Ask anyone in the UK what was one of the most influential scare mazes of the past 10 years and chances are The Sanctuary at Alton Towers will be soon mentioned. The precursor to The Smiler, The Sanctuary was the 1950s private hospital operated by the Ministry of Joy and featured a winding layout that got darker figuratively and literally the further into the attraction you went, However, the intimidating almost Orwellian storyline of marmalisation and mind control was not the only selling point. Every hospital needs a figurehead and a leading practitioner and The Sanctuary was no different, I am of course talking about the twisted yet enigmatic and now scare legend character of Dr. Kelman bought to life by another legend Gerry Cannell who was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to have a little chat with us. Obviously, with the world, we currently live in things had to be done a little differently so we have devised a Q&A.
Q1.PSG – Thankyou for chatting with us Gerry this is an absolute honour, I suppose we should start from the beginning, Can you tell us a little about where your acting career began?
Gerry – My acting career started way back before most of your readers were born, back in 1954/5.
My aunt ran a Dancing school, which specialized in tap & ballet, and we put on shows at clubs and theatres across the midlands. A few of us were interested in performing comedy, so we started a small group within the school, and put an act together, which we toured around the local theatres. Back then theatres either the “A” run venues or the “B” run ones, and we were performing at the lower scale theatres, for instance the Aston Hippodrome, and the Windsor theatre, at Town halls and such. So that’s where my interest, my start began.
Q2.PSG – Before taking on the role of Dr.Kelman had you done character work in other roles or even parks before?
Gerry – Long before I was offered that part, I had been in the business for a very long time, and performed in theatre, and on TV, been on both sides of the camera, produced, and created a TV series, been appointed Chair of Equity the actors un ion, covering the whole of central England, so, yes, I had been in the business for a long time, before I auditioned for that character. I was a regular face on BBC productions, Doctors/WPC 56/Cold Blood/The Game/Father Brown, and many more. On radio, which is my first love these days, I voice for many BBC radio programmes. I hope that gives a least a taste of what I did and indeed still do, before The Sanctuary came along.
Q3.PSG – Talking about theme parks did Dr.Kelman or Gerry ever take a ride on the successor to his work? I remember during my time at the Extreme Sanctuary that he wasn’t too proud of my Smiler badge.
Gerry – Well yes, of course. The only problem was, that if I went down there to ride the coasters, it would take me ages to actually reach the rides, because of being stopped for autographs, and people wanted to talk to me, about the Sanctuary, which was understandable, it was a bit of a phenomenon, it was THE place that guests wanted to see, and the character was very popular, and of course easily recognized, after all it was me, so no hiding away. When I actually got onto the Smiler, it was a great experience, That is as GERRY, I guess Kelman would have the opposite to say about this abomination!
Q4.PSG – When you were given the role of Dr.Kelman did you ever think that this character would become such a cult figure amongst scare and theme park enthusiasts?
Gerry – The character was based on a real person, who, in the cold war, era, and during the war in Korea, in 1950, worked for the agencies in the US, that wanted to replicate what the Chinese were doing, in Mind Control.(check out the movie “The Manchurian Candidate).
So, he was not a very nice person. I approached the interpretation of the character, from the angle of: Charm, someone who comes across as trust worthy, a dear uncle…….with an underlying sinister, possibly creepy side; and I hope that is what he seemed like. But to answer the question…even while I was performing as Dr. Kelman, I had no idea that he would become even popular, after all he was a very sick puppy wasn’t he? It only became clear to me, when I had ended a run one night, it was very late, and after getting my make-up off, and changing my clothes, I left the Sanctuary to head to my car. As I left the Towers, a crowd had gathered outside, and I went to walk round them, and they followed me, and it soon became apparent, they wanted to meet Kelman! That’s when I realized, I had lightening in a bottle!
Q5.PSG – The Sanctuary closed its doors for the final time in November 2014, Do you wish the attraction had gone on further , would you like to see a new incarnation ever return? I’ve always liked the idea of exploring The Sanctuary when it has been abandoned only to find out the staff have long gone and only the most crazed of patients remain.
Gerry – Would I like to see it return? I think that is what you are asking? Seven years ago, The Sanctuary was something a bit special, don’t ask me why, I don’t have the answer. It was Unique, the concept, the layout, the story, and I think that THAT was what made it something unforgettable! The back story was everything, The team that created The Sanctuary, were “of their time”, they came together, and worked a magic with the whole concept. The video story carried on You tube, was brilliant! No doubt about that. It created a nationwide interest; everyone wanted to know WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? Brilliant. The team that I worked with, were so enthusiastic, the actors, were superb, I loved working with them, and still keep in touch today. The fans of this wonderful and unique Scare maze, are the best in the world, even today, I receive mail from all over the world, asking me about the Sanctuary, and asking me the burning question….Will it EVER return? That my friends is something I cannot answer. Back in 2014, I was shocked when I was introduced to the THEN marketing director at AT, and told that the back story, the video back story, was being cut, and that the Sanctuary, had served its purpose, and was ended. Now, I fully understand that the Smiler was now up and running, but……in my opinion, and I guess a few thousand others, they had a winner, right there, an attraction, known all over the world, a UNIQUE piece of performing history, that again, in my opinion, COULD have been kept running, with maybe a slight change of script, a proven product. But, instead, the marketing department decided that it was not worth continuing? I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it today, but there it is. It was explained to me that “The Marketing department run the Entertainments department, so end of. I do hope this answers your question? Oh, would I like to see it return? Yes, and I would be willing to reprise the role if a deal could be struck.
Q6.PSG – What was it like when the extreme runs were still in place, There must have been even more freedom with the script, I remember my run being very hands-on and even bowing down to Dr Kelman from a wheelchair.
Gerry – These were a lot different to the normal public performance, and I believe guests paid a little more? All I can possibly tell you about these, were that we went completely over the top!
Q7.PSG – It’s no secret that you always have the fans at heart, what message could you give them to inspire them to follow their dreams.
Gerry – Well, I have been in this business many years, and all I would say to anyone, is, Never let anyone tell you that You Will Never Be Anything! I was told that, and it gave me the urge to prove them wrong. Surround yourself with people that inspire, not people that drag you down. Have Belief, never give up. There is a whole world out there…Go For It!
Q8.PSG – From The Sanctuary to Demonica, is there any scare role that you would have loved to have had the chance to take on?
Gerry – No. I performed the best character created in the Scare business. Look it’s seven years since he put on that black overcoat, and those spectacles, and STILL they are talking about him.
Q9.PSG – So what’s life been like after leaving Alton Towers.
Gerry – Up until this Covid 19 thing, I was busy with voice overs, for many corporate clients, as well as doing BBC link voices, I had a wonderful voice job lined up for Dubai, with Carnaval, Theme Park, in Global Village out there. I had just completed the first scare voice for the “Transylvania Towers” ride, when Bang! COVID closed us down. So at the moment I am writing a Pantomime for a venue, hopefully for the back end of this year, and I continue doing voice work, as and when the work comes in.
Q10. PSG – What does the future hold for Gerry?
Gerry – I haven’t a clue!
Well Gerry it has been absolute honour and we are so thankful for you to take time out of schedule to have this chat with us, wherever life takes you next we are sure amazing characters will sure follow. Thankyou so much Gerry Cannell/Dr Kelman.
We hope you have enjoyed our interview with this absolute legend of an actor,Untill next time PSG Signing out and remember Smile.Always.