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Interview with Sandra Dickinson and Jonathan Chambers

The Unbuilt City: Sandra Dickinson - photo by PND Photography
Sandra Dickinson – photo by PND Photography

Years ago I became hooked on the ground-breaking TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Everything about it fascinated me, particularly the characters who included an attractive blonde astrophysicist played by American actress Sandra Dickinson. I’ve been a fan ever since and jumped at the opportunity to chat to Sandra and her co-star Jonathan Chambers during a break in rehearsals for her new play The Unbuilt City at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington.

TE: How did you get into acting?
Sandra: I knew I wanted to be an actor since I was 8. When I first arrived in England I tried to find an acting job by contacting Richmond Theatre and telling them that I wanted to work there. They said that in order to act in England you had to have an Equity card, so I asked how you got one of those and they replied that you needed to have a job – a real catch 22.

So I decided to try and get a job acting and started working for a commercials production company as a telephonist/typist. I had temped briefly as a secretary for Colgate/Palmolive but wasn’t very good at it. Still I went along for the job at Lee Lacy Associates and would answer the phone in the morning and do call sheet typing in the afternoon – even though I didn’t know what a call sheet was! After a while, my way of answering the phone, with my American accent, meant that people were ringing up just to hear the voice of this American telephonist, so I had started becoming famous before I had actually done anything! There was a lovely woman working there, a producer called Julia, and I confided in her one day that I was a budding actress. She told me that if ever I wanted to really give it a go, to give her a call, and so I did and she helped me get my first work which was a Birds Eye burger commercial. I was a natch (natural) for the part and the commercial was directed by Alan Parker

TE: The Alan Parker (director of Fame, Bugsy Malone, Evita)?
Sandra: The Alan Parker. Several big English movie directors first started out in TV commercials and I worked for a lot of them. The burger commercial was a big success and ran for three years and won an advertising award. But it really nailed me to a career as a ‘dumb blonde’

TE: Did you resent being pigeon-holed?
Sandra: No, I felt really lucky to have come over from America and be working. I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama for three years. Every so often I would take a day off ‘sick’ and do another commercial. It got to the point that even if I was sick, everyone at the school assumed I was filming another commercial. It also meant that when I left the school, I was able to go straight into lead parts as I was so well known.

I auditioned for Central by doing a speech from a play by Arthur Miller called ‘After the Fall’ about his life with Marilyn Monroe, with me playing Marilyn. I did the same speech as part of my leaving show and was told that I’d actually done it better at my entry audition. To which I replied, “that’s because you’ve been teaching me!”
I felt lucky to have got anywhere and I loved doing the commercials as they were directed by top directors and were like mini-features. I think the fact I was different and something people hadn’t really seen in England really helped me. Later on, I worked hard to get different character parts and more serious roles. I think getting into anything in this business is difficult but I was always optimistic and seemed to do OK.

TE: Did you think when you filmed that first TV advert that 40 years later you would still be going strong and headlining theatre productions?
Sandra: I am an optimist through and through. I only ever thought of myself as an actress and I think that focus has helped. I think also you have to be so resilient and my optimism has seen me through tough times. My father once said to me ‘Jesus, God you’re tough’. But you don’t have to be tough and unpleasant, you just need to be pleasantly tough in order to survive. I love what I do and feel really lucky every time I get a job I enjoy, which is most of the time. I think the fact I’ve said yes to all kinds of different stuff has helped as well, so although I was cast as a ‘dumb blonde’ early on I think people realised I could do more than that and they started thinking of me for other stuff.

TE: I have to talk about Hitchhikers. I read that you didn’t expect to be cast as Trillian as you were physically completely different to the description in the books.
Sandra: My second husband (Dr Who star Peter Davison) had heard the original radio series and my agent contacted me and said I had an audition for the part. I read the books and thought that it wouldn’t work at all as Trillian is described as Arabic with long dark hair. But I still went to the meeting. Alan JW Bell (the series producer) had asked me along and I arrived at this really small room at the BBC, which was dominated by the 6′ 5″ frame of Douglas Adams. I auditioned and Douglas was, I think, immediately taken with me, and he said it helped that I was the only one that made sense of the scripts! They could have put a dark wig on me or dressed me up in the way described in the book, but they did the opposite. So Instead of ethnic clothing I had practically nothing on and remained as blonde as the day I was born. I offered to do an English accent but Douglas said my own voice was great.

TE: Trillian in a way was a bit of trailblazer, although looking a certain way, she has a PhD in astrophysics and is very much in control of things
Sandra: Yes, she’s very bright and also has a sense of humour. She was delightful to play but it was hard filming the show as it was very complicated and we were always running overtime, going on for as long as the unions would let us. It was interesting for me to do it and the other actors were terrific, I’ve stayed very close friends with David Dixon who played Ford and Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod) and I got on well. We found ourselves in a kind of lost weekend in St Louis Missouri, at a ‘Hitchhiking to Gallifrey’ convention. My ex-husband (Peter Davison) was there for the ‘Dr Who’ bit while Mark and I were there for ‘Hitchhikers’ in a hotel full of sci-fi nuts. It was a lovely experience but I was also carrying a small baby at the time, so it was a crazy weekend.

TE: Did you know how big Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was going to become?
Sandra: No, but the radio series was already huge and had a cult following. I think Peter had an inkling because he had heard the radio series. I was actually able to get him a part in it, playing the dish of the day – in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe – and I thought it would be quite cute if he played this animal asking people to eat parts of it, as he had played a vet (Tristan Farnon in TV’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small’). Although he never returned the favour, I found it delightful having him in it. I’ve recently been working with everyone again on the final phase of Hitchhikers, set 40 years on from the original… we are all still together just a little older.

TE: You came into the radio show in the quintessential phase playing an alternate version of Trillian?
Sandra: Yes, I’m not sure I altogether understood it but I was very happy for the work. There are kind of parallel universes going on which is an interesting thing as this play (The Unbuilt City) talks about time in a similar way, that time isn’t linear and all of time is happening all at once.

TE: I have to ask you this, do you know where your towel is?
Sandra: I do. I have my first towel from the series. And if things get really tough I’ll sell it for a lot of money. I still have Trillian’s shoes and hairpiece. I don’t have the costume – someone does – though I don’t think I could wear it anymore.

I Loved Lucy - Sandra Dickinson - Photo by Elliott Franks
I Loved Lucy – Sandra Dickinson – Photo by Elliott Franks

TE: Reluctantly, moving on from Hitchhikers. I saw you last year in ‘I Loved Lucy’ at Jermyn Street and then the Arts Theatre.
Sandra: So, what did you think of it?

TE: I loved it. Bought the book straight afterwards, befriended Lee (Tannen – writer) on Facebook and have talked to him about the show since.
Sandra: Which one did you like better because it changed a huge amount between shows?

TE: I preferred the Jeremy Street version as the intimacy of the theatre really brought the audience into the show.
Sandra: Matt (Matthew Bunn) was my first ‘Lee’ and he was a bit naughty because he ended up talking to the audience during the show, almost like stand-up.

TE: How did you find acting in the show?
Sandra: I actually played Lucy five times. First was the initial reading, then they recast Matt, then Stefan Menaul who was lovely, because he adored the play and was American. Then they got Matthew Scott, someone that Lee had always wanted to play the part when we moved to the Arts Theatre, and he did a lot of tweaking of the script, to make it very much his own. And because he had done a lot of Broadway musicals, Lee wrote a song for him, to sing to Lucy – which was very moving as Lee used to sing to Lucy. It was completely exhausting because I was running on and off the stage, changing every few minutes. But, I loved playing her and it was tough because it was the end of her life and one is often tempting fate, I feel, doing things where the person dies. There is talk of doing it next in America. We did do it for one night in New York to raise money for one of the theatres. That was a thrilling moment in my career to stand on a New York stage playing Lucille Ball. And the show got an amazing reaction. A New York audience is very different from London; they are right in the show with you. I did a play years ago at the Bush Theatre in New York, and there were four girls in the front row laughing and screaming like a sit-com audience.

TE: This is your second two-hander, is that something you really like doing?
Sandra: Well it’s an enormous thing to do as its only two of you and you have to get on with the other person or it would be torture. Luckily, Jonathan and I have hit it off really well from day one. It has its benefits because you know if it’s not my line then its Jonathan’s line and vice versa and if Jonathan stops speaking I have to say something. It’s all pretty clear, which is something you don’t get if there are 12 of you on the stage. I once did a play with Dame Anna Neagle and one night she didn’t say her line and five people said it at once. So it’s much easier with a two-hander for that not to happen.

Jonathan Chambers - Photo by Luce Newman Williams
Jonathan Chambers – Photo by Luce Newman Williams

TE: I suppose if something goes wrong then you have the other person there so you can sort out the problem. It must be nice to have that reassurance that you can rely on someone like that?
Jonathan: We’re working on our signal as we speak.
Sandra: Yes, one night when Stefan was new in ‘Lucy’, I felt something had gone wrong but I wasn’t sure if it was me or him then – as Lucy was getting forgetful – I said in my Lucy voice ‘Oh God what was I saying?’ And the two of us were able to recover.

TE: Did you ever meet Lucille Ball?
SD: I never met her but I’d watched her growing up on TV and my daughter came to live in Hollywood with me when she was three so she got to see her as well, so Lucy has been a huge part of my life. My parents were unbelievably funny people and Lucille Ball reminds me a lot of my mother in that way.

TE: Thanks to YouTube, Lucy will never fade away and when I saw the play the first time I watched some clips and you really captured her perfectly.
Sandra: Thank you.
TE: Then the second time I thought ‘yep she’s still got it’.
Sandra; I think it was the wig. It was made of Yak fur. It was the only wig in London that was the correct colour for Lucy’s hair.

TE: There were some amazing costumes, particularly the one you wore at the Oscars ceremony.
Sandra: Yes, Greg (designer Gregor Donnelly) did the costumes and the set and he was amazing. Even for the initial reading, he came up with stuff for the show.

TE: Did you get to keep any of it?
Sandra: I have it because if they produce it again they didn’t want anything to happen to it.

TE: Moving on to your new play. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a play text to read so tell me about it.
Sandra: Jonathan as well as being my co-star is also one of the producers of the show and knows it backwards.
Jonathan: It’s the European premiere, which is why you can’t find the play text yet. It has only been produced once before at Vassar in New York State and that was a workshop production where the public can go see it but there’s no reviews or press night and its only on for a week. Keith’s (Bunin – playwright) agent sent me the play and I fell in love with it completely. It appealed to me on so many levels. There are three major themes. The first is about cities and how essential cities are to us and how endangered they are becoming. The second is community and how important it is for people to feel a part of something. In fact, these two people come tougher and discover that they are a part of a community they didn’t know existed. The third is that it is located in New York and is a real love letter to the city.

Sandra: I was the first to say that. It’s also about multiple sexualities. The character Jonathan plays is gay and my character is a highly sexed and ‘over there’ woman in her later years.
Jonathan: It’s really funny and poignant and runs the whole range of human emotions in just 80 minutes. There’s jealousy and love, beautiful history and pathos.
Sandra: The first time I read it I thought ‘oh I like this’ then I read it again and thought ‘This is a beautiful play’ then I read it again and thought ‘oh my God, how do we make this work on stage?’. Of course we’re now discovering how we make it work on stage, thanks to Glen (Walford – Director)

TE: The show opens next week?
Jonathan: Press night is the 8th (June) with first preview on the 6th, so a week today.

TE: So how are you feeling?
Sandra: Well, a little trepidatious. It’s extremely well written and very erudite, more like Shakespeare than any other prose play I’ve read in its depth and richness of language Jonathan: He’s created two characters in which those words fit their mouths. You totally believe these two characters would use the words they do in everyday conversation.

TE: How do the characters meet?
Jonathan: I go to Claudia (Sandra’s character) trying to find out if she has a secret piece of art that rumour has it has existed for a long time and nobody knows for certain. So I go to find out if she has it and would she sell it for an archive I’m representing.

TE: I suppose you can’t tell me if she has got it.
Both: No!
Sandra: You have to come and find out for yourself.

TE: You have the opening coming up, do you worry about reviews?
Sandra: It’s terrifying, being an actor, but it’s what we do. The only good thing is with a new play nobody else knows if you are saying the right words. But both of us are committed to doing the best, as it is so well written. But we’ve only had three weeks’ rehearsal which is no time at all, so that’s terrifying.

TE: with Twitter, everyone is a critic, how do you feel about this?
Sandra: I have a twitter account (@sandickins) but don’t use it much. People tell me I should be on social media more but there’s a part of me that is a bit reclusive about it.

TE: Well, thank you both for giving me this time and good luck with the play. Any final words before I head of?
Jonathan: Everybody should come and see it!

The Unbuilt City
On a cold afternoon in February, Jonah knocks on the door of a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. He’s come to ask socialite turned recluse Claudia to sell her famously secret art collection to a university archive. Delving deep within their own history, Jonah and Claudia will face the ghosts of the men they each loved and of the lives they lived in a bid to win each other’s trust and discover the mystery behind New York’s most fabled relic: The Unbuilt City.

The Unbuilt City
by Keith Bunin
Wednesday 6 June – Saturday 30 June 2018
King’s Head Theatre, 115, Upper Street
London N1 1QN Box office:0207 226 8561
www.kingsheadtheatre.com

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