I don’t intend to delve deeply into the biography of Michael Billington in this issue; that has been done far more effectively in other places. What I would like to attempt however, is to look at how the character of Paul Foster developed over the course of the series.
Most UFO fans will already be well aware that the introduction of Paul Foster became necessary after the dismissal of Franco Derosa, who had been initially cast as Franco Desica, Commander of Moonbase. After just a few days into the filming of Identified Derosa’s lines were given to Gabrielle Drake, who had been cast as Paula Harris, and the search was on for a new actor to fill the role of – as it was called in those halycon days of the late 60’s – ‘beefcake’ in the series.
At this time, the producers did not realise what a star performer they had in Ed Bishop, nor how his angelic and somewhat androgynous looks would be a major attraction to vast numbers of fans. George Sewell, with his ‘criminal’ face, was, very foolishly in the opinion of many fans, considered by the Americans to be too rugged and unattractive and a new male actor was required to lure in the young contingent of female fans.
After successfully auditioning for the part, Michael Billington began his ‘UFO’ role with Survival. This was due to be broadcast after the episode Exposed which was written to introduce the character to SHADO. So, although viewers saw Paul Foster for the first time on screen in Exposed, this was not his first time in front of the UFO cameras.
I was never a fan of Paul Foster in my youth. Even when I started writing fanfiction in 2009, I still saw Foster as a brash and cocky young upstart. That warped perception was fuelled by numerous UFO fanfic stories in which Foster was, more often than not, depicted as a trouble maker whose sole ambition was to oust Ed Straker as Commander of SHADO. I even fell into that trap myself and it was not until I started to watch the episodes with an eagle eye and close attention to detail that I began to see the character of Paul Foster in a far more positive light.
However, I digress. We need to return to Exposed and our first look at Paul Foster. Just as with Colonel Alec Freeman, we know very little about Foster’s background but it is clear that he is both dedicated and determined and also more than a little headstrong. It is a good performance, with Billington giving the character just the right amount of confusion and anger and for most of the time he comes across as totally perplexed about what is happening. The perfect role for an inexperienced actor who has no idea what he is expected to do! We probably saw more of Michael Billington than Paul Foster in that episode.
There are some excellent moments though, particularly when he is dealing with Straker in the Studio scenes, and what is also interesting is that by this time the role of Ed Straker, Commander etc, had become far more defined. The character of Straker is no longer the desk-bound bureaucrat that we saw in Identified; he is well on his way to becoming the person who was later described as ‘SHADO’s most vital piece of manpower’. For the first time we see a distinct focus for Bishop in this episode, or perhaps the Anderson’s had finally begun to realise what a good actor they had in Bishop.
I have to be honest and say that I think that Billington was both badly directed and was still very inexperienced during the first half of the series. There are moments in some episodes that make this viewer wince with embarrassment. One example is Survival which was his first outing in the role of Foster and where his acting is forced and uncomfortable. (I won’t say ‘wooden’, that pun has been used too often and is the last bastion of a desperate and unimaginative reviewer!). Billington himself admitted that this was ‘my first large acting role and I worked on a very simple method approach which was total fear.’
Other cringe-worthy scenes include Conflict (only his third episode) in the IAC President’s office, where he shouts at Henderson in the manner of some immature and stroppy teenager and later in the same episode where he is seen slamming his fist into his hand. The seduction of Jane Carson in The Dalotek Affair is another such example as are several scenes in Ordeal which is, in places, excruciatingly embarrassing. Things slowly start to improve through The Responsibility Seat and The Square Triangle, but the real change seems to occur when we reach Court Martial.
Billington excels in this episode, acting with greater surety than we have previously witnessed. A sterling performance, with a tight plot and a whole breadth of emotions from all concerned, but it is also an episode that gives us our first insight into Foster’s deep respect for Straker. That ‘respect’ and the need for approval is the real crux of Foster’s relationship with Straker and once you examine the later episodes (in order of production, not the ‘Timeline’ order which is very different), we see the development of that relationship.
The real rapport between Straker and Foster, and the one that is often overlooked by many fans, could be described as that of mentor and protégé. We see Foster’s growing ‘trust’ in Straker from that episode, as well as Foster’s increased importance in the organisation. It is Paul Foster who goes out to the B142 space probe in Close Up, and who also who comes to the rescue in E.S.P. A far more believable and relaxed performance in both episodes. A ‘comfortable’ Michael Billington, at ease with his capabilities.
I particularly liked his acting in E.S.P. Again, he is both confused and almost scared by Croxley’s appearance in the hospital, but this time I felt that I was watching Paul Foster sitting there, slightly amused as Straker takes that apple from the bowl, and then worried by the appearance of a stranger in the reflection. It was not Michael Billington in that bed, trying to act the part.
The next episode in the running order was Kill Straker! and it is here that the perception of ‘cocky young upstart’ originates. Yet, if you watch the episode very carefully you see that Foster is not, like the co-pilot in the module, easily overcome by the aliens brainwashing techniques. Instead he resists, desperate not to become a traitor. All through the episode he tries to avoid killing Straker, despite having ample opportunity.
Yes, he suggests that Straker is a power crazy and should be replaced, and yes, he sends a message to Henderson informing the IAC President of Straker’s plans, but these are mere avoidance techniques, possibly in a desperate attempt to get Straker away from danger. Whatever, when it comes to the chance to do as he has been ordered by the aliens and he has the opportunity to shoot Straker in Moonbase, he hesitates. Even that final shot seems a reluctant mistake and too late to be effective. Proof that deep down, he still retains that respect for his Commanding officer.
As for Billington’s development as an actor, Alan Perry, who had directed Billington in Survival, The Dalotek Affair, The Responsibility Seat and Close Up, later said of the final scene in the Armoury in Kill Straker! “Michael Billington really turned it on for that one……. it was the first time I really saw Michael Billington act – he had tears in his eyes, but he remembered all his words and gave a superb performance. I really respected him a whole lot more after that.”
Another factor to consider in the relationship between these two men is Straker’s reaction to Foster’s betrayal of confidence in Kill Straker!. He is justifiably angry but he does not feel the same emotion regarding Foster’s attempt at murder. Instead, we have a Straker who is concerned, who looks for any way to rescue Foster, even if that would cost him his own life. The fact that Straker risks himself to prove Foster’s ‘normalisation’ is indicative of the fact that he was relying on Foster to step up into the chain of command at some stage. After all, we need to remember that Alec Freeman was some years older than Straker and it was only logical that the SHADO Commander would be looking to the future and wondering who would be the person to take over the reins.
So, we have a situation where the older, wiser and more world-weary Straker risks all to ensure the security of the organisation, just as we saw him do in episodes such as Reflections in the Water and Timelash (‘I made my choice a long time ago.’). Sub-Smash was a wonderful example of the relationship between the two men. The scene on the conning tower of Skydiver puts Straker firmly in the role of leader and teacher and the following action give us a Paul Foster who is very much in awe of Straker. There are several telling moments that show us Paul Foster, the obedient schoolboy, doing as he is ordered however much it goes against the grain.
A ‘cocky’ Paul Foster would never have admitted to Straker that he was worried about death, and furthermore would not have paused at the entrance to the Escape hatch for that one last look of regret and sorrow. A wonderful episode, giving us an understanding of Paul’s concern and also devotion to his boss. It’s interesting to see how that is further developed in the episodes that were filmed afterwards.
The final nine episodes were filmed without Alec Freeman, and although Virginia Lake was now seen as a regular presence in the Control Room as well as in Moonbase and Skydiver, she was never much more than a ‘bit part’ in some respects. The Sound of Silence featured Billington as the main character, and he is very much at ease here, and in several scenes even manages to push the more experienced Ed Bishop into the background. The final episodes allow the development of both characters; Straker as the sacrificial lamb, willing to give up his life to save the organisation and Foster as his Second in Command, no longer the impulsive lothario we saw in The Dalotek Affair, Destruction and The Psychobombs or even the man of action in The Cat With Ten Lives, Conflict and Close Up.
It was Paul Foster who was responsible for the armed staff stepping back at the end of Mindbender, and who was concerned about Straker’s wellbeing while Lake stood helpless in the background, and it was Paul Foster taking over in The Long Sleep when Straker found himself unable to give the order to inject Catherine again with the drug.
Paul Foster, there in the shadows, waiting to step in when needed, not in an attempt to usurp Straker but just there to support, to provide the necessary back-up that is the role of the Second in Command.
It took Michael Billington a while to grow into Paul Foster, to develop as an actor; he gave us a man who was, at first, gauche and clumsy and without the confident assuredness that we saw from the older and more experienced actors such as Sewell, Sheybal, Taylor and Bishop. That personal development gave us a chance to see the character mature and become, not just another Colonel in SHADO, but the possible Commander in the future; a role that I could not see Virginia Lake ever aspire to achieve.
If UFO had gone on to a second series, it would have been interesting to see what Foster’s role would have been. The focus for the proposed second series was events on the Moon, so perhaps the writers were planning to have Foster in a more defined role as permanent Moonbase Commander. However, any second series would have failed miserably without the character of Straker, and eventually UFO was never given the chance to develop into anything more than a cult show. Pity, really. I would have quite liked to see what happened next to Paul Foster. He was becoming a very likeable character, once you looked past the hairy chest!
‘Beefcake’ he may have been, but Michael Billington gave us a pretty good portrayal all in all.