Welcome to Michael’s Onedin Line Article Page
ORIGINALLY FOR SYLVESTER HOOGMOED OF “IMPULS” MAGAZINE
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Nearly always when the famous theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet is
being played on Dutch radio, someone mentions that it comes from The Onedin
Line. During the 1970s millions of people, all over the world watched this
television classic. It was all about James Onedin, a 19th century Captain who
being also a very shrewd businessman - started his own shipping company.
About his brother Robert, a typical narrow-minded tradesman, very much
averse to risky investments. And about sister Elizabeth, who couldn’t choose
between two men: the charming steamship-designer Frazer and the father of
her child, the handsome, straight captain Daniel Fogarty. Michael Billington
was, until he left the series in 1973, the actor behind Fogarty. After that he
played many other roles, for example in the Bond-movie ‘The Spy Who Loved
Me’. Yet, after all these years people still remind him frequently of that one
part in The Onedin Line. Does he still like Khachaturian’s famous theme which
was used in the series, or has he heard it too often?
“I heard it only a few months ago, when I was watching Performance Channel: the full
ballet was being performed by the Bolshoi. I’m a big ballet fan and opera fan. It was
wonderful! It is a wonderful piece of music and it’s like meeting an old friend; I have very
warm feelings about it and it does bring back happy memories.”
Were you often at sea during the shooting of The Onedin Line?
“Well, not really at sea; a few miles of the coast. We went out early in the morning and
came back late in the afternoon. The main boat we used, which was the Charlotte
Rhodes, had an engine on board, so it was able to be manoeuvred round quite easily.
When you breathed in the fumes of the engine, you felt quite sick some days. It was not
the sea that made you sick, it was the engine fumes!
I enjoyed the whole filming of The Onedin Line. I found the whole cast very pleasurable
to work with, and it was a joy to work on something which had some merit. We all knew
at the time that it was something a little bit special.”
It was an immediate success?
“Yes it was, surprisingly so. It had competition from Upstairs, Downstairs, that
overshadowed our figures a little, but we still had healthy figures. Upstairs, Downstairs
was on the commercial channel and in those days the commercial channel did a lot of
publicity with their programming, whereas the BBC didn’t do a lot of publicity.
Consequently more people ended up watching Upstairs, Downstairs. But The Onedin
Line kept going for about 7 or 8 years.”
Why was it so successful?
“There were three ingredients that made it extremely popular both to the ordinary
television viewer and to the more intellectual. One was that it had a visual beauty to it,
also it had elements of high adventure, and it was very in touch with the social issues of
the time, with regard to the conditions people were working in, safety of seamen and
workers and the different classes of the era. There was something for everybody in it.”
Do you have all the episodes you were in on video yourself?
“I do have them, except the third series, that was never issued on video or DVD.
I happen to like the third series quite well. It’s quite a pity that BBC only released the first
two series, because some of the episodes in the third series had some wonderful actors
in it. Like Kate Nelligan, playing James’s new wife. She’s a very good actress and a joy
to work with. I do have the two first series, but I must admit I haven’t really seen them for
probably nearly thirty years.”
“I move on. I do refer back to my early career under circumstances, like now during this
interview. Also to the UFO series - which seems to be very popular with modern
audiences. And it’s amazing people still recognize the character I played in The Spy Who
Loved Me. I suppose if you’re ever in a James Bond film it is with you for life. But I’m not
totally connected to these things anymore, they seem like part of my history. I’m much
more involved with what’s going on today.”
But you don’t mind, talking about the past.
“Oh no, I’m very honoured to have been a part of all that. It was a golden age of
television, certainly in this country. There were some wonderful programs, which I think
people will always want to watch. I feel very honoured to have been part of the golden
age of television. I think England did lead the way in television in that period, the late
1960s early 1970s.
Why did the golden age end?
“I think there’s too much television, too much choice. In England there’s an excellent
historical story called The Lost King, by Stephen Poliakoff, which is very interesting and
well done piece of historical drama. But there’s so much going on at the same time, that
if you have a choice you might go to another channel, where there’s a football match.
When I was active on television there were only three or four channels. Also what has
happened: in the days we did The Onedin Line, UFO, War and Peace and other series,
you couldn’t get very good films on television. Now there are so many films available on
television; it seems only months after they have been in cinema, whereas in that time
you really had very old films. There wasn’t really competition for television drama, which
was in many ways quite excellent.”
Do you think DVD will make it more attractive for the BBC to invest in television
“I would like to think that’s true. I know film industry in this country has had a big boost.
A lot of money was spent on British films in this country, for things like Bridget Jones
Diary. Because they sell well on DVD, it’s not that important that they do so well in
cinema. Producers can make their money back from DVD sales. Apparently DVD sales
outstripped what video sales ever did at any time. I hope that opportunity is taken to put
some of the classical work on to the screens. But I’m not sure that the new breed of
producers are looking in those areas. I would hope so.”
Back to The Onedin Line: is there much resemblance between Fogarty and
“Very little. I think I have more of a sense of humour then Daniel Fogarty had. He was
very driven. I was driven too at the time, to be a successful actor, but I had a fairly good
sense of humour. The only real comparison with myself at the time, is that I was very
ambitious, like Fogarty was. So I could relate to that quite well. But I took a little more
time of to be myself, which I don’t think Daniel Fogarty ever did. Fogarty was a man on
Do you like sailing?
“I do like sailing! I did have a boat, a rather large boat, but I didn’t a lot of sailing on it.
I did a lot of cleaning and painting, which is what you’re doing when you’re having a
boat. I kept it for a couple of years. And sailing in England… although it’s very beautiful,
the weather doesn’t really help. To be out in rough weather isn’t pleasurable to any
Was Daniel Fogarty one of your favourite roles?
“It is hard to say. In retrospect, I think I did a fairly good job with it because, as I said
earlier, there wasn’t a lot of me in it. The accent was different, for example. I like the
work I did in the theatre, like Death of a Salesman and Sleuth. You get more time to
enjoy a play. Also Edward the VII I enjoyed, and I did a little film called KGB The Secret
War, many years later, where I played a sort of Russian spy living in America. And I
loved doing that tiny role in the Bond-film The Spy Who Loved Me. It was very
interesting to go to Switzerland, do a bit of skiing and be paid for it! But I also did enjoy
playing Daniel Fogarty. I was pleased with the result.”
Was one of your reasons for leaving The Onedin Line that you were afraid that
after playing the role of Daniel Fogarty for too long, you wouldn’t be able to get
any other roles afterwards?
“I wasn’t too concerned about that, because Fogarty had a moustache and a beard,
I didn’t in real life. Also he spoke with an accent that wasn’t mine. The reason I left after
three series was basically that I was getting a lot of offers to do other things. I think
Peter Gilmore had a problem with it, because he looked very much like James Onedin.
Jessica (Benton, the actress who played Elizabeth), she had a little problem with it too,
because she stayed in it for a long time and her character became more involved as the
series went on. I think that maybe became a bit of a problem for her when she tried to
play other roles. Peter did try a few acting roles after The Onedin Line, but I don’t think
with total success.”
It has often been said that Peter Gilmore preferred singing to acting.
“I think that’s probably true. He was a fine singer, probably still is; he must be in his
seventies now. The first time I ever saw him, before I worked with him, was in a London
musical. I was really envious of him, because I would love to be have been able to do
what he did. I believe after The Onedin Line he went to Sweden and did some musicals
out there - the series was very popular in Scandinavia.
We always got on very well, Peter and I. I enjoyed working with him. He was very clever
when he got the scripts, he was able to simplify them and make them very clear.
Sometimes in an historical thing, the story gets a little lost. But he was very good at
making little changes and saying: there should be another little scene here or there.
He had a very good mind.
I don’t know what Peter does now. The last time I was in touch with him, was at the
release of the video of the series, about ten years ago. I haven’t really kept in touch
with anybody. The closest I came to keeping in touch was a few phone calls between
Jessica and myself. Not so long ago know they tried to get the cast together for a thing
on our morning television called Stars Reunited, but then Peter wasn’t available to do it.
He must be extremely rich from the repeats he must be getting from the series.”
You are still paid for the video’s that are being sold?
“Yes, the video sales still keep us going. I don’t get a big amount of money, but a fair
amount, and I was only in three series. What Peter must have got, who was in it from
the beginning to the end I can’t imagine. And he had a good salary at the time.
Good luck to him!
We get something from the DVD sales as well, I don’t know how much; they have only
been released fairly recently. It takes some time for the money to work its way through.
So I don’t really know whether it’s good pay or not. But whatever you get nowadays is
very helpful to pay the grocery bills. I’m very poor now.”
“We didn’t make loads and loads of money like people in soap operas do today.
Soap operas which we of course we were not interested in being in. I always tried to do
quality things. I was offered parts in horror films and that kind of things. There were a
lot of really successful films I could have been in, but because I didn’t agree with the
social content of the story, I quite often was not interesting in doing it.”
Is there in the United Kingdom a word for what we call in the Netherlands the
‘Swiebertje-effect’? By that we refer to the fact that some actors don’t get other
roles after they have been playing in a very successful television series.
(For twenty years Swiebertje was a very well known comical character on Dutch
television. After the series stopped, the actor playing Swiebertje for many years
could hardly get any other jobs; when he finally did get another role in theatre,
which had nothing to do with the comical Swiebertje - it was very tragic
character -, the whole audience cheerful started to sing: ‘There is Swiebertje’,
the title song of the series, as soon as he appeared on stage.)
“What comes near to it in English is typecasting.
I had a very good friend: Wim Meuldijk, who did Pipo de Clown on Dutch television.
With Mamalou, and the Indian...”
“Yes, Klukluk! Belinda Meuldijk, his daughter, and I, we went out together for a while.
I’m very fond of Holland, I really like the country, the Dutch people make me feel very
much at home.
Hopefully I will be out in Holland the next year or so. My son is an excellent footballer.
He’s played for the youth selection of Juventus and Inter Milan; he’s only fifteen. Maybe
I’ll bring him over and we’ll go and see how he gets on at Ajax.
I think the Dutch will win the European tournament . They have the best players.
I think they’re playing good at the right time. I wish them luck. I will bet on them!”