Obituary: Deborah Watling, the archetypal Sixties Doctor Who companion

English actress Deborah Watling in 1971  (Photo by Jack Kay/Daily Express/Getty Images)
English actress Deborah Watling in 1971 (Photo by Jack Kay/Daily Express/Getty Images)
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Deborah Patricia Watling, actress. Born 2 January, 1948 in London. Died 21 July, 2017 in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, aged 69

Deborah Watling’s scream was so impressive that the Doctor Who scriptwriters based a whole storyline around it. Her character Victoria was the archetypal female companion from Doctor Who’s early days in the 1960s – a diminutive, wide-eyed damsel, whose defining feature was her ability to open her mouth and emit a noise that had scary monsters covering their ears, if they had any.

The writers pitted Watling against Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti and Ice Warriors. But in her final full storyline, Fury from the Deep, she finds herself up against a new menace – seaweed. It is invading North Sea oil rigs and pretty much mating with the people on board to create a new breed of foul-smelling weed-man. However, when Watling screams the Doctor realises the seaweed cannot stand high-pitched noise. Game over...

Her character, Victoria Waterfield, was the daughter of a 19th Century scientist whose experiments with time travel attract the attention of the Daleks. After he is killed, she is adopted by the Doctor, played at that point by Patrick Troughton.

A former child actress from a distinguished acting family, Watling appeared in 40 episodes of Doctor Who in 1967-68, alongside Troughton, the second Doctor, and Frazer Hines, as a Jacobite Highlander who also ends up hitching a lift in the TARDIS.

After defeating the seaweed, Watling took up a recurring role on the soap opera The Newcomers (1969), where her real-life father, Jack Watling, played her on-screen father.

She went on to co-star with David Essex in the rock and roll movie That’ll Be The Day (1973), and with Cliff Richard in Take Me High (1973). And she played against type as the sexy blonde Norma in the television series Danger UXB (1979), before TV roles began to dry up in the early 1980s.

She was born Deborah Patricia Watling in London in 1948. Her parents, Jack Watling and Patricia Hicks, were both actors, as were her sisters Dilys and Nicola and her brother Giles, who played the vicar on Carla Lane’s Bread (1988-91). He subsequently entered politics and is now a Conservative MP.

The family moved out of London when Watling was young and she grew up largely in the countryside near Epping Forest and in Essex, where they lived in a large, 16th-century house.

With her whole family in showbusiness it was probably inevitable that Watling would be acting from an early age and she had an impressive resume by the time she was cast in Doctor Who.

She played the titular scientist’s niece in the ITV series The Invisible Man (1958-59) and was George Cole’s niece in the sitcom The Life of Bliss (1960).

After failing her O Levels, Watling briefly attended stage school, but decided she could do just as well without formal training. Still in her mid-teens, she was cast as Alice Liddell in Dennis Potter’s television play Alice (1965), about the origins of Alice in Wonderland.

When it came to casting the role of Victoria in Doctor Who, producer Innes Lloyd remembered her photograph as Alice on the cover of the Radio Times. At the time of the casting she was 19, but looked much younger, and at just under 5ft she had a definite air of vulnerability.

Watling soon struck up a firm friendship with Troughton and Hines, a chemistry that was reflected in their relationship on screen. Although the stories may often have been terrifying for a young audience to watch, Watling recalled they were great fun to make – even if the location budget stretched no farther than Wales. “We had such fun doing an episode about the Abominable Snowmen in Snowdonia,” she recalled. “Frazer and I were being chased down a hill by them. All of a sudden they fell over and started rolling down. We were hysterical. All I could hear from inside the suits were these big, butch men screaming to get out.”

Her father appeared in a couple of her Doctor Who adventures and she grabbed the chance to work with him regularly on The Newcomers. “I wanted Daddy to be proud of me,” she said.

“But he didn’t really want me to go into the business. He wanted one of his children to be something sensible, like a doctor or a solicitor. Of course, we all went into it anyway.”

She would later call her autobiography Daddy’s Girl (2010).

In later years she worked mainly in theatre, appearing in West End shows and in several touring productions, including a national tour of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which included a week at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre in 1987. The cast also included her brother Giles. She also directed the local pantomime in Thorpe-le-Soken, the Essex village where she lived.

Watling was very proud of her contribution to the Doctor Who story, although many of her episodes have been lost. She contributed to DVD commentaries and was involved in various spin-off ventures, including the comedy homage The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (2013), made for the BBC’s 50th anniversary celebration, The Day of the Doctor.

Watling’s first marriage, to the actor Nicholas Field, was short-lived, ending in divorce. She married for a second time in the 1990s, to Steve Turner, a sound engineer, who survives her. They did not have children.

BRIAN PENDREIGH