"I've been a naughty girl" - Doctor Who companion Katy Manning interviewed
The woman who played Jo Grant gossips with RT's Patrick Mulkern – and Doctor Who's stars and writers gauge her timeless appeal
Interviewed in 2012
I’m sitting in the Wolseley, a smart café in Piccadilly, when there’s a ripple in the fabric of space and time. A small blonde lady in a black shaggy coat, an explosion of Biba fashion, designer bags and brolly, materialises in reception, looking somewhat bewildered. Unmistakeably Katy Manning.
“I couldn’t remember who I was meeting, darling!” she chuckles, as I lead her to our table. She clings to my arm as though she’s back traversing a perilous quarry in Doctor Who. Katy is a very hands-on gal, instinctively touchy-feely, partly because she loves to connect physically, but also because she’s been myopic since birth and has no peripheral vision.
“Most people don’t quite get it with me. I live in my own little world where everybody is beautiful. I’ll say, ‘Stop the car! What are those white flowers?’ And my friend says, ‘That’s a plastic bag, Katy.’ I’m watering a palm tree in the street and someone will say, ‘I don’t think that telegraph pole will get any bigger.’ Once I tried to take the wrong children home from school!”
She suffered numerous stumbles and torn ligaments playing Doctor Who’s Jo Grant in the 1970s and “I lose things all the time. I once left my mother’s ashes at a bus stop!” Today, it’s just a glove and make-up bag she momentarily mislays. She has to read menus, letters, scripts inches from her nose.
And computers are a no no. “I have to get so close to the screen. How can I put this delicately? Have you ever tried typing under your boobs?” Katy is, however, a dab-hand on her iPhone (kept in a chic Biba sleeve) and is a fiend for Twitter – it keeps her in nose-level contact with chums and fans.
We hit it off immediately. We’re both wearing black and shades of purple. “That’s a little frightening.” She mimes a telephone: “It’s like, hello, what are you wearing today?” We’re also dog lovers and our pooches have the same name. “I’ll show you my Archie if you show me yours,” she says as we ferret for our mobiles.
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 and a terrific scream, an irresistible bubbly mixture of tomboy and sexpot. “Jo was very endearing,” adds 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.”
Katy/Jo instantly won viewers’ hearts. “The little kiddies really got me. Older men found it quite pleasant to look at me. The mothers and girls didn’t feel threatened and loved Jo’s trendy clothes and rings.” She became the series’ first long-running female star with three years (77 episodes) under her belt.
Many former Doctor Who stars have published autobiographies. Katy never has and never will. “I am asked all the time. Daily! I’m exaggerating, but I’m a very private person. I’ve been secretive since childhood. It would be so goddamn boring tracking back over my life, which ain’t over yet. There are too many people involved I don’t really need to talk about. And I’ve been a naughty girl. Naughty girls don’t write books!” A throaty cackle. How naughty, Katy? “I think I’ve been about as naughty as you can get.” She gives one of those faraway but saucy, you-name-it/I’ve-done-it grins.
She fills a café Americano with sugar. It’s one of her few remaining vices. She doesn’t touch alcohol. “I spent many years finding out that I can’t drink very well. I get very creative and I’m too old to be that creative now. People often think I’m pissed and I’m not. They say, ‘You were so off your tits last night.’ But my daughter says, ‘That means Mummy’s had four coffees.’ ”
She’s given up smoking (“I’ve been on and off all my life”) and insists it’s had nothing to do with her distinctive husky voice; she’s always had one; her son does too. It’s genetic. Today she fishes fake cigarettes from her handbag. One has a glowing red tip, the other blue. At one point she has both going just for a laugh. “No-nicotine, coffee- or toffee-flavoured. Heaven on a stick! I like the action of holding a cigarette. I’m a Bette Davis.” She gesticulates in velveteen gloves with a couple of gigantic rings on top.
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. Katy’s a vegetarian but 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.”
And what a life! But don’t get Katy 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 Picture Show]. I’ve never been married.”
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 hooping 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).
Katy’s 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.”
Katy 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 drove up to see him at Oxford University with Bamber Gascoigne’s brother, Brian. On the way back, “I think Brian fell asleep at the wheel. There were no seatbelts in those days, and we went over a roundabout and into a garage. 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 reconstruction 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.”
It’s heartbreaking because most of the nation – and her colleagues – thought she was incredibly sexy. “I’d never have done those shots with the Dalek if I thought I was sexy.” Katy notoriously posed nude with a Dalek in Girl Illustrated in 1978. “I did it for a laugh. It was a lot of fun and it was my idea. Derek Nimmo [co-star in the West End farce Why Not Stay for Breakfast?] was furious because he’d given me those boots for my opening night. Then I wrapped them round a Dalek.”
Perhaps Katy will accept – after decades of being told so – that she is adorable? “I don’t get it. I look at myself and I don’t believe it. But I enjoy being with the fans. I hold the autograph queue up because everybody has to have a hug. If they feel shy, I can change that. I have great respect for those fans. They’ve made me a little more secure, so I want to give back.
“Doctor Who was a real high for me. Three of the most inspiring, creative and loving years of my life. Jon and I were so close. One of the most important things to get right is the chemistry. Lis [Sladen] used to say to me, ‘Do you know what it was like following you!’ ”
Straight after Who in 1973 she presented artsy-crafty series Serendipity (above) for the BBC. “Then I played one of the first TV lesbians in The Golden Road [ITV’s Armchair Theatre, below], 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!”
She’s glued to modern Doctor Who. “Ever since Christopher Eccleston came out of that goddamn box I’ve loved it. All the new Doctors are brilliant but I’ve only worked with Matt Smith.” In 2010 she guest-starred opposite him in The Sarah Jane Adventures. “Russell [T Davies] sent me the script and I thought he absolutely nailed it. Jo was still saving this planet in her own inimitable way.
“Matt’s a joy to work with. It’s an education to watch his beautifully realised physicality as the Doctor. I said to him, ‘Jon Pertwee would be very proud of what you’re doing with this character.’ And it was the first time I’d actually worked with Lis, although we’d already become close friends. We had a lot of past with Jon that bonded us. When I was a newbie at conventions, she really helped me through. After she died, I said in an interview she was the quintessential Doctor Who girl. And I really meant it.”
Katy’s hair went platinum for The Sarah Jane Adventures, “but it doesn’t suit me. I’ve gone back to blonde. I’d love to get my eyes done but a part of me says, you know what, it’s too late. But I did have all my teeth veneered.”
She still gets bouts of depression. “I have a black dog that comes and sits on my shoulder. But I’ve learnt how to get through it. I give myself tasks that frighten the s**t out of me.” In 2009, she toured the UK with Jezebel and Me, a sublime one-woman show, in which she played Bette Davis among other characters. She’s developed an impressive vocal range: she plays more than 20 people in her semi-autobiographical play, Not a Well Woman (available as a CD and download).
Katy used a higher vocal register for Jo. “Jon used to remind me sometimes, ‘You’ve just gone down to the lorry driver again. Can you lift it up?’
For now, AudioGo readings of Who novels beckon, as do audio dramas, where she plays Jo or eccentric Time Lady, Iris Wildthyme. Katy is labouring over an eccentric hat for Iris’s debut “in the flesh” at a convention. She also appears 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 see it but dreads seeing herself in HD. “I’m hoping for a little 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.”
The afternoon has flown by. We’re still nattering away on rainy Piccadilly, going down the escalator and cramming into any available armpit space on a rush-hour Tube train. I spot people checking out this tiny, festooned, glamorous sexagenarian with a husky voice, as if thinking, “I know her...” She nestles into me and I wonder what my eight-year-old self, inconsolable when Jo Grant left Doctor Who in 1973, would make of this scenario.
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.
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What they said
RT 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
“Be still the ice-canos of my heart! Katy Manning as Jo Grant practically is my childhood and I still can’t watch the end of the wonderful Green Death without dissolving into tears.”
Mark Gatiss, writer and actor
“Adorable, chirpy, go-get-’em Jo. She had the most winning smile of any companion. It absolutely lit up the screen.”
Mark Braxton, Radio Times writer
“As a lad, Jo Grant was the first girl I ever wished I knew, wished I could call my friend and wished I could have mad adventures with. As an adult, I met Katy Manning, she is my friend and we have had a lot of mad adventures. What more could a Doctor Who fan ask for?”
Gary Russell, former Doctor Who/The Sarah Jane Adventures script editor
“It's hard to tell where Jo ends and Katy starts. Both are utterly adorable.”
Edward Russell, Doctor Who brand manager
“Katy is really special to me. Being with her was so much fun.”
Brian Hodgson, former head of BBC Radiophonic Workshop
“In the early 1970s, Katy Manning epitomised what was, for me, the perfect quintessential Doctor Who companion. Scatterbrained, sweet and full of personality. And working with her last year, bringing Terrance Dicks' The Eight Doctors to life, she was adorable. She later texted me to say it was the best day of her life. I unreservedly love her to bits.”
Ian Levine, record producer
“Of anyone who’s ever interviewed me in my kitchen, she was the most unexpected.”
Steven Moffat, Doctor Who executive producer
“Katy Manning was one of the formative loves of my life. I adored her scatty, impulsive, emotional performance and felt fiercely loyal in the face of disparaging remarks from my sceptical mother, half-watching behind me (‘those ghastly boots... that awful hacked hairstyle... that terrible fur jacket...”). She was missing the point. Jo was a true friend and her unwanted departure cast a sad shadow over Christmas 1973.”
Richard Marson, producer/director, Tales from Television Centre
And from the archive…
“Working with Katy Manning has been wonderful. Katy’s a lovely person. Mad as a box of fish but totally dynamite!”
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’m just as sad as anybody that Katy’s leaving the series, but we must remember that she has been playing Jo Grant for three years. Even as gilded a cage as a long-running series can become too confining; Katy naturally wants to spread her wings a bit. Sarah Jane Smith, who joins the Doctor next season, is a very different person from Jo Grant, but I am quite sure that Elisabeth Sladen, who is to play her, will become just as popular, and indeed just as loved, as Katy has been.”
Barry Letts, Doctor Who producer (RT July 1973)
“I’ll watch Dr Who (Saturday BBC1) –The Green Death, global chemicals, Katy Manning – she of the navel. The whole house goes quiet – even the dog.”
Henry Livings, screenwriter (RT June 1973)
“I am myself as Jo. Jo’s a very scatty, slightly messy, very happy person. And that’s me.”
Katy Manning (RT January 1972)
“Saturday... Must be home for Dr Who (5.15 BBC1). We’re rooting for Katy Manning (she plays Jo Grant). Katy’s the daughter of sportswriter JL Manning, a long-time friend. She’s quite a girl. Watch her. She might well become Britain’s Goldie Hawn.”
Harry Carpenter, sports commentator (RT January 1971)
Check out “What Katy did next” in all her 1970s adventures in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide, starting with Terror of the Autons.