Caroline John played Liz Shaw, one of the few companions to have been denied a farewell scene. She appeared in just the one season, Jon Pertwee’s first, and then was gone the following year, only reappearing more than a decade later in ‘The Five Doctors’.
“At the time I went for Liz Shaw, it was a kind of mutual decision between my agent and myself that I should go for some major television work, after having done considerable amounts of stage a cting. Knowing roughly the kind of thing the ‘Doctor Who’ people would be after, I sent them a leggy picture of me along with my details, hoping that this would sway their decision. I was called in to read and before long I was told that I had the part.
“There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘Doctor Who’ is about the Doctor, not his assistants. Even if you were allowed to initiate some kind of action, it would invariably get you into trouble and the Doctor would then have to rescue you. You couldn’t really win.
“Making the whole of ‘Spearhead From Space’ on location meant that you were given very little time for rehearsal – you tended to have to turn up, run through it and then go for the take. The director was Derek Martinus, and it was very lucky that he was organised and knew what he was doing, because it was difficult for the actors and nerve-wracking for myself.
“It was done in a very short space of time, which was new to me as I’d thought television would at least give you some chance to think. ‘Doctor Who’ was very much a treadmill production process, and you had to be careful not to let it get to you. For instance, if one developed a cold, there was no way you could stay at home and miss a rehearsal, lstill less filming. You had to go on. The people who played the mannikin monsters could barely see where they were going, but they still managed to avoid that detectable hesitancy that you get when you’re walking in the dark.
“It didn’t help that most of the series was made in the autumn and winter months, which could make it purgatory for me, because they would insist on dressing me in mini-skirts and not a lot else. I used to point out that these sorts of clothes would hardly have been Liz Shaw, Cambridge scientist’s kind of wardrobe, but I think they were a bit too scared there would be trouble if the traditional ‘Doctor Who’ glamour girl was dispensed with.
“Some of the worst cold was when we were filming ‘The Silurians’ in some inhospitable location somewhere. We had quite a few shots of Jon driving me along in Bessie, the Doctor’s car, and the wind would whistle away, cutting right through you. The worst thing about it was that it really called upon your reserves as an actress, because it was hardly possible for me to look as if I was freezing and wishing only to be inside in the warm. The children would have been very put off! (However) the blokes in the Silurian suits nearly died of heat in the studio, but they would save their discomfort until after a take.
“There was quite a lot of rushing about in ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ and some quite eerie bits which made it all the more rewarding to do. One episode finished with a tremendous car chase, with me driving Bessie and ending up being pusued along a canal bridge. The end of the episode comes with a struggle which results in me being sent flying over the edge of the bridge. Now that was difficult to film for two reasons. The first was that I couldn’t drive Bessie on public roads, because I didn’t have a driving licence. As a result, the chase had to be carefully filmed on private property. Secondly, the chase up the bridge was a bit nerve-wracking, because had I slipped it would have been straight into the raging weir below and goodbye ‘Doctor Who’. As it was, I had to have a double for some of the scene, and that was quite amusing, as they actually got a stunt man dressed up in a copy of my outfit, which looked very odd on this burly stand-in!
“I think the story itself was a little bit stretched, but as an actress one was aware of that, as were our directors. If a scene was a bit dull we would try to think of something to live it up a bit – we were given quite a lot of leeway to change lines and add things if we felt that what was written didn’t actually work.
“I liked working with Douglas Camfield a lot, and the story which he was responsible for, ‘Inferno’, is probably my favourite piece of ‘Doctor Who’. He was thorough in the extreme, and treated the whole thing like a vast military operation which, considering our schedule, was probably a great thing in his favour. He didn’t like any arguments, he had it all planned out and if there was any trouble he knew about it at once and sorted it out. He was refreshing to work with because of his drive, but of course he didn’t stay with us on that one for more than a few weeks because he fell badly ill during rehearsal one day. I remember his wife Sheila was in the serial and when we went back to work after Douggie had been taken to hospital, everybody was absolutely stunned. One minute he had been on his feet, the next he could scarcely draw breath. It was very frightening. Our producer had to take over and he was excellent in taking our minds off what had happened and back onto the pressing matter of the story itself.
“I was fond of the actual story, because it allowed me to do something a bit special with the character and to play the parallel world Liz with a great deal of sneering cynicism. She was very much the tough, cold professional soldier and that was a whole new dimension to latch onto and enlarge. Killing Nick Courtney was an added bonus which gave us all many a laugh, and which was very difficult to do with a straight face, as was most of that very po-faced, tight-lipped alternative world stuff. I might add that the costume for that was very kinky indeed, what with its boots and mini-skirt, but no-one seemed to think of this until after it went out and I got some rather peculiar letters!
“I think it was fairly clear quite early on that my character didn’t really fit into the prescribed ‘Doctor Who’ format of action, action, action. I felt they weren’t really giving me enough reason to stay on, although I might have done a bit more if they had wanted me to. However, there was a new producer in the form of Barry Letts and he clearly wanted to take things in his own direction to make something of his own with the show’s limited character format. On top of all this, I had never established the best kind of rapport with Jon Pertwee, who I think basically saw the show in a very traditional light and didn’t want a companion who in any way matched up to him in terms of intelligence. Coupled with this, I’d married and decided that I wanted to start a family, so that was obviously a priority in personal terms. That was that: I left after we finished ‘Inferno’ and I never got to say a proper goodbye to the Doctor or the Brigadier!
“They asked me to do ‘The Five Doctors’ as a kind of birthday present to the fans, and I was quite happy to go back for that little scene, which was really a case of going into rehearsal for an afternoon and the studio the next morning. More recently, I was on Terry Wogan’s ‘Children in Need’ appeal on a ‘Doctor Who’ item, which involved a lot of the old stars and was great fun.”