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Interview with Photographer Oliver McNeil

Interview with Oliver McNeil

Jackie Emery

Oliver McNeil is a specialist Fantasy Photographer, who has taken stunning new photographs of Paul Darrow and Tom Baker. Horizon spoke to the man behind the camera lens, and asked how it all began...

Oliver: I've always been into fantasy ever since I was a child. I'm 42 now, so that puts me in the era of watching Tom Baker as the Doctor, which had a lasting effect on me. But I was really into high fantasy and used to do things like Dungeons & Dragons. That led on to live role playing, which is where the prop making and costume making all started. I used to make costumes, masks, all kinds of things.

I learned theatre design, props making and costume design. I worked at the National Film School and also the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. The year I was there, so were the actors Damien Lewis and Joseph Fiennes, and Ewan McGregor the year before that. They were fantastic actors to be around.

I also worked at the BBC for a short time, on a production called Bookmark, which was a show about Enid Blyton. It was trying to combine the life story of Enid Blyton along with her stories, and was all done on a blue screen set in Wimbledon. Maureen Lipman played Enid Blyton, and we had Noddy knocking about... it was quite serious, but with light elements. I was designing puppets, dealing with the props and keeping track of everything in blue screen, because this production was quite different for its time.

In the theatre, I was a prop maker and scenic artist, and would make all kinds of things out of fibreglass and polystyrene. I really trained as a costume designer, but would end up making props to go on to people masks and armour, things like that. I was lucky to have been taught by tutors who worked on The Dark Crystal.

Horizon: What theatre productions did you work on?

Oliver: At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which is right next to the Barbican, we did performances of Hamlet and Macbeth. They also did things like Pippi Longstocking, and I worked on various pantomimes as well, which was great fun. Especially seeing your favourite stars in their - well, actually, I've got an interesting story...

Horizon: Do tell!

Oliver: Bill Pertwee was in a production with Roy Hudd and June Whitfield, and they wanted to have the biggest custard pie fight that had ever been staged! Roy Hudd is an absolute afficionado of music hall theatre and he was directing as well as starring in it. So we had buckets and buckets of foam, which was actually made of shaving sticks. We would grate these into buckets of water and then use a Black & Decker drill with a whisk attachment on the end to whisk it all up until it was really foamy. The actors obviously got covered in it, and poor Bill Pertwee discovered, two weeks into a two and a half month run, that he had quite sensitive skin. He came up in terrible rashes, which we could all see because he used to leave the door open when he was showering! He complained bitterly, and somehow it fell to me to fix it for him. I was only 18 at the time and I had to go out looking for lotions to cure his woes! Luckily I didn't actually have to apply the lotion...

Another pantomime I worked on was with June Brown, who plays Dot Cotton in EastEnders. She's an absolutely delightful lady, but a terrible chain smoker. We would have to grab cigarettes off her before she went on stage as the Fairy Godmother! I actually had the honour of having Christmas dinner with her and John Altman, who plays her son in EastEnders, because we were all working on that day. It was quite a surreal experience, eating Christmas dinner with Dot and Nick Cotton!

After working in the theatre and BBC, I did a few different things until I discovered photography. And it's through photography that I realised that I could combine my love of theatre, fantasy and everything I really adored. I could create my own scenes and my own mini episodes of things that were in my head, with people off the street. One time I was on a family holiday in Egypt, and I took some costumes and went out into the desert by myself, dressed as a Knight Templar. A Bedouin happened to come along and I threw a costume on him and filmed him against the setting sun! Another thing I did was Barry the Demon Hunter a series of short webisodes that I wrote and directed. It was all done on a shoestring.

I started my fantasy photography business about ten years ago and it's grown and grown ever since. It's great fun, and it's kind of how I drew the attention of Tom Baker...

Horizon: What's the story behind that?

Oliver: My studio was down in the old town of Hastings. It was in a cul-de-sac area off the main street, and attracting people down there was extremely difficult. So I decided to build a Tardis! It was partly due to my fiance, who's a Billie Piper look-alike or was, a few years ago, when Rose Tyler was popular. I thought I could hire them out together. That never actually happened, but I did build the Tardis. I would assemble it every day and put it outside my studio, and it drew people into the area to come and have a look at it.

It was a couple of years later that Tom Baker's wife contacted me. Their cleaner's children had been to my studio for a fantasy shoot. They probably saw the Tardis and went back to Tom and said, "Look at these pictures, aren't they lovely?" Tom's wife said that they were planning to do a calendar and asked if they could use my skills!

Tom and his wife came down to meet me. I was so nervous! They didn't actually say anything about the Tardis at the time, which is quite interesting... But they chatted and explained what they wanted, and we arranged it for the following week. Tom had said that he wanted pictures for the calendar and a head shot, as well. And in my head I thought, This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, I'm going to make the most of it!

So when Tom turned up, I had a table set up with a bottle of red wine and the biggest glass I could find, which had been a christening present to me. I sat him down and he immediately relaxed and we just started chatting. We got some really lovely photographs of him, just nice and relaxed and talking. I wanted to make it look to his fans, to all the people who would be buying the calendar, that it was a very intimate moment between themselves and Tom staring down from their walls - as if he'd been invited round for dinner. That was the kind of shot I wanted. I did a few of those, and a couple of other styles at the studio, and Tom enjoyed it so much, he said: "Can we do some outdoor ones as well?" I said, "Absolutely yes, I would be delighted to do that!" At the time, we had no plan of selling these as portraits. They were just going to be for the calendar.

We did a bit of location scouting and I arranged to meet up with Tom in the Rye graveyard, early in the morning. There I was, sitting in the graveyard, waiting for Tom Baker... and I thought, if my eight-year old self could see me now!

It was a beautiful sunny day and we walked around Rye, finding different areas that we could pop into and shoot. Rye is a fantastic historic town with cobbled streets and giant anchors... we also invaded an antiques shop that Tom had found. It had retro juke boxes and gigantic parabolic mirrors, and when I saw those, I thought Wow! and asked:
"Tom, can you stoop down a bit, so we can get your head in the mirror?"
He replied (Tom voice): "I never stoop for anyone!"
"Okay," I said, "that's fine, we'll find you a chair!"

We got some lovely shots there, which you can see on my website, where he's looking back over the chair. He's a member of the BFI and he wanted to get photos that represented different parts of his life. We obviously weren't allowed to do anything too Doctor Who-y, because of BBC copyright, but we could allude to his life, you know. So that's what we did with the mirror, that's what we did with all the clocks behind him, pointing at his watch... allusions to Time!

That was in May 2010, and the calendar which was for 2011 was produced and released by the Stamp Centre. But then I was left with all these other images of Tom and I realised that we should really do something with them. So I suggested to him, "Why don't we do these as signed pieces of artwork? Make them really special." And he was very happy to do that.

We agreed that we wanted them to be quite exclusive. They're expensive for prints, although they're not expensive for artwork. And there are extras that we include, such as filming Tom signing them. I actually live very close to Tom now, just round the corner from him. Whenever I sell one, I go round to his house, set up my camera equipment and film it properly, with Tom doing a message to the person that it's being signed for. These have been very popular in America and Australia, where people can't come over here. And Tom is now at an age where he isn't happy to travel that far.

I've photographed Tom many times since then. I've been doing his Christmas cards for two or three years. And I see him quite often every time I sell one of the portraits and go round to film him, we have coffee and a good chat for about an hour.

Horizon: That must be a fan's dream come true!

Oliver: It is. It's great! I know him quite well, now. We did a shoot for the last Christmas card in October. I found the location this time; he wanted a piano, so I found a piano and an open fire. Some friends of mine have the most beautiful house and they also run a fancy dress company. They said they were happy for Tom to use the living room, if he wouldn't mind standing there having his picture taken with their fancy dress. And Tom said that was absolutely fine. I also told Tom that we were going to be doing a shoot later on of a Halloween circus, and he said: "Oh, can I stay?"

He hung around for about three hours, just for the experience of seeing the shoot with all these jugglers. We also had children who were dressed up as Victorian working children we made them look very pale, with sunken eyes, and had a smoke machine going and Tom's right in the middle with them. It was totally unplanned, but we do like that!

Horizon: Do you do make-up for the shoots?

Oliver: Occasionally, but I don't often work with make-up people because it can slow down the whole process. I'm used to working with the general public, and I like them to be in and out of the studio within an hour. Not because I don't want to see them, but because if you're dealing with babies and children under the age of ten, you have a very limited time when they're going to be happy to wait around and act and perform as you would want them to. I tend to get the best out of children within the first twenty minutes of meeting them. And the last thing you would want is somebody slowing it down by doing make-up on them. Children tend to have pretty good skin anyway, it's the adults who might need a little bit of work with blemishes and I may do a little bit of photoshop on them - but not too much. And I would never do make-up on Tom Baker or Paul Darrow!

Horizon: Can you tell us how you came to work with Paul Darrow?

Oliver: Well, Paul is a gentleman, but we all know that! He's an absolutely delightful man. I first saw him at one of the Big Finish Days in Barking. Tom Baker was doing signings, and they offered me a stand to sell his portraits. While I was there, Paul wandered past and I thought how good he would be to photograph as well. He's of the same era as Tom Baker.

Then in May 2012, I went to another convention, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, in Peterborough. It was an amazing convention, with so many guests all the Starship captains, the Ashes to Ashes crowd, most of the Doctors...

Anyway, Paul was there with the Big Finish people. My stand was right next to Nick Briggs, and we got chatting. In fact, Nick agreed to get some photos done as well, but we've never had time to meet up because he's so busy all the time! But I spoke to Paul, and he said he would be very happy to have a portrait done. He was very flattered and then it was only a matter of time, sorting out when he could come. He said, "I'm in your hands, just do what you want I trust you. I'll come down to Hastings, and we'll just make it fun!"

I researched Paul as much as I could, and found out what his passions were. He's an author, he loves military history and I also found out that he really wanted to be a cowboy! And of course the biggest one for me was Avon. These were all aspects that I had to get in.

I knew we would have about three or four hours together, so I worked out a route around the old town of Hastings and found various different places where I wanted to shoot him.

When he arrived, I said, "Okay Paul, what we'll do first is go up to the castle and by the way, we're going to take these guns with us!"

These were replica rifles Winchesters and Colts and we didn't have bags for them, so we were wandering around carrying them! For the costume, I lent him my big leather coat. We went into the castle; just walked around the ruins and kind of got to know each other. We chatted about which cowboys he liked, and I think his favourite was John Wayne. He loves doing a John Wayne impression, if you press him! Then we walked down these fantastic chalk cliffs, and Paul just started having rather a lot of fun, swinging the guns about luckily there was no one else around.

Horizon: Just as well, you'd have been arrested!

Oliver: Well, Paul did ask me that question: "Is it okay to walk around Hastings with these guns?"
I said, "Don't worry they know me around here, it should be fine!"

Then we went down to the bookshop. It's actually a combined Thai restaurant and bookshop, and they opened it up specially for us. I asked Paul if I could get a shot of him with a book, looking kind of, you know... and the first book he pulled out is the one he's reading in the picture - Hatred & Contempt, which he thought was rather apt! I had the light very low down, and we did some lovely shots of him in that bookshop.

Then we had a rest, and he confidentially told me about writing his Blake's 7 books and how he was going to rescue Avon. He said, "Don't tell anybody! This is how I'm going to do it!" He was quite excited and said, "Do you think Avon should survive and have more adventures?" He keeps wanting to kill him off! But I think as long as people keep wanting the books, he'll keep Avon alive. Paul said he wanted him to be more of a Napoleonic character. Tragic hero, loner type. He imagined Avon kind of incarcerated and issuing orders and having some kind of deeper plan.

We finished up with the shoot of Paul dressed as Avon. I thought, I've got to try to get him in costume. What other opportunity would there be to see him as Avon again? I did a bit of research and decked my studio up; it's a black studio, and I got some lights and a costume. The gun came from a friend of mine, who lives just down the road and has all these sci fi guns. And funnily enough, the guy who actually made the guns his wife wrote for Blake's 7. I can't remember her name...

Horizon: Is it Tanith Lee?

Oliver: Yes, that's her! It's such a small world. The gun that Paul's holding in the photo was made by the husband of Tanith Lee!

We did that shoot last and I built up to it, because I had to talk Paul round a bit. He wasn't sure whether fans would want to see him as Avon now, at his age. But I said, "Oh, I think they do!"

Horizon: They most certainly do!

Oliver: And he looked fantastic! I think he'll always be a very good-looking chap.

Horizon: Which of the pictures you took of him is your favourite?

Oliver: I think there are two. I am rather proud of the one of him dressed as Avon the one with the lights by the side of him. I also like the other one, which is again of him in black he does suit black awfully well! The other ones were kind of fun, where he's playing about.

But there's one picture where he's just sat in the chair wearing his suit, and he's looking right at the camera. It's just him, stripped of any acting, just being himself. I do think that's a nice powerful one. You need to know him quite well for him to reveal himself. Or else I tired him out! He did seem to enjoy it enough to want to come back to Hastings, though.

Horizon: Is he going to do some more portraits?

Oliver: No, that was for the revue - the Tales of Mystery and Terror.

Horizon: How did that event come about?

Oliver: Well, it's a long story but I'll shorten it for you! Bascially, Tom Baker was asked, by a chap called Steve Corke, whether he would be willing to do something for a fund-raising event in aid of St Michael's Hospice. At that point it was going to be an interview on stage, which would be part of a song and dance show. Tom wasn't sure about it at first, but he asked me to get involved because he knew I had a theatre background and that I was good at organising things. He asked if I would mind asking the questions as well, because I knew quite a bit about him and he felt comfortable around me.

So Steve and I met up, and as the event was going to be in October, I thought it would be a nice idea to give it a little bit of a Halloween twist. So Steve chose songs that were a little bit darker, more twisty, from Les Mis and Sweeney Todd. I did the set for the interview. We had lots of strange stuff - things in jars, a gorilla skull, a stuffed screaming fox and an armadillo scooped out into a basket you know, just the usual weird Tom stuff!!

We had no budget for any of this, so we had to borrow all of it from various antique places. Luckily the old town is full of antique shops and all we had to say was: "This is for an event with Tom Baker!"

Up to that point we hadn't had Paul in mind, but because I'd worked with him, I suggested that Paul would be fantastic to include. "Why don't we get them both to read something out, a horror tale or something like that?"

And Paul was absolutely up for it. He said, "I love Poe, I adore Edgar Allen Poe!"

I then spent the next two months listening to Edgar Allen Poe, trying to find the right kind of story that would fit in - and suddenly realising that all the stories are incredibly long! And we had the interview with Tom, and the songs... it would have made the whole thing too unwieldy. So we came up with the decision that Paul should read The Raven. He even had his own copy, which we auctioned afterwards.

We were also able to get Toby Hadoke as compere well, once you've got one star, and then another star, other stars want to get in on it! Originally Reece Shearsmith from League of Gentlemen had agreed to do it, but Inside No 9 was then commissioned and his workload would have been too much. But we got Toby Hadoke, who was absolutely fantastic. Toby knows everything about sci fi - he's built two shows around it - so he was the perfect choice.

When Paul arrived, we had a little lunch together with some of his fans, who'd been invited along to raise more money for the charity. Toby turned up about an hour before the show started, and I asked him if he could fill in the links no problem! So we had the music, and then Paul went on. He did a little interview with Toby, completely off the cuff, and then went into the reading. It was wonderful!

The second half of the show was the interview with Tom. It was very formal, we all wore dinner jackets and had glasses and bottles of of wine on the stage. And Tom spent half the interview with his arm around Toby. I've got a lovely photograph of Toby and Paul and Tom backstage, and Toby was just like, "My heroes! All my dreams have come true, I can't believe it!"

The event raised an incredible amount of money. Tom had specified that he didn't want to do anything too big, and it was a small theatre - about 120 seats. We only held one auction, which was the Edgar Allen Poe book that Paul had brought along, and the rest came from donations. But we raised nearly 15,000!

Afterwards, I said it would be lovely to do this again, and Tom said, "Oh, I don't know, I think my stage days are over!" So unfortunately I don't think we'll see it again. But maybe we could do something with a different cast. It was an amazing night!

Horizon: If you had the opportunity, which other celebrities or actors would you like to photograph?

Oliver: I don't know. I think I might have peaked already with my fandom! But I would love to do Matt Smith. I think he's got such an interesting face. I'm less keen on David Tennant he's great, a fantastic actor, but I do go for more interesting faces.

I really like comedians as well. I would love to photograph people like Vic and Bob. I did do Paul Daniels last year, and he was wonderful. I went to the White Rock Theatre where he was performing and said, "Look, can I just have five minutes and I'll do it at the end?"

I actually set up a whole scene to the side of the theatre and had lots of props and various lighting bits. Paul just sat down there and chatted to me while I shot away. I photographed him making the magic, as well. And again, what I like with these guys is when they just stop and become themselves. Revealing the masks. Those are the shots I like to grab. I think some of the younger actors when they reveal their masks, they're impatient to get on to the next thing. I like somebody who's seen it, done it, been there, come back, done it again - and can impart a bit of wisdom.

I would absolutely love to shoot Christopher Lee. But I fear my time is running out with him. I learned the other day that all his shots for The Hobbit were filmed in the UK and then blended in with everything that was shot in New Zealand, because he couldn't fly out there. I think they might have used a double for the long shots and then cut in the close ups. But he would be amazing to photograph!

I went to Westminster recently. I'm not a big political person, and I realised that there were a few characters who I didn't know were still alive! Denis Healey was one of them. I thought he'd died years ago, but he's still alive and kicking. He looks incredible now. Obviously, he's famous for his eyebrows - they were huge when he was in his 40s and they haven't stopped growing! He's now in his 90s and has just got the most incredible face. He would be interesting to photograph.

I realise that I've only mentioned men. I do photograph ladies, but I find the men more interesting at the moment. It's the character, I suppose. I've always been drawn to wizards! Back to the Dungeons & Dragons!

Horizon: On your website you advertise workshops and seminars for Painting with Light. Can you tell us about it?

Oliver: Painting with light is very sci fi, isn't it? It's actually painting space and time! But basically, it's having a very long exposure on the camera, then using light to draw in real time. There's a picture on the website with a sunset and a glowing ball. That was done with about a 1-minute exposure while the sun was setting, and sparklers on the end of a dog chain. I'm walking around, but you can't see me because I'm unlit, and the camera isn't picking me up at all. I've got about ten sparklers taped together on the end of the dog chain, and it comes out as this amazing ball of light.

I did a workshop recently with four people, where we used different types of light to create different effects. One man stood almost spread-eagled, with his arms splayed behind him and we taped a torch to his chest that was shining up into the sky, through a slightly misty atmosphere. It looked like a beam coming up from him. Then I used a flash gun to add another exposure, which lit up behind and created a shadow. So there was this beam of light and shadow all round. Then I had someone else painting big circles around him, using something called El Wire, which if you move it about, looks like smoke. And we had someone else using little green lights to add extra luminescence and laser light going round. We roughly knew what we were doing, but you're never exactly sure how it's going to turn out. The full result looked pretty amazing!

You don't actually need photography experience to join these workshops. You can get used to the principle very quickly, as I do all the settings. There was a chap who came along with his partner, who hadn't had any experience, but we did a lovely one with her. She was standing in front of a wind machine, and then we had battery operated fairy lights with ropes on the end. There were five different shades of orange, yellow and red, which if you jiggle it about, it looks like fire. We brought it around the front and when we came to look at the exposure, it looked like a fire demon putting its arms around her! So you don't have to have experience, you just need a little bit of imagination. It's incredibly fun.

I do these workshops down in Hastings. You can stay over, as well, there's a camping site there. Come down and see!

Horizon: And finally, we always end our interviews with a silly question. If you could take one of the Blake's 7 characters to a bar, who would it be and why?

Oliver: I like both Blake and Avon, but I prefer Blake as he was at the beginning, because he was a bit dangerous and mixed up at the end. And I prefer Avon as he was at the end, because he's most like Paul then or vice versa? So Season 1 Blake, and Season 4 Avon.

Horizon: Oliver McNeil, thank you very much!

Oliver: Absolute pleasure. Lovely chatting to you!


You can see more of Oliver's photos on his website here: Legend Photography.

Oliver is offering Horizon members the opportunity to buy unsigned prints of his photographs of Paul Darrow at the special discounted price of only 60 + 10 p&p (usual price 120).
Print size is 18x12 inches with a 2 inch border, on high quality paper, backed with board.
To order, just call Oliver at the studio on 01580 830178, quoting "Avon Lives"!

Photographs copyright Oliver McNeil


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