Writing for Roger: An Interview with Marcus Harmes
We talk to author Marcus K Harmes who has written the brand new biography of actor Roger ‘Master’ Delgado.
Marcus K Harmes was born in Australia and grew up in the 1980s sustained and obsessed by the quintessentially Australian experience of watching Doctor Who after school on the ABC’s early afternoon repeats. Those childhood influences turned into an adult passion for writing about the show.
This month, Fantom Publishing releases his biography entitled I Am Usually Referred to as The Master!
What was it about Delgado that attracted you write about him?
I think he was long overdue a biography! March 2018 will be the centenary of his birth and it is time for his full life story to be told. I also felt it was now or never. It has been 45 years since his death and it is important to have got on record the views of his contemporaries. For what attracted me, at first it was the brilliance of his performance as the Master, then as I saw more and more of his early career it was the breathtaking range of his acting, and then when talking to people who knew him, it was the warmth and attractiveness of his personality.
Is there anything new that we will discover when reading the book?
Yes, lots. The main ones are his earlier life and most of all, the fact he had a first marriage. I have written sensitively about that with no intention of raking over the past (also there are no children) but simply including the experiences and influences that shaped his life.
I think almost all sources say the same things about him. Born within the sounds of Bow Bells, educated at the London School of Economics, entered rep in 1938 and married in 1957. On the surface that is certainly true, but underneath the story is much more complex and much more interesting. He did attend the LSE but very briefly because he wanted to act. He did enter rep, but later than the date often given, and he did marry in the 1950s but that was after a first marriage and then divorce. These points are made with the utmost respect to Mr Delgado. They bring into view a life that was well lived and ultimately very happy. It’s clear his job in a bank and his very brief study at the LSE were just not what he wanted for his life. He gave up job security to try out acting. His first marriage puts him in very unfamiliar surroundings, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with an interfering extended set of in-laws.
I’ve also been able to access a wealth of previously unseen records which shed a lot of light on Delgado’s life before Doctor Who. From the Ministry of Defence I obtained his complete war record (the legendary and very detailed form B199A), the school he attended is still going strong and gave me materials from the 1930s about his education, the London School of Economics provided me with his student file. While we might know a lot about Doctor Who, there were decades before then that I had to reconstruct from paper trails in archives all over the place.
I think the other one is that, obviously, being the Master is still his best known role by a mile and the reason he is so well remembered. But the decades of work under his belt before then deserves to be much more than just footnotes to his career and it is still not well known. Delgado was working with the best of best and some of the names he appeared alongside on stage, film, television and especially radio are stunning. John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, John Mills, and more, and that his co-stars held him in such high regard professionally speaks volumes about him. Thanks to being able to speak with those who worked with him, there are unfamiliar parts of his life brought to life in this book. His time in Spain with a very temperamental Rex Harrison is one, or on set with an equally cranky and difficult Dirk Bogarde.
What is your highlight from the book?
I have so many. I was privileged to speak to many people who knew Delgado and very quickly a theme emerged: there is just not a single bad word to say about him. But what struck me was that no one was talking about him using platitudes, it was just over 40 years later people still have such vivid memories of him as the most charming, intelligent and decent man they knew. At the same time he was ferociously intelligent and no pushover. The highlight for me has been bringing out the fascination of his life and work.
Then there are just the funny little moments. Delgado had a mortgage to pay and I feel he couldn’t say no to any work and there are some real oddities. I think the Spanish lessons he broadcast with Vanessa Redgrave have to be the oddest and there were gems like ‘Basil and Dorothy Street learn that they cannot get along without understanding the double negative’!
Was his estate involved in the preparing of the book?
I was honoured to receive a message from Mrs Kismet Marlowe, Roger’s widow, wishing me the best for this project and pleased that he was to receive a biography. Thanks to John Kelly, it has also been possible to access previously unseen photographs of Roger’s childhood and life at home, again courtesy of Mrs Marlowe.
Will this appeal to non-Doctor Who fans?
Yes most definitely. It’s worth remembering that being in Doctor Who was only the last two and bit years of a long acting career. Before then, Delgado made hundreds of film and television appearances and thousands of radio broadcasts. Anyone who loves British horror, telefantasy, science fiction or really good drama will find that Delgado’s life story opens up vistas of the busy studios and the casts and crew at work on some of the best loved films and television programs ever made: The Avengers, Z Cars, The Saint, Quatermass, Hammer horror and more. His career reminds me a lot of William Hartnell’s. Doctor Who was an end (and sadly a premature end) with decades of hard work before then in anything and everything. When I wrote this book, I put Delgado as the microcosm of the story of British entertainment before and after the war.