This is a transcript of parts of Anneke Wills’ interview with Mark Ayres on the audio version of ‘The War Machines’. Her autobiography, ‘Self Portrait’, which she discusses, was published in 2007 and is definitely worth reading for the insight into 60’s London.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you joined ‘Doctor Who’?
A: 1966 was actually an amazing year for me because I had done a tremendous amount of telly. Plays of the week were the great bits of drama and I had done three that year, cracking parts, and I had done ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Likely Lads’, so I’d been very busy that year and then I got the part in ‘Doctor Who’, so 1966 was definitely the year of Anneke.
Q: And how did the ‘Doctor Who’ part come up?
A: Erm… went along for the audition, knowing that it was for a part in ‘Doctor Who’, but not knowing that it was to play the companion. I didn’t know that. And then when they got back to my agent, they said ‘Okay and this is for a regular part’, so then I was over the moon, you can imagine.
Q: Was there any doubt about going into a long-running show like ‘Doctor Who’?
A: Never, because you needed the work, you know? As an actor, the bottom line is you always need the work. So you say Yes and figure it out later.
Q: And your character was going to be a bit of a departure from the assistants that had gone before you?
A: Yes, I think it was absolutely their conscious decision to have a sort of 60’s chick and I came ready with my own clothes.
Q: And most of the previous girl assistants had been granddaughter type figures to the Doctor, apart from Barbara who was a teacher, and you came in as a kind of sassy character who’d give him a bit of lip back.
A: And with very short skirts. And very long eyelashes batting away. So that was a conscious decision of theirs to say ‘Alright, we want to move the companion into being more of a sexy kid’. Yeah.
Q: Setting a trend for years ahead.
A: Setting a trend, so actually I was the first in a very long line of very lovely women, I have to say! (laughs)
Q: You came into ‘Doctor Who’ from a background of film shows like ‘The Avengers’. Was it very noticeable that ‘Doctor Who’ was of a much lower budget?
A: Well of course the format was totally different because ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Avengers’ were filmed, so you were doing that at Elstree, and ‘Doctor Who’ was this tight little live performance that you did on a Saturday, and you had to rattle through not making too many mistakes and get to the end, so it felt very much like theatre, in a way, like a live performance that you do all in one go, so it’s much more frightening. Yes, the money was tight, but the money was always tight. Everything I’d ever done for the BBC, the money was tight. I did ‘The Railway Children’ and this was an eight-week, big BBC children’s drama and it had a lot of people taking note of it, and I had a costume that didn’t fit, so I had these nasty scratchy cuffy things that didn’t fit! They couldn’t afford… this came from Berman’s and it didn’t fit me! You can’t imagine that happening nowadays. And that wasn’t the case with ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Avengers’, you know, this was proper filming and you had a proper make-up and wardrobe department that had money to spend. They bought me nice shoes and bags and things.
Q: Tell us a bit about the production team of the time, Innes Lloyd etc. How hands on were they, did you see much of them?
A: I tell you, Innes Lloyd never laid his hands on me! He never did! But as actors, of course, we were second-class citizens, really, we weren’t told anything, we weren’t asked anything, we just turned up and did our rehearsing and our acting. Even when we switched Doctors, we were the last to be told. I was aware of Bill Hartnell’s irascibility, because my hubby had played the Toymaker before and so I already knew that he was liable to go off on one, so you had to watch him. So there was that element in rehearsals of having to be careful of the old man and having to treat him gently, so that was a little tense. Rehearsals were not as fun as they would become later, with Patrick Troughton, I have to say.
Q: There was none of the star system that there is now? It was really just ‘Stand there, say that’?
A: Yes, although as time went by you could start to change lines to make them work for you, because then you were an established character, and you could say ‘Polly would say it like this’, and they’d allow a little bit of that. But there was no time for discussion, because you had to get this show on the road in a week.
Q: Now, there are edicts saying you can’t say ‘Death’ and ‘Killing’ in shows aimed at children, but ‘The Smugglers’ had some very dark moments. Did that ever occur to you back then?
A: The attitude was very different. I don’t think we discussed it. Amazing, really, how without awareness we were, in a way. One of the things I do remember, because this was a new thing for me, was that passers-by would see that we were filming ‘Doctor Who’ and there was immediately this feeling of bon homie… but this was new for me, working in the exteriors.
Q: What was Michael Craze like to work with?
A: He was a pal. He was a chum, and he was a pal. He was a pal forever, and we got on very well and we were a team, the two of us. I think in the beginning we supported each other, because working with Bill was tricky so we supported each other.
Q: What about your personal support staff, like Sonja Markham on make-up and Daphne Dare on costumes?
A: Sonja Markham is actually Roger Lloyd-Pack’s sister-in-law, I’ve known her ever since. Daphne Dare was wardrobe. As I said before, I came ready-made, you see, because the BBC wardrobes did not have the kind of costumers which I was already wearing. My normal clothes were Mary Quant, Ozzie Clark, so I was very determined that I would wear my own clothes.
Q: It amazes me how much of yourself you brought to Polly.
A: I think that if you’re given the chance, you bring it as close as you can to yourself because that makes it real. It’s no good me trying to be someone other than who I am, you know, so when nobody’s looking… in the beginning, Polly is supposed to be a debutante, and without saying anything to Innes I thought this was a bit of a cliche, Ben is the cockney and Polly is the posh bird, and they make a friendship, and actually if you notice over the months that we were working together that was kind of toned down. And you want to make it as real and interesting and fun as possible, and in a way when nobody’s got any time for you… you know, they’re busy trying to figure out how the War Machines are going to work, or how the Cybermen are going to die and so forth… you have to get on with making your part of the script as real as possible.
Q: When you started, how long did you think you might stay with it?
A: Do you know, I have a feeling that we did the first four, and we weren’t even sure, because we weren’t sure about Billy, you see, because he wasn’t well. So everything was up for grabs, we didn’t know that we would be continuing, we certainly didn’t know, you know, that we would go on with a new Doctor. That was unheard of, that was un-thought of. So we didn’t know, we were just floating along hoping that things would go, because we need the money, as an actor. It was a job!
And the other thing is that it was just a job, it wasn’t a big deal like it is now with Billie Piper and the press. It was just a job. It was fun to be in ‘The Avengers’, it was fun to be in ‘The Saint’, it was fun to be in ‘Doctor Who’, but then of course it’s a complete mystery and a magic thing that I’m sitting here with you, today, 43, 44 years later still being involved with it. A complete miracle.
Q: One you’re pleased about?
A: Absolutely. I consider it a total honour to be asked to do these narrations, telling the story again, listening to the little voices. What I hear is how young we sound. We sound so young. But it’s lovely to be involved.
Q: You’ve been revisiting this part of your life quite a lot lately, what with writing your book…
A: Yes, I’m just in the middle of writing my autobiography so there’s a website set up there, because I’m going to do it self-publishing because there’s been quite a lot of rubbish written about me over the years so when I heard the words ‘full control’ I thought ‘Yep’, so it’s going ahead in full fettle at the moment and should be coming out this summer, so watch this space. The first book will go from childhood to the mid-60’s, because it was an extraordinary time to be in the world, to be in London, and so many of the old established rules and laws and ways of being were being thrown out the window.
Q: Were you very aware at the time that you were involved in such an exciting time when things were changing, or did you just live it?
A: You just lived it. In the 60’s, all the wonderful people that you met, Peter Cooke, John Lennon, all these people that you actually met. You didn’t just talk to John Lennon like it’s just someone you met, your heart is pounding when you’re talking to John Lennon, but it was an exciting time to be around and meet these luminaries.
Q: But you were a luminary yourself…
A: I don’t see that. Just a jobbing actor, trying to get work, but I did happen to actually befriend a lot of these very prominent people. Brilliant and talented people. Exciting times.