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Who's Companion

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As Polly, Anneke Wills teamed with two Doctors for action in time & space.


When the Doctor traveled throughout time and space, he always had company. One companion, a secretary known as Polly, jaunted across the universe alongside a sailor, Ben Jackson, a Scots Highlander known as Jamie McCrimmon and not one, but two different Doctors.

With her surroundings (a small island off Canada's west coast) now much more terrestrial than they were in the 1960s, Anneke Wills, who played Polly for nine adventures with Doctor Who, remembers the series with great affection.

Born of Dutch-English parentage, Wills began thinking about an acting career at age six. "I actually got the idea from my mother, who was an unfulfilled actress," recalls Wills. "As soon as her little daughter was born, she began saying, 'You will be an actress.' If left to my own devices, I probably would have become a painter. Painting has always been a passion of mine. All the time I was at acting school, and even after, most of my friends were painters. I really didn't hang out with the actors."

Wills' first professional job was with a group of other child actors in Child's Play, a movie chronicling the true story of several kids, who figured out how to make a working atom bomb. "I had very little acting experience when I went up for an audition with all the other children," Wills says. "I didn't even have an audition piece. The only thing I could recite was the Queen's coronation speech, which we all had to learn in school. So, I did the speech, but in the Queen's voice, and I got the part."

At 12, Wills earned a scholarship to the Arts Educational School, which she attended for four years. She trained for a time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). In those early years, she worked on many British TV series and productions such as The Railway Children, The Strange World of Gurney Slade (with Anthony Newley), The 1994 Prince and the Pauper, The Primitive, Toddler on the Run, Armchair Theatre and The Avengers.

She has trouble choosing the most challenging role from among those diverse characters. "They were all difficult, really, but one that does come to mind was when I was asked to play an absolute, outrageous bitch. Some part of me wanted to let go and play the role, but I was young and didn't want people to see me being so horrible. The director knew I could do the job, but, for some reason, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. After working one day, he said he would come to pick me up and drive me to the studio the next day. Naturally, I was nervous because I knew he was angry, but there was no way I could refuse his offer of a ride.

"The next day he came to collect me, and we drove away. It was about an hour's drive to the studio, during which time he destroyed me. He said things like, 'You've been very lucky to get away with things because of your personality' and 'As far as acting, you have absolutely no idea of it at all,' etc. By the time I got to the studio at Wembley, I got out of that car and was about two inches high. I walked into the makeup room and sat there sobbing away. The makeup woman was completely supportive; she was outraged at the director for being so mean.

"Later that morning, when I got down to the set and started working, I found myself getting boiling mad if there was an interruption. I would be very short with the director when he came around to give me direction. Needless to say, when it came time for me to play the part that day, I played her. She, the bitch, was me. By setting up that situation in the car, he had got me into a [state of mind] where I was able to play the character. When we finally finished for the day, we all gathered in the bar for a drink. The director came up to me and said, 'Darling, you were wonderful,' but I couldn't forgive him."

Real Acting

Besides her training at school and on the job, Wills also learned a great deal from her then-husband, British actor Michael Gough (probably best known for playing Alfred in the Batman films). "He's a very good actor. In the 19 years I lived with him, I learned that everything—from how a person would sit to how they would drink their coffee—played an important part in the formation of your character. So, I drank coffee with Van Gogh, Doctor Livingstone and various politicians."

As for Doctor Who, Wills joined the series when Jackie Lane, who was playing the Doctor's companion Dodo Chaplet, decided to leave. Wills and fellow actor Michael Craze made their first appearance alongside William Hartnell's Doctor in the 1966 adventure "The War Machines." Finding himself in present-day London, the Doctor faces a super-intelligent computer named WOTAN, which has taken over the city's new Post Office Tower. As secretary to Professor Brett, creator of the power-mad computer, Polly gets involved with the Time Lord. Polly ends up traveling with the Doctor when she and Ben (Craze) enter the TARDIS to return their key to the police box. "I was thrilled to get the part on Doctor Who," says Wills. "I was already a fan before I ever began working on the series."

When Polly was introduced, London was experiencing the phenomenon known as the Swinging '60s. The Beatles, Carnaby Street and mini-skirts were all the fashion. Television was playing host to emerging dominant female characters, such as Honor Blackman's leather-clad heroine Cathy Gale in The Avengers. Approaching her role in Doctor Who, Wills decided to make Polly a real person, someone viewers could identify with. "I was one of those actresses that, if I was playing a character getting out of bed, I would look like you look when you get out of bed. You don't come popping out of bed all made up—that's not realism.

"You really didn't have time to think about your character [on Doctor Who], because time was so precious. One would read the script and start rehearsing on Monday. By Friday, we would have finished rehearsing all the technical stuff, and we would film the episode. It was all very tricky, and lots of hard work."

Wills had only worked on three episodes of Doctor Who when Hartnell left the show. It was a very precarious time in the program's history. The production team had recast the Doctor, but audience reaction was in question. "Doctor Who had been going on for some time, and was very well-established when William Hartnell decided to leave and turn it over to Patrick Troughton. There was quite a furor over whether or not the public would accept the change, or think it was completely outrageous. Of course, everyone adored and accepted Pat Troughton immediately—he brought a whole new breath of life into the series. If I remember correctly, our budgets went up around this time as well, allowing us to go on location around the country and break new ground on the series.

"I think the chemistry between Pat Troughton, Frazer Hines, Michael Craze and I worked; the four of us were great friends and had tremendous fun. This showed on camera; we had an energy between us and we enjoyed each other very much.

"Pat Troughton was a complete and total joy. He was very passionate about Doctor Who, and was completely involved in it."

The show assumed a more light-hearted tone when Troughton took over as the Doctor. His whimsical, slightly mischievous approach to the character was very much in contrast to Hartnell's more serious and somewhat stern interpretation. "Bill Hartnell was very difficult to work with at first," recalls Wills. "We got more comfortable with him, though, after a while.

"I remember Bill was very possessive about his studio chair. We all used to have the chairs with our names on the back that we sat in off-camera. So, I would write on the back of mine, 'Anneke Wills, Michael Craze and whoever else wants to sit in it,'" laughs Wills. "And I think I remember putting something like, 'but not Bill because he has his own.' I was trying to point out to him how serious he was about his chair.

"Another time we were in the pub across from the TV studios where we recorded Doctor Who. It was a freezing cold night, and we were all inside having a drink. Bill's chauffeur was waiting for him in his car, outside in the freezing cold. We said to Bill that he wasn't being fair, and he should have him come inside for a drink. Bill said, 'Certainly not, he's my chauffeur.' So, we began kidding with Bill, and told him not to take any notice if we invited his chauffeur inside and gave him a pint."

A year after joining the program, Wills decided it was time to leave Doctor Who. The production team was very eager for Wills and Craze to continue, but both were afraid of being typecast and opted to exit. Their characters parted company with the Doctor after a particularly perilous encounter with an alien race known as the Chameleons, in the 1967 adventure "The Faceless Ones." Although it's over 25 years since she appeared in the program, people still remember Wills for Who. "When I go back to England, it simply amazes me because people do still remember, which is very nice. It's also very flattering to think I haven't changed too much since working on Doctor Who."

Real Life

It was almost a full year before Wills was back in front of the camera, co-starring in The Strange Report (an ATV crime drama aired in the U.S. in 1971). This 16-part series starred Anthony Quayle as ex-police criminologist Adam Strange, who investigates cases that Scotland Yard couldn't solve. Wills played Strange's next-door neighbor, Evelyn McLean, who often got involved in his sleuthing. "That was extremely hard work, and I was completely burnt out by the end. My day began at 4 a.m., where I would be on the road driving to Pinewood Studios. It was the dead of winter and the roads were a bit icy, so it was frightening. I would work all day at the studio, get home, have dinner with the family, learn the lines of my script for the next day, and fall into bed exhausted. On the weekends, I would spend my time cleaning the house, and doing whatever else had to be done."

When it came time to film a second season of The Strange Report, both Quayle and Wills decided the series' pace was too strenuous and declined. Wills chose to take a break from acting and moved into the country. "Up to this point, I had spent most of my life living somewhat outwardly," says Wills. "I decided that it was time to turn inwards, and concentrate on things that were important to me. I wanted to live in the country, grow vegetables and paint.

"People would call up and ask me to come into town for a first-night performance or whatever, and I would have to tell them I couldn't because there was no one to water the lettuce," Wills laughs. "I was turning down some really gala things, but it was just a very inward time for me."

After separating from her husband, Wills left England in 1980, living in Belgium and India for a time. While living in an ashram (a religious retreat) in India, some people recognized her from Doctor Who, and asked if she would like to perform Shakespeare in theaters around India. "The people in India that we talked to were very knowledgeable about Shakespeare. They knew much more about him than I did! We weren't getting paid for doing this work, and that was lovely because there was no pressure. We had time to work on it until we were ready.

"I was glad that I didn't start doing Shakespeare until this point, because I was much more mature. We picked it apart and it was absolutely wonderful. I ended up finding out that his understanding of the human psyche was absolutely unbelievable."

These days, most of Wills' time is taken up with her painting, as well as interior decorating. "I just finished decorating my neighbor's house down the road. She told me to just go for it, so now she has this incredibly beautiful place, and it looks wonderful." Wills has also become involved in directing plays for a local theater group. "I had never directed before, so when I was first asked I declined. Then, I was finally persuaded, and found it absolutely thrilling! I chose the play [a Japanese play called Rashomon], and we all got together and worked like crazy. After the curtain went down on the first night, the whole audience stood up and they were cheering! It was really good to hear that.

"Now, it's a complete drug, and we have to go on doing more. We just finished another play, which was very successful, and we're performing in an arts festival on the island where I live now. I was watching a TV series called Millennium the other night," comments Anneke Wills. "The narrator was talking about a group of people whose religion is to live life as an art. Whatever you do, you do as beautifully and truthfully as you can."


STEVEN ERAMO is a Massachusetts-based freelancer. He profiled Jackie Lane in STARLOG #198.


Captions:

Crossing time and space were child's play for Anneke Wills, as Polly the Doctor's companion on Doctor Who.

Now a veteran of both the stage and the screen as actor and director, Wills has no regrets about a life in the limelight.

After leaving Doctor Who, Wills decided "that it was time to turn inwards, and concentrate on things that were important to me."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Eramo, Steven (number 202 (May 1994)). Who's Companion. Starlog p. 50.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Eramo, Steven. "Who's Companion." Starlog [add city] number 202 (May 1994), 50. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Eramo, Steven. "Who's Companion." Starlog, edition, sec., number 202 (May 1994)
  • Turabian: Eramo, Steven. "Who's Companion." Starlog, number 202 (May 1994), section, 50 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's Companion | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_Companion | work=Starlog | pages=50 | date=number 202 (May 1994) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2019 }}</ref>
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