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John Leeson - The voice of K9
What's your fondest memory of Douglas Adams?
His height, 6 foot 5 as I understand it, is that correct K9?
No, just a phenomenal brain behind the scripts, an amazing guy. Sadly my tenure as K9 was coming to an end when Douglas took over as a script editor, but I've very fond memories of Douglas, late, lamented, a very sad loss.
What's the secret of a good sci-fi voice?
I don't know. The capability of being really rather silly I suppose.
If you're going to play something like a Dalek or a Krarg, you need to have a voice that's capable of hurting your throat. You really do have to have a visit to the doctor afterwards, not the Doctor doctor, but a medical practitioner if you follow me.
What's the favourite thing you've done as K9 so far in the recordings?
Got through it without fluffing, that's the main thing any actor can hope for.
I suppose it's different to your time on Doctor Who in that you don't have to lie down?
No, I'm at full height, I'm in the studio, I can actually catch actors by the eye, it's fantastic. I don't see them at knee height now, which is lovely. They're quite tall really, some of them.
Is it true in rehearsals you were actually on the floor?
Actually on the floor, yes, a little bit. The BBC didn't give me a trouser allowance which was rather a shame, but yes, I was around on the floor so that physically the actors could see where K9 was going to be. Simple as that, and cheaper.
What were you up to around the time Shada was originally recorded?
Well, my favourite memory of the late 70s is probably the state of television then as compared to the state of television now.
It was just at the end of the golden era of BBC comedy, which was fantastic. Wonderful, wonderful comedies. I was lucky enough myself to have been in Dad's Army for an episode.
I worked with Hannah Gordon, whom I've seen today, and reminded her of an episode of My Wife Next Door that we did way back in the late 70s. It was a very, very happy and very productive period of my life.
Can you tell us about your involvement in The Power of Kroll?
Oh, The Power of Kroll, back when the world was young and I had a face that looked like, well, I don't know what.
I was a second choice of casting as I understand. Martin Jarvis was to have played the part originally but I think I had longer hair or something, I know not. Anyhow, it was one of those opportunities where I could actually stand up and look at actors and then I got shot.
So there we are, very sad, and this green swampy stuff was all over the place. One of the make-up girls was absolutely desperate because all the swampies were walking around the BBC canteen sitting on things, and they all had to be cleaned up.
K9 and commercials
Doctor Who is now becoming quite kitsch in a way. Have you ever been approached to voice K9 in an unusual way?
Not recently, but when I was doing K9, there were occasionally commercial producers who'd phone up and say, 'We really want John Leeson because we want your K9 voice,' and I said, 'Well you can't have my K9 voice, it's copyrighted,' so they'd say, 'Well don't worry about, can we have a voice that's so like K9 that people won't know the difference.' I think I obliged on one commercial and that was about it.
K9 and co
You did go on to your own spin-off.
Yes, K9 and company, with that wonderful signature tune.
Looking back on that, do you think it had legs, or rather, wheels?
I don't think the pilot worked particularly well, because the setting was terrestrial rather than otherworldly, in space or whatever.
There wasn't really enough sci-fi about the fantasy, it was a little bogged down in the Cotswolds, so I don't think it had quite a strong enough identity as a true spin-off of Doctor Who. It became a story of K9 and his journalist friend.
How did you first come up with the K9 voice?
Well I went to see Graham Williams. I'd been introduced to Graham by Derek Goodwin, and I saw the blue prints for K9. K9 hadn't then been built, and there was this sort of Scottie tartan collar round [his neck]. I said, 'Well do you want him Scottish?' and he said, 'Oh no, heaven forfend, we don't want Scottish,' so I said 'What do you want?'
He said, 'Well really K9 is the receptory and the deliverer of all information. He's an absolute know-all, but we want his voice to sound as if it comes out of a tiny little elliptical speaker in a cheap radio.'
I put a few voices down on a tape and then I had panic calls from the BBC to say, 'Have you accepted the job?' I assumed there was a queue yards long to play K9, I wasn't to know, so I said, 'Yes, yes, fine, I didn't know it was just me they wanted.'
I just put up [my voice] a few levels, clipped it as much as possible, made it sound like a machine. It couldn't sound like a dog, because K9 isn't a dog, but I made it sound as mechanical as possible.
Is it true that it was originally electronically treated and you gradually moved over to doing the whole thing yourself?
Yes. Dick Mills was in charge of sound effects and all the rest then, and he put the voice through a ring modulator or whatever gizmos he'd got at the time to make it sound a little more electronic. But here I am today recording this and I'm in the studio with all the others on a clean mic. It's extraordinary, the actor's found a way of doing it for himself.