“I’ve been a naughty girl” – Doctor Who companion Katy Manning interviewed

The woman who played Jo Grant gossips to RT – and Doctor Who's present stars and writers gauge her timeless appeal

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No disrespect to Elisabeth Sladen or Billie Piper, but for me Katy – or rather Jo Grant – has always been the ultimate Doctor Who companion. She had it all: innocence and gumption, courage but a terrific scream, an irresistible bubbly mixture of tomboy and sexpot. “Jo was very endearing,” says Katy, putting her finger right on it. “Gutsy, fiercely loyal. I liked the fact she offered her life constantly for the Doctor’s because she realised his work was so important.”
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She orders eggs Benedict. “I’m a cheap date, darling,” she laughs. “I eat little and often. I graze.” When the plate arrives, she moves the ham to one side. She may be a vegetarian but she’s not averse to having a lump of meat thrust under her nose. “I don’t like masticating! I’m not a veggie for hippy reasons – there are just so many things I could be doing with my life than chewing right now.” 
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And what a life! But don’t get her started on internet biogs. “I’ve never been in half the things they say. Everything’s wrong,” she splutters. “No, my name is not Katy Louisa Manning. No, that is not the date of my birth. It’s not even the right goddamn day!”

Her birth year is commonly reported as 1946, and I’m too gentlemanly to press for her actual or preferred one. “And no, I’ve never been married to Rayner Bourton [the original Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show]. I’ve never been married.”

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Her full name is Catherine Katy Ann Manning. Actor Dean Harris is the father of her twins Georgie and JJ (Johnathan), born 33 years ago almost two months prematurely. “One weighed one pound four, the other one pound eight. They were taken from me and kept in incubators at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, tubes shoved up their noses. I didn’t know what I’d got in there. I could have given birth to hamsters. There was no bonding then, I can tell you. I’m a very honest woman. I got post-natal depression when they were two years old.”

Her babies were frail and constantly ill, even developing whooping cough. Katy was advised to move to warmer climes. She knew one person in Sydney. “I packed two suitcases and arrived on the other side of the world, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I was a single parent and we had to survive.”

She built up a career in Australia, theatre and voiceover work, eventually winning her own chat show. She brought up the twins on Manly Beach and fell in love with Barry Crocker, a big star Down Under. “We’ve been together 26 years although we don’t live together now. When you get older, you get to a point in your relationship that way outweighs all that needy s**t. I’m not a needy woman. I don’t rely on other people for anything much. Relationships that last are ones where you accept the changes in each other, and can laugh. Life doesn’t get easier but it does get funnier.”

She returned to London three years ago. “I’d been homesick for 26 years.” She flies regularly to Oz to see Barry, brings his sewing home and posts it back. JJ and shih tzu Archie are also there, while Georgie lives in London. “And I have an adoptive daughter Joycie who’s now back in Africa.” A second dog, a bitch called John, now resides in America with Nicolette Sheridan (Edie from Desperate Housewives).

A lifelong celebrity pal is Liza Minnelli. “Meeting Liza and her mother [Judy Garland, of course] had a huge effect. Hanging out at their house in Chelsea with Dirk Bogarde and James Mason floating around, going to the Savoy for tea with Noël Coward… Liza and I were just thinking about the next naughty thing we could get up to.”

Meanwhile, the Manning household in Dulwich Village welcomed great sportsmen. Katy’s father – the biggest influence in her life – was JL Manning, a politician turned sports journalist. “He was an extraordinary righter of wrongs. He fought to have a doctor at the side of a boxing ring; fought against apartheid in schools in Africa, for pensions for journalists’ families. He was carried down the streets of Wales after fighting for miners’ causes. He couldn’t stand injustice.”

She exudes joie de vivre and is hilarious company but says she’s compensating for lack of confidence. “I get nail marks in my palms before I walk into a room full of people. Actors live behind other personalities. But I’m as dull as ditchwater. I’m really boring.” Katy, I say, has anyone ever told you you’re boring? She shrugs. “My kids maybe. But I’m very withdrawn and quiet and love doing things on my own.”

She’s a bundle of insecurities, especially about her looks. As a teenager in the 60s, she was involved in a horrendous car crash. Dating Richard Eyre (long before he became a theatrical knight), she was driven up to see him at Oxford University by Bamber Gascoigne’s brother, Brian. On the way back, “We went over a roundabout and into a garage. There were no seatbelts in those days. I was thrown through the windscreen and a plate-glass window.”

Gascoigne sustained broken ribs, whereas Katy’s legs were smashed, her back was broken, her face disfigured. She spent almost two years in and out of hospital. “They weren’t entirely sure I’d walk again. I have more metal in my body than an airport can handle. I had a lot of reconstructive surgery. When you kiss this [left] side of my face, it’s skin grafted from my bottom. So it’s kiss my ass!

“After that I kind of stopped looking at myself,” she says. “When I see myself in pictures it’s always a shock. I’ve never been pretty. I’ve always been the one who people say, ‘She’s funny.’ Barry says children like me because I look like a Muppet. Even Jon Pertwee used to say I had a funny face.” 

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Straight after Who in 1973 she presented artsy-crafty series Serendipity for the BBC. “Then I played one of the first TV lesbians in The Golden Road [ITV’s Armchair Theatre], directed by Douglas Camfield.” He also cast her as a boobs-flashing, vomiting junkie in BBC1’s hard-hitting crime drama, Target. “Two groundbreaking pieces of television. If people say, ‘Were you typecast?’ Go figure! No!”
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And look out for her in Richard Marson’s BBC4 film, Tales from Television Centre. “I was a child of television. I’m passionate about the BBC.” She can’t wait to watch it but dreads seeing herself in HD. “I’m hoping for a small telly with a magnifying glass.” She lets me play with her fake ciggie. I’m not sure what to do with it. “Suck it and see, darling. If I ever did write an autobiography, that’s what I’d call it.”
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Then we’re at Bond Street. A parting hug and kiss, and Katy Manning, childhood heroine to millions, is dashing up the platform, vanishing back to her very own space/time continuum.

What they said
RT has asked Katy’s admirers to encapsulate her appeal…

“One word? ‘Knickers!’ Haha. Katy played Jo unashamedly as the archetypal Doctor Who companion – sexy, brave, selfless and thoroughly terrified of the monsters!” 
Tom Spilsbury Doctor Who Magazine editor

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Ian Levine record producer
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Matt Smith actor (RT October 2010)

“Katy and I have a really good connection. We have so much to share, just like Sarah Jane and Jo.” 
Elisabeth Sladen actress (RT October 2010)

“I am myself as Jo. Jo’s a very scatty, slightly messy, very happy person. And that’s me.”
Katy Manning (RT January 1972)

Check out “What Katy did next” in all her 1970s adventures in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide, starting with Terror of the Autons.

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See photos of Katy Manning throughout her Doctor Who career