Katy's characters - from Jo to Bette

Katy Manning, who played the iconic Jo Grant to Jon Pertwee's Dr Who, is on tour in East Anglia bringing Bette Davis back to life.

Andrew Clarke

Katy Manning, who played the iconic Jo Grant to Jon Pertwee's Dr Who, is on tour in East Anglia bringing Bette Davis back to life. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke was bowled over by her exuberance.

For men of a certain age, mention the name Katy Manning and normally sensible individuals go weak at the knees. For those of us who were glued to the telly at Saturday tea-times, Katy Manning will always be the winsome, slightly kookie Jo Grant, the accident-prone assistant to Jon Pertwee's classic Dr Who during the early 1970s.

She left the series in 1973 to go off into the sunset arm-in-arm with her real-life beau Stewart Bevan, who played Professor Cliff Jones in the legendary maggot story The Green Death. Although the romance didn't work out, the friendship did and Stewart is now producing a regional tour of Katy's new play Me and Jezebel before it heads into London.

It tells the true story of how Bette Davis dropped in on a fan and stayed for a month. It's a play penned by American author Elizabeth Fuller, the woman whose life Davis invaded. Not only did the elderly Davis, escaping from a New York hotel strike, take over Elizabeth's house, she drove her husband away with her excessive demands and over-bearing personality.

“It's an amazing story, given more power by the fact it's real - it actually happened. Bette Davis really did invade this woman's life. It was 1985. In many ways it is a real life version of the situation in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant finds he has Julia Roberts as a lodger. What would you do if you suddenly had a famous film star turn up on your doorstep?”

Most Read

At this point Stewart, who has been off making coffee returns and makes an oblique comment about Katy being his own Bette Davis. Katy is staying with him in his north Suffolk home and certainly Katy has lost none of that larger-than-life personality that she brought to her role in Dr Who.

Stories are punctuated with a throaty, easy laugh and she's not shy of poking fun at herself and her life-long myopia which has led to a catalogue of on-stage and off-stage disasters.

“I can't see a thing on stage. I did a play with Derek Nimmo once and I ended up talking to the standard lamp which was positioned next to Derek on the stage. But that's me. What you see is what you get.”

Or is it? It seems that Katy Manning has something of the Peter Sellers gene in her make-up. Not only does she play all half dozen characters in the show but she slips in and out of the various roles as she tells me the story. Her body twisting and changing to match the vocal make-up of each role.

It's a play Katy knows very well, as she has performed it in Australia, where she has lived for the last 25 years and in the United States. She says that it's time for her to return home domestically and professionally, so she is bringing the play to Britain to re-establish herself on the British theatre scene.

“I went to Australia, originally for the health of my twins, Jonathan and Georgina, they were born very premature and even when they were five months old they weighed barely five pounds each. They had no resistance to infection, every cold they had turned into pneumonia or bronchitis. I was advised by doctors that, if I could, it would be wise to take them to a warmer climate and bring them up there.

“I knew one person in Australia. I was a single mother, I needed to work but I had to put the health and the lives of my babies first, so I took a deep breath and moved to Australia. I quickly found work and I have worked steadily ever since, I even had my own chat show out there, but it was huge life-changing experience.”

She said that when the twins were ready to start school she did move back to Britain briefly but the children swiftly caught every bug going, so Katy caught the next plane back home.

Fortunately, for all concerned the children eventually grew up strong and healthy - something Katy is very proud of - Georgina is working as a dancer in London while Jonathan continues to make his home in Australia.

So considering the fact that she has lived quite happily in sunny Australia for the last 25 years, why this sudden desire to upsticks again and return to the cold, damp United Kingdom?

She flashes me a bright sunny smile: “Because I missed the people. I missed getting on a crowded underground train, I missed gardening, I missed the countryside, I missed Britain.

“I love Australia, I have lots of friends there now, my partner Barry (Crocker) is still there but my heart is here. Australia is a vast place, you can drive for days between people, so I found myself yearning to be among people again. Also I do love the British countryside, I love Suffolk, I used to come here for long weekends when we had breaks in filming for Dr Who. The roads were a lot different then. But, it's a lovely part of the world and what I remember Britain being like. Also the gardening's not the same. I love gardening, it's my release, stops me going completely mad.”

In fact Katy is nursing a gardening injury, she has been attacking Stewart's garden prior to my arrival, pruning plants and shrubs has left her with a huge chunk taken out of one finger.

“I don't know what I am going to do on stage. My hands help define my character,” she says pulling off a red glove to reveal an index finger sporting an impressive looking plaster.

Talking to Katy it is clear that she loves the challenge that this play represents. It is the perfect calling card to reintroduce her to British theatre. Although she loves her Dr Who past, and is more than happy to reminisce about the long, weeks, spent filming in stone quarries with Jon Pertwee, there is more to Katy Manning than Jo Grant. Me and Jezebel is the perfect vehicle for her to show off her acting skills.

“It's a huge challenge to play all these various characters - not only that - but it is vitally important that I take the audience with me. They have to know who everybody is at all times. I go from being the 80 year old Bette Davis to young mother Elizabeth Fuller to her four year old son, to Elizabeth's rather shell-shocked husband. Sometimes the transformation takes place literally in the turn of the head.”

Katy illustrates exactly what she means - the transformation of voice and body is astonishing. The audience is left in no doubt about exactly who is talking at any one time. Although Katy has retained her elfin figure, when she is Miss Davis she fills the room.

“These people do take you over,” she confesses. “I remember when Barry, my beloved, was directing rehearsals, he wanted me to stop as I was in my Bette Davis guise and I just turned on him and ate him alive. It was totally out of character for me and he rather shakily said: 'Can I talk to Katy please?' and it took a while for me to rise to the surface.

“It really did underline what I have always thought about acting is that there are all these various personalities bubbling away just under the surface and you need to channel them and control them.”

For Katy she said the real joy of the play is that you get to see Bette Davis transform from Hollywood icon into a real person. “The only way that can happen is when you put, this really rather grand person, who was used to being waited on hand and foot, being placed in a completely everyday situation with an ordinary family and forced into being an ordinary person - or at least as much as she could be.

“Elizabeth had a chance to sit down and talk with Bette, woman to woman, an opportunity to strip away the layers, divorce the woman from the press image - in a way you can never do in a press interview or on a chat show. Elizabeth managed to find out why she hated Joan Crawford and it wasn't for the reasons that anybody would normally think. She learnt about the real goings on in Hollywood during the Golden Age, she caught a glimpse of what made this Hollywood legend tick and that is why it's a fantastic opportunity to do this play because it's an extraordinary story, based something that's real, something that really happened.”

Katy said that once her regional tour and her London run is complete she would then have a long, hard think about coming back to Britain to live. “The only problem is that Barry is very much an Australian. I would love to come back to Britain to live. Just being now makes me realise how much I have missed it.”

Being back in Britain means that she can catch up with the current series of Dr Who. The David Tennant episodes are screened in Australia but they are trailing some way behind. So what does Katy Manning, icon of the original series, make of the new big budget incarnation?

“It's fabulous,” she beams, “It's marvellous. Listen, let me tell you. I think the current team have got it absolutely right. I know several of the writers on the series and they absolutely adore Dr Who, they know exactly what they are doing. I am really looking forward to Stephen Moffet taking over because his episodes have been brilliant.

“They have managed to achieve visually on screen what we only dreamed about. We had the imagination in the scripts but now they have the technology and the budget to realise it on screen.”

She said that she was captivated when Christopher Eccleston brought the Doctor back. “I was sad when he went so quickly. I thought he had another series in him but I have say that David Tenant has made the part his own. I think he has made the right decision to move on while he's still excited by the series. Everyone has been criticising the BBC for casting an unknown (Matt Smith) but neither Christopher Eccleston nor David Tenant were big stars in the public's eyes before they took the part. You need good actors in the part and you need relative unknowns because each actor brings their own persona to the part. They add something to the mix, to the Doctor Who mythology.

“For me, the problem with the later Doctors in the original series was that they were too well known. Peter Davison and Colin Baker, both great actors, but they came to series with too much baggage. For many people Peter (Davison) wasn't the Doctor he was a Yorkshire vet.

“Jon Pertwee wasn't a well known television face when he took the role and in any event it was the first straight acting job he had done. He was comedy character actor, so this was a complete change… and who knew anything about Tom Baker before he got the part? And he just flowered.”

As far as Katy Manning is concerned the series is in good hands, just as long as the ideas continue to flow and the imagination is there to keep the scripts and performances lively. As for her, she can see no further than Bette Davis at the moment.

Has anyone seen her contact lenses?

Me and Jezebel by Elizabeth Fuller is being staged by Third Eye Theatre Company at Bungay, Ipswich, Debenham, Woodbridge, Halesworth, Diss, Norwich, Cambridge and Southwold among other East Anglian venues. The play tours until April 7. Tickets at �9.50 and venue information are available on www.thirdeyetheatre.co.uk and 01728 861101.