Raymond Cusick: Designer whose greatest creation was Dr Who's biggest foes, The Daleks

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The Independent Online

It is 50 years since the first television appearance of the Daleks, the gliding metal monsters that have become synonymous with Doctor Who. Ray Cusick was the designer of these extraterrestrial villains which made generations of frightened children hide behind their sofas.

Raymond Cusick was born in London in 1928. He studied science and maths at Borough Polytechnic but took evening classes in art. "As soon as I walked into the art school I really felt at home," he recalled in an interview. "My father was very concerned. He was in the RAF at the time and he wanted me to be something proper, like a civil engineer."

Following National Service and a period as a schoolteacher he found his way into set design, responding to an advert in The Stage for a position at the Wimbledon Theatre. Three years later, moving to the BBC in 1960, he worked at the heart of a thriving creative environment where, as he said, "The actual people that made the programmes were entrepreneurial; developers; they were full of ideas."

His best-known creation was introduced early on in the history of Doctor Who, during the second serial of its first season, in 1963. With early working titles of "The Dead Planet" or "The Mutants", it was in the serial "The Daleks" that the creatures from Skaro were first presented to audiences. The public reaction was immediate and Dalekmania swept the country.

Sydney Newman, then BBC's Head of Drama, recalled his conversation with Doctor Who's producer Verity Lambert about the design of the programme's baddies. "I laid down the rules to her, that she was not to have any bug-eyed monsters. None of these creepy-crawly things from outer space, the usual nonsense of science fiction stuff… And then she came up with this Dalek business and I was livid with anger."

Lambert had responded matter-of-factly, "But, honest, Sydney, they are not bug-eyed monsters, they were once living creatures with brains, and their brains had become so large that their bodies had atrophied and they needed the metal casing to support the brain."

With Newman's rules in mind, the concept of the Daleks had been the brainchild of Doctor Who's screenwriter Terry Nation, who came up with a creature encased in a metal box that would glide, rather than walk. Cusick was given the job to design the appearance of this alien invader.

Cusick spoke about the design process in an interview in 2008. "People do say I was inspired by a pepperpot – but I always think, 'If that's all it takes to become a designer then it's a doddle'." In fact, it was at lunch with Bill Roberts, a model-maker for Doctor Who, that Cusick demonstrated a pepperpot gliding across a table and said, "It's going to move like that – no visible means."

For the actors inside the costume, the role of a gliding Dalek had its challenges. Barnaby Edwards, who has had the role of principal operator since 2005, says it's like "sitting on an office chair and sticking a dustbin on your head."

The Daleks went on to appear in only 23 out of the more than 250 Doctor Who serials broadcast so far but are forever linked to the programme and have become a mainstay of British popular culture. Nicholas Briggs, who provides the current Dalek voice, said, "Lots of my friends, who are not Doctor Who fans, think that the programme is Doctor Who And The Daleks, surely the Daleks are in it all the time, which isn't true... That's the brilliance of the creation of the Daleks – that they made an indelible stamp on the series..."

Three years after the programme's launch Cusick decided he needed a change. "It was 25 hours a day, eight days a week for two-and-a-half to three years. That's why I came off it." He remained at the BBC, working on the play Journey's End, written by Robert Sherriff and based on experiences of life in the trenches during the First World War. He went on to design for productions like The Duchess of Duke Street, When The Boat Comes In and The Pallisers.

Cusick retired from the BBC in 1988, pursuing his passion for military history, and he was much in demand to speak at Doctor Who events. He contributed to the book Doctor Who – The Early Years (1986), which includes blueprints and photographs of the original Dalek designs.

"It continues to surprise me that after all this time there is still such a strong interest in Doctor Who, and especially my contribution," he said in 2002. "It is all very flattering. It has meant that much of what I did for the show from 1963 to 1966 is very sharp in my memory. But when it comes to other productions that I have worked on since, much more ambitious and prestigious productions, my memory is blank. I look at tapes of these shows now and I often have no recollection of ever designing some of the sets."

Raymond Patrick Cusick, designer: born London 1928; married 1964 Phyllis (two daughters); died 21 February 2013.