The Interview with Mr. Conrad Phillips
First: thank you for letting us interview you about the Crossbow (aka William Tell) series! It’s an honour!
Here are the questions we collected from the fans!
1. How did your work on Crossbow and the part of Stefan come about? Did you have any input in the development of the character? My Agent told me the production company making Crossbow were keen to have me play the part of Stefan. I did a voice test for the American company and was offered originally, three episodes. The scripts were already written, so I had no input in the direction the production would take. Adjustments were made, however, when it came to the shooting.
2. What was it like to revisit the story of William Tell after nearly thirty years? Was it odd playing a different role and watching another actor play William Tell? It was such a robust and interesting subject that I was very happy to partake in a new series and was able to see the story of William Tell from a different (American) angle. I was interested to see how Will Lyman played the part of William Tell. It was more contemporary and would be right for the American market. There is also a more classical approach to legends and historical characters, I believe, but you can’t win them all!
3. How would you compare the two shows, both in terms of the story and your experience working on them? The stories had a much more American development and style. As an actor, I found it all interesting. In my series, we stuck much more to the original play by Schiller, although during 39 episodes we invented quite a lot!
4. Was Stefan's character at all similar to the character of William Tell that you played in 1958? What were the main differences? Stefan was totally different to the character I played as William Tell. Stefan was a much older and grizzled character/warrior and although much older by now, still acquitted himself in battle with Gessler and the Hapsburg occupation of Switzerland.
5. Was playing Stefan more or less demanding than when you played William Tell? Playing Stefan was less demanding. I had far more action in my series but I enjoyed the challenge - often an arthritic warrior in Crossbow!
6. We noticed the sheep-skin tunic made a comeback in Crossbow, were there any other elements of Stefan's back story that came from William Tell (1958)? The only concession in the first series was the wearing of the sheepskin. This originally came about when we were on location in the mountains in Wales, in my series and in the rushes, I was not very evident. The idea of wearing a white sheep skin was the wardrobe mistresses and proved highly successful.
7. Did you have any input in the scripts? Were they flexible to change or did you follow them precisely as written during shooting? I had no input, as such, in the scripts, other than sometimes minor alterations when it came to shooting. They were reasonably flexible if conditions of the location didn ‘t tie up.
8. You seemed to get along very well with Will Lyman and you've said you are still in contact with him. Are you still in contact with anyone else from the show? I went to America twice and on the second trip met up with Will and his wife Anastasia in their home in Boston. We had a very pleasant dinner there and reminisced about Crossbow. In England I also keep in touch with Jeremy Clyde and Nick Brimble.
9. Did you always want to become an actor? The Second World War was looming when I was a boy. My mind was absorbed by the war effort. When Europe fell to the Nazis, I joined the Home Guard and at the age of 17 I volunteered for the Royal Navy. As the war was ending, I was serving on LST 178 (landing craft). One day, whilst on watch at my gun, I toyed with the idea of what I would do once the war was over. My father was a journalist on The Sunday Express newspaper. I seriously considered the idea of becoming a journalist. Many people at that time, were very destabilised by war service, ninety percent of whom felt they couldn’t function in orthodox professions and sought exciting alternatives. My father totally discouraged me from the idea of becoming a journalist, saying that owing to the shortage of paper at the time, newspapers were limited to only two pages. England was full of journalists returning from war, finding employment difficult. My father suggested I might become an actor.
10. Can you tell us about your training at RADA and any other training you may have had? I applied for an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became one of 600 applicants. My audition was, to say the least, committed! I threw myself around the stage with passion and secured a place as a student for two years. The government gave ex-servicemen grants with all fees paid at £3 a week for maintenance: food, fares and lodging! I have devoted 2 chapters of my memoirs “Aiming True” to my years at RADA. In my first term I played Orlando in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and also play “Higgins” in Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”. There were also classes in sword fighting, voice production, diction, movement, ballet and make-up.
11. Has any one else in your family worked as an actor or had any ties to the theatre, film, or television? Nobody.
12. Did your wife ever join you on the set of Crossbow? Yes, twice. She came to Chambery in the French Alps and another time to Uzes, near Avignon, Provence.
13. Did you enjoy shooting Crossbow on location in France? Which locations do you remember as being especially beautiful or made a strong impression on you? . I enjoyed it very much. So many superb locations. Uzes left a great impression on me and also of course Avignon as well as the French Alps.
14. Which of the episodes that you were in did you like the most? The Reunion sticks in my mind because it was the first one. Finding the character of Stefan as opposed to William Tell was an interesting challenge.
15. Can you tell us examples of things that may have gone wrong during shooting? (Amusing bloopers or difficult situations, for instance?) In Reunion, I was sword fighting, waist deep in the source of the Loire river. A stuntman on horseback and bearing a lance was coming towards me. On the take, I was happily fighting away, when I saw the stuntman out the corner of my eye. He was galloping full force towards me with the lance levelled. In the nick of time I threw myself to my left into deep water and JUST avoided collision with the lance.
16. Can you tell us any nice anecdotes or do you have any special memories you could share with us? In one particular episode I had the experience of lying flat on the ground astride a horse. We were both then covered with brushwood. My head was on the neck of the horse and the horse trainer taught me how to soothe the horse to keep it lying absolutely still with me on it’s back. It was an amazing moment. On a cue the horse got to it’s feet, shedding the brushwood, with me still on it’s back and we escaped from the pursuing Austrians!
17. Did you watch the series on TV when it was aired? Unfortunately it was blocked by Margaret Thatcher because she thought it was considered too violent for the British public, so I have never seen the whole series.
18. How important was playing William Tell to your acting career and what effect did it have? William Tell was sold throughout the world, even behind the Iron Curtain. In consequence I became a household name. I opened many doors to my future career but sadly some were blocked.
19. Did Crossbow have an influence on your later career? Do you have an example or two of why and what? Unfortunately, since Crossbow didn’t get much exposure in the UK it contributed very little. I had both knees replaced by surgery and decided, since I was 66 years old that I could commence another chapter of my life, so I went to live in France with my wife Jennie and spent many happy years in Normandy restoring an old barn and turning it into a beautiful home.
20. Could you actually shoot a crossbow well? Where did you learn swordplay and horseriding? How much of your own stuntwork did you do in both shows? Most of the crossbows I used were prop crossbows and were only copies of the originals. I had no occasion to actually fire a real one. I learned fencing whilst at RADA and my eldest daughter had a horse and gave me lessons. A considerable amount of stunt work I did myself
21. Who was your stunt double on Crossbow? My stunt double was a chap called Bernard - an excellent horseman and a very nice man.
22. Did you ever have a go at writing and/or directing, either on Crossbow or elsewhere? Whilst making my William Tell series, I became very friendly with Peter Maxwell, one of the Directors. After the series finished, I started to write film scripts and formed a Production Company with Peter Maxwell, called Arriba Productions and I wrote a screen play for a low budget film called “Impact”. I starred in it and Peter directed it. Unfortunately he went to Australia to direct a series called “Whiplash”; an American series and he stayed there with his family. He sadly died last year. We had many projects for Arriba which sadly we didn’t do, as Peter remained, sensibly in Australia and never returned.
23. Did you get to keep some of the props or costumes from either show? No to both productions.
24. Did you guys get to meet Anthony Horowitz? After location in Switzerland, I sat next to him on the journey from Geneva to London. He was a very highly intelligent man and we had some interesting conversations during the flight. Apart from Crossbow he was involved in writing a long series called “Foyles War”. This was a tremendous success in England and I advise anyone to watch it, as it was very illuminating about England during the second World War.
25. You did an episode of Robin of Sherwood in 1984, "The Swords of Wayland". Do you happen to know if any of the props used on Crossbow come from Robin of Sherwood?To my knowledge - none whatsoever
26. Has acting changed since you started? When I started acting we worked mostly in the theatre. Most towns had a theatre and a Repertory Company there permanently. In consequence the style of acting was much broader but with the advent of television, actors very quickly adapted to more underplaying. It was more effective on screen than on stage.
27. This is for budding actors: do you have any tips on pursuing an acting career and auditioning? Self confidence and the ability to absorb projection, a constant belief in yourself, which must be sustained for as long as you are an actor. It is better not to have a family to support because the pay is unpredictable and the frequency of work!
28. If you look back is there anything you regret doing or not doing in your acting career? I would have preferred to have spent more time on the Classics but the need to continue to exist financially drew one to accepting more commercial work. However, I managed to engage in Shakespeare, Chekov, George Bernard Shaw and the Restoration Plays of Sheridan and other restoration authors and playwrights.
29. Is there anything you would further like to say to us fans? Go on supporting actors that you like. We all thrive on support of fans. Also criticism is of value as it makes one examine one’s work.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Phillips!
Another actual interview on video you can find here.