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Michael Pickwoad: from Withnail to the Doctor
This Christmas Day millions of people will round off a perfect afternoon by switching on the television and tuning into a show which has become a festive tradition.
Since its reinvention, Doctor Who has become a huge success. And no episode attracts as many viewers as the Christmas special.
One Oxford fan, however, will be paying more attention than most — with a keen eye for the things most of us will miss. For more than 40 years Michael Pickwoad has been at the heart of the British film and television industry, designing sets designed to take the viewer from palatial costume drama interiors to decrepit Cumbrian farmhouses. But, at the moment, it is Doctor Who which is causing all the excitement.
“It’s enormous fun,” he says warmly, talking from the studio in Cardiff, where the programme is filmed.
“I was a bit worried when I started as I’d never designed a spaceship before. But if the story is good you can get away with anything.” Creativity, he says is the key.
“You can’t spend too much time on everything and have to gloss over a few things,” he confesses.
“Compared to what people might imagine there is not very much money spent on it at all. That means you have to be cunning with what you do. It’s extremely hard work — but it’s tremendous fun.”
While designing spaceships may have been a new experience, there was little else he hadn’t created. Michael was born in 1945, into a family well grounded in the worlds of both entertainment and design. His father was the actor William Mervyn, best remembered for his roles as the bishop in the ecclesiastical TV comedy All Gas and Gaiters and as the railway boss in the Railway Children. His mother was the theatre designer and architect Anne Payne Cook. Born and brought up in Windsor he was educated at St George’s School in the grounds of Windsor Castle itself, before going to Charterhouse.
After school, he went to sea; working on a cargo ship to West Africa, an experience which he says opened his eyes to “the reality of the extraordinary and the expectation of what something should look like”.
With a keen interest in design and mechanics, coupled with his parents’ background in the theatre, set design seemed an obvious step. And after studying civil engineering at Southampton University, he embarked on what was to become a life in film — contributing designs for 100 productions in more than 20 countries. They include such familiar names as Kavanagh QC, Cider with Rosie, Miss Marple, Poirot, Lost in Austen, and the movies The Ploughman’s Lunch, Mountbatten, the Last Viceroy, The Bengal Lancers, Hawk the Slayer, Comrades, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
The list of actors he has worked with, meanwhile, reads like a Who’s Who of film and television, and includes Hayley Mills, Kurt Russell, George C Scott, Judy Dench, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gambon, Daniel Craig, Ray Winston, Jim Broadbent, David Suchet, Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtney, Sally Field, Paul Bettany, Dawn French and Mel Smith.
But despite such illustrious company, it was the squalid tale of two out-of-work actors which sealed his reputation and earned his place in the heart of movie- buffs. Withnail and I, starring Richard E Grant, Richard Griffiths and Paul McGann (coincidentally, the eighth Doctor Who), is a cult classic written and directed by Bruce Robinson with a razor-sharp script and inspired casting.
But it was the sets — the actors’ seedy London flat, Uncle Monty’s Lakeland cottage and the spartan Crow and Crown pub — which have fixed it in the popular imagination.
“So many people say it is their favourite film,” says Michael with delight. “It’s wonderful to watch as it was so beautifully written. It was a lot of fun setting it too — especially recreating the feel of the 1960s. I enjoyed the reality and absurdity of it and finding all those wonderful items.” And his favourite scene?
“I loved Withnail’s kitchen,” he says. “We found a lovely flat in Bayswater and had to knock a hole in the wall. On the day before we were supposed to start filming I sent out for a Chinese takeaway and smeared sweet and sour pork all over the plates in the sink to make it look realistic. We didn’t actually start filming until four days later, though, so when you see them pulling food out of the sink it really was as disgusting as it looked. Health and safety didn’t mean the same thing back then. It was a wonderful scene.”
He adds: “It wasn’t inspired by my flat, but by the things I had seen.”
Michael lives in North Oxford with his scriptwriter wife Vanessa. And they have passed on their shared love of film to their three daughters, Zoe, a dietician and film buff, Katie, a graphic designer and artist, and Amy, a film and television art director who has also worked with him on Doctor Who, a show which is becoming a family trade.
Thirteen recent episodes of Doctor Who have received the unique Pickwoad touch, but which, I wonder was his favourite? “I loved the pirate episode, The Curse of the Black Spot,” he answers. “It meant I could build the inside of ships, which was wonderful. Every child loves pirates and galleons, and to do this job you also have to think like a child. You have to ask yourself what you would like to see... and what you would be scared of.” And the best Doctor?
“They have all been good in their own way, but Matt Smith is extremely good and I’ve enjoyed working with him. He’s got loads of energy and leaps around, which is appealing to a young audience. As a fan I also particularly liked Patrick Troughton, who was a fun character.”
So can he give us a hint as to what everyone’s favourite Time Lord might be up to this Yuletide? “That would be giving too much away,” he laughs. “It would spoil it for people. I can confirm there are no Daleks though, and there will be some very interesting things happening to the Tardis – which gets a new look. But if I told you any more, I’d have to kill you!”