This interview was conducted by Geoff Wright in June 1978 and published in his "Mini Mag" fanzine. It was scanned by Paulo Jorge Morgado, who did a fantastic job with a poor quality 1978 photocopy and Geoff's terrible typing!
Where were you born?
I was born in Burma and I've lived. In England since I was 11.
It's funny, you're the second person I've interviewed and neither of you were born in London... Tony was born in Singapore
...and of course Nick is Australian and Catherine is Hungarian... and if we could all speak our various languages we'd have a United Nations in the making.
Did you make any notable things prior to 1999?
Yes, there was one film opposite Gregory Peck in 1969, called The Most Dangerous Man in the World. In the film I had to seduce Gregory Peck, which I thought was wonderful, as he'd always been a hero of mine ever since I was a kid. Of course I was terribly nervous but of course he was an absolute charmer. In the USA and the rest of the world the film was called The Chairman.
Oh, I remember the film... I saw it at the cinema
You actually paid to see the film?
Actually I got complementary tickets.
Well I played a character named Ting Ling, I think she was meant to be Chinese, and it was a smashing part, getting to kiss Gregory Peck etc...
Were there any funny incidents on the set that you can remember?
Well there was one scene, with about 500 extras. In this scene I couldn't hear Gregory and he couldn't hear me and I had this microphone pushed down my bra and the transistor was strapped to the back of my leg. We did one classical take about 28 times and all we had to do was walk through a doorway and then continue on through the extras. We started and I looked at him and he looked at me and I smiled and suddenly they said 'Cut' and they said 'what's the matter?'. I said 'well I didn't hear your lines' and he said 'well I didn't hear you!', simply because there was so much noise with 500 people around you. And so the way we did it was to devise a system whereby because I was In front of him, I would sort. of nod to say I'd finished my line and then he could start his line and then he would nod back to me and so it went on.
How long have you actually been in acting and how did you first enter Showbiz?
Well my parents never encouraged me Into the profession. In fact my father sent me to an Art's Educational School in England, which had dancing and drama as well as the normal G.C.E.'s. Then, when I'd got my G.C.E's, I went to the London school, full time. When I first started I wanted to be a dancer and I was classically trained In Modern and Greek, Tap, Ballroom etc. It was then I decided that I'd rather deliver one spoken line than be In the chorus with 15 other girls, so I went out and tried to get work In Reps and things like that. During the early 60's it was pretty bad because I did have an agent until about 69 and it was through him that I started getting work. Before that It was just a hotchpotch...
Was Space:1999 the first long running series you had appeared in?
How did the part come about?
Well all these things seem to happen by mistake. They'd been looking for about 4 month's for this part in 1974 and they'd gone to Rome twice, Sylvia and Ray Austin, to test Italian girls because my character was originally Italian, the same as Nick (Tate), the reason for that being that a third of the money on the series was from Italy. Nick was supposed to be Alphonse Catani and I was meant to be Sandra Sabatini. My agent rang and said 'can you go to Pinewood tomorrow?' and I said 'no I can't' because I was recording for the BBC. And so he said not to worry and then he rang again on the Friday evening and said that they were still looking and could I go along on Monday. I was told it was an Italian part so I brushed up on my Italian, went along and Lee Katzin said 'do an accent. and we don't care what it is...'
Well I had done quite a lot of parts for a sort of mythical country, resembling India. I usually do a lot of research into accents and I had a standard European accent, which I did and they said fine. That was Monday and they phoned me on Tuesday to say that I'd got the part and I started Wednesday and months later we finished. They then said 'well, you don't sound Italian so we better change your name from Sabatini, so what do you want to be called? And Katzin said there's a fantastic delicatessen in Downtown L.A. called BENES, so I became Sandra Benes...
It's funny that they should have dropped the two Italian characters from first season, only to have brought Tony in for the second season, playing an Italian character.
Well, yes but the second season was a whole different set up all together. You see on the first series they didn't actually write for us, they said they did but, we all struggled like mad to find something human, something plausible in all the characters. I remember on the second day, we did a sort of mock test, everybody coming along and introducing themselves saying, 'I'm Zienia Merton, playing the part of Sandra Benes, chief data operator' (I could never say that). And I hated It so much that I was very coy about it and hate being brash, although some people said very brashly 'Hi, I'm so and so and I'm terrific and so on'... I sort of crept forward and quietly mumbled my lines and the script writers worked up on this and in subsequent plots, I would smile shyly at someone. But the point is that I wouldn't be that timid or reserved for the position I was holding In Main Mission. Actually someone from America wrote and said 'Thank God, you're in the series because at least we get a signal about what the plot is saying, because it seems anytime anything is about to happen, you either fall down and faint and we know when the action is over because you get up'. I was a sort of an emotional barometer... Then Ray, on his second show where we needed someone to do a cry and usually that was me, but Ray said NO. Because you are meant to be playing a fairly competent technician and you wouldn't keep fainting... they'd tell you to do the washing up If that were the case... so Ray said that wouldn't happen and then other director's picked it up.
We must do backtrack slightly... have you worked in any other science fiction?
Yes, it's funny actually, my first film, I did when I was about 14, was a thing for the Children's Film Foundation, one of these 6 parters, called MASTERS OF VENUS, and I played a Venusian, and the plot revolved around two tribes of People, the five fingered ones and some six fingered ones, and the six fingered ones launched a rocket to Venus, and all the actors had to wear sort of washing up gloves to simulate 6 fingers and they couldn't find gloves small enough for me. I just wore cocktail gloves and was told to keep my hand's clasped and not to point at anything. And then the next thing I did was an early episode of Dr. Who with Bill Hartnell. In fact that was my first TV and it all took place in court of Kubla Kahn and I played Ping Cho and Derren Nesbitt was the villain.
We did seven episodes on which the budget was microscopic and ours was pretty ambitious, in that we had a scene where there was a sandstorm and they built a stage ramp about 10ft and then put mattresses down below and then when we had to climb over the sand dunes, lost. Carole Ann Ford as Susan and I and they'd covered them with sawdust and put on a wind machine and I was just blinded. I jumped down and my eyes were just covered In sawdust and I remember whispering to Carole, 'I can't see!' and she replied to hang onto her and we just charged across the Stage to make our entrance, with no break, continuous action and she grabbed me and I was completely blind and she hurled me across the studio. I lost my shoes and tore my dress and it was a wonder I arrived in one piece in front of the actor who I had to deliver my lines to and that was it. I carried out not knowing where I was, until it came to the break and then they got the hose and washed my eyes out and out came hose and washed lumps, of sawdust...
One thing that you mentioned earlier, was the lack of continuity in the characters. Did you find this lack of continuity off putting? - For example, you were supposed to be fond of Paul Morrow, but In 'FULL CIRCLE' you're, fond of Alan Carter
Yes, well that was super, I thought It was lovely, we had a kind of flirtatious little thing and Nick (Tate) built this up. He would say things like... you know, when we went down together in the Eagle and Prentis called to say 'Give my love to Sandra' and Nick would say 'Not if I can help it' and then we built it up, I started panicking and worrying and Nick's In the pit and before he fell in, he said something like 'Going on like this, you'll get Paul jealous' and we built this up.
But that was the only episode it figured In?
Yes, but it was smashing, it was human emotion... and it's natural, but because we were sweet on each other, they thought we should be hugging each other every time we were alone together and I said 'Don't be silly, we'd be hugging when we weren't In Main Mission, 'away from prying eyes', so to speak. People don't suddenly clinch because the moment is right. it'll be something like when we'd be eating we'd be holding hands or we may enter for doubles at table tennis. But of course I had another boyfriend to begin with, I had Paul Jones... and they kept saying, 'You have a boyfriend in the next show' and I thought 'great!'... I never MET him! Because he was on the screen and I was in Main Mission and it was the most remote controlled romance anyone hasever had!
And then there was 'Bringers of Wonder'.
Oh, yes, I had another boyfriend in that show. In fact I had quite a good sex life! But of course he turned into a jelly and that seems to be the story of my life.
Oh, yes the jellies, were they really that revolting up close?
Yes, they were rather nasty because they had a lot of oozing liquid...
Do you have a favourite episode from the first season?
Well, Full Circle, Because I had a lot to do with it, but not only that. But it was nice to get out, it was the first time we'd been out on location and I know the crew thought it was because it was the first time they saw my legs! They said 'Oh, she's actually got legs'. You know I used to sit behind my desk and I could have been crippled for all you saw of my movements... No, that episode was great.
Did you personally have much contact with the guest artists... for example in Missing Link with PETER CUSHING and JOANNA DUNHAM?
Yes. Well the very nature of filming... when it's put together the scenes overly, but when you're actually working, sometimes I didn't see some of the guest stars and sometimes I did... we all got on pretty well. It was a fairly happy unit.
Yes, Tony said it was the happiest unit he'd ever worked
It was amazing, people did an awful lot for you, the camera crew. I mean consider the pressures we were all under... they were marvelous people.
Was there anyone on the first or second season that you really didn't get on?
No, you couldn't afford not to, I mean we're all adults... so you can't have great feuds. I mean I can't understand it... when you hear that there's trouble on a STREISAND film set - you know what I mean - you're under such pressure to work like that and let's face it, every time you kiss someone, it doesn't mean that you love them... to have the added annoyance of not getting on must be horrendous.
We used to have lunches together, and especially with the Italians brought over the series, if Nick, Prentis, Clifton or any of the others were free, I'd say come round to lunch and get whoever It was to come around. Nick would either fetch them if they didn't have transport and they'd come round to dinner or lunch. I know what it's like, filming in a foreign country, when every one else has gone off to their wife and kids or friends and you're left all alone. I know it's happened to me... and I thought it would be nice, if they had nothing to do.
Did you ever all go out much together... Martin, Barbara etc...
No, we didn't have that much to do with Barbara and Martin...
But they never played the 'Big stars', did they?
Oh no, but they kept themselves to themselves ... I think this is an American thing but I nicknamed and it stuck, that we were the SECOND ELEVEN, you know, Nick, Prentis, Clifton, myself and Anton Phillips. I said you know, when the first elevens go out and all the wickets have fallen, I know nothing about cricket, then out comes the second eleven. Even Gerry, who's not actually known for his humour, called it the Second Eleven and we used to post notices saying 'THE SECOND ELEVEN INVITES THE CREW TO DRINKS TONIGHT'... things like that. Just to sum up and as you know I like to be as honest as possible... I can't say I was mad about the second series of Space: 1999, because I wasn't ...