Maureen O’Brien (1990)

Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki was the first new addition to the original cast, replacing Susan after the first two second season stories. By all account, her time on the series wasn’t entirely happy, mainly because of the press attention, but here she talks about working with William Hartnell, and the arrival of Peter Purves. Incidentally, Maureen O’Brien is now an successful novelist.

“A wonderful acting teacher, who had taught me at Central, called Harry Moore, had moved out of teaching and gone as a producer to the BBC. I got a telegram from him out of the blue saying ‘Chance of TV work. Ring me’. I was an extremely innocent person, which I still am to some extent, and I rang him and said ‘But Harry, I’ve already got a job’, and he said ‘Darling, don’t be silly. They’re looking for a new girl on ‘Doctor Who’. I’d never seen ‘Doctor Who’, although I’d heard of it. I didn’t watch TV in those days, I didn’t have time for a start and I didn’t think of television as anything serious – I mean, the theatre was what was serious. I no longer think that, by any means – quite the contrary, in fact. I suppose in those days I was a little theatre snob.

“Anyway, I came up to see Verity Lambert, then went back and carried on at the Everyman (theatre in Liverpool). Then I was called back for a camera test. I came to London and stayed with Harry and his wife, and decided, for my test, to do a piece from ‘Member of the Wedding’, for which Harry coached me. I did this piece for the teest and they offered me the job. I was extremely happy working at the Everyman, but I’d met the man I was eventually to marry, and he was in London. We were by now together and I wanted to get down to London to be with him, so I thought ‘Well, I’d better take this job’. And I did.

“To me it was just a job, it didn’t seem important. They’d said ‘Keep it dark, don’t tell anyone’, and of course I didn’t, though I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Then suddenly there were journalists knocking on the door at seven in the morning and Michael and I had to climb out of the back window, as there wasn’t a back door! It was absolutely terrifying and I just didn’t know what I’d let myself in for. I had no idea it was so enormous and such a great cult. It was a terrible shock to me and I couldn’t really cope with it at all.

“They weren’t paying me enough to travel by taxi everywhere, so I used to get the tube like everybody else. I would sit there and people would talk about me and just stare. Sometimes they’d approach me, but a lot of times they’d simply talk about me, while I sat there as though I was behind a TV screen. It was a devastating experience. I hated the loss of anonymity – the ordinary person’s right to walk down the street and be like anyone else. Nine tenths of my pleasure in this world is just looking at people and observing and enjoying what goes on. I couldn’t do that because I had to keep my eyees down or otherwise I was going to be accosted.

“(Doctor Who) was pretty unrewarding from the acting point of view. The first week, I remember, I thought I couldn’t possibly learn the words in five days and I couldn’t understand how everybody else – Bill Hartnell, Jackie Hill and Russell Enoch got rid of their scripts on the second day. I thought ‘How on earth will I ever learn it?’. Of course by the second week, I was putting my script down on the second day, too. You got so used to it – the words were more or less alwas the same, anyway. In fact, it was very easy to learn and was no sweat from the work point of view. The scripts were so predictable, I used to sit there saying ‘This is so boring, why don’t you…?’, but nobody took any notice of me. I looked about twelve years old and I used to take the scripts very seriously, you see. They must have thought I was crazy!

“Bill Russell and Jackie were wonderful to me and took care of me. Carole Ann Ford was terribly sweet to me too, although she had left. She came in on my first day to say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’. I was very fond of Bill Hartnell too. The rest of us gave him a feeling of security and we did have to look after him – I certainly did. My job really, since the acting was no sweat, was to laugh Bill out of his rages and tantrums, which I did thoroughly, and enjoyed! He’d get very tetchy, but that was just Bill’s personality, that’s how he was. Any word of more than two syllables was a bit of a problem for him.

“I remember we used to have picnics together. We did the series at Riverside Studios and I don’t think there was anywhere to eat there, so we used to take turns bringing in these marvellous hampers. Someone would do the salad, someone the fruit, someone else the roast chicken and so on. Then we’d all sit in Bill Hartnell’s dressing room and enjoy our rather grand picnics. We were very close with all the team. Douglas Camfield we were terribly fond of – he ran on a very fast motor, I recall. Chris Barry was nice, Richard Martin was a darling man. Verity was always around, and she was wonderful to me – tremendous. It was lovely. And Dennis Spooner was very, very good. We were always pleased when it was one of his.

“The most enjoyable thing about it was the other actors, and we had some good ones, including Hywel Bennett playing some underwater creature and all painted gold. Now I get all these letters saying ‘I know you hated Doctor Who’, but I didn’t. I disliked the job, but I loved the people, all the nice actors and nice directors. Peter Purves joined us later – he’d come in to play this Texan on a roof somewhere, and because we all knew that Jackie and Russell were going, the hunt was on for a new chap. Bill and I agreed that this guy would be great and we went to Verity. So that’s how Peter arrived.

“I really only remember bits. I remember my first episode in which I was supposed to be extremely fond of a monster, which was then killed. I remember some giant ants, which were rather clever, but I don’t remember the Daleks at all. There was one story where there were these dear little things called Chumbleys, which were sort of little metal things that were jelly-like in that they wobbled. They were very sweet. And inside the Chumbleys, working them like pedal cars, were dwarfs and midgets. They were very nice and, of course, never having grown beyond five-foot two, I had a great fellow-feeling with them!

“I think I was pretty much dying to get out from the start, really, once I knew what I’d got myself into. I’d made it absolutely clear that I didn’t want to go on. I spent a year out of work after ‘Doctor Who’, because i had a very bad agent at that time, who didn’t know anything about theatre. The fact was, I could have done anything in the theatre having come out of ‘Doctor Who’, because they can use the name and you can do tours and things, but I was too innocent to know that. And I couldn’t be employed on TV because I was still see as Vicki from ‘Doctor Who’. So I went and taught as a supply teacher at a girl’s school in Kennington, using my Central teaching diploma.

“I was saved by Frank Hauser, who ran the Oxford Playhouse. He was doing ‘Volpone’ with Leo McKern and Leonard Rossiter and he’d never seen ‘Doctor Who’, or even heard of it. He offered me a part as Leonard Rossiter’s wife, Celia. That then transferred and I was spotted in it and offered a season at Chichester. I went into the area I wanted to, although it was all rather establishment stuff, and what I really wanted to do was be at the Royal Court doing new Edward Bond plays and things like that. I’m now doing the sort of work I’ve always wanted to – new plays written by living people. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do Shakespeare and Chekhov, I love that too, but the theatre is about what is happening now. Museums have their place, you’ve got to have them and they’re great, but the theatre is not a museum.

“I don’t know why I did (Children in Need). They phoned me up and I agreed and thought ‘What have I done?’. I was terribly nervous and nearly didn’t go, but I did and it was nice to see Peter (Purves) again, and Patrick, who I’ve worked with a lot – and of course Carole Ann Ford. I’ve never seen the programme since I’ve left and I can’t understand its appeal. I still get tons of letters and questionnaires as long as your arm. They ask me questions I just can’t answer.”


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