DOCTOR WHO: Holding out for a Master - A tribute to Anthony Ainley - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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DOCTOR WHO: Holding out for a Master - A tribute to Anthony Ainley

Dominic Fellows pays tribute to the actor who portrayed the Master throughout the 1980s, Anthony Ainley.

I met Anthony Ainley just once on what was, rather sadly, to be his last ever convention appearance. I was lucky enough in which case to see his one-time-only one-man performance ‘An audience with The Master’. After a somewhat low-key introduction he entered the convention, uncharacteristically all in white top-hat and tails, looking like an exceptionally naff game show host he reeled off a stream of out-dated jokes and groan-inducing one-liners that would have got anyone else booed off the stage. But this did not happen. The attendees sat, listened and even laughed with a little applause. Ainley’s act was so bad… it was good. Because he IS The Master. 

The Master is anomalous. He is supposedly one of the most evil beings in all creation and yet we never feel threatened by him, we even like him. This should not be the case, frankly he has the makings of the worst super villain ever and yet he’s kept his place as a firm favourite over the years, due in no small part to Roger Delgado’s gentleman villain original or John Simm’s lovable rogue update. So what of Anthony Ainley? Despite giving the greatest contribution to the role (in terms of episodes at least) He doesn’t seem to be as fondly remembered. I have a theory that truly great actors are never given the recognition they deserve and the reason for this is that when an actor is truly great it becomes increasingly difficult to separate them from the character. The character is remembered but the actor is lamentably forgotten about. This is why I believe that Ainley was a great actor.
He was not a tall or very physically imposing man and yet he still possessed the power to be terrifying. Prior to Doctor Who he had a very long career, I remember once flicking through the channels and finding a film in which he played a thug of all things and it shocked me how scary he was. You only have to look at his performance in ‘Survival’ to see just how far he could have taken The Master’s sadistic streak. So why did he wait nine years before giving us such a brilliant performance?

My own theory is that Ainley was so good because he knew how to judge an audience. He knew how to pitch a part so that it suited each production exactly. How else could a man who wasn’t very threatening or funny make a career out of playing villains and entertain a hall full of people with bad jokes? He knew not what an audience wanted, but what an audience needed and that’s exactly what he gave us as The Master.

While it’s true, his portrayal often has something of the ‘moustache-twirling-pantomime-villain’ about it, this is entirely appropriate when you take into account what he was acting in. His turn as Tremas is frequently over-looked but it is very understated and thoughtful performance which is immediately followed in ‘Logopolis’ by the power-hungry and somewhat sadistic Master we all know and love, the glee he exerts as he operates the controls that cause The Doctor’s fall is a particularly nice touch. Then we get ‘Castrovalva’ where the convoluted schemes, cartoon super villainy and preposterous disguises come into play. So why the sudden the change? This approach becomes a hallmark of his Master. The ‘campy’ aspect continues until ‘The Five Doctors’ but this is replaced by a more desperate and calculating persona in ‘Planet of Fire’ which is in turn changed into the slightly more roguish ‘just for the fun of it’ motivation in ‘The Mark of the Rani’ and ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ before finally culminating in the animalistic savage in ‘Survival’.

I always felt that he was giving a performance appropriate to each production. The animalistic Master of ‘Survival’ would not sit well in ‘Time-Flight’. Yes, it would have made him look very good, but it would not have fitted the rest of the production and in all likelihood would have made ‘Time-Flight’ look worse in comparison. It’s fine to be genuinely evil when you’re ‘killing’ the Fourth Doctor but when easing in the Fifth Doctor such an approach would be wholly inappropriate. Even today debut episodes have a much lighter touch to them. This is perhaps why it’s questionable to use an established villain in such stories. Whatever one may think of his Master, he always gave the right performance for what he was in. While other Masters have stuck to a particular type of characters throughout their respective tenures, Ainley’s is constantly changing to suit whatever he is in, which given that he was present during the consistently inconsistent 1980s this is perhaps a much wiser choice than it initially appears.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of his death because the magic he brought to that particular convention would never be felt again. I remember standing in the hotel in Coventry, surrounded by Doctor Who fans going to their talks and having their paraphernalia signed and all of a sudden I became very aware that someone was behind me, uncomfortably close. ‘Why Doctor,’ a thrillingly familiar voice said ‘What an unexpected pleasure.’ I wanted to squeal in fanboy excitement, but I kept my cool just long enough to turn to him and say ‘Are you sure of that Master?’ He smiled and walked on. He probably did this all the time, but for one very beautiful moment I got to be The Doctor, talking to The Master. However brief it may have been, he gave me a genuine connection to the universe of Doctor Who and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Dominic Fellows is an actor and writer from Birmingham in the UK. He is also producer of the group Stripped Down Theatre (find them on Facebook). His shows have had more than one or two ‘geeky gags’ in them.

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