Remembering Deborah: Behind-The-Scenes at the Bedford Who Charity Con

I first met Deborah Watling at A Perfect Day, a convention run by Doctor Who Magazine in London in the 1990s. It was a very brief encounter: a quick exchange of hellos and a request for a photo of her with my brother (‘Yes darling, of course’). Sibling mentioned to her that he was three years old when he watched her as Victoria. She responded with mock outrage, ‘Well, you may have been three, darling, but you’ve got a lot more grey hair than me, darling.’ She then threw her arms around the offender and beamed for the camera.

It would be an exaggeration to say I knew Deborah well. She was, though, a guest at Bedford Who Charity Con 2 (BWCC2) in 2016. As the organiser and MC, I did get to talk to her. We’d had problems at the start of the day with the staff of the venue, who hadn’t been terribly helpful, so the crew and I were doing our swans act: serene and beautiful on the surface but paddling like mad to keep afloat. (We use a different venue now.) As a result, most of my conversation with her was transactional rather than personal (Do you need coffee? Are you OK? What would you like for lunch? and so on).

Even so:

She was lovely. Not all Who leading actors are willing to meet fans or to come to conventions; Deborah was. Even when she was unwell, as she was when she came to BWCC2, she still did it. I had an email from her agent earlier in convention week saying she’d had some minor surgery and was feeling distinctly wobbly, so he might have to advise her to withdraw. Deborah herself intervened and said she was going to attend regardless: she didn’t want to disappoint people. On stage, she was her usual charming and bubbly self; offstage, she was clearly unwell and feeling lousy.

A few pictures of Deborah at Bedford Who Charity Con 2 in 2016:
Top left: questions from the TARDIS tin
Top right: Goodbyes
Centre photos: the final panel and laughing at one of Sophie’s anecdotes
Bottom right: Litefoot (Katy Manning), Leela (Deborah), and the Doctor (John Leeson), in a not entirely serious recreation of a scene from The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

So, a very kind and dedicated person, who wanted to give her best for others. It’s an open secret that convention guests are paid; it’s perfectly reasonable for them to be so, of course: it’s not fair to expect someone to do a day’s work (and a day on duty at a con is hard work) without paying them. Because we were donating all our profits to charity, Deborah told her agent to reduce her fee – and reduce it substantially. I don’t want to give the exact amount, but her act of generosity benefited Bedford Foodbank by a figure that began with a digit and ended in two zeroes.

And she threw herself with gusto into the activities for the day. Patient, warm, and funny, she answered fans’ questions on the companions panel with Sophie Aldred and Katy Manning, answered sillier questions at the end of the day drawn at random from the TARDIS tin (a feature shamelessly nicked by me from DWM), chatted to fans, and played Leela.

Yes: Miss Watling as the noble savage, discussing with Professor Litefoot the best method of fatal stabbing. Drama bits are a feature of BWCCs; in the morning, we’d done a dramatised reading of the prologue from Doctor Who (in an exciting adventure with the Daleks), which gives an entirely different introduction to Ian, Barbara, and a mysterious old man who appears out of the fog on Barnes Common. (Never before has this been performed, so far as I know. Notable performances from John Leeson as the Doctor and Sophie as Barbara – and both were superb.) The second bit of drama was an extract from Talons. It was a little different…

This was because I was under the impression that Katy Manning would rather not take part in the performances. On the day, though, I was explaining that circumstances beyond my control (always beloved of convention organisers) meant that the cast for the Talons bit would have to be rejigged. ‘I want to do it!’ Katy beamed. ‘I thought you didn’t want to,’ said I. ‘Of course I do. Silly boy,’ said Katy. (Actually, she said something else rather than ‘boy’.) So, Katy was Professor Litefoot. And she decided, not unreasonably, to play it for laughs, and the rest of the cast followed her lead.

So, an uproarious rendition of a four-hander from Talons, with the additional cast of John Leeson (the Doctor) and Sophie Aldred (cockney copper). It frequently ground to a halt because of laughter from the audience. Lines fluffed and laughing from the cast. Leela, clad in a blue trouser suit, explaining the best angle to achieve with a knife in order to cause instant death. Deborah messed up a line. ‘No, that’s wrong,’ she said, lowering her script and mock-scowling at the audience. Loud laughter and applause. ‘I liked it,’ said Katy.

Just before the final session – the TARDIS tin bit – Deborah gave out the prizes for the cosplay competition. I recall her beaming when Violet, the five year old and immensely endearing Weeping Angel, bounced up onto the stage to receive the prize for the 12s-and-under category. (Violet and her mother Liz are stalwarts of BWCCs and everyone photographs them.)

And then goodbyes and thanks from me to the guests. Deborah gave me a kiss and a hug and said she’d really enjoyed herself – and she had; she wasn’t just being polite. And she’d made sure the audience had had fun, too.

Just a few memories. I worked with her for a single day and can’t claim to have really known her. But that single day was one I shall remember for the rest of my life. It was an honour and a privilege to have met her: a fine actress and, the accolade that we all aspire to, a good and kind human being.

Rest in peace.