Obituary: Ray Cusick, BBC engineer who designed the Daleks

Ray Cusick
Ray Cusick
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Born: 1928 in London. Died: 21 February, 2013, in Sussex, aged 84

RAY Cusick created one of the iconic designs of sci-fi television while working as a staff designer with the BBC on the first series of Dr Who exactly 50 years ago.

He created the Daleks, the cult villains, after a discussion over lunch with the screenwriter of the show, Terry Nation. The concept was that the Daleks had been developed by a scientist to survive a war on their home planet of Skaro. This allowed Cusick’s imagination to run wild. He placed a human being within the Dalek, which was encased in studded, tank-like machinery that appeared to glide over the ground.

It is said Cusick got the idea of that gliding motion when he demonstrated his proposal with a pepper pot. On a visit to the Dr Who Cardiff studios in 2008, Cusick admitted: “It was a pepper pot. But it could have been a salt pot.” Then he added with a kindly smile: “If that’s all it takes to become a designer, then it’s a doddle’.”

The design has changed little over half a century, and the Daleks have terrified generations of children not only for their distinctive design but also for the voice that eerily commanded: “Exterminate, exterminate.” That was delivered by a staccato-voiced actor and then mixed through a synthesiser. Thus were the villainous and frightening Daleks created.

Raymond Patrick Cusick (always Ray) showed a keen interest in engineering and while at art school he also attended engineering classes at a south London Polytechnic. However, parental pressure made him gain a degree in mathematics and science, but he gave up that and joined the army. He served in Palestine and on his return to England worked as an actor in repertory theatre in Cardiff. He responded to an advertisement from Granada Television and got a job as a designer on the show Chelsea at Nine.

He was then offered a post as a staff designer with the BBC. His first designs for the corporation date from the early Sixties when he worked on the comedy Hugh and I and on three episodes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Other such popular series as The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers, Madame Bovary and When the Boat Comes In much benefited from Cusick’s ingenuity.

But it was the 42 episodes of Dr Who for which he will be most closely associated. He began working on the series in 1965 (Day of Armageddon) and for two years was involved in all the episodes. The Daleks first appeared in the second episode directed by Ridley Scott and were half-mutant and half-tank creatures. “I picked up what could have been a salt or pepper pot and moved it around the table. I said, ‘It moves like that, without any arms or legs.’”

On Cusick’s visit to the Cardiff studios, he entered the Tardis used today. His immediate reaction was it great size. “It’s much bigger than the Tardis we created. It’s like a cathedral. Ours was very primitive inside: we never went in for anything elaborate. We couldn’t afford it.”

As Cusick inspected today’s Daleks, he explained that he had wanted flashing lights on the studs at the front of the Dalek. “The flashing lights could have identified which Dalek was speaking; it would help the director selecting which camera to use. All it needed was 62-volt car batteries under the seat of the operator. That was also too expensive. The first four Daleks were made for £250.”

As a staff member of the BBC, Cusick never received any royalties for his imaginative creation. That did not stop the BBC from making considerable funds from merchandising Daleks worldwide. Scriptwriter Nation received a royalty – but Cusick never complained. However, the BBC did acknowledge Cusick’s input some years later and gave him an ex-gratia payment.

Getting the Daleks to glide so menacingly was far from straight forward. The outer casing had to be strong so that an actor could move around and safely navigate the Dalek on its small invisible wheels. They obviously could not go down stairs and had to remain on a level. “On bumpy pavements,” Cusick recalled, “they rattled like an old biscuit tin.”

Cusick remained a disarmingly modest man. When he was in the Tardis with two of today’s designers, he told them that they only had three hours to shoot each programme. The designers were amazed and showed their admiration for his imagination and creativity. “We did our best,” he quietly replied.

In his retirement, he researched and wrote about military history – which had been a life-long passion. His wife predeceased him and Cusick is survived by his two daughters.