Doctor Who's Ruth Madeley teases Shirley Anne Bingham's return
"She is not overly impressed by anyone or anything."
"She is just so fun and feisty and ballsy – she's just so much fun to play," Doctor Who star Ruth Madeley says of her character Shirley Anne Bingham. "I'd love to be more like Shirley in my real life, I have got nowhere near that much cool in me!"
Madeley made her spectacular on-screen Doctor Who debut in The Star Beast as UNIT's 56th scientific advisor. In the space of the 57-minute special, she got David Tennant's Doctor out of some very sticky situations – and took absolutely none of his nonsense.
"Overall she is not overly impressed by anyone or anything, which I love about her because I am the complete opposite. That's really fun to play," Madeley tells RadioTimes.com.
Being such a key part of UNIT means Madeley is now embedded in Doctor Who's history and legacy. But she didn't want to overload on research about the history of the organisation, explaining: "I wanted to come to it very fresh. I liked the thought of putting my own spin on something that I didn't have a knowledge of before because I didn't want to replicate anyone else.
"And because she is visibly disabled, she's got a completely different experience to other people, I think that's why I wanted to keep it quite authentic to what I felt worked."
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Of course, Madeley's casting also marks a huge moment for disability representation in Doctor Who and she's quick to praise returning showrunner Russell T Davies on how true to life his script was.
"I've had the privilege of working with Russell before. When we did Years and Years together, we worked really closely together on creating a character who was so often sick, and whose disability was so authentic – as much as I would love to take credit for any of Shirley, Russell had her down straight away because he knows what to do when it comes to disabled characters," she explains.
"That, for me, felt really real and you can just tell that he gets it because we'd worked together before and so he knew a lot about what was happening and what it's like to be in a world that is inaccessible and in a place where certain people do have certain opinions about disability. So it is really fun to read what he puts together and say, 'Oh, yeah, that's so accurate.'"
Explaining that Davies is always conscious of being representative in his storytelling, Madeley adds: "He is just so good at that and it's been a privilege to kind of highlight some of those issues that perhaps he wasn't aware of before. But through us knowing each other and working together, he got that really quickly, which meant that by the time he came to write these scripts, there was literally nothing that I had to add."
So many moments of Madeley's performance have had a powerful impact – including one scene in which her character simply crosses her legs.
"That's caused a bit of an uproar, hasn't it?" Madeley reflects. "Hand on heart, I did not even give that a second thought when I did that at all. I just did it because that's what's natural to me. I had no idea it would cause that much conversation but that just says so much about where we're at with disability representation, how we need so much more so that something so seemingly tiny wouldn't become such a massive conversation."
Madeley also recalls: "When [Shirley] said in this special, 'Don't make me the problem,' I think that was just a moment for every single disabled person watching who has been made to feel like the problem is them, not the inaccessibility, and Shirley is just having none of it, she was like, 'Don't make me the problem. Get on with the job.' What a brilliant moment – in one sentence to sum up all of that, just absolutely fantastic."
Plus, not only is the new TARDIS absolutely stunning – it's actually wheelchair accessible. "It's very cool, very cool indeed. What a brilliant thing for kids to see as well, [to] have that level of access in something that they've grown up watching and wanting to have a little trip in."
To many fans' delight, it's been confirmed that Shirley will return. Madeley's keeping tight-lipped on the details but says: "All I will say is that she is a brilliant addition to the world of Doctor Who. She will continue to be badass and she will continue to bring that joy to the show, and wherever the writing takes her, I think people will be happy."
As for whether she'd like to return to Doctor Who beyond the specials to potentially work with Ncuti Gatwa? It's a resounding yes: "I would never say no. I mean to be fair, I'd go just to make the tea... I feel very, very excited that I'm able to be part of that world where there are chances that she could come back. Yeah, there are opportunities for it because she's there now. She's in it so there's scope now for her to return so that's very exciting."
Every time Doctor Who returns, there's a proportion of the public who refer to it as "woke". On the other hand, many fans are of the opinion that Doctor Who has always been progressive for its time and has constantly been reflective of political and social issues.
Responding to that debate, Madeley said: "I think people will always have opinions and that is absolutely fine for me. I'm not here to silence anyone's opinions. I just don't buy into the whole idea of having a disabled person or a transgender person on screen as 'woke'.
"We exist, so I don't understand how my existence or anyone else's existence can be called 'woke'. But there we go. Some people will always say that and, for me, the fact that we've got kids and their parents messaging saying, 'Oh my God, my kid screamed because they were so excited that they saw themselves on screen', all of that for me is much more important and it drowns out any of the other noise that happens."
There are so many facets of Shirley's character that were important for Madeley to portray. Listing just a few, she explains: "She's good at her job. She is completely professional, she knows exactly what she's doing. There is nobody else better for the job than her, that's a huge thing. But also she is fearless, she is not a damsel in distress and her disability doesn't mean that she needs extra help.
"If anything, she would like to shoot someone who offered help! I'm joking, she wouldn't. But I think that in itself is such a powerful thing, like she had a completely different experience on screen as a disabled woman than what some people might have expected. She is the one that kind of saves them as well, which is a very cool thing. That was really important that she was strong, in the sense that she was an integral part of the team, and she is very, very capable."
Plus, she was thrilled by getting to share the screen with a returning Tennant. "Doctor Who aside, I've loved and will always love his work. I think he is one of the best actors on the planet and so to be able to share the screen with him just us two, that felt like a real pinch me moment and something that I will cherish forever – that was one of the highlights for me."
While the details of Madeley's return to Doctor Who are still under wraps, she's got plenty of things she'd still love to do on the show.
"There's so much. I keep adding things as the days go on now, but I am going to leave a question open and hope that Russell listens to some of the many text message I'm sending him!"
Doctor Who continues next Saturday (2nd December) at 6:30pm on BBC One. Previous episodes are available on BBC iPlayer and on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.