DAVROS, evil creator of the Daleks... Believe it or not, that is who Edinburgh audiences have to thank for the hideously disfigured features of the Phantom Of The Opera, currently entrancing and repulsing theatre-goers at The Playhouse.
Neill Gorton, the man responsible for designing the horrific prosthetics that, in 50 minutes, transform John Owen-Jones from mild-mannered musical theatre star into the famous opera ghost, laughs as he explains.
“I was a weird kid. I grew up in Liverpool in the 70s and, on a Saturday night, my dad would come home with the chips and we’d all sit around and watch Doctor Who. I remember seeing all these aliens and being scared and fascinated by them.
“We used to do family trips to Blackpool where they had a Doctor Who exhibition. Now, when, as a kid, I saw Davros on the TV, I remember thinking, ‘Where did they get this incredibly ugly old man?’ Then, at the exhibition, they had a Davros mask on display. That was when it dawned on me... it was a mask! Then it sunk in that someone had to make it, and that is my earliest recollection of wanting to do what I do.”
Today, Gorton is a BAFTA Award-winning make-up designer. His work regularly features on stage, in film and on television where, for the last seven years he has designed ‘almost every’ alien and monster to feature in Doctor Who, from Silurians, to Sontarans.
He is also the man responsible for creating the prosthetics for Catherine Tate’s sweary Nan and Paul Whitehouse’s various faces in the Aviva insurance ads. From the ageing goth to Damien the hairdresser and the ‘Green Army’ football fan, Gorton has transformed the funny man’s features on numerous occasions.
Right now, though, it’s his reinvention of the phantom of the opera that has audiences reaching for their binoculars.
Explaining how he created the character’s new look, Gorton says, “The original phantom was designed more than 25 years ago when it was quite revolutionary to have prosthetics in a production, but materials and technology move on. So one of the key things I was trying to do was improve the technical aspects of the make-up.
“The original phantom face was foam rubber that, when glued to the skin, really bites in and catches very strongly. It’s stiffer and doesn’t move well.
“Now we use silicon gels which are much more flesh-like. So when the performer’s face moves everything moves with them.”
Applying the prosthetics to Owen-Jones takes almost an hour and a completely new face is created for each performance.
“We took a life cast of John’s face, so effectively I have a copy of him on my bench. Then I did a sculpture of his face in wax and I make moulds from that. We cast each prosthetic from these moulds so that they are all identical.
“As it takes half a day to make up one set of pieces for one show, we have a continuous production line and ship two weeks worth of prosthetics at a time to whereever Phantom is playing.
“These pieces are then applied to the performer by the make-up artist each day and discarded at the end of the show.”
On Saturday, however, there will be another chance to see some of the 43-year-old’s work when the Weeping Angels return to Doctor Who on BBC 1.
“The aliens and the creatures are just enormous fun to create,” he says. “Basically, I have designed all the aliens on Doctor Who and have done everything from Davros to the Ood and the Weeping Angels.
“I usually get a loose brief. A writer will often write ‘an eight foot-tall green monster’ - it can be as broad as that. So I look at the script, and work out from what is going on how I am going to approach it. That can dictate the look.
“Other times, it’s a fairly set brief. For example, for Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, which was broadcast a couple of weeks back, we built the triceratops that the Doctor and his companions ride. Now we all know what a triceratops looks like, so I couldn’t really change that.”
Gorton and his company, Millennium FX, were also responsible for the gunslinger and Steven Berkoff’s alien baddie Shakri, which also featured in recent episodes of the sci-fi series, but the designer reveals it’s the more subtle creations of which he is most proud.
“For me, it’s often about the things people see and don’t even realise,” he explains.
“You see an Ood in Doctor Who and you go, ‘Oh that’s got to be special effects or prosthetics’, but when people watch something and just don’t notice... well, that’s why I love doing old-age make-up. Something very subtle.
“I did the Channel 4 drama Any Human Heart, with Jim Broadbent. Now Jim’s in his 60s but had to look like he was in his 80s, so there are very subtle prosthetics on him. They are so delicate, most people just don’t realise they are there. Basically, if the audience had watched that and gone, ‘Look at the prosthetics on him,’ then I’d have done a bad job.”
At the other extreme, Gorton also owns up to designing Little Britain’s Bubbles De Vere.
“Yeah, I did Bubbles...” he laughs, “...and it clearly is prosthetics. I’ve done a lot of comedy and am especially proud of Catherine Tate’s Nan, because she is such a great character that people forget all about the make-up.”
The job that remains most special to Gorton, however, is Davros, which he found himself redesigning more than three decades after that childhood trip to Blackpool.
“Davros was a real interesting one because he’s been done twice before, and I had to honour that.”
If Davros brought him full circle in many ways, so too has the Phantom.
Gorton, who also runs GortonStudio.com, where he teaches prosthetics, recalls, “Oddly enough, one of my first jobs was working for the guy who did the original make-up for The Phantom Of The Opera.
“At the age of 17, I was casting up pieces for Phantom with a gentleman called Chris Tucker. That was one of my very first jobs and then, 25 years later, it just came around and here I am. Who knows, 25 years from now the torch might be passed on to someone who was taught in my school... or it might even be my daughter, you never know.”
The Phantom of the Opera, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, until October 20, £19.50-£51.50, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), 0844-871 3014
Weeping Angels: Page 11