Peter Wragg (1946-2012) made a massive contribution to the world of television visual effects. As well as Doctor Who, he worked on many popular series such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Red Dwarf. Here we look back on Peter’s career and take a closer look at his work on The Trial of a Time Lord.
Born on December 13 1946, Peter Wragg grew up in Slough, Buckinghamshire and left school to work in a bank. When his father’s business won a contract with AP Films (later Century 21 Productions), run by Gerry Anderson, Peter worked for them as a gofer and later became a special effects assistant, cutting his teeth on several of Anderson’s popular series. During his time at Century 21, Peter worked on series such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Joe 90, Secret Service and U.F.O. Peter stayed with the studio until it closed down in 1970.
After several years working on building sites and training to be a tool maker, Peter joined the BBC Visual Effects Department in 1976. Before long, Peter had his first assignment for Doctor Who, working on Image of the Fendahl (1977) as Visual Effects Assistant to Colin Mapson. It was a baptism of fire as Peter had to wear and operate the seven feet tall Fendahleen creature.
“Colin had made the costume from layers of thick latex applied to a cane frame, so it was quite heavy and cumbersome to move the thing forwards. With the additional heat from the studio lights I remember sweating quite profusely once I’d been helped inside.”
The following year, Peter assisted Colin Mapson again, this time for The Pirate Planet (1978). He built the model landcape of the city and several versions of the Bridge control centre. In 1979, Peter worked with Dave Havard on location in Cambridge for Shada. The next time he worked on Doctor Who was The Visitation (1981), and by this time he’d been promoted to Visual Effects Designer. The biggest innovation on this story was the Terileptil leader’s animatronic head. Peter returned to Doctor Who in 1984 to handle the extensive visual effects required for Resurrection of the Daleks. His final work on the series was for The Trial of a Time Lord, Parts Five to Eight (see below).
In 1991, Peter won a Royal Television Society Craft Award for his work on Red Dwarf, a show on which he was the principal visual effects designer for most of its original run. Other series Peter worked on included The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hound of the Baskervilles (starring Tom Baker), Threads, Bottom, Absolutely Fabulous and Natural Lies. Peter was later made joint head of the Visual Effects Department and he retired in 2000. Sadly he passed away in 2012 following a short illness. The final episode of Series X of Red Dwarf was dedicated to his memory.
Memories of The Trial of a Time Lord
This interview with Peter Wragg originally appeared in Issue 123 of Doctor Who Magazine. The interview was conducted by Patrick Mulkern.
Peter Wragg had to sculpt three separate masks and costumes for The Trial of a Time Lord (Parts Five to Eight) – two different ones for Kiv, who swapped bodies halfway through, and one for the Mentors, from which two identical casts were made. For Sil, the original body designed by Charles Jeanes for Vengeance on Varos was used.
“This was mainly because we didn’t have the budget to buy a new one. But we had to make a totally new head and work out a better join for the neck. The main part of the mask was made from a softer material than before – a prosthetics foam into which we’d put a green base colour. That fitted like a hood over Nabil Shaban’s head, leaving a circle exposed around his face.”
“We also had to provide separate pieces of foam, which weren’t attached to the hood, but could be applied by make-up to Nabil’s face, covering his cheeks and chin, so that any facial movement or change of expression would be reflected in the mask.”
In the end, all that could be seen of the actor’s own face were the eyes, nose and mouth. Peter had to fashion very thin slivers at the edge of the foam face-pieces, so that they could be blended in more naturally during make-up.
Kiv required two totally new bodies, similar in design to Sil’s but much larger. For the suits to fit as comfortably as possible for actor Chris Ryan, an accurate bodycast was taken in plaster, a process Peter explained. “We covered Chris from the waist up in plaster, which when removed was like a negative of the outline of his body, and onto that, I sculpted what I eventually wanted Kiv to look like in clay.”
“We then took another plaster cast of that, separated it, took out the clay, and then we put the two casts together, the positive of Chris’ body and the negative of Kiv’s and filled the gap between them with foam and latex. Once set, it resulted in a tailor-made costume. The latex already had a base colour, and we sprayed it up with an airbrush.”
One initial problem that had to be dealt with was how to conceal Chris Ryan’s legs. “Depending on where he was, we had to cut holes in tables, or strap his legs up underneath, because the sting end of the costume had to be empty.”
Quantel’s Paintbox facility was used at the start of the story to lend an alien touch to the location footage of the Doctor and Peri on the beach. The colours of the sea, the sky and the rocks were completely changed. Another world could even be positioned behind the Doctor and Peri. “We made a planet here (in the workshop), with video effects shot against a black background and later laid in with Paintbox. They could also lay in a few rings and halation around the planet.”
Planets are essentially plastic spheres, which are painted up and given contours. Their size depends on how extensively the planet is featured. “Obviously the larger the planet, the more convincing the detail will be. Then it can be reduced when fed into the set picture – Quantel can shrink it even more.”
We’d like to thank Patrick Mulkern and Peter Ware at Doctor Who Magazine for their kind permission to use this interview.