Suffolk: I was The Doctor’s sister!

'The Daleks were seriously scary! Wed never seen anything like it at that time. There was no arguin

'The Daleks were seriously scary! Wed never seen anything like it at that time. There was no arguing, no reasoning, was there, with a Dalek? You were exterminated boom and thats got into the language,' says Shirley Bignell.

Shirley and her brother used to hide behind the sofa whenever Dr Who got a bit scary. Never did they imagine he would himself become the universe’s most famous time-traveller. Shirley Bignell took STEVEN RUSSELL back to the past, when there was a Time Lord in the family

Being a sister to the last of the Time Lords, aunt to his daughter and (confusingly) aunt-in-law to The Doctor (bear with us) brings its responsibilities. Like obliging your great-nephew when he wants to play.

Which is how Shirley Bignell found herself cast as The Doctor’s companion, Rose, during a game of pretend in which she and young Tyler charged around happily – the lad armed with an imaginary sonic screwdriver (a device that’s got The Doctor out of many a jam).

“I can’t remember how old Ty was. He was ever so little. Four or five? Anyway, we were at Peter’s house and I had to be Rose. I was pitifully flattered to be Billie Piper!” laughs Shirley, who lives north of Ipswich.

“We had to have this amazingly elaborate adventure: kidnapping… we rescued shoes from the bedroom and brought them down. But this sonic screwdriver… Every door it was ‘errrrrrr’ as we went through it and ‘errrrrr’ the other side!”


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At this point we need to get a few key relationships clear. Shirley’s brother is Peter Davison, the fifth actor to play The Doctor – between 1981 and 1984.

Peter’s daughter (with ex-wife Sandra Dickinson) is Georgia Moffett – mother of Ty. Georgia, whose own acting credits include The Bill, appeared in a 2008 episode of Dr Who, alongside 10th Doctor David Tennant. She and Tennant married at the end of 2011 and have a couple of children. David has also adopted Ty.

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That little anecdote about the sonic screwdriver was triggered by the chat Shirley and I had about her brother’s spell as keyholder of the Tardis. Thirty years on, it’s like “a blast from the past” – so she did some homework to remind herself of that era.

The screwdriver had made its bow in 1968, in the hands of second Doctor Patrick Troughton, It was a regular aide during the reign of successor Jon Pertwee, whose Doctor loved his gadgets.

By the time Peter got his hands on it, there were thoughts that the prop had become something of a convenient “get out of jail free” card. It was written out in a 1982 episode – destroyed by aliens called the Tripletails (though it did make a comeback in the 1990s and is nowadays a fixture).

At 29, her brother was then the youngest actor to play The Doctor. He was also a known face, having shot to fame over the previous couple of years in the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small.

In the adaptation of James Herriot’s stories about a Yorkshire veterinary practice, Peter played Tristan Farnon, the laid-back brother of uptight vet Siegfried (Robert Hardy).

He suffered for his art. Tristan smoked and drinked. The actor didn’t. “I remember Peter lying on my sofa, trying to smoke a Woodbine… and turning green!” Shirley laughs.

She was, naturally, thrilled when he went on to land the plum part of The Doctor.

“When they get a good role, it’s brilliant. You’re thinking ‘A job!’ But I never really thought in those days it was going to be iconic. To think it would grow into something ‘adult’ as much as ‘for children’ was quite surprising. But it was convincing, wasn’t it?

“I think it’s perhaps like anything: you do it, think it was great and move on. And then people keep talking about it and you think ‘Yes, it WAS great!’”

The fifth Doctor dressed like an Edwardian cricketer, in a cream suit with orange trim.

“It’s very interesting to look up what they wanted The Doctor to be. They’d ‘got’ Peter, frankly. They’d wanted someone who was established with the public, and young – and then the whole thing of The Doctor was that he was more reactive; thoughtful; into the scientific.

“Now, Peter loves reading – absolutely passionate about books. It is his kind of thing – the more sensitive (portrayal) – and everything about that character ‘was’ Peter. He’s very charming and charismatic, though not ‘in your face’.”

Shirley came across a quotation by current Dr Who series supremo Steven Moffat, who said Davison’s Time Lord “takes the emphasis off the eccentricities and turns it into a pained heroism of a man who is so much better than the universe he is trying to save but cannot bear to let it stand”.

Peter loved cricket, too, so that was authentic. “I think it had been a little more formal and he had the idea of the jumper. The celery (a stalk in his lapel) and the plimsolls were also very Peter. I think with Peter they did get it right. He’d have felt comfortable.

“With Peter’s (era) it’s clear The Doctor does cause things to happen and he does have a responsibility, and it seems to get a bit darker. People die.” Such as assistant Adric, killed trying to stop a Cyberman-controlled freighter smashing into Earth.

Shirley has two children – Alex and Gabrielle, now in their 30s – and both watched their uncle in Dr Who as well as his other shows.

“That was quite useful, when you were trying to explain to children about how some things weren’t real.

“I can remember occasions when they’d look at Peter sitting next to them and then look at the television, and he was on it, and then look at him again. I suppose it must have been All Creatures.”

Alex particularly was taken by Dr Who. He once went to watch an episode being filmed, when he was about eight or nine, probably. There was the set of an alien planet and the exterior of the Tardis.

“I’ve asked him for his memories, and he was interested in the children from Grange Hill in the canteen! But he also remembers going onto the set of Dr Who and Peter telling him that the rocks were polystyrene, and then throwing one at him to prove his point!”

Alex also had Dr Who wallpaper on his bedroom walls – featuring his uncle, of course. “In time I will forgive myself for not keeping the remainder of the roll…” sighs Shirley.

Her brother might have been a household name, but the family always separated the real person from the fictional character and wasn’t taken in by any hoo-hah, though Shirley recognises that “Doctor Who wasn’t such a big media deal in the past”.

Peter was and is very grounded, she says, and “not in a million years” would he ever have believed any PR spin. “He’s shy, and a genuine nice guy. He’s totally grounded. But you can understand how people get ‘ungrounded’.”

About three years older than her brother, Shirley was born in Guyana, the former British colony bordered by Brazil and Venezuela on the northern coast of South America.

Father Claude, an electrical engineer with French ancestry, met wife-to-be Sheila in Europe during the war. They married in 1946 and lived in Guyana for a few years before heading for England when their daughter was about 15 months old.

Home until her teenage years was south-west London, followed by Surrey. Peter was born in England, followed by two sisters.

Shirley and her brother lapped up Dr Who from the beginning.

“We were riveted. The children behind the sofa was us! The Daleks were seriously scary! We’d never seen anything like it at that time. There was no arguing, no reasoning, was there, with a Dalek? You were exterminated – boom – and that’s got into the language.

“And things like the music – excellent, by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. That was also a big thing.

“It just goes to show that something has become incredibly popular not because of celebrity but because it was a quality, well-thought-out programme.”

It’s hard for today’s youngsters to imagine what TV was like in the 1950s and ’60s. Shirley remembers the appeal of a simple puppet like Muffin the Mule.

She recalls much later going to a museum and seeing the marionette in a display cabinet. “It’s the only time I’ve really ever wanted to smash the glass and grab something! It’s the first thing we ever saw on television. Peter and I used to go round to our grandmother’s every Friday to see Muffin the Mule. Think of the massive change between then and now for children…

“It was a bit like clothes; nothing was aimed at teenagers, was it? There were programmes for children, but they were for little children.

“It (Dr Who) was designed for young people, so that was innovative. And anything that you (as a parent) could watch with your children and not be bored rigid by was always going to be good.”

Original Doctor William Hartnell has a special place in Shirley’s memory, though she also recalls successor Patrick Troughton as “a lovely character; very warm, probably more than William Hartnell. They were both other-worldly, in different ways.

“It wasn’t that physical then; more about power and authority. It was more active with Tom Baker, and then more thoughtful with Peter.”

David Tennant was all about judiciously-applied energy. “I do remember scenes when he was with Billie Piper and it was very energised – it wasn’t frenetic; David’s very good like that – but very energised: ‘We’re going to do something and it’s going to be like this!’”

Doing her “homework” on the programme has reminded Shirley how much of a classical story-telling foundation underpins the legend of The Doctor: a principled hero who helps those less advanced than he.

“You’ve got quite an ancient story-telling, myth-type, thing going on – but put onto a modern, often futuristic, setting. And I wonder if that’s its strength.”

Some of the strongest writing is almost Shakespearean in form: rhythmic, musical, and exploring universal and timeless aspects of human nature – tragic, comic, and everything in between.

It’s little surprise it chimes with Shirley, for story-telling is part of her soul. She remembers making up yarns for her brother when they were children.

“He loved them. I had terrible ones: Going to the zoo and Peter jumping into a cage and bringing a monkey home! That was one of his favourites. “Another was that for some reason my mother was doing the washing in the bath and Peter fell in, and then went through the mangle and was hung up on the line – and ended up going to work with my father, in his shirt pocket, and handing him screwdrivers!”

Shirley enjoyed a career teaching children music, going to Lincolnshire in 1969 and working as a peripatetic “lower-strings” teacher. (Double bass and cello.)

She had Alex and Gabby, and then in the mid-1980s husband Clive’s own career in education took the family to Suffolk when he got a job at Debenham High School.

Shirley later picked up the reins of what she’d been doing and gave music lessons to pupils across the east of the county.

She stopped that in 2002, partly to free more time for her creative recording enterprise. Big Toe Audio Productions (www.bigtoeaudio.co.uk) publishes stories, poetry and music – the “sound pictures” invariably complemented by explanatory booklets.

Shirley’s original idea was to provide “authentic storytelling” for schoolchildren, but her output has also found an audience among adults.

It’s very much a family affair: Clive is involved in recording and admin, and artist Gabby is the illustrator.

And then there’s Peter!

He narrated Suffolk Tales 1: two dramatised East Anglian medieval mysteries written in Suffolk dialect by Shirley. They’re The Wild Man of Orford (a strange, hairy man is trapped in fishing nets and carried to the castle) and The Green Children of Woolpit (two green and frightened children appear at harvest time and no-one can understand them).

Shirley sought the assistance of people living in deepest Suffolk for examples of authentic dialect, so the script for the actors had a true rural flavour. Peter did the narration, and didn’t need big sis to direct him.

“Actually, he’s got it just right, with his voice,” she says. “He has that rhythm – and it is about rhythm. We often don’t realise. When there’s a flow, you listen.”

A couple of years later, Shirley brought out Suffolk Tales 2.

Then Peter narrated Ghost Stories – four chilling tales set in East Anglia and Lincolnshire by writers such as MR James and Kevin Crossley-Holland.

Back to Dr Who and one final question: will she be watching tonight’s 50th anniversary TV special? Definitely – with one warning.

“I still want to run out of the room when there’s something scary. I’m dreadful!”

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