Interview: Louise Jameson

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson recording the new 4th Doctor adventures for Big Finish. Courtesy Big Finish

With the new six-CD series of adventures with Tom Baker, as well as the Lost Stories collection, and the release of The Face of Evil on DVD next month, Louise Jameson’s Doctor Who character Leela seems to be going through one of her periodic renaissances. Paul Simpson caught up with the actress to talk about playing the role again, 35 years after her first appearance on Doctor Who

Has the interest in Leela ever really gone away?

No, not really. Doctor Who fans are the loyalest fans in the world. There have been very few times when I’ve been out of work – I’m touching wood here – and when it has happened, it’s been a Doctor Who spin-off that has somehow materialised. BBV Videos, back in the day; Cleaning Up, the recent short film I’ve done with the Guerrier brothers, is Big Finish, which is all through Doctor Who. There’s a chain of jobs that have just evolved.

I’m off to America next week for 10 days, and I was in Australia last November, all thanks to Doctor Who. I’m a lucky woman.

Did you think at the time you joined Doctor Who in 1976 that the label “Who girl” might stay with you?

It certainly put me on the map. I’d done three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company before I did Leela; I was quite glad to have done it that way round, because I had earned the title ‘actress’, as it were, before I got there. I’d already established myself quite well in the theatre, which is my first love. I just saw Doctor Who as another job.

It was a very deliberate choice to go for a TV series by my agent. I went up for The [New] Avengers, and got down to the last 10 for Purdey; there was another series called Angels that was around at the time. I got very close to that, and it didn’t happen. Survivors, didn’t happen. But Doctor Who did. It was a career move as far as I was concerned; I really didn’t think I’d be discussing it in 2012!

What was the role you were up for in Survivors?

I honestly can’t remember. I think it was a blipping in and blipping out, but it was where I first met Pennant Roberts, who put a little star by my name. He had a little black book, because I’d obviously impressed him although I wasn’t right for the part. It was thanks to him I got called in, with 59 other girls, to be seen for the assistant on Doctor Who.

You did nine stories for television, but many many more since. Are you still finding new sides to the character?

Not necessarily new sides, but every new adventure throws up a new challenge. The writing for Leela is so much richer on the audios.

The whole idea of the companion has become so much richer. They’re not just a cypher to go, “What is it Doctor?” I think Leela of all the characters has an easier job of it than the other assistants because she’s got so much to learn. When they brought Romana in, gorgeous as Lalla and Mary are, because they’re so educated, there’s no conflict with the Doctor. They both retain and have the same knowledge. With Leela, she can say, “What is that?” and there’s all this animal instinct going on. I think it makes for a better partnership to have that dynamic between assistant and Doctor.

One of the good things about the new season of CDs with Tom is that the Pygmalion element has been picked up on, which went sideways on the TV series…

[Robert] Holmes was always up for that and Chris Boucher as well. I think some of the others thought, “She’s the assistant.” Big Finish made it the premise for this set of stories: travel and educate Leela.

The original cover flat for the novelisation of Horror of Fang Rock made reference to “the Doctor and Sarah” rather than the Doctor and Leela, which gave away a little as to how Terrance probably pitched the character…

That story was thrown in at the last minute. It was originally going to be one about vampires, but there was something else on the BBC at the same time, so they said we couldn’t do our vampire story, find another. I think [Fang Rock] was lifted off the shelf, dusted down and thrown at me. It’s not my favourite story, although it’s gone down very well with the fans. They seem to love it.

Perhaps because it’s not so reliant on effects as some? It holds up better for new fans than perhaps The Invisible Enemy or Underworld, where fans can’t see beyond the effects?

Underworld was very difficult to shoot, because we were just working in blue the whole time. It was a bit of a budget experiment, I think.

Obviously that’s not a problem with the audios…

You can go anywhere, can’t you. They say the best pictures are on radio.

Are there any stories you’d particularly like to do?

Personally, I’m very interested in 200 years ago, and women’s stories from then. I would love to take liberated Leela to pre-suffragette times and just have her be part of that piece of history. I’m more interested in that than travelling to other planets and other worlds.

But the joy of this piece is the imagination of the writers. I meet Boudicca in this series, which was great to do: these two feisty women together.

Are there still times when you say, “that doesn’t feel right?”

Occasionally I’ll ask to change a line, and I have to say they’re hugely respectful of that. David Richardson said to me, “You fiercely hold onto the character of Leela.” Fiercely protective, he calls me, and I suppose I am in a way. Occasionally they’ll put in a word that’s just far too sophisticated for her vocabulary, and I’ll spot that she always says “would not” and “could not” rather than “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t”. I keep the rhythms going.

There was one scene where the Doctor was in great danger and he said, “Go away, Leela, go back to the TARDIS,” and she did. I just said, “No way would she leave him. It’s just convenient to get me out. You’ve got to find another way to get Leela out of the scene.” And they did, bless them.

They had her agree to go, then prowl back and try and track the Doctor so she could rescue him from who he had been captured by. Whoever they were managed to muck up their tracks so she couldn’t track them any more – and then she went back to the TARDIS. It was just another two-three minutes onto the piece, but it made so much more sense. Leela wouldn’t just pad off because the Doctor had said go away. Yeah right.

I think they’re quite appreciative, because I prepare very thoroughly before I go in, and occasionally say, “How can this happen in scene 17 when this happened in scene 5…?” I think they feel they’ve got another proof reader.

The last two seasons of Gallifrey have just been announced – any idea what is coming up for you?

I’ve got one idea, but I’m not allowed to talk about it, sorry. Nigel Fairs has been writing this morning at my kitchen table!

You directed Nigel in the Drama Showcase In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer for Big Finish…

He’s really good. He’s really spookily frightening, that mixture of gentility and genius madness is perfect I think.

Are you doing any more directing for Big Finish?

David Richardson has made some nice whispering noises, but there’s nothing concrete yet. I would love to: I love the whole genre.

Something away from the sci-fi stuff?

I really like character-led pieces rather than adventure-led pieces. How those characters react against the adversity , what we call the tilt in the story, is what’s important. The psyche of the characters is what interests me, whether I’m doing Shakespeare or soap, really.

What else are you up to at the moment?

I’ve just got one more date to do for my one woman show, Pulling Faces, which has been recorded by Big Finish, directed by Nigel. And then I go to America for a Doctor Who convention and then take some time out with friends.

Then we’re doing a play which Nigel and I have written together called My Gay Best Friend. We’re going to try that out at the Brighton Festival, and we’ve got a booker interested already and a possible West End fringe gig on that.

Cleaning Up, the short movie I did with the Guerrier brothers, is being put forward as a possible TV series. They’re going to use the 15 minute now award winning movie as a pilot for a TV series. I’m really holding my breath on that.

The writing jogs on and the teaching jogs on, and I’m very pro-active. I’ve got a script mulling around in my head which I’ve been thinking about for about six months but I think it’s just getting ready to burst out, so I’m going to get on with that!

Thanks to Paul Spragg at Big Finish for help in arranging this interview

Check out our reviews of the 4th Doctor Adventures: Destination: Nerva // The Renaissance Man // Foe from the Future // The Valley of Death

Click here for more details on the 4th Doctor Adventures

and here to pre-order The Face of Evil on DVD from Amazon.co.uk

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