UFO, the early 1970’s TV show that marked Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s first foray into live-action drama, is iconic for a whole slew of reasons: the once-heard-never-forgotten sound of the UFO itself, the Moonbase crews’ purple wigs (but why only the women?), and the perfectly realised design of the SHADO (= Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) badge, to name but three. For me though, the most stunning thing that the show pulled off was the casting of Polish actor Vladek Sheybal in the recurring role of Dr. Doug Jackson.
By the time UFO started filming, Sheybal had been a fixture in British living rooms for a number of years, with a regular gig in the Ken Russell productions of the time, and appearing as a villain in almost every spy franchise going (including The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions and Bond, where he played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love).
The character of Doug Jackson evolved from Sheybal’s turn as Dr. Beauville in the earlier Gerry & Sylvia Anderson movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun – aka Doppelgänger – (1969). In UFO, the evidently versatile Jackson is first introduced adversarially as the International Astrophysical Commission’s chief prosecutor (!) during the Court Martial of SHADO’s Paul Foster, and only gradually is he subsumed into the ranks of SHADO itself.
Channelling the standard Sheybal villain – a thin-faced, goggle-eyed Slav, with a voice as insidious as snake venom, in that accent – Doug Jackson was seldom seen, or so it seemed, unless dressed for the operating theatre, one hand clutching a primed syringe with a drop of some mind-altering drug beading on the tip of its needle. He was the scariest good (?) guy ever.
Of course the payoff in spades was the character’s never-spoken-of backstory: just how did this creepy foreigner end up with the name Doug Jackson? Perhaps if UFO had gone on for longer than two seasons more would have been revealed. In a 1992 interview, given not long before his death, Sheybal comments as follows:-
Well, I got the (script of the) first episode, I learned my lines and I went to the studio where Sylvia Anderson – with the big eyelashes and a very beautiful hairdo – was there, and I met all these friends afterwards from UFO for the very time, including Gabrielle Drake. You remember Gabrielle Drake? She was my pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – I once was teaching acting there and she was my pupil, and I was very surprised when she was there in the studio.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn’t know who this Dr Jackson was and Sylvia Anderson, after we had finished – or maybe it was while we were filming? – she said, “Would you be at all interested if we feed a script in with Dr Jackson, because we like very much the way that you are doing it.” And then I asked her, “Who is this Dr Jackson?”. “We don’t know,” she said. And that is what happened, so from time to time when they wanted to write in Dr Jackson they would ask my agent if I would be free for, let’s say, next week for ten days to come to the studio to play Dr Jackson.
And then I started forming my opinion about the character, and I came to the conclusion that he’s got lots of colours and whatever, and I think that I developed it while I was playing it.
For me, the Doug Jackson character is an absolute masterstroke and perhaps all the better for forever remaining an enigma. From time to time a reboot of UFO is mooted. If they ever do it, then Sheybal-lookalike Riz Ahmed would get my vote for the part.