[12 July 2011]
Cardiff, Wales, has become a hot spot for producing BBC television series, among them Doctor Who and spinoffs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Although science fiction is only part of the BBC’s programming filmed in and around the Welsh capital, it’s no wonder that actor John Jenner’s resume includes these roles:
Soldier, crack shot (space pigs a specialty)
Factory worker, experience handling industrial-size space whale
Zombie/hybrid Dalek, killed during interplanetary invasion but willing to return
Robot (does human impressions)
Before someone calls PETA or NATO, let me add that, for better or worse, sci-fi episodes often involve “kill or be killed” scenarios. Jenner’s characters quite memorably have done their share of both. How many people can say they have died twice, in the arms of the Doctor or Ianto Jones, no less?
The “space pig incident” is still a sore point, however. Doctor Who fans likely remember the 2005 episode “Aliens of London”, which introduced the Slitheen. As part of the aliens’ nefarious plan, they genetically modify a human-sized “space pig” with an enhanced brain. Unfortunately for the pig, the government thinks he is invading Britain. Jenner’s soldier shoots the space pig, a shot heard round the world, or at least the Whoniverse, if the continuing response is any indication. Jenner explains that “I am, even today, constantly chided about shooting that damn pig.”
The role started innocently enough. Jenner’s experience in the British Territorial Army meant that he knew how to handle a rifle, a plus when he was cast as the soldier who would shoot the space pig. “This was a tricky shot as I needed to align myself between where I was standing, where the camera was being directed, and where the pig would be running as it entered. I had to move when the pig came into frame, and then shoot it. I was told to aim for the pig’s lower half, where the padding was at its thickest. We did the shot in three or four takes.”
The Doctor (played at the time by Christopher Eccleston) shouts at the soldier, which, Jenner says, “I didn’t expect, and the director liked my shocked reaction.” The Doctor and fans may have wanted the space pig to live, but the series’ creator/episode writer appreciated Jenner’s work. The actor adds, “the following day, Russell T Davies thanked me for the shot.”
Such is an average work day for Jenner, who well knows the routines behind filming Doctor Who and Torchwood. He first began working on the former when the talent agency with which he was signed got a contract with the series. As a fan since the first Doctor (William Hartnell) arrived in the ‘60s, Jenner was thrilled to be cast on Doctor Who.
In 2013, the venerable Doctor celebrates his 50th anniversary on the BBC. What makes Doctor Who so popular? Jenner praises the story, actors, and showrunners who have steered the program through the decades. “Simply, it is one of the best creations in TV history. An old man in a police box which is enormous on the inside, traveling through Time and Space battling against the Ungodly. Sheer genius. I saw the very first episode with the wonderful William Hartnell and cast. Its evolution, courtesy of Russell [T Davies] and Steven [Moffat], is secure.”
Jenner knows first hand about the series’ evolution under the influences of Davies and Moffat. Since 2005, he has played several roles on both Doctor Who and Torchwood, but audiences might not always recognize him.
As a “Zombie/Dalek” in a 2007 episode, “Daleks in Manhattan”, Jenner acted in the big shoot-out climax. “Dalek Thay pulled the plug on the Zombies. I died in [Tenth Doctor] David Tennant’s arms.” Jenner followed up that death scene with another, this time on Torchwood.
Jenner played one of the factory workers “harvesting” a space whale that had the misfortune of being captured by a band of cruel entrepreneurs intent on selling whale meat. The scenario was bad for the whale but good for Jenner’s resume: he had a speaking role. Even in an episode entitled “Meat”, Jenner didn’t dream of hamming it up. “The director told me to respond to [Torchwood agent] Gwen’s hubby, who asks me for a cup of tea,” but the actor also was told not to overdo the dialogue. “I just grunted ‘Yeah’ and stalked off to get his tea.” Although the tea was fine, Jenner’s character still got killed. He died in the arms of another Torchwood team member, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) but returned from the dead for a later reunion with David-Lloyd on sci-fi thriller, Casimir Effect.
Some actors steal scenes. Jenner’s characters may steal faces. In an upcoming television episode, the actor only will say that he gets to steal a Nazi’s face, something he recalls as “fun”, possibly not just because the role required special effects and green-screen work.
This episode won’t be the first time Jenner’s face has been unrecognizable to his fans. The actor had to wear face-covering prosthetics for a role on The Wire. “This was very uncomfortable because I had a rubber prosthetic mask on my face and literally couldn’t see or breathe very well.” The actor recalls that he “had to be led by the crew whenever moved out of position.”
Jenner’s roles capture the audience’s attention, whether the face viewers see is his own or someone/something else’s. With upcoming performances in such high-profile series as Doctor Who and Sherlock, Jenner easily moves between science fiction and the science of deduction. His role in Sherlock’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” episode includes a scene with the series’ leads, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson).
With new BBC studios on the horizon, Cardiff should provide even more opportunities for local actors in the coming years. As always, Jenner is prepared for whatever roles await him—whether as actor, writer, or producer. Since completing three years’ production work at the University of Wales, Jenner has begun realizing his plans for his own production company, where he will make films based on his scripts. He envisions creating a series starring “a supernatural/fantasy character along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
John Jenner (L) as a Dalek-human
The actor should also anticipate spending more time with Doctor Who or Torchwood fans. “I am constantly stopped in town by people who have seen me in one program or another,” Jenner admits. “I had a letter from a Doctor Who fan from the Isle of Man who had seen me in Torchwood and wanted an autograph.”
The fame may be more recent, but Jenner knew from childhood that he would become an actor. He was intrigued when a traveling theater group brought Rumpelstiltskin to his elementary school. That performance, supplemented by a love of television and comics, firmly set five-year-old John on his career path.
Jenner is just as enthusiastic about acting today. “I love the atmosphere of a set. Even when it’s a difficult shoot, it is still my favorite kind of work. Pretending to be people I’m not—a villain one day, a hero the next, an abusive father or a scared child. My mind was always in the sky when I was a child, and, thankfully, I have never grown up.” Fortunately for the Cardiff-based actor, he has one of the world’s best television playgrounds right in his backyard.
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Torchwood’s new season premiered on 8 July, stateside.
Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. She writes the monthly PopMatters column Deep Focus and wrote two essays published in PopMatter's Joss Whedon book (Titan, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.