Doctor Who has had more than its fair share of companions and recurring characters, portrayed by various co-stars and supporting cast members. Few of these, however, hold the same regard from the fans as John Levene.
John started out as an extra in the 1960, doing, as he says “well over 100 walk-ons in most of the BBC Productions during the ’60s & ’70s. Douglas Camfield spotted me and gave me a special walk-on part in a prestigious BBC2 production. He was so pleased with my effort that he used me many times. He had me in mind for Benton in Doctor who, and the rest, as they say, is glorious history.”
Best known as UNIT soldier Sgt John Benton in Doctor Who, Levene first appeared as an uncredited Cyberman in 1967â€™s The Moonbase, and a year later as the Yeti in The Web of Fear. He was lucky enough for the part of Corporal Benton to be promoted to a talking part in The Invasion (1968), and this template for the UNIT era of Doctor Who lead to the reliable, unflappable Sgt Benton appearing in 17 Doctor Who serials between 1968 and 1975.
Following a divorce in 1980, John is now based in the USA and has been married for 17 years. “I fell in love with a lady from Milwaukee, and that was it. We ended up in Burbank, California where my wife is now, I am so proud to say, an executive at the fabulous Warner Bros. Studio.”
To herald Kasterborousâ€™ Inferno feature, we spoke to John about his time on Doctor Who, fandom and his thoughts on the showâ€™s return.
To begin, I asked John about how he viewed himself as an actor. “Happy, Hard-working, good to direct, malleable, and a great sense of humour, along with a strong work ethic. So I would class myself as adequate but never great, considerate but no fool, always got on with 99% of actors and never had a hidden agenda. Though getting some top shows to work on, I did lack competitiveness.”
Like any actor or actress who has played the same character a number of times, or over a number of years, John has some affection for Benton. In Mawdryn Undead it was claimed that the soldier had moved on from UNIT into his own private enterprise. I suspected this was something John wouldnâ€™t be totally happy with â€“ but where did he see a post-UNIT Sgt. Benton? “Well as I have always said, the used car salesman thing pissed me off. Surely Benton would have been involved in something a little more refined and specialised than selling a bloody 1999 Ford Explorer or some second-hand piece of junk.
“Not the most creative position to throw a talented soldier like Benton into. I would have suggested maybe he would have become an instructor or gone into the private sector in a global security company, lecturing on the extraordinary events that occur on Earth and beyond.”
Of course, the real purpose of this interview was to hear Johnâ€™s thoughts on Inferno. Despite being 36 years old, it is – in my opinion â€“ a prime example of Doctor Who, with few aspects to date it other than itâ€™s length and visual style; and of course. Naturally, John agrees â€“ “Inferno stands out even now on its own in terms of a tense storyline, backed by some wonderful actors other than the regular cast, Douglas Camfield’s vision, Barry Letts sticking to the “feel” that Douglas envisioned. Douglas and Barry: two deeply talented and loyal men who never betrayed the essence of Doctor Who and its magic hold over so many of us right back to 1963.”
So how does it feel to have been part of something so well-regarded? “Well now, this is one element of my tenure on Doctor Who that still thrills me to my core, and that is the fact that Benton was in some of the all-time best stories of our show. All I can say to your question is that I am stunned to know of all the wonderful memories that watching my old shows allows me.
“Inferno was bloody hard work for every single human involved, but it was Barry Letts who must hold the accolade of truth and pure hard work, to continue on this explosive story. If you do listen carefully, you can hear the earth scream!!! How did we do it so well? Love and affection for Douglas, and an immediate bond that Barry instantly allowed us to respond to, as Barry was an actor, producer and director himself.”
Astonishingly, it is ten years since the sad loss of Jon Pertwee. Having with the Third Doctor for several years John Levene knew Jon Pertwee well. “Like most actors, Jon embraced his role of The Doctor from the very first moment. That is why I adored him so much, for he involved me in his life straight away. Jon asked me to drive him to the studio and rehearsal rooms every day, and at weekends to open supermarkets or when he performed in cabarets across Great Britain. We shared so much private time in each other’s company, so I got to know Jon very well. I complemented and supported his hard work and varied talents, and simply loved being his sidekick on and off the show, and I had the benefit of learning from such a great talent. I still miss him dearly. He loved above all being The Doctor.”
Towards the end of the Jon Pertwee era, John of course had a good idea that his time on Doctor Who was coming to an end. “It seemed to take forever for the death throes of UNIT. Of course I knew as all actors do that the time would arrive for my character to exit the show for new blood to come in. That is as it should be in television series. There was a feeling of abandonment in terms of friends gone; Jon, Katy, Nick, Roger, Richard, and Douglas.” So how does an actor feel with about the imminent loss of regular work – it must be slightly upsetting? “It was an unusual range of emotions stirring internally. I feel fortunate indeed to have been in such an incredible phenomenon as the BBCâ€™s Doctor Who. I would not change a thing, and am thrilled at its powerful remembrance. Doctor Who exists because of its constant fight against evil, and most of all it engages the hearts and minds of people across the globe. Gosh, it makes me proud to have been Benton.”
Being out of the country might have prevented other actors from taking part in a DVD commentary, but John found a novel way of avoiding this for the 2006 double-disc DVD release of Inferno – recording a solo commentary. “It was a complicated set of circumstances that led to that situation coming about. This was more chance than anything else. My commitments in Hollywood prohibited me from being in the UK with the rest of the cast, so it was pure timing, as I do live in America and all the other actors are in London. But suffice to say it was a simply gorgeous experience returning to the BBC studios after almost four decades, to add my voice, my love and affection for the show that without a doubt made my life so varied, well-travelled, and utterly enjoyable. God bless Doctor Who.”
It seems almost a clichÃ© to ask stars of the old Doctor Who their thoughts on the new Doctor Who; nevertheless, the show continues to impress. “I adore Billie Piper – she has exhibited such human depth, and displayed a wide range of emotion, you simply have to take your beret off to her. Fantastic. What accurate casting.” And what of the Doctors? “Loved the face and talent of Eccleston, though I did not enjoy his costume so much. Tennant surprised me. I enjoyed the overall talent he brings to the part.”
How do you think the revival has shaped so far? “Like any new product, it takes a while to settle in, but boy, oh boy, have Russell T. Davies and his team got it right. Perfect cast, great writers, special effects like we dreamed of in the old days. Very well done indeed. The fans appear thrilled. Kudos to Julie Gardner for her vision of a new style of Doctor Who. Douglas Camfield would have been thrilled.”
Before we conclude â€“ and as a slight diversion, I ask John where he would travel through time to. “I would prefer to go back in time – history holds so many wonders. I would love to go back and see how our Earth, and the humans that inhabit so much of it, formed. I would also wish to meet some of the great people in our past: Attila the Hun, William Wallace, and on a personal level, my father.”
John is still busy working – “producing, writing, doing voiceovers for Walt Disney and the Queen Elizabeth, and performing as Master of Ceremonies at, I am thrilled to say, quite prestigious shows such as the Emmys, and for well-attended private and charity events” â€“ and I thank him for his time. His outlook is refreshing, and one statement from him has made quite a lasting impression:
“At the end of the day, being Benton made my life so much richer and diverse, so no real complaint from this Englishman.”