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

The Likely Lads – The Other Side of the Fence

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The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966) was something of a ground-breaking series.  Fifty years on, its impact may have dulled, but back then a sitcom that revolved around two men who were not only young and working-class but also came from the North was decidedly unusual.

Dick Clement (born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex) and Ian La Frenais (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear) were two writers with different outlooks and temperaments.  But something about their partnership simply clicked (it’s still going strong today).

Despite the fact that the show was recorded in London, the scripts seemed to catch the authentic feel of working-class life and the show ran for three years.  That it was later rather overshadowed by the sequel series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is easy to understand. The Likely Lads was made in black and white, so repeats have been more infrequent (plus quite a few of the episodes were wiped and no longer exist).  And to be honest, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is just a better show – the scripting and performances are sharper and the fact that Bob and Terry are a little older is also important.  They’re far from middle-aged, but they’re also no longer the “lads” from the original series.

The Likely Lads seems to take its cue from films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Like the central character in that film, Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) work in a factory and live for the weekends, where they can spend their weekly wages on beer, football and girls.

Even in the early episodes, Bob and Terry are very different characters.  Terry never really changes (not even when we meet him again in the 1970’s) but Bob is always keen to “get on”.  This is made plain in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – Bob has a fiancé, a nice new council house and enjoys foreign holidays (a rarity at this time).

But even as early as The Other Side of the Fence (series one, episode four, original tx 6th January 1965) Bob’s desire to better himself comes to the surface.  He has a chance to leave the factory for a job in the office.  It offers better pay and prospects, plus the females are rather nice as well ….

The class/social divide between the factory and office workers is sharply defined.  Terry, waiting for Bob to leave the office for the day, spies the departing office ladies.  They’re a clear class apart from the sort of women he’s used to, but that doesn’t stop him chancing his arm.  Sally Anne (Didi Sullivan), who works in personnel, seems quite responsive whilst Bob has already fallen for Judith (Anneke Wills) who’s the secretary to Bob’s new boss.  The problem is that Judith is in a relationship with the oily rep Nesbit (Michael Sheard).

Despite being born in Aberdeen, Sheard manages a credible Northern accent and is suitably nasty as Bob’s rival in love.  Judith is friendly and helpful to Bob and as played by the lovely Anneke Wills certainly catches the eye.  Is this the reason why Bob attempts to make a go of his office job?

Although you might have expected Terry to be more cynical about Bob’s social climbing, that’s not really the case.  Although it is true that after Bob invites Terry to be his guest at the plush office social he can’t help but stifle a grin at the sight of Bob dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie.  The fact that most of the other men are similarly attired cuts no ice with Terry, it’s just not the sort of thing that they do.

The evening turns sour when Nesbit gleefully tells Terry that he won’t be able to attend the dance – the function is for office staff only, so Terry (as factory fodder) doesn’t qualify.  Terry doesn’t seem terribly put out, but this slight upsets Bob so much that he jacks in the office job there and then and decides to go back to the factory.

In a way this is rather depressing, the class barrier seems to be still firmly in place as we see the working-class interloper (Bob) returned to where he came from.  But this blow is softened when Bob says he never wanted the job in the drawing office anyway because he’s no good at drawing (the truth or a lie to make Terry feel better?)  The real result occurs just after this, when Sally Anne and Judith decide to go for a drink with Bob and Terry.

Helped by the appearances by Michael Sheard and Anneke Wills, The Other Side of the Fence is entertaining enough.  Bob’s misadventures in the office could be seen as a warning that it’s a good idea to know your place, suggesting that his attempts to better himself were always doomed to failure.  This may be too critical a reading though and since they end up with the girls, everything in the Likely Lads’ world comes right in the end.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Two

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In this second episode, Gurney ponders the delicate nature of relationships.  We open at a deserted airfield which quickly becomes (in his mind at least) a dance-hall.  He desperately wants to meet the right woman – but even if he did, what would he say?

He couldn’t just go up to her and ask her out, as they have to be introduced first – preferably at a nice cocktail party.  He then spies a gorgeous young girl (Anneke Wills, credited here as Annika Wills) and he eventually plucks up the courage to ask her to dance.  Except, interestingly he doesn’t.  Up until the point they start dancing, they don’t exchange a single word (although the audience has been privy to their, sometimes overlapping, thoughts).  And is she the love of his life?  After the dance she rejoins her friend and then exits from the story, so it doesn’t seem so.  Gurney mournfully considers that “you get nowhere if you don’t talk to them and yet you get the brush off if you do.”

This whole sequence shines a light on the rather repressed morals of late fifties and early sixties Britain.  But the irony is that Anthony Newley suffered from no such repression himself.  He enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a womaniser – witness his relationship with Wills, which blossomed after the recording of this episode.  It led first to an abortion and then later to the birth of their daughter, Polly, in 1962 (which occurred at the time that Newley was considering ending his marriage to Ann Lynn so he could marry Joan Collins).

So if you know Newley’s history, it does give these scenes an extra frisson.  And it’s clear that the camera loves Wills’ delicate beauty and their bizarre (largely unspoken) meeting is all the more memorable for taking place in the middle of a desolate airfield.

The theme of love continues with the next sequence as Gurney meets a typical family – father, mother and three children.  He asks the husband, Frank (Edwin Richfield), if he feels that he married the right woman.  Or did he just marry the woman next door, the one he was expected to?  As with the airfield scene, this gently mocks the accepted values of the day.  As the sixties progressed, many things (including relationships) would change and become much more flexible (in a way that would have seemed unthinkable to most people in 1960). Again, this seems to foreshadow Newley’s own restless jump from one woman to another.  How much of Gurney Slade is actually Anthony Newley is an interesting, and unknowable, question.

After thinking it over, Frank decides that yes, he didn’t marry the love of his life – so he sets out to find her.  His wife doesn’t seem too concerned (plenty more fish in the sea) and she exits as well. This leaves Gurney with the children – a boy and girl (both aged about eight) and a baby in a pram.  Even for a series with such a tenuous grip on reality, it’s a little jarring to see the children abandoned.  But Gurney doesn’t seem to mind and he starts a lively conversation with the baby (who seems to be incredibly articulate for an infant).  He still believes in Santa Claus and fairies though – though Gurney tells him that there are no such things.

In the world of Gurney Slade, anything can happen – and a real-life fairy (Hugh Paddick) appears and grants them a wish.  This transports them to a rubbish tip which is strewn with parts of female mannequins.  He suggests to the children that they select the best parts and make a mother.  There’s something rather creepy about this – the stark black and white photography definitely helps to create a vague sense of unease.

In the end though, all is well as the children are reunited with their mother and father.  So what was the moral of the story?  Gurney ends by spouting a deliberately nonsensical series of proverbs, so we can assume that the story had no meaning.  Frank didn’t find his ideal woman and he seems happy to settle for the one he has.  And Gurney’s back in his imaginary dance-hall, looking for another woman to trip the light fantastic with.