Deborah Watling in many ways exemplified the experience of those who played Doctor Who companions, certainly in its early years. Interviews with those like Watling who served their time as regulars on the series often tell a similar story: of their excitement at winning the role as a young performer; of the long days and cold location shoots filming the show, mixed with the camaraderie and fun involved in making a much-loved programme; the creeping disillusionment at the limitations of the companions’ role in the show; and their surprise that people were still interested in asking them about Doctor Who many years after they had left.
All of these experiences can be found in interviews Deborah Watling gave over the years about her time on Doctor Who. A trawl through the archives turns up much that is familiar to fans of the show but it’s still possible to find the odd comment that sheds new light on the experience shared by just a few dozen people of working as one of the regular cast in the series.
“Before I got the part in Doctor Who, I hadn’t really watched the programme. I was 19, got £75 a week, and thought myself lucky. I loved it,” Deborah told the Daily Mail in 1997 in a feature which aimed to ‘track down some of the many glamorous girls who have stepped over the threshold of the famous TARDIS’.
“Pat Troughton was so divine. He had a twinkle in his eye and was not above playing practical jokes. Frazer Hines was the male companion and he sent me up rotten, too. My father, the actor Jack Watling, had a part as a Professor [Edward Travers in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear].
“My character initially wore a Victorian frock but over the episodes the hemline crept up and it became a mini-pelmet. The show used to go out after the football on Saturday, so it had to appeal to Dads as well.
“My boyfriend at the time, John Hart, was a handsome-but-serious microbiologist. However, there were always loads of attractive men among the staff. I started to go out with other men and John became very possessive – the quickest thing to make me run… He couldn’t cope with show business; it was all too wild.
“After a year on Dr Who [sic] I had had enough of screaming and running away. I left and opened a boutique in Essex with a friend. But after nine months I went back to showbusiness in the soap Newcomers.”
If one of the common themes pursued by journalists in features on Doctor Who companions is the struggle to get work after leaving the programme (the interview above is from an article entitled ‘Curse of Dr Who (or why do so many of the time traveller’s mini-skirted assistants seem to have been lost in space?)’), another is having to adapt to working with special effects and monsters. Deborah remembered working with the Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen in Radio Times in 2003:
“They were absolutely huge. They used to come up and cuddle me because it was so cold. One of them took me out for a meal. Pat Troughton had a huge fur coat on and looked like a Yeti himself.”
Deborah Watling’s time on the show came to be remembered as a golden era for fans of the show’s monsters so she was a good interviewee when it came to anecdotes which illustrated the demands of acting against the more outlandish creations.
Here she is speaking about The Ice Warriors to TV Zone in 1992:
“Bernard (Bresslaw) was meant to capture me and drag me along as his prisoner; however, because his Ice Warrior helmet had steamed up with the heat, poor Bernie couldn’t actually see a thing. So I suggested that instead of being dragged I should be pushed so I could lead Bernie along and I could whisper directions to him along the way. We were doing the scene and I’m taking to him out the side of my mouth going ‘left, right, left…’ then I said ‘right’ and Bernie went left straight through the cave wall. We were buried in polystyrene!”
Deborah had some noteworthy moments in her acting career away from Doctor Who. In the same TV Zone interview, she recalled making That’ll Be The Day with David Essex and Ringo Starr: “I had to learn to jive and with all those big stars – I really thought I’d made it”.
Of the less well-remembered (and wonderfully bizarre sounding) Take Me High with Cliff Richard she said: “It didn’t work, it was all about hamburgers made in Birmingham – BrumBurgers – I think everyone involved knew it was going to be dreadful but didn’t say anything.”
A fitting summary of Deborah’s memories of Doctor Who came at the end of the interview:
“Patrick Troughton was a brilliant actor; to me he was the Doctor and a real friend. My character of Victoria Waterfield meant a great deal to me and I was very, very, very fond of Pat and the times we had together. We became very close. Frazer was just like a brother; we were like a family. I learnt a great deal from Doctor Who. It is a great part of my career and I feel very privileged to have been in the series.”
Thanks to the Doctor Who Cuttings Archive.