An interview with Anneke Wills

Beginning her career as a child actress in the mid fifties, Anneke Wills worked solidly for the next few decades – appearing on stage, in films as well as numerous television programmes. In 1960 she was cast as ‘Girl on Airfield’ in two episodes of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, starring Anthony Newley. It was a job which changed her life ….

Anneke didn’t have to attend a formal audition. “All I remember is an agent calling you up and saying ‘okay’. Later on I heard that he (Newley) chose me out of Spotlight and they showed me the picture he liked. Apparently he said ‘I’ll have her’ (chuckles).”

“I climbed on the coach and there was Tony Newley, surrounded by his crew. I was very shy and after a brief hello we were driving up to the airfield. I do know that standing on that airfield and looking into his eyes I fell instantly in love with the man. He was utterly charming and captivating and sweet.”

Anneke’s affection for Anthony Newley still shines through very clearly today. She went on to make the point that although he may be better known now as a singer, his grounding was very much as an actor. “Although he would go on to become a great singer, he was basically an actor. And a very, very talented one. It was lovely, it was always lovely to work with a very talented actor. The focus is there and it’s very energising.”

It’s always been assumed that Newley was heavily involved with Gurney Slade, both on the writing and directing side. This is confirmed by Anneke. “Oh he was completely involved. Sid Green and Dick Hills were a little group with him and they got this baby together and there would be lots of hilarious falling about and shuffling of scripts and organising.”

Anneke’s main memory of her brief association with Gurney Slade remains the morning spent on the airfield. “I didn’t know I came back for the final one until about three or four weeks ago when I sat down to watch it”. This at last solved the mystery for her about why there was a picture in existence of her sitting on Bernie Winters’ lap.

Watching the episodes did spark the odd memory though. She recalled being less than impressed with the clothes she was given to wear. “Why have they put me in a baggy old mackintosh? And then I was told he wanted you to look like a French film star. And they all wore gaberdine mackintoshes.”

Anneke then explained a little about Anthony Newley’s inspirations. “When I moved in with him we used to fall about with laughter listening to the Goons. Both of us were fans of the Goons and Gurney Slade had a similar kind of surrealistic humour that he found fascinating.  He made Gurney Slade into a sort of magic thing with off the wall humour and his own incredible charm. But it also was his own story, he was basically saying ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. He wanted to walk off the set and talk to ants and dogs and have a completely difference experience from the one that everyone else was following. And that was his uniqueness.

“In the next thing he did (Stop The World – I Want To Get Off) it was the same sort of story – the little chap trying to find his way in the world, trying to make sense of the madness. It was a sort of ongoing quest for him.”

Touching again upon Newley’s grounding as an actor, Anneke feels that it informed his unique singing style. “His voice in a way was like an actor being a singer. And so it was absolutely unique, he didn’t train, he just sung naturally. And I think that’s what it was which inspired the likes of David Bowie.”

The discussion then moved onto Doctor Who, something which – judging by her enthusiastic response – remains very close to her heart. “This year, during the Lockdown, when it was my birthday I had lovely cards from all the Doctor Who women. We are such a family and I really have missed them this year because we always got to meet up, doing gigs and things, and it’s got me thinking about what extraordinary women were cast as the companions of Doctor Who. Each one a totally unique human being and a wonderful woman and my friend.”

In recent years, Anneke’s Doctor Who association has continued apace with both Big Finish and BBC Audiobooks. But during Lockdown that’s come to a temporary halt. “A lot of them are continuing to do recordings but I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have a computer. I only have this small television, on which I only really watch Channel 81 (Talking Pictures TV).”

But Anneke seems to have adjusted to Lockdown life pretty well. “I’m very lucky because I’ve got a garden so it’s given me guilt free, obsessional gardening. And I’m also a happy hermit, so in fact it’s been quite nice for me.”

Out of her audio work, it’s the Target novelisations which are closest to her heart. “I really enjoy it. The last thing I did before Lockdown was The Smugglers and I just absolutely adored doing that. I love reading the Target books, I love doing all the characters.  To be able to still be performing is a treat.”

Leading on from that, I wondered if there was one of her Doctor Who stories which she’d particularly like to see returned. I’d assumed Anneke’s answer might have been along the lines of, say, The Power of the Daleks, so her response came as something of a surprise. “I’d love to see The Smugglers. Mainly because it was Michael Craze’s and my favourite one. We went to Cornwall! That was such a treat! If we went filming it was usually in a drafty old quarry.”

I’ve always had a fondness for The Smugglers as well, so I’m happy to second this suggestion. It’s one of those forgotten stories which nobody ever seems to talk about – but with extensive location filming and an intriguing guest cast, it must have something going for it.

I wrapped up our chat by touching upon the proposed second series of Strange Report. “At the end of doing the sixteen episodes, they came to Tony (Quayle) and me, cos Kaz (Garas) of course would have been happy to film in America, and they said ‘look, we’ll do another lot but we want to do them in Hollywood’. We went off to Tony’s dressing room and he didn’t really want to do it, but he said he would agree to it if I wanted to. I told him that it was impossible. I had two young children and my marriage wouldn’t cope with it, and anyway I don’t like Hollywood. So we went back to the American producers and told them no – they were so disappointed.”

A lively and engaging personality, it was a real pleasure to spend some time chatting with Anneke Wills about just a small section of her fascinating career.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade on Blu Ray can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Strange Report on DVD can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

More information about Anneke Wills can be found on her website annekewills.com. She’s also on Twitter – @AnnekeWills

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