The Den of Geek interview: Louise Jameson
Doctor Who's Leela, Louise Jameson, talks to Martin about conventions, Tom Baker, Mary Whitehouse and The Omega Factor
Louise Jameson played the ‘savage’ Leela to Tom Baker’s Doctor in Doctor Who from 1977 to 1978, going on immediately to the well-respected science-fiction series The Omega Factor, which ranks along with The Night Stalker as one of the signal precursors of The X-Files.
Working regularly in theatre and television ever since, Jameson is currently filming River City for the BBC, and has also narrated Doctor Who audio drama for Big Finish productions. We caught up with her at the recent launch of the Big Finish audio download service…
Did you think your character would have such an extensive life beyond your run in the Baker-era Who?
I had no idea! It was a nine month job, 30 years ago and of course Doctor Who fans are the loyalest in the world, they really are. And now it’s come back. And in the intervening years when I have been out of work it’s the Doctor Who fans that have been my life blood.
If you'd known you were setting up a later career when you were playing Leela on TV, would you have done things differently?
I'd have gone back into it when John Nathan Turner asked me to oversee the overlap between Tom leaving and Peter arriving. I said I would do the two stories, but he said I'd have to commit for the next season. At the time I'd been offered a whole load of Shakespeare and I opted for that instead. But I think with the wisdom of hindsight I'd have gone back in for the whole season.
How has Leela evolved from what we know of her in the Tom Baker era?
The writers have given her a bit more independence, so the function isn't there simply to be a mouthpiece between the Doctor and the audience - you know, 'What is it Doctor, explain to me...'. In a way the companion was a bit of a device when I was in Doctor Who, though I did love her feistiness and her intelligence and her aggression and her intelligence - even though she wasn't educated.
So what the writers have allowed her to do is mature and take a bit more control and have a bit more nouse. There's a lot more separation from the Doctor, so that she's actually driving the story. My favourite story when I was in it visually was The Sun Makers...
That was a real Leela-story.
Exactly, so I could really take the story forward after we got separated, and artistically it was just nice.
Do you think your independent and very strong character turned out unexpectedly to represent competition for the character of the Doctor, giving him no-one to rescue?
It was a lot to do with the writers. There were some lovely stories by Chris Boucher, who I think really understood the character of Leela. In his scripts the character really had an adventure, rather than having the characters put in to an adventure. It's a subtle difference, but a major difference. So I think it was a lot to do with the quality of the writing, and also I don't think Tom really wanted a companion, but wanted to travel on his own, and I think he gave the writers - and me, occasionally - a bit of a hard time, although we came to a much better understanding before we left, and we're good mates now. But I think at the time he didn't really want Leela there.
He was written as very impatient - do you think Tom Baker's own attitude fed back into the scripts?
That's a question that really should go to Tom. But yes, I think perhaps his dislike of Leela fed into the scripts.
Was that because of your particular character, or just an aversion to the device of having an assistant at all?
I think he just wanted to travel on his own. Well, do you remember the Janus thorns?
Which were originally called the Jann-us thorns, but it was thought that sounded like an out-of-work actress [laughter]. He hated that, and he was very instrumental in getting that taken out of the scripts. In a way he had a point. He hated them like he hated the sonic screwdriver.
As an intellectual character, he wanted the weapons taken out of the equation...?
Well, with the sonic screwdriver, how could you ever be trapped anywhere? So we had to write lines like 'Even the sonic screwdriver won't open this!'.
Leela was a very pro-feminist character in the 1970s, but do you think the feminist attitude was subverted by the sexy outfit?
I think you've got it in one. I think the BBC said 'We'll have this feisty, intelligent, interesting woman, but...we'll take her clothes off for an outfit!'. [laughs] But you know, I thought I was going to be in a kids' TV series. I had absolutely no idea that she'd be in those clothes and she'd end up a sex-symbol. With the wisdom of hindsight, of course - put someone in a leather leotard after the football results, and inevitably you're going to get a load of the male population tuning in.
Were you alarmed by the fan mail, when it began to come?
It was all censored. A couple of them got through but I didn't get them often, and I understood there was a whole load. First of all it went through the office and then it went through my agent and then I got them.
Did the action and stunts involved in a character like Leela make the role more attractive to you?
I'm a bit of a scaredy-cat. In The Talons Of Weng-Chiang there was a bit where she leapt onto the table, somersaulted over the dwarf, crashed through the window and fell ten foot onto the alley beneath. I rang up the producer and I said 'No she doesn't!' [laughs]. So we got Stuart Fell to double for me, but they made me do all the running - they said that no matter how hard I tried, I can't run like a woman. But leaping onto the back of the carriage, I got to do that one myself. It doesn't look much of a stunt, but actually it's quite hard to do!
Did working with Colin Baker in Bedroom Farce double the number of Who fans at the stage-door?
Yes, we did have quite a lot of Who interest. I do another show with Colin called Love Letters, and I love working with Colin. We laugh all the time, and he's so talented. Don't tell him though, he'll get big-headed.
Can you tell us about your stand-up work?
Stand-up has gone a bit on the back-burner, to be honest. I did a course, a gig, rather successfully and then wrote some more stuff, but just lost a bit of confidence in it. But at the moment I'm working with a writer called Helen Goldwyn, and we're to-ing and fro-ing, and I hope once that River City is finished - which is what I'm recording at the minute- I'll have a 30-40 minute show to put on.
Is this the one where you're working with eight other writers, aiming at BBC3?
Oh no, this is the sketch show. That other project is now stretched to thirteen [writers]. It's really just an experiment; we're all writer-performers and we're really just throwing ourselves together to see what happens. The idea is a sketch-show for television, but we'll just see...we had such fun on the last one, and far too much wine. It's just an excuse, isn't it [laughs]. But from hereon in it gets serious - we've got our next meeting at the end of this month, and I'll be able to tell you a lot more after that.
Having gone from Leela to The Omega Factor, did you feel it unfair that Mary Whitehouse chose to attack that particular show in a decade which produced so much occult drama?
To be honest, when Mary Whitehouse would come down on us, we'd just rub our hands in glee. The publicity was fantastic - it always upped the viewing figures. It achieved the exact opposite of what she was trying for, so she - it was a bit a joke, really.
Is it something you would have liked to have seen go on for two or three series?
Absolutely. I think that Omega Factor was The X-Files without the budget, really. I thought it was a fantastic idea, but for me there were too many writers on it. It felt like doing a series of what used to be called Play For Today, a bit before your time [I wish! - Martin]. It was a series of different stories, and we were left spooling these disparately written characters into an umbrella story.
But some really spooky things happened on that show. There was a scene where someone had to be taken over by the devil. Special effects took ages in those days, and we finally got the effects ready with the devil, and the whole studio went dark! For more than half an hour, and nobody ever found out why.
Did participating in The Actor Speaks feel like a milestone, looking back over what you'd done?
I wish I'd spent a bit longer on it, actually, in choosing the material. But yes, it was very interesting to do, and we did enjoy it very much, but I wish I'd had another month really to really take advantage of the opportunity.
Is there any chance David Tennant will get an opportunity to meet up with Leela?
Well, I met David Tennant. I met him years ago when my niece was a stage manager in Scotland, in some Theatre In Education tour. When he found out that Abigail [character] was Leela, he was - it was quite flattering, he was 'Please introduce me! I really would like to meet her'. There was a big thing about David meeting Leela. You know he started off as a [Who] fan, and he's the perfect Doctor. I'm told he has this wish-list, to get us all back one-by-one, so...I'm holding my breath!
So you'd do it?
Like a shot!
Comparing the pace and style of the old and the new era, is there anything else from the Leela era that you'd like to see come back into the new series?
The philosophy hasn't changed that much - it's still good triumphing over evil. It's a lot faster, and they're self-contained stories, which I think this modern generation is very tuned-into and actually needs.
I just said earlier, I don't really like the sex - you know, the sexual buzz that goes on between the assistant and the Doctor. It was a real strict rule in my day, that it was purely platonic.
But you had a very particular relationship with The Doctor, in that you were an Eliza Doolittle-type character...
It was a teacher-pupil thing, wasn't it? And I wish they'd exploited that a bit more.
Elizabeth Sladen says she has to watch over-impersonating other cast members when she's reading out audio adventures...do you have to tone down your 'Tom'?
I wish I'd gone further to be honest. I try to do it, but you know he has this very wide mouth, and I didn't really succeed all that well. I really like the script that Nigel wrote. [aside] Did we treat that voice, the Tom Baker parts...? No, it was all me.
Are you doing the upcoming conventions in Australia and New Zealand---?
[shakes head] No. Two days ago the BBC decided not to release me. It's my birthday too!
Is this a practical or a licensing issue?
They did try to release me, and I've always made it clear that if you look on there, there's always something about availability or 'work permitting'.
Do you enjoy doing the conventions?
More and more I enjoy doing them. They're better organised than they used to be, and in a way you're more protected when you're there. Long as you have a little bit of down-time, then you can go out there and give it your all. I try not to do more than about four a year.
Apart from autographs and so forth, what are the fans most often asking you?
What's Tom Baker like to work with! [laughs] They want to know your favourite stories, and why they're your favourite stories, and if it's the same as them, there's a real pleasure in that, that they've connected for the same reasons over that particular story.
Do you still get female fans who say they were inspired by Leela?
I did very much so in the 70s and 80s. Not so much now, because women do their own thing now, don't they? Really thanks to my generation's grandmothers, chaining themselves to the railings up the road. That's where it all started.
A female Doctor Who has been talked about on and off, since at least the 80s. Would that be a problem?
I suspect it would be less than fifty percent of the fans who would want it. But I would absolutely love to see it. Somebody like Stephanie Cole...
[JAMESON'S AGENT] Louise Jameson!
Why did your decision to not have a facelift inspire you to write and perform a show about it?
I felt, as a middle-aged actress, that I had been suddenly totally overlooked. My career took a severe dip, and the only way I could get a foot back in the door was either by going back into competition with late-30s, early-40s women...there are plenty about, very beautiful...or creating my own work. There didn't seem to be an alternative, because with those of us who have lasted this long, the competition's very very steep.
Really to immobilise your face when you're in the business of communicating is an oxymoron...is that the right word? It just doesn't seem to make sense.
However - never say never. The jury's out [laughs]. But for the moment, I wouldn't touch it.
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