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Victorian Screamer

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More than 25 years ago, Deborah Watling fought Daleks with Doctor Who.


If the Olympics added a category for best screamer, Deborah Watling would probably win the gold medal handily (or vocally, as the case may be). Unlike many other girl screamers who had to demonstrate their amplitude in auditions, Watling's vocal powers came as a distinct surprise to the cast and crew of Doctor Who in 1967.

"Of course, in those days, the girl companion was always screaming. so when it came to the first scream I ever did on Who, I let out this rip-roaring scream. The soundman took the cans off his head and went, 'Aaagh!' Everyone went, 'Oh, dear: They didn't know I had it in me," she shrugs and grins. "1 didn't know I laid it in me!"

Close to being diametrically opposite to the prim Victorian miss she played in the series—a character appropriately named Victoria Waterfield—she certainly hadn't been given to passively screaming in real life. The feisty, independent young woman followed in a family tradition of actors, even though "Dad wanted us to be 'sensible.' like a doctor, a solicitor or an accountant.- Dad didn't stand a chance as she, her two sisters and brother "all went [into acting]. It's the old cliché: 'It's in the blood.'

What was patently not in the blood Was any desire for conformity. Watling lasted all of three weeks in a drama school. -I hated it. There were too many students. for a start. The purpose of that drama school was to squash everybody's individuality. They were churning us out like cattle,- she says with disgust. "I didn't agree with that at all, so I said to Daddy, 'Honestly. Father, I can learn far more out in the big wide world than I'll ever learn here in this place.' and he said, 'Go for it.' -

She did, and after a few years. she won the role of Alice in The Life of Lewis Carroll for the BBC. Innes Lloyd. then-producer of Doctor Who, caught her appearance and suggested that with a little more seasoning, he would be interested in casting her in a regular role. A year later, she was offered the part of Victoria, joining the ongoing cast of the late Patrick Troughton as the Doctor and Frazer Hines as Jamie.

Watling was certainly aware of Doctor Who, having seen the first episode with William Hartnell in 1963, but thought of it, then and now, as a children's show. "I'm not surprised to see adults as fans," she continues. "It's all age groups, isn't it? But I think it was really for children and the parents got interested in it. The kids wouldn't watch it on their own; they were too frightened!"

Girl Companion

Her role as girl companion was explained to her succinctly. "I remember someone saying, 'You're the female interest in the show for the Dads out there who have to sit and watch it.' But we're doing a children's show,' " she protested. The reply was a quick "Oh, no, but they like the pretty girls," she adds, shaking her head, "So, I had to look pretty and scream a lot."

She didn't exactly feel pretty in her first scene, however. "I was coming down a corridor with a hoop skirt," she remembers, "and there were Daleks on either side of me. I looked like a Dalek myself! I was very glad when they shortened my skirt."

The Doctor Who programs of the late 1960s weren't known for their special FX, and with the emphasis on the children in the audience, Watling recalls one effect that was quickly removed from the televised episode. "It was too horrifying. It was in one of the Yeti stories—'The Abominable Snowmen.' Wolfe Morris, who played the head Monk, had to die. He falls backward and, like the Dracula syndrome, disintegrates in front of your eyes. They poured acid on this skull, and it started disintegrating. I thought, 'The kids are going to have nightmares. I'm going to have nightmares!' It was horrific," she shudders. "It really was, we had to cut it."

Like many of the companions, Watling was frustrated with her lack of character development. "I didn't think I could do much more with my character. She was a Victorian miss and was in this extraordinary situation. So, she has to tough up a bit—so I tried to instill a tomboy element in her, a sense of fun as well and a bit jokey. She had a sense of humor. You couldn't play her as she came into the series; the kids would hate her." She didn't have much input into the scripts, although she found that she was able to modify some lines based on her opinion of what Victoria would say. "I tried to get off the 'Why, Doctor?' questions, the 'Help, help, I'm frightened!' cries. You know you want to throttle them after a bit."

The show's speciality during those years were the monsters, and Watling screamed at some classics. The "huge, cuddly, furry" Yeti featured in "The Abominable Snowmen" weren't judged too terrifying for the audience. Shooting on location, the giant Bigfeet had problems of their own that didn't make it on film.

"Oh, the Yeti," Watling smiles with delight. "They're setting up the shot, Frazer Hines and myself. Jamie and Victoria had just found the Yeti's cave. At this point, the Doctor's in a monastery miles away, so, of course, we have to run out of the cave and down the hill to go to the monastery and tell the Doctor. As we were running out of the cave, the Yetis were lumbering out as well, chasing us. It was quite a steep hill. The director says, 'Action,' I come out of the cave and say, 'Quick, Jamie, let's get the Doctor,' and we start running. The Yetis come out and lumber down behind us. Suddenly, they fall over, start rolling, gather momentum and pass us! We're still running and they pass us. All I could hear is the men inside [the suits] yelling, 'Let me out!' "

Another time Watling tried helping another classic Doctor Who enemy, the leader of the Ice Warriors. As actor Bernard Bresslaw carried her off into his ice cave, he found his face helmet steaming up, so much that he couldn't see where he was going. Watling's attempts to "steer" Bresslaw by whispering directions only resulted in his turning left instead of her commanded "right." The turn took them both into the cave wall, collapsing it and covering them both with polystyrene.

While that particular incident was an accident, Watling found herself the frequent butt of on-set practical jokes. With an almost all-male cast and crew, the feisty actress would often be singled out as a primary target. She now laughs about it.

"I'm a lady who doesn't like heights, at all," she says emphatically. "They had this shot of Frazer and myself running to the helicopter, leaping into it, and the helicopter taking off right up into the air and landing on a cliff. This helicopter had no doors -- one of those bubble things. So, I said to Frazer, 'You're big and butch and all that: let me get to the helicopter first, and I can sit in the middle because I'm terrified of heights, Fraze.' Frazer says, 'Of course, Debbie.'

"The director says action and we start running. I've never seen Frazer run so fast in my life! He beat me to the helicopter and leapt in the door. I had to get in [to the outside seat], and I was clutching his kilt, saying, 'You !#&*%$!!' The helicopter went up and...ooohhhh.- she shudders. "If you ever see it, the fear on my face is not acting. I got out and said, 'You swine, you swine!' Little did I know that he v, as frightened as well."

Both Hines and Troughton participated in "getting her" with practical jokes, and she was never able, during the series' filming, to "get back at the guys. They always found out, someone told them." It was only when she attended a convention 20 years after she left the show that some fans helped her turn the table on Hines.

"There were a couple of 'Cybermen' walking about," she says, "and I said, 'Look here, when I give you the wink—say, about halfway through the panel—can you do something for me?' Not at all reluctant, the fans agreed. 'Have you got any of that spray streamer stuff?' I asked, and although it might seem an unlikely prop for a Cyberman, they acknowledged they did. I told them, " 'Well, when I give you the wink, each of you converge on Frazer and spray him head to toe.' Well, Frazer comes into the room, we have our panel and he's sending me up yet again, and I thought, it's about time now. I winked, and these two Cybermen converge on Frazer and sprayed him from top to toe. All Frazer could do was jump up and say, 'My suit, my suit" because he just loves looking good," she laughs exuberantly. "After 20 years, I got even!"

Her relationship with Troughton was more complex, and although he joined in the teasing game-play, she wouldn't have asked any Cybermen to attack him. "What do I say about Pat?" she muses thoughtfully. "He -actually became a second father to me. A great man; totally professional, totally dedicated and a wonderful sense of humor. Pat helped me a lot. If I had a problem, I could go to him with it. He taught me a lot about the technique of television as well. We were very close. It was a lovely relationship."

As a guest at the Visions '91 convention, that relationship was recalled in a surprising fashion. "I actually had to auction an item about a foot high," she says, her eyes clouded with tears, "a TARDIS. When I got the item to auction," she hesitates, gaining control. "I was told he signed it in the lift as he went up to his room the night he died."

That experience aside, she enjoys being a convention guest. "It's weird, seeing people dressed as the Doctor, and there are monsters walking around. At a convention in Liverpool, I was doing an interview, and there was a Dalek going around the room, a Yeti outside, and I see a family come in—a mother, father and two children. They walk in and stop dead in their tracks. The children go, 'Oohhh.' The father goes, 'Aahh.' The mother froze. She dropped her bags and ran straight for the lift, whereupon the lift doors opened and a Cyberman walked out. She said, 'I can't stand it. I'm not staying here with all these monsters.' She was about my age, and she looked at me and said, '01, God, it's Vic! We're nor staying here!' But the kids are going, 'Daddy, Daddy, can we stay here, it's fun!' and the mother's saying,. 'Come on, we're going.' I think that's a difference in the generations. We were in black-and-white, but that can be far more scary than color. When I see some of my old episodes, they stood up very well indeed. They were meant to frighten kids, and I think we did our job; we terrified them!"

Grown-Up Companion

Although she left the cast more than 25 years ago, she still finds a problem being typecast as the "weak, screaming companion. After 25 years! I've had some lovely parts, but they still think of me as little pretty Debbie Watling, the girl next door, the innocent one. You know, I'm slightly fed up. I could be a grandmother now! I try to get away from [the typecasting]. In a series called Danger UXB, I played Naughty Norma. She was," Watling says with relish, "a cross between Diana Dors and Marilyn Monroe with a Cockney accent. When the air raids occurred, she would get turned on and jump on the nearest soldier.

"I want to play mothers now! I just did a play in Britain where I had a 17-year-old son; no one questioned it. I played a 55-year-old woman with 'attitude'—no makeup, no greying—and I got great notices. People said, 'We didn't know you could do it:" Deborah Watling smiles wryly and continues forcefully, "I am an actress. I can do it. Give me a chance. I'll show you. I can do it."


JEAN AIREY, veteran STARLOG correspondent, is the co-author of Travel Without the TARDIS (Target, $3.25). She profiled Andreas Katsulas in issue #188.


Captions:

As Doctor Who's companion Victoria Waterfield, Deborah Watling "had to look pretty and scream a lot."

Conventions are pleasant for Watling, here with fellow Who alumnus Mark Strickson, but "it's weird, seeing people dressed as the Doctor."


The actress is fed up with typecasting. I want to play mothers now!"

I've had some lovely parts'," the actress notes, "but they still think of me as little pretty Debbie Watling, the girl next door, the innocent one."

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Airey, Jean (number 190 (May 1993)). Victorian Screamer. Starlog p. 75.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Airey, Jean. "Victorian Screamer." Starlog [add city] number 190 (May 1993), 75. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Airey, Jean. "Victorian Screamer." Starlog, edition, sec., number 190 (May 1993)
  • Turabian: Airey, Jean. "Victorian Screamer." Starlog, number 190 (May 1993), section, 75 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Victorian Screamer | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Victorian_Screamer | work=Starlog | pages=75 | date=number 190 (May 1993) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=13 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Victorian Screamer | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Victorian_Screamer | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=13 December 2019}}</ref>