In the ten years between filming the first 21st century episode of Doctor Who (‘Aliens of London’) and Peter Capaldi’s Robin Hood romp ‘Robot of Sherwood’, the show has changed considerably. Nick Joy talks to erstwhile Slitheen Annette Badland and fair Maid Marian Sabrina Bartlett about their respective experiences on the show at SF Ball’s 22nd annual convention – as well as their times on Outlander and Game of Thrones…
I’m going to guess that the roles you’re most popular with the fans here today only represent a small proportion of your acting careers? How easy do you find it to focus on such a specific (and possibly short) time in your life?
Annette Badland: It’s funny, but sometimes things emerge that you had forgotten; a memory will bubble up. The people are living it in this moment, and for you it’s history. But some of it is a very potent part of your career, especially if it it’s a part you really loved and wanted to do.
Your role in three episodes of Christopher’s Eccleston’s season of Doctor Who – Aliens of London/ World War III/ Boom Town – was for me the standout guest villain of that first year. Can I just refer to her as Margaret Blaine, rather than her correct alien name – I’m not even going to attempt to say it?
AB: You mean Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen [from Raxacoricofallapatorius].
You’ve clearly done that many times before! I think it was in your third appearance – in Boom Town – where the character transitioned from being a flatulent green monster to a character with real pathos. That must have been a joy for you, and were you aware you’d be coming back?
AB: I was part of a trio [of Slitheen] and as far as I was aware that was it. I had no idea that I’d be coming back. Those eps were the first eps that they shot because they often tuck the first step of something within a series. They won’t shoot it initially, they wait until the machine’s well-oiled [The episodes would actually be transmitted as 4 and 5 in the run]. They want to find out how long it takes putting on the prosthetics, which in this case I think knocked them sideways. The schedules got way behind. When I started, they would have a week’s prep in each block and by the time I got back just after Christmas they were just running to keep up. Nobody got a break.
So, Margaret’s return was a surprise?
AB: Yes, we’d shot those first episodes in the summer around July and there was absolutely no indication that she’d come back. And then I got this fantastic script that Russell had written around Christmas; it was a great gift. I remember turning the pages and going ‘Oh my God!’ There was sexuality. There was aggression. There was pain – a challenge to him – it just ran the gamut.
Was it hard to pitch the character of Margaret at that stage? I’m guessing you’d could have gone very broad with her?
AB: Yes, and nobody knew where to pitch it.
Even though the show already had a significant legacy when you joined, could you even imagine it would still be running ten years later?
AB: Well, no-one knew if it would work. They didn’t know if the audience would take to it. They were really out on a limb. It was Russell [T Davies]’ and Phil [Collinson]’s belief in it. I remember the first read-through. Usually they are small-scale affairs – ‘Hello, I’m the director’ – and you go round and everyone says their character’s name. Well, this one was at Cardiff Stadium in a huge room… and it was gladiatorial! It was American producers and Welsh producers on a long line of tables on one side, with actors on the other. Heads of departments were on either end and then beyond them banks of technicians – the make-up and the lighting. You did feel that after you’d read your lines they’d hold up a card that said ‘6.4’ [laughs] I’d not been to anything like that before.
In Boom Town you play the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, hiding a sinister plan. Have you ever had to explain yourself to the real Mayor?
AB: [Chuckles] No! I never have met the real Lord Mayor of Cardiff, but Cardiff Castle is still intact! I also did Wizards [vs Aliens] down there – another show of Russell’s – so they didn’t ostracise me. Places just become second homes. There was a point in my career when Manchester was where I was always going back to – for [hairdressing drama] Cutting It and working in the [Royal] Exchange [Theatre]. And then Cardiff became my new home. They haven’t given me the keys of the city yet, but they haven’t barred the gates either!
Sabrina Bartlett: Wales became a home for me too. When I was filming Doctor Who [as Maid Marian –though initially credited as “Quayle’s Ward” to avoid the spoiler] I started to find out the best places where all the actors go for food. There’s a lingo and community that develops where the actors share that local knowledge.
Sabrina, when you joined Doctor Who it was in its eighth season, so I’m guessing it was a very well-oiled machine. But on the one hand while that makes things easier, doesn’t that add a pressure because it’s so well-established?
SB: It was my first big job really – my first experience of going on to a franchise that was so well-established as Doctor Who. I had no idea of what to expect. There was a driver to pick me up from the train station, I had a room at a hotel, a person escorting me out of the trailer. I wondered ‘Is this what happens to actors? Is this what it’s going to be like now?’ It was so overwhelming and on top of that you had all these amazing famous actors walking around. On my last day they said: “Do you want to have a play in the TARDIS?” and I went straight in!
AB: When I did it, the TARDIS was in Newport on an industrial estate. By the time I was doing Wizards they were in the main Cardiff studio and the TARDIS was all locked-up; you weren’t allowed near it. It was shut, barred and padlocked – nobody could play with it. You were given a great gift.
You have a role in the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. I know you can’t talk directly about it, but how did that production compare with Doctor Who?
SB: For me it felt like there was less of a sense of community there. With Doctor Who it felt like everybody was so proud to be there – a sense of pride and family. And with Game of Thrones they obviously are all very proud of it but because I was coming in at the end of filming everybody was very tired. It felt like it was so colossal, with so much going on. There was no time for quick relationships or to chat with people because there was so much to manage. And also I think there’s been a lot of security breaches on there, so everybody has to be careful in terms of not having their phone out. You have to sign for your script every time you arrive on set so that if it gets lost they know it was you. And there’s so many people – a lot of the long-term cast were telling me that there will be new faces on set every single day.
Annette, you had a significant role playing Mrs Fitzgibbons, the housekeeper of Castle Leoch in the 18th century, in Starz’ popular time-travel romance drama Outlander. Does Sabrina’s Game of Thrones experience sound familiar?
AB: I loved Outlander. Yes, it was also big and American but Ronald D Moore is a very calm and centred person. I had to audition for that in a very hot summer; the casting director had to close the windows, there was no air-con and the fan was running! And when I was first cast there was only Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser) and Tobias Menzies (Frank Randall) cast as well. John Dahl was the first director and I wasn’t sure if he was jetlagged or wasn’t interested in the female characters. Again, he was very laid back but then down on the floor he was fantastic. We had a huge dinner and it was another big read-through, this time at a golf club. Again, it was clear that were putting a lot into it, but for me the experience started in a very personal and private way.
Finally, can we have a quick word with you about Babe Smith, the character that you’re currently playing in EastEnders. The show has quite a connection with Doctor Who, from Dimensions in Time to regular roles for former assistants like Louise Jameson and now Bonnie Langford. Babe feels like the sort of character that writers love writing for.
AB: I’ve got my notes from when I was first asked to do it and I wrote down ‘goody’. Maybe she was a Pearly Queen. But by the time I’d joined after completing Wizards vs Aliens and Outlander this jolly auntie was saying: “You’ll know that I’m very protective of my family.” And I felt like Phil Mitchell! The writers go away for a week to do script conferences and the producer told me that everyone came back with story ideas for Babe. The audience like the fact she’s not black or white. They say she’s slippery, but then they feel sorry for her. Maybe she deserves it?
Whatever lies in the future for Babe, it’s clear we haven’t seen the last of Annette and Sabrina as they continue to essay great roles in some of the most popular shows on TV. I didn’t even get to mention Sabrina’s role in BBC hit Poldark – but who really wants to hear again about how handsome Aidan Turner is!?
With thanks to Andrew Keates and Anne Lindup at SF Ball.