Although she’s best known now to genre fans for playing Polly in Doctor Who – a role that she regularly reprises in audios for Big Finish Productions – Anneke Wills had a very varied career in the 1960s, with one of her very first performances released this week by Network DVD.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade starred, and was created by, Anthony (Tony) Newley, then best known for his musical talents. Billed and promoted as a comedy, Gurney Slade was broadcast by ATV in a primetime slot, but its unusual style was a turn-off for huge swathes of the audience over the first three weeks, and the show was relegated to a late night slot for the final three episodes. Much of it consisted of voiceovers narrated by Newley and others – including Wills, who appeared in two episodes as a girl that Newley’s character Slade fancied. Life imitated art, and Newley and Wills moved in together shortly afterwards.
Over fifty years after its production and original broadcast, Anneke Wills looks back with fondness at a show she made when just 18…
Were you surprised when you heard that Network was releasing The Strange World of Gurney Slade after all these years?
Absolutely thrilled to bits, because it was one of those things that was a niggle. You thought about Gurney, and you thought, “niggly niggly, too bad.” When I got the news that Network was doing it, I thought, “How brilliant, how brilliant is that!” I think I heard about first at The Avengers 50th anniversary celebrations from Dick Fiddy. My reaction was “Hooray – at last! How wonderful!” And also, how lovely for Tony. Towards the end, he was grossly overlooked. He was always overlooked – geniuses are. They’re misunderstood and they’re overlooked. He’s sitting on his little cloud in Heaven chuckling away, going “Good!”
What did you think of it going back years later?
Everything struck me! First of all, how out of its time it was. What an extension of [the 1950s radio show] The Goon Show it was – we hadn’t had anything like that on the small screen. We hadn’t really had it on the big screen. The Goon Show could be so surreal because it was made in a studio with microphones. You could take off the planet, no problem – and it didn’t cost the BBC any money either. It has to have its slot. Then came Gurney.
And then here comes my little bit – why am I in a big lumpy old man’s mackintosh? What was the wardrobe department doing to me? I don’t think they had one that fitted me, that was all. Bung me in an old one. It was typical – when I did The Railway Children, which was an eight week series, the costume I had didn’t fit, so they put extra cuffs on my cuffs which itched me to bits and pieces. The BBC was so cheap you wouldn’t believe.
Then I watched the whole thing – and goodness me, no cars on the road! Down on the Embankment, those scenes were done in daylight, and there was no traffic on the roads in England at that time. You see the dating of it.
The final episode is just so lovely, so wonderful, and very much a premonition of where Tony would go with Stop The World [I Want to Get Off: the very successful stage show that Newley created a few years later] – the bunch of actors needing to get out of his head. Brilliant stuff…
We had never seen anything like him lying on his tummy and talking to ants. This was 1960. We hadn’t taken the psychedelic drugs. People hadn’t been doing that yet.
When you were with him, was he like that in real life or did this come from the writers Dick Hills and Sid Green?
It came from him. It was pure Tony. That was the consciousness of the time, then Tony brought his own flavour, which was unique. He went on banging that drum the rest of his life.
It’s so interesting to see the development of the person. I had seen him in 1956 in Cranks, a revue done by John Cranko, which was utterly brilliant. He did a mime in that, which you see the forerunner of Stop the World, where he was a white-faced mime with the white gloved hands and everything else blacked out. And the hands are doing other than the face wants them to do. Once again you get this surrealistic slant which he adored. He loved Marcel Marceau.
And we loved The Goons. Tony loved Eccles. He used to be reduced to a puddle of water with giggling when he listened to Eccles. Tears would flow!
How were the voiceovers worked out? Was someone saying the lines so you could react?
All I really remember is looking in his eyes and falling in love. I can’t remember anything else much!
It was quite simple. We recorded the thoughts later in the studio, and at the time, in the windy old aerodrome in the damp and the cold, we had the script lady, or the continuity lady, reading it over. You heard it so you could act your thoughts.
When I watched it again, I was surprised when I came out with the voice saying, “Oh that’s my friend” – that was interesting, I’d forgotten using that accent. That gets lost again in the last episode – then I’m just me.
I’d also forgotten that at the end, I say, “Oh French films, they could film me from behind”. Again, it was ahead of its time, because later on in [the 1965 film] The Pleasure Girls, that’s what they did!
For you, what does Gurney Slade represent? How important was the show to you, as actress and as a person?
You know, I wasn’t noticing, ’cos I’d fallen in love with Tony Newley and gone home with him! I was busy and I kept working. I’m sure that it was helpful. Being completely unambitious (I always have been), I was very bad at looking at how my career was building. I was very much nose on the ground, hoping I’d get more work. Which I did. I moved in with Tony, and went from Gurney Slade to playing opposite Eric Portman in a Play of the Week, a very big one, a major role. Then working with Clive Donner on Some People… I just kept working
Turning briefly to Doctor Who, you’ve appeared in a number of the Big Finish Companion Chronicles. Does it feel odd recreating Polly?
No, not at all. It’s like slipping on a very familiar part of me. It’s very familiar. It still fits. The cloak still fits.
Do you know Polly well enough to change things if necessary?
With one of them, I did – the writer had written things that I said, “Absolutely not.” I had to battle for every line that was inappropriate. But they listened. We got together and talked it through, and got agreements. There’s hardly a line they’ve got to change now.
Are there any stories you’d particularly like to do with Polly?
I have said I’d like to go back into Tudor times, because it’s my favourite place.
Did you get to work with Nick Courtney and John Pickard on The Three Companions?
Unfortunately on that one, we recorded our stuff separately, which was a pity because it doesn’t have quite the same feel.
I’ve done another one, The Five Companions, which comes out at Christmas. The difference is night and day: in The Five Companions, I’m working with my sixth Doctor (I’m keeping a score) – number six, tick, Peter Davison – and Jean Marsh and William Russell and Peter Purves and Sarah Sutton. It produces a music which you don’t have if you’re reading with just a nice friendly person.
I went into the studio on the day, 9 o’clock bouncing in, and said, “Please forgive me if I’m just completely over the top but I’m so thrilled to be here.” They turned and said, “Anneke you’re never really any different.” I just had the most wonderful day hanging out with these guys, and listening to the stories in-between doing the takes.
Stories about the show or work in general?
When actors get together we can talk about general things – from comfy shoes to bird tables (that would be Tom Baker). Jean Marsh was wonderful. We were looking at one of those machines in your palm where you can look whatever you want in the world up on them – whatever they’re called – and Jean’s saying, “Look up that French actor, this is how he’s spelled. He’s gorgeous!” We’re looking up these actors and drooling.
That’s what we were doing in the coffee breaks, but then when we do the little chats for the CD, you sit there and listen to the stories of other companions and what they got up to. I love the story Jean tells of being told off and having to leave the studio until she could behave herself! To work with the likes of Jean and Peter, I should be so lucky at the age of coming up 70…!
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is released on August 15 by Network DVD. Read our review here
Thanks to Grace Ker and Gillie Fairbrother at Network for their help arranging this interview.