on horseback (avoiding the rhododendrons because they weren’t proper period). I went for a little walk, and got lost. I was carrying a very old umbrella, with prongs sticking out in all directions, in full make-up and costume, and suddenly found I was on a country road. I thought, “What do I do if anyone comes near here? Nobody knows who Catweazle is!” At that moment, a car started to come near, and it took not a moment’s thought – I jumped into the ditch and disappeared… I’d done a Catweazle for real! At that point, I thought, “I know what Catweazle’s about.”

Did you find yourself in a mentoring role with the two younger actors – Robin Davies and Gary Warren?

It was more with Robin. The first series starts with him, and ends with him realising it was all real. We worked this out between us, at a most terrible noisy road, near the water’s edge. I said to him, “You watch me suddenly disappear, and you think, ‘God, he was real. I was wrong.’ Your childhood ends at that moment, and when you turn away and go down the road, you go behind those bushes and blub your heart out.” He did it on the spot – just the beginnings of tears. God bless him.

I would never have a better partner than Carrot in the first; he was brilliant. He was wonderful – so was the other one, but his heart was not in it in the same way.

It seems that the humour changed between the series – was that something you felt at the time?

There are two episodes I felt that with; the rest I think are lovely. I thought they were dreadful, but they were not written by Richard. They were written when we were behind.

By the end of the second series, Catweazle was becoming a bit more used to the 20th Century; did you think there was a potential for a third year?

No, I stopped it being a third year. I said it had been marvellous – but if he’s now accepting television, we can’t go much further. After that, forget it. So we closed it down, and he flew away into the clouds, we don’t know where.

You appeared in Casino Royale, the Peter Sellers Bond spoof; did you enjoy working on that?

Yes. Sellers was in a marvellous mood. The point of the thing was to prove that the HQ of all spies was the basement of Harrods. The first time we met, he came down in a Harrods lift, came forward, put his hand in mine and said that a famous director sent me his love. We were in a great mood. We did our part of the scene, but then we never got the rest of the scene outside Harrods. Money was made by people who were working on a daily rate waiting for that!

I went to see the film with a friend and we wondered why everybody wasn’t laughing. Our scene was halfway through the film, and by then no-one was laughing at anything. It was a very good scene but it suffered from the fact it was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of it was appallingly wrong!

Are there any particular roles you wish you’d had a chance to play?

I never played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at Stratford. I don’t think I would have been marvellous at it, but later inAmerica, I did play Malvolio. I worshipped that. I was very camp and very bald. I was a good Malvolio, if a little bit over the top!

Did you ever regret turning down the role of the first Doctor in Doctor Who?

No. I’ve never been in love with sci-fi. It doesn’t terribly interest me. I turned it down simply because I’d been playing old men and I didn’t want to play any more. I didn’t read a script so I never turned an offer down – and when I got Catweazle, I thought, “That’s why I turned Doctor Who down.”  I’ve played the part on audios since and thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

There’s a generation – those of us between 43 and 53 – who watched Catweazle when it was broadcast in 1970/71 and in an era before home videos and constant reruns, something made it stick in our minds like the Gerry Anderson shows or the early Doctor Who. What do you think that ingredient was?

Magic. I don’t think it’s true of the early Doctor Whos. It was true of Catweazle. He had magic. It had fun, and quiet affection.

Read our review of the 40th anniversary edition of Catweazle.

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