By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors
She was the first companion to ever oversee a regeneration in Doctor Who, she epitomised the swinging sixties in the Tardis and she is still going strong today. The Time Warriors is proud to chat to Polly, Anneke Wills. She tells us about th day Patrick Troughton arrived, what she really thought of William Hartnell and how the seventh Doctor found her living on an island. With the Cybermen returning to Doctor Who this weekend, we thought we’d chat to the lady that saw them first time around…
TW: Anneke , thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule. Can I start by asking how did you get into acting?
AW: I went up for a part in a film when I was 10 years old. I didn’t know what an audition piece was – so I told the director to close her eyes and did an imitation of the Queen; her coronation speech which we all learnt at my village school it was 1951. From there I went to London Drama School and then to RADA.
TW: How did you land the role of Polly?
AW: My agent called and sent me up for an interview with Innes Lloyd (producer at the time) and (director) Michael Ferguson at the BBC. A few hours after I got home they called to say I’d got the part. But it wasn’t unusual as I more often as not got what I was sent in for! I was a BBC favourite!
TW:You were in fact the predecessor to Rose as Polly was the first companion to be grounded in reality. Were you aware of her cultural significance at the time?
AW:No! How could I know that 46 years, 6 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, I would be so remembered that I would be asked to the set of Mark Gatiss’ film!
It wasn’t unusual as I more often as not got what I was sent in for! I was a BBC favourite!
TW: You faced the first Cybermen, what did you think of them at the time?
AW:We thought they were marvellous. Revolutionary! Inspiring – frightening! They were Kit Pedler’s brilliant creation.
TW: Did you think they would be the next big monster?
AW: We had an inkling they may become popular- but nothing could replace the Daleks of course!
We thought they (the Cybermen) were marvellous. Revolutionary! Inspiring – frightening! They were Kit Pedler’s brilliant creation.
TW: Which version do you prefer? The more human ones in the Tenth Planet or the Moonbase Ones?
AW: We thought the original ones were more spooky, being closer to being human. The gaping holes for their mouths; their distorted voices were better then, I think.
TW: You were there for the first ever regeneration. What was it like on set that day? Was there a fear it wouldn’t work?
AW: Of course there was an anxiety about the Doctor being replaced but Mike and I so believed in Patrick that we were sure the public would love him. Filming the last episode of the Tenth Planet was tiring because we took ages to do the ‘bleach out’ from Bill to Pat and then we had to finish the rest of the story so it was very late at night. And we were exhausted when we finally done.
TW: You also became the first companion, along with Michael Craze, to bridge the birth of two Doctors. Was that daunting as it all depended on Ben and Polly’s reactions to the new Doctor?
AW: Not really; we just took it in our stride; relieved to be finished with grumpy old Bill and hoping to join up with funny sweet talented Patrick Troughton! Over the weeks of working with Bill, we had so much difficulty – stand ins- and having to take over his lines at the drop of a hat but hey, we were actors! We just got on with it!
Of course there was an anxiety about the Doctor being replaced but Mike and I so believed in Patrick
TW: You all seemed to have a lot of fun on set. What’s your fondest memory of Patrick and Bill?
AW: Fondest memory of Bill was saying goodbye! And too many of Patrick to recount. He was simply inspiring to work with! And we now know how much in his personal life was going on! It’s amazing with all that pressure he was under from all sides that he was able to be so sweet and kind and also filled with humour (something that had been absolutely missing in the last run of Bill Hartnell!). Mike and I knew we were privileged to be his supportive companions. And we all drank like fishes!
TW: What story remains close to your heart?
AW: Having just finished reading the ‘Highlanders’ for BBC audio – I loved this story – it really goes to show how funny Pat could be and the relationships between the characters really insightfully written. It was dark and funny, witty and gripping all at once.
TW: Your exit was badly handled. I feel it disrespected not only you as an actor but the audience who had emotionally invested in Polly and Ben. Did that leave a bitter taste?
AW: They thought I would stay on, after they let go of Mike. You can see in the Tomb of the Cybermen, Kit Pedler was still writing for Polly! So they rather got rid of us, but I was happy to leave. It had been my decision because I wanted to go on to other parts. In those days if you became too identified with a character you didn’t get work easily. It’s all SO very different today.
TW: How did you discover that fandom still loved the characters and wanted to meet you?
AW: Stephen James Walker of Frame magazine called me up on the tiny island I was living on in British Columbia and talked for an hour. Then he invited me back to the UK. I was absolutely astounded, having had no idea that the show was still so popular with the fans. I’d become a Star trek fan in the meantime!
TW: Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor) came to see you while they were filming the Doctor Who movie for his video diary. Was that a fun day?
I so enjoyed popping out of my shop in a mini skirt with ‘Oh Doctor! How wonderful to see you!’ and later of course I met the gorgeous Paul McGann.
AW: Hugely! I so enjoyed popping out of my shop in a mini skirt with ‘Oh Doctor! How wonderful to see you!’ and later of course I met the gorgeous Paul McGann. They took me out to dinner (the film producers). So kind.
TW: You of course came back for the Big Finish series of stories where Polly was centre stage. How did that come about? Is it a harder medium as an actor as the performance lies in the vocals completely?
AW: No, it’s lovely because you can focus entirely on the story and not have to worry about how you look! Wrinkles in HD! Oooer!
Also, of course, it’s wonderful to play Polly again and this time she’s empowered! In Charge! It was inevitable that I would be included in the astounding volume of work that Big Finish puts out and I have so enjoyed the Companion Chronicles and certainly hope to do more.
TW: Was an autobiography always something you wanted to write? Do you still have stories to tell?
AW: I had been thinking I did have a story to tell because what with one thing and another, I’ve had quite a life! So when the fans all cheered and said they wanted to read about it, on January 1st, 2007, I sharpened my pencil, lit a candle and began. And also because I wanted to tell my mother’s brave story, about my beautiful brother who was murdered and of course my lovely Polly who tragically left us when she was 18. So I was honoured to be able to write about their lives and share it with you all. Fantom Films are talking about bringing the two books out in a single hardback volume with up to date stories and lots of new photos! Coming soon! Watch out for it!
TW: Anneke, thank you for this. It s an honour for us here in Ireland.
AW: Love to you all in Belfast!