Doctor Who companion Anneke Wills on achieving cultural immortality

The iconic 1960s Doctor Who star talks about her extraordinary life, loves and spirituality, knowing Peter Cook and meeting David Tennant...

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Doctor Who companion Anneke Wills on achieving cultural immortality
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

“Jenna-Louise Coleman is the same age I was when I started playing Polly in Doctor Who,” tweets Anneke Wills about the very latest companion. “Welcome to the family!” Anneke also says that when she was asked – just days before the casting news – who could play a younger Wills, she’d thought of Coleman. Spooky!

Companions never escape the lure of the Time Lord. Even after 45 years, Anneke is thrilled with her place in the ongoing myth – and if you want to meet a woman who’s lived life to the full, who was really “there” in the 1960s and, aged 70, is still bursting with joie de vivre, look no further.

A child star in the 1950s, living on a houseboat in Bray, then in Hampstead with the glittering Craxtons (musicians and artists), by the 60s she was hanging out at the trendy Troubadour coffee house and the Establishment Club, run by her mate Peter Cook. “I went to the recordings of Not Only… But Also [Cook’s classic BBC sketch show]. You can hear us roaring in the background.”

Radiant, well-bred and – like some of our finest actors – kicked out of Rada for a rebellious streak, she was “beautiful and intelligent. A magic mix. Now I’m so old I can say it, but I was loved by the BBC. I was the taste of the 60s and I knew if I went along for something I’d get the part.”

There were TV plays of the week, The Likely Lads... Name a cult show and Anneke was in it – The Strange World of Gurney Slade, The Saint, The Avengers (twice)... And for a spell, in 1966–67, she travelled in the Tardis. She was there the night first Doctor Who William Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton. She’s one of the few surviving stars from The Underwater Menace episode found last year.

Anneke’s love life was just as colourful. As a teenager she fell for actor/pop star Anthony Newley, becoming pregnant by him twice (the first ended in an abortion). He dumped her for Joan Collins. She then married Michael Gough, a character actor 25 years her senior, and there were two further marriages – “conveniences, basically, for papers to stay in America and Canada”.

Her two volumes of autobiography (Self Portrait and Naked) are impressively candid, deliberately Impressionistic in structure. And that’s how our interview goes: Anneke effusing on one topic before seizing upon another. “This is the way I talk, Patrick. It’s like a Monet painting. A little dash here and a little dash there. Is that all right?”

It’s our third meeting, this time over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Hampstead. It’s almost the first anniversary of Gough’s death, when, as she puts it, “He stepped out of his Michael Gough costume – that’s how I think of it.”

He’s best known to filmgoers as Alfred the butler in the Batman movies and to Who fans as the Celestial Toymaker. Their marriage lasted almost two decades: “Seven years were good, seven unhappy and the rest were undoing it, but I never stopped loving him from the wings all his life.”

Anneke gave up acting in 1970 to bring up their children on the Norfolk coast but doesn’t regret it. “I was trying to keep my marriage together. Mick was jealous of people I was working with. The belle époque of the 60s was coming to the end and we were all moving out to the country, thinking even then London was too full of cars. I threw myself into country life.”

They grew apart, making her deeply unhappy, “but unhappiness is an interesting place because, in unhappiness, you change. You do something.” Anneke upped sticks and travelled, “roaming all over the world”, immersing in other cultures. In the late 1970s, she lived in an ashram in India, becoming a disciple of controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “I was richly criticised by everyone, but I was brave and knew it was the right thing to do.”

After years of soul-baring and meditation in orange pyjamas in Poona, Oregon and London, and gardening and cleaning in California, she settled back in the UK in the 1990s. “You know the name of that cottage, Dunroamin’? That’s me.” Life now means a small home on the edge of Dartmoor. “It’s heavenly. Deep peace and quiet, wind in the trees, growing my vegetables… I’ve lived there ten years, the longest I’ve spent anywhere in my entire life. All the plants I’ve put in are maturing.


“I don’t get out much,” laughs Anneke, though she’s often up in town, pooling appointments. She’s planning a third book (of photos) and a meeting with Mark Gatiss. The night before our meeting she’s been partying with chums in Soho. “I ended up in a deep gay bar. I don’t know which it was but the waiters were gorgeous! I came out and Soho was heaving. Quite frightening! I talk to everybody in London. I love seeing the mix of people and faces.”

Let’s step back. Anneke’s first brush with Radio Times came in 1957. Aged 15, she was an RT cover star (“My mother was very proud”) for BBC TV’s The Railway Children. “We had our picture taken on this lovely rural station platform. They’d made a big effort to get the period detail right but were mortified because there was a white line on the platform edge that would have been painted later, during the war.”

In 1966 she joined Doctor Who as posh totty Polly. Though she loved the job, “working with Bill Hartnell wasn’t easy. He got bad-tempered and kept losing the plot. If he couldn’t remember a line, he’d blame you for it. He was into all sorts of trickery by then.”

The old guard soon moved on: “I remember the meeting in rehearsals between Patrick [Troughton] and Bill, and Patrick being suitably humble and Bill being rather chuffed that someone like Patrick was taking over.” Happy days: “Our table at the BBC bar was where everyone wanted to be. Patrick would be discussing politics and people were drawn around him like a magnet. We’d be giggling all afternoon. At the same time we were focused and got a lot of work done.”

Anneke quit in 1967, but RT tracked her down for the tenth anniversary special in 1973. “It was slightly disturbing for me – my old life coming back. I’d turned left and left it all behind. I was saying, ‘No, I don’t do that any more. I’m busy watering my vegetables. If you want pictures, you’ll have to come here.’ ”

So RT, former co-star Michael Craze (companion Ben) and two Cybermen trekked up to the North Norfolk coast for a photoshoot. “We went out to Stiffkey Marshes to a waterpipe that stretches right out, then to Cley Beach to get that strange, lunar landscape for the Cybermen. Afterwards we all went to the Jolly Farmers pub opposite me and took pictures of the Cybermen eating boiled eggs for lunch.”

When quizzed about Polly by RT in 73, “Unfortunately I said she was a frightened, weedy woman, and ever since I’ve been inundated by fans, saying ‘No, NO!’ If you look back at the stories, she’s right in there, feisty as can be. So I retract that. It was mistake. And I’m sorry, fans.”

It was the first time she’d seen Craze since 1967. “And then I didn’t see him again until 20 years later in 1993. We got on a train to Manchester and he said, ‘’Ow are you, Duchess?’ And we picked up again. We were really good friends. Of course all the Doctor Who people wanted us to be romantic but we weren’t. Having adventures was much more interesting.”

Today’s meeting by Hampstead Heath brings memories flooding back. “I was sitting on a bench with Peter Cook while our children were playing by the lake, and this child came up and said, ‘So Polly, what’s it like in the Tardis?’ I was about to turn round and say, ‘No, sweetheart, you don’t understand. I’m an actress.’ And then I thought, ‘No, don’t destroy it.’ This is the responsibility of being a companion. You’ve just made magic worlds for children.”

She hung out at parties at Cook’s “exquisite” house in Church Row, with John Lennon and Dudley Moore, and helped him prepare for his first proper movie role, Bedazzled. “He hadn’t had any acting training. What a flipping honour to help someone like Peter.” They both went to the film premiere in brown velvet trouser suits. “We looked like twins.

“Peter was extraordinary. So intelligent. People say he became dissolute, died of drink and what a waste. No! No! He just did his life totally. For me a good life is not a life where you become successful, get a big house and are cosy. No, a good life is where you experience everything. One minute you’re on top and the next you’re on the streets. This is interesting to me.”

She leaps forward in time to Tom Baker. “The first question I wanted to ask Tom was: ‘Why, when you were Doctor Who, did you carry a toothbrush in your pocket? [At the height of his fame Baker had no fixed abode.] What were you up to?’ He wouldn’t answer. Tom doesn’t do that. He went off on one about dogs or something.”

We’re onto dogs briefly. Mine is named after my grandfather. “I must tell you, Patrick, your grandfather loves it because he’s with you in the spirit of your dog. Our grandparents are the ones who become our angels… Now she’s going to go off on one…” chuckles Anneke.

She’s a deeply spiritual person, one of the spurs for her travels. “When I say I live alone, I don’t actually, because I live with all my family. Their spirits are around me all the time.” Her journalist brother, Robin, died in mysterious circumstances in the 60s (“basically he was bumped off”) and her daughter, Polly, died in a car crash in 1982.

She admits writing is “a very lonely place. I write longhand with a pencil and I light a candle because spirits see candlelight; they don’t see electric light. And writing with your hand connects with your heart. It’s flowing through… And I’ve been here many times.” We’re talking past lives now.

Our Time Lord friend has had 11 lives and she’s encountered most of them, but not yet Matt Smith, whom she’s dying to meet. Sylvester McCoy is “so kind and giving” with fans at conventions. “He’s a very positive person. I took him to the Troubadour a while back.” She was “blown away” by David Tennant when invited on set for Daleks in Manhattan in 2006.

“He’s a shining light. When he focuses on you, there’s nobody else in the room. I love that. He’s coming from his heart. He’s genuine. I stood in the Tardis after all these years and said ‘Doctor, lovely to meet you,’ and David said, ‘Aaah, Polly!’ My heart was fluttering away. I went home on the train with a big beam on my face.”

With the convention scene in its umpteenth decade, there’s camaraderie with her successors in the Tardis. “We’re such a family. We support each other and what I love is we’re all completely bonkers!” She cackles. “It’s true! It’s so lovely because there’s no bitchery between the actresses.” Maybe it’s the years of meditation, but Anneke is one of those rare beings who radiates positive energy.

She’s “followed Doctor Who religiously” since it came back in 2005, but what if they were to offer her a role now, a pensioner Polly or a new character? “Oh listen, any damn thing! Of course!” She’s wildly enthused. “But at the same time I don’t want to, because on screen you look ten years older. Perhaps if I had prosthetics. But everyone keep your fingers crossed, because the 50th is coming up and we’re all hoping to get work… And Frazer Hines’s knees still look good!”

In recent times, she’s narrated Doctor Who books for AudioGo and Big Finish CD dramas as Polly and lets slip, “There’s all sorts of secrets going on but I can’t tell you.” She’s bitterly clenching her teeth. “I’m hopeless at secrets.” All she’ll say is: “I’m 70 now and this is my pension. I’m still talking about Doctor Who and thrilled to do so. How could we know then that we’d become part of cultural immortality. YES!!”

Read the Anneke Anecdotes about all her Doctor Who stories, starting with The War Machines.

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