Okay, Buffy fans - how many of you can name the American telefantasy series that Anthony Head starred in before he was Giles? It was a short-lived thing called VR.5, starring Lori Singer, and it was the subject of this phone interview on 4th October 1995 (by which time it had already been cancelled). A short version of this ran in SFX but the full version has never been published. (NB. At this time Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson so there’s no mention of it here. Sorry.)
Was it planned in advance that you would come in on episode four of VR.5, or was it something that was decided during production?
"No, I think it was basically that, after the pilot, they realised that the professor character was great up to a point. It helped establish (a) that she's vulnerable, (b) that what she's doing is very dangerous. But there was very little antagonism between them, and once they had established that they were both coming from the same place, there needed to be another character introduced who would stir things up a bit. It was planned after the pilot. The pilot set up these basic characters and from there on in, it transpired that you need to go somewhere else. For the theories to have a stronger line and for the committee to be more imposing.”
Did you have to audition for this?
What did they tell you about the role?
"Very little. There were keeping it extremely hush-hush. Then on my second reading - my first call-back - they started to explain roughly what it was about. The general description of the characters was that he is 'more Armani than Brooks Brothers' and he's a bit like a Svengali figure. You can't work out whether he's taking care of her or usurping her."
Have they told you stuff about the character that they haven't revealed to the audience?
"Oh, yes. Well, it gradually becomes revealed as the series progresses. You find out why he is such a strange, guarded chap and what dark secrets are locked in his past. They did say at the interview that initially he gives very little away, and it's exasperating because of that. Eventually you do start to discover that he does have dark secrets. We find out what makes him tick. It's a very interesting part. It's not your ordinary run-of-the-mill series, and it's not your ordinary run-of-the-mill part. In terms of American episodic TV it was very different from anything else I'd ever seen or been up for."
Was the series doing quite well when it was dropped?
"It was doing extremely well. It was very controversial, it was extremely well critically received. There are still discussions about its future - it's by no means dead - and in fact I'm going out there next week for negotiations. It's something that has developed an enormous cult audience. So much so that people have gone to Canada to get pirate copies of the shows that didn't get shown on Fox."
How many episodes did they make altogether?
"Altogether we made 13, which will all be shown on Sky, but they only showed ten on Fox because it was a mid-season replacement. We had extremely good viewing figures but they were up and down, they were all over the place. It wasn't obvious; one week we'd be up there, the next week we'd be down. So the overall viewing figures were not stunning, but the general response was brilliant. You had TV critics in the New York Times praising it hugely. It was all very good. But I wasn't expecting it to be received like any other American TV programme. It requires more work than they are normally used to. The audience has got to work quite hard to suss out who's doing what to whom."
Did you do any of the sequences in VR?
"Couple of times, yes."
Was that an unusual filming experience?
"Yes. One of the things they were very specific about was that they wanted to do most of the effects on camera, rather than relying on a lot of post-production. So for instance there's a court scene that we did that was shot in the hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot. We did it in this enormous lounge, a bizarre courtroom setting. All the uprights supporting the balustrade were perspex pillars, so when you shine light through it, it's the most beautiful, extraordinary effect."
What's Lori Singer like to work with?
"She's very, very good indeed. The thing that I think she's exceptional at - and that I don't think your run-of-the-mill Hollywood actress would have been able to cope with - was the transition that she goes through from her 'normal life' persona, which is a bit geeky, very shy, very reticent, to this stunning charismatic beauty that she becomes in virtual reality. This is why she enjoys going into virtual reality, she can't keep away from it because she suddenly becomes incandescent. She's very good. It's nice to be able to talk through dialogue and work out things that aren't working and be able to bounce ideas around. She's very up there for ideas and things. It was very interesting, very good."
Whilst it's a very interesting show, the basic premise of VR.5 is complete hokum. What was the feeling towards the scientific aspects of the show on the production?
"Hokum inasmuch as you can't take someone into a virtual reality set-up on the telephone, you mean?"
Yes, that's this big leap of believability, that's not really what virtual reality is. It's a nice idea, but there's a lot of technobabble in the series.
"I think there were certain rules that they set up within the boundaries of what they'd elected to generate. There was always a key that she would touch to get out. The virtual reality set-up to which she would go would always be something set up by herself on the keyboard. it wasn't just something that she leapt into and out of like a time machine. At the same time, it's not that far removed from possibility. If you think what people would have thought about virtual reality ten years ago, in terms of commercial uses, and people are now using virtual reality to walk into buildings that are just on a piece of paper. So (a) I don't think it's going to be long before virtual reality using all five sense is attainable, but (b) I also don't think it's that far removed from the possibility that you will be able to access people's subconscious thoughts. It's all feasible, that's as far as it goes. No, it's not available in the shops, but it's not that far removed from possibility. It has to be an extrapolation, it has to be what happens next, because we've got this far and we all know about that. You can't really make TV programmes about that because we're already there. What we do want to make programmes about are the uses of VR and how it shapes our lives from the next generation on. I think in terms of those extrapolations, it's quite an interesting hypothesis."
Does it bother you that you are still 'Anthony Head, that bloke from the coffee ads'?
"No. Not remotely, it's been very good to me. Why should I deny it? I don't get people ribbing me and giving me a hard time about it. I get people smiling and saying hello. it was a good thing to have done. It had a good vibe about it, it was well shot, it was intelligently written, as much as you can in an advert. Humorous, witty, romantic, it was just like doing quite a good little mini-series every six months for forty seconds."
How many did you do?
"We did twelve here, and I think we're on number twelve there, and we've just shot two more."
So the American ones are shot separately?
"Oh yes. The story has gone on, and has changed. They've taken a different line. But whatever you do that achieves some sort of fame or notoriety, you are then going to be known for that. Trevor Eve - Sharon's husband - is still known for Shoestring, and he's done a lot of extremely interesting things since then. He will always be 'Oh yeah! Shoestring!' but that's not a big deal. The bottom line is that Gold Blend is something I'm proud of. It had an effect on doing TV and film here for a while, but then it opened up a market in America so I was able to go over there. It also made me box-office over here for theatre, so I was able to do lots of theatre that I might not otherwise have done. Life deals its cards, and it's the way you deal with them, or the way you learn from them, that makes it interesting or exceedingly boring."
You were Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. That's tremendous fun, isn't it?
"Wonderful, wonderful. I did it four or five years ago at the Piccadilly, and I had such a good time. They've asked me a few times if I'd do it again, but it always meant touring. This time they said, 'Do you want to do six weeks in the West End and I said, 'Yes!' Because he's wonderfully wicked and very dark, and a great little spirit to play. He's fab, just fab. Where else do you get that much vibe off the audience?"
Were you aware of the amount of audience participation?
"When I first did it? Well, they told me about it, but you're never quite prepared for it. The first Friday night that you do is like: 'Jesus!' But then when you get it right, you get incredible power off them. Not so much at the Duke of York, but at the Piccadilly, which is a fifteen hundred seater. To be able to stop somebody dead with just a look, because you couldn't always put them down verbally, otherwise the play would never get on. But you could just flash somebody a look in the back of the circle and they'd shut up. It was great. Great power. My own little virtual reality set-up."
Do you prefer doing stage work or TV work?
"It isn't a question of preferences. They're so different, and there are so many different excitements in both of them, that you can't compare. I've been very lucky to flip about between one and the other, and musicals as well. They're another thing again, not like doing a straight play. When I've wanted to sing somebody's said, 'Would you like to do Rocky Horror for six weeks?' It's like: 'Whoa! Yeah!' Then I think, 'I've done some theatre, I want to do a bit of film,' and suddenly something crops up. The more you put into life, the more you learn from life."
You were in an episode of Highlander: The Series. What did you play in that?
"I was about 38 or so at the time; I had to play it older than myself because I had a 24-year-old son in it. I played an American ambassador whose son has raped a local girl, whose father just happens to be an immortal. And so the guy lays siege to my chateau, and old Highlander turns up and helps me out. It was a good little episode, one of those at the end of the series when they have to stay in one set because of they've used their budget up. So you've got to have a reason to stay in one place, and so it happened to be a chateau surrounded by fog. It was a very good episode actually."
Did the guy kill you at the end?
"That was the only sad thing. I got shot with a semi-automatic weapon with bullet-holes across my chest. They cut to me croaking on the settee, and people saying 'We must get him to hospital...' In real life, you shoot someone with a semi-automatic weapon across the chest and they don't make it to the settee. Unfortunately this is what we teach our children happens. I don't know; I'm very confused about the argument about TV violence. I think it does have an effect on children. Depends how much you let them watch I guess."
What's this new thing you've made for the BBC, The Ghostbusters of East Finchley?
"It's a series starring Jan Francis, Bill Paterson, Ray Winstone, Joe Melia, it's got a whole list of people in it. It's written by Tony Grant, and it's about 'ghosts' who are people who don't really exist in order to avoid paying taxes. Bill Paterson plays a tax inspector. I'm part of the sub-plot. Ray Winstone has some odd deals going on the side, and I play this sort of East End wide-boy who sells cars to Ray Winstone in Spain. I come back to pick up some cars and waltz into their life. It's beautifully written, very funny.”
Official site: www.anthonyhead.org