Mark Cordory was Department Head for Props Fabrication on Doctor Who for the first two and a half series. This was followed by another year as a freelance props maker for Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. He is also well known in the Live-Action Role-Play world where he has been making weird and wonderful items for almost 40 years. We recently spoke to Mark about his time on Doctor Who with a particular focus on his work on The Christmas Invasion.
WhoSFX: How did you get into this line of work?
Mark: I’ve been making ‘stuff’ ever since I can remember. Since childhood I was always fascinated by Sci-Fi & Fantasy and Horror and much of my spare time was spent drawing monsters or making Airfix kits into pretty much anything except what was on the box. And of course I was the perfect age to have grown up watching the original Star Trek and Doctor Who. After I left school I went to college to study Theatre Design which was about as close as I could get to finding a course that dealt with making props, costumes and creatures back in the early 80’s. After that I moved to Cardiff to work for a company that made props and puppets for TV and theatre. And that’s the industry I’ve remained in ever since really.
Mark: I’d been working as a freelance props and puppet maker in Cardiff since the early 90’s so I’d got to know many of the people in the industry there during that time, so when I heard that Doctor Who was returning to our screens and that it was going to be made on my doorstep I decided there and then that there was simply no way it was going to happen without my involvement! So I tapped every contact I knew of until I discovered who was going to be head of the art dept and then sent them my details. Fortunately I’d worked with Ed Thomas previously so he already knew of me. Originally I applied to run the creature workshop along with a number of others I’d previously worked with on The Corpse Bride. Ultimately Millennium FX got the job, but I was offered the job of running the Props Fabrication dept (or in fact being the props fabrication dept since I was initially the only person there). I jumped at the chance.
WhoSFX: Were you a fan of the series before you started working on it?
Mark: Of course. As I mentioned, I’m the right age to have grown up on classic Doctor Who. Jon Pertwee was ‘my’ Doctor, although the first episode I remember was Fury from the Deep with Patrick Troughton. Jon Pertwee will always be my favourite and I love how Capaldi has managed to recapture some of that version in his own performance. I stopped watching the series towards the end of Tom Baker’s run though as I’d sort of got to that age where I’d moved onto films more than TV because the budgets and FX were better, but I never lost my love of the early episodes.
WhoSFX: What stage of production was the series at when you came on board?
Mark: I was involved pretty much from day one. I started making a few props before I was taken on as part of the official team. I made a replica stunt axe for Rose (my very first prop for the new series) and a number of items for The End of the World, but I came on officially on Dalek. However I didn’t really get anywhere to work until the following episode so my first on-set prop for Dalek was made out of scraps I found in the boot of my car and an old Playstation gun I was handed. I put it all together in a cupboard beneath the stairs at the Millennium Stadium where we were filming because that’s where they had a plug socket.
WhoSFX: What was your basic remit on the series?
Mark: Basically I was supplied with beautiful concept artwork from Matt Savage and it was my department’s job to try to make the items as close to the designs as possible. However we were fighting against a pretty low budget for my dept and very limited facilities in the first couple of series. I have more facilities in my garden shed now than I did for the entire first two series in the props fabrication dept! So often compromises had to be made. Much of the stuff we made in the initial two series was constructed from existing items mashed together as opposed to completely scratch built, simply because we rarely had the time, budget or facilities to do much else – it was very ‘old school’ in terms of the props making. But I’m still very proud of what we achieved and we always tried to get as close to Matt’s artwork as possible. Occasionally there simply wasn’t time for Matt to produce concepts, and at that point it was really left up to me to make something suitable – the speedometer from the crashed Roswell ship for example.
WhoSFX: What were the highlights of working on Series One?
Mark: Just being part of the series I think? The first time I walked onto the TARDIS set and saw how huge it was, that was the day I spent dressing the console and tying it together visually. My first view of the new Daleks – that was a very special day. I’d seen some of Matt Savage’s concepts which were glorious, but seeing one ‘in the flesh’ for the first time was like mainlining my childhood all over again.
WhoSFX: Moving onto your involvement with The Christmas Invasion, can you tell us how the Robot Santa masks were created?
Mark: They were based on Matt Savage’s design and made very simply with thin fibreglass shells which were then painted. I preferred the subsequent ones that had more structure but a lot of people have said that they felt the simpler ones were particularly creepy which is nice.
WhoSFX: You created some incredible staffs and weapons for the Sycorax. Was this something you particularly enjoyed?
Mark: I work well when it comes to putting items together, it’s a process that suits the way I design things. I think I have a pretty good eye for shapes and forms and these were entirely created from scraps. The basic concept was created by Matt Savage but strangely enough his was based on a prop I’d made for a production that the head of the art dept had worked on some years ago! So the staffs were sort of coming full circle back to me. I spent an afternoon at a quarry I knew of up in the Brecon Beacons that usually had a lot of sheep skeletons lying around, so I went with a bin bag and collected as many bones as I could find. I also collected all the branches we used for the staffs from the same location. The rest of the items are from a salvage yard in Cardiff, old pistons and break pads, odds and ends together with some latex castings I made. I believe it took about four days to make all of the staffs.
WhoSFX: What was your involvement with dressing the interior of the Sycorax ship?
Mark: The ship interior is, as you probably already know, a cavern in Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean. Much of the larger set dressing was produced by the scenic dept, but my dept produced the vac-form ‘crystal’ lights (taken from a ceramic vase we picked up in a shop somewhere) and the large console which had to be farmed out to be fibreglassed since we didn’t have the facilities in the workshop to deal with it. As I said, the facilities were very basic back then. Mainly it was about trying to match the colour and texture of the cavern interior to the pieces we’d made so that they looked as if they’d been carved from the same rock.
WhoSFX: Some of the amazing detail you created for the Sycorax ship is only seen fleetingly. Is this a frustrating aspect of the job?
Mark: It happens, you get used to it. There was an alien in a cage which was in one corner that never got seen. The alien was in fact one of my own costumes that I’d loaned to the production but he never made the edit. The largest piece I made for the series that was never seen was a giant robot head for a scene in Torchwood London HQ on the David Tennant episode. It was mentioned in the script but there was literally zero budget to make it. However, I scoured the scrap store and the props storage to put together an 8ft broken robot head in 2 days on a budget of £0.00 which I was actually pretty proud of. Unfortunately it never made it into the final cut either. Likewise there was an entire set dress for floor 500 on The Long Game that was never seen, we spent 2 days wrapping the entire set in plastic and heat melting it. The director walked onto the set, didn’t like what he saw and we had to take it all down in 30 mins in time to begin shooting that day. These things happen and you really just have to move on to the next piece, you can’t ever get too precious about what you make since there’s rarely the time to hang around before the next piece is needed on set.
Mark Cordory, thank you very much.
We hope to speak to Mark again about his massive contribution to Doctor Who. You can find out more about Mark’s work on his website and Facebook page: