Anneke Wills is best known as Doctor Who companion Polly, who assisted both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton; as well as for starring alongside Anthony Quayle in Strange Report. Off-screen, she has led a fascinating life, which she has recounted in two volumes of autobiography.
EF recently spoke to the iconic actress, who told us in her familiar vibrant voice about her involvement in the 1960 classic series The Strange World of Gurney Slade.
We learned about her time working with Anthony Newley; what the Swinging Sixties were really like; and why she finally decided to set down her extraordinary memoirs.
Anneke, how are you today?
Thank you. It’s lovely arriving in London. It feels like shades of the past when you lived in the country as a child and you came up to London to go to school or had some lovely work to do. Shades of the past!
The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which you star in, is coming out shortly on DVD. What can you tell us about the series?
Well… everything really! The great thing about it was that it was unique and ahead of its time. Prior to Gurney Sladewe had The Goon Show of course, and Tony [Newley] absolutely adored The Goon Show, as did we all. What was interesting was that The Goon Show could go surreal very easily because it was radio. We hadn’t experienced this kind of surrealism on the telly. As far as I know, Tony was the first one to add that dimension, to go beyond the proscenium arch – but on television. He felt we weren’t using television in a way that it could be used. So although on the billing it says Sid Green and Dick Hills wrote it; actually of course Tony had a massive input. When I watch it now I see immediately that it’s one hundred percent him.
There’s a lot of Anthony Newley in the character of Gurney Slade?
Absolutely, and in all the words. I think he basically wrote it. That often happens. Actors do that because they can’t have a double contract as writer/actor. That’s what I realised when I re-watched it now. These are Tony’s words.
Newley was a real polymath; and very charismatic on screen.
Charismatic! When he’s on screen you don’t watch anybody else! There’s all these other people on the edges but you don’t watch them you watch him!
What did audiences in 1960 make of The Strange World of Gurney Slade?
Well, there you are! The intelligent, and certainly the old friends of mine I’ve met in recent years all said, “I lovedGurney Slade!” The intelligent and fast people thought it was wonderful. But the critics and the regular viewers thought: “What’s that all about?” So they pulled it off and they didn’t do a second series, and it wasn’t massively celebrated, it has to be said. Tony was disappointed because he poured so much of himself into everything he did that if people didn’t love it he was hurt.
There was only ever going to be one series? It comes to a natural end in the sixth episode, but were there plans to take it further?
I don’t know. Obviously if it had been a massive success and there had been money to be made they would have done another one.
Despite that it’s very beautifully shot. The film looks pristine on the DVD. Was there a confidence behind the making of it?
(Laughs) You’re asking me! The thing is: I got a part in it, I went along, I did my bit, I ended up with Tony, I went home with him. I wasn’t aware at the time. I only watched it the other day so I don’t really know! (Laughs) What I can remember was that working with Tony was a joy, and everyone found it to be a joy. There was a wonderful light-hearted feeling of humour and fun whilst we were doing it. It was tremendous fun, because Tony had that ability of making everybody love him.
In a way it’s just as well. The airstrip location where you filmed your first episode looked pretty bleak!
It was somewhere up in Suffolk, I think. What I remember is that we all piled onto a bus the night before, and Tony was being delightful to everybody. I was already smitten! (Laughs) We went off to a hotel that night for a big dinner. Then the next day we were filming on the aerodrome. When I look at it now, I have to say: “Why did they put me in that horrible, lumpy old oversized man’s mac?” They were my own little shoes at the bottom. It was only one day that we took to do it. That was just incredible. He was amazing to work with: very focussed. When you work with someone as talented as Tony you raise your game. It shines on you.
Was Gurney Slade early in your career?
Not really. I’d been working since I was eleven. So I’d been working away solidly all through school and briefly RADA, but they kicked me out; which didn’t matter as I got an agent and carried on working. Then I worked with Tony. Within a couple of weeks I got a major role in a Play of the Week, one of the big dramas at the time, so I was a busy working actress. I was recently asked if being in Gurney Slade made a difference to my career. First of all: I never was ambitious, I was hopeless! I was much more interested in the fun of what I was doing than whether or not it was going to be good for my career. I never was ambitious, and I was busy falling in love with Tony Newley; I wasn’t noticing anything else!
A lot of other TV you’ve done such as The Avengers, Doctor Who, Strange Report and The Saint remain household names. The Strange World of Gurney Slade seems less well-known. Do you think this DVD release will introduce it to a new audience?
Oh yes! Like me, people have been saying that it’s wonderful it’s been found again. It was something that was missed. It came, it went, and we never heard another thing about it since. So I, as well as everybody else who loved it at the time, are thrilled to bits it’s coming back. We’ll have to see if it’ll just be the die-hards like you and me who love these things, or whether a new young audience will take to it – I don’t know. You can’t predict it.
Did you ever think you’d still be talking about it fifty years later?
No, I didn’t. It’s the same with Doctor Who. I was in Canada in the 1990s, and the phone rang, and a voice said: “Oh, we’ve found you. We’re Doctor Who fans!” I just about fell off my chair! Life’s a mystery – you just never know!
I love Doctor Who, and I adore Polly [Anneke Wills’ character]. Patrick Troughton is my favourite Doctor.
Oh, goody, goody!
You published your memoirs in two volumes in recent years: Anneke Wills Self-Portrait and Naked. Why did you think the time was right?
Basically because, once again, it was Doctor Who fans nagging me, really, saying; “Come on, you’ve got a story to tell and we want to hear it.” I’m very good at putting things off and saying: “Oh no, it’s too many words. There’s too many books out there any nobody wants to know.” Then publisher Tim Hirst came along and all my objections were shot to the ground. He said, “Don’t worry: I’ll do that and I’ll do that.” So in the end I was worn down, and I said OK. I was at a wonderful Regenerations convention and I was on the stage and Tim said, “If Anneke was to write her book would anybody be interested?” and the whole audience cheered and got up; so I thought; “Oh, right! OK then I will!” So having made the promise to the Who fans I had to go ahead and do it.
You write your memoirs in the present tense, which is a very original and fresh way of doing it. What made you write them like that?
I started on January 1st; lit a candle, sharpened my pencil (I wrote the original all by hand). I went back into the early memories and I was searching for the authentic childhood voice of the little person who was experiencing these sometimes awful things. It just sort of slipped into the present. Once I’d started there was no going back. Once I’d moved into the Sixties it seemed rather a lovely way to take the reader on a journey with me.
A very special decade, the Sixties, wonderfully captured in your memoirs. What was it about the Sixties that lent itself to such creativity?
It’s something I’m endlessly asked. And the boring old trite old thing about: ‘if you remember the 60s you weren’t really there’. Hello, excuse me? Most of us were working people and some of us even had families. I was living with Michael Gough, I had two children and I was doing Doctor Who, so I was busy (laughs)! But at the same time in hindsight we can look back and say; “Well, you know, the restrictions of the war, and we came into the Fifties and everyone was – well: imagine Doris Day and everyone wearing aprons! (Laughs) We needed something. Then the creativity burst out into the Sixties. So then we had this extraordinary decade with all these amazing people. One of the places I loved to hang out was The Troubadour. Down in the basement Bob Dylan got up for the first time; Jimi Hendrix played his music here for the first time. London was much more like a village. Especially when we’d been moved on into The Establishment Club with Peter Cooke and Beyond the Fringe and all those wonderful people. They came over from America, and that was the hot ticket, to get into The Establishment Club, but you couldn’t. The place was completely booked up. People like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart were sitting on the stairs at the back to watch the show; just to get in. It had that very special feeling. And the curious thing was that in ’69-’70: it burnt itself out. Most of us who were there had moved off to the country. There was a big movement of either going to LA, moving away, or of course some of the people who’d died of drugs; but that was the end of it. The bubble had burst. The Seventies had a different flavour altogether. The Sixties just had a very extraordinary flavour, which, when you’re in it, you’re not thinking of it: it’s just how life is. It’s looking back that we can say all these things.
You really bring the Sixties to life in your memoirs. Did you enjoy writing them?
I did. I’ve been through a hell of a lot in my life, and there were always going to be parts where it was going to be bloody hard to write; but in a way it had to be done; it had to be put to bed. The first part; Self Portrait, is up to the end of the Sixties. The second one is called Naked (the reason for that is that in the front there’s this wonderful quote from my spiritual teacher who says: “So be true, be absolutely true, naked.” I thought, “That’s the title of the second book,”) because it’s about me trying to find my way and found out who I am. It’s a spiritual and personal search. It comes right up to – meeting David Tennant! (Laughs) Right up to the present!
Do you think you’ll write any more?
What are your plans for the future?
Well, we’ve got Gurney Slade happening. We had a wonderful Fiftieth Anniversary of The Avengers, which Paul O’Grady hosted. That was fun. Then we’ve got the Regenerations coming up, which is the best Doctor Whoconvention, in September. I’m doing these things now, and between times I’m relaxing and doing my garden.
Wonderful! Anneke Wills, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for talking to EF.
‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’ is released on DVD by Network DVD on Monday 15th August 2011.