'Self Portrait' and 'Naked' - Anneke Wills: Reviews

Okay. Just forget the Doctor Who bits. Well, no. Don't forget them but just bear in mind that as you start to read these two volumes of autobiography that it's an intimate, revealing, often upsetting and fascinating account of a life lived thus far and that Doctor Who is just one fragment, important as it is, that makes up the complex identity of Anneke Wills.

Brought up by her Dutch mother Anna, after her absent father Alaric, weighed down by gambling debts disappeared to South Africa, Anneke's childhood evocatively comes off the page in Self Portrait, the first volume. Her mother Anna has to take variety of jobs to support both Anneke and her brother Robin - gardening for two lesbians who run Robin's boarding school and then running her own domestic agency are indicative of her often wayward, entrepreneurial flair. The repercussions of the Second World War cast a shadow over the early chapters in Self Portrait - her mother's sister Tilly's pregnancy by a German officer, her then miscarriage and internment in a POW camp; Anna's mother and older sister dying of starvation. But the darkest shadow is cast by an abusive house agent, Roy, and his violent relationship with her mother which extends to Anneke and clearly scars her for decades and the legacy of which, coupled with a rootless childhood, inform much of her early adult life.

Her acting career took off with a small part in Child's Play, she enrolled at the Cone Ripman Stage School and various television roles followed, including the part of Roberta in the 1957 BBC adaptation of The Railway Children. It's at this point that she meets other actors - Angela Douglas, Sarah Miles and shares her life with the Craxton family by becoming their lodger, temporarily. Even at this stage, Anneke's lively writing style, combined with a very special knack of addressing you as an individual reading her books, suggests that she's destined to a nomadic life, seeking out that part of her that her mother, Roy, her estranged father, her schooling perhaps didn't nuture: the love of a father figure, a positive male role model, self-esteem or self-respect as a woman. Whatever it is or was, it's a missing fragment of her soul and both books essentially chronicle her troubled search for this element.

As part of this yearning to complete herself, Self-Portrait essays two particular male figures that would weave their positive and negative influences through her life: Anthony Newley and Michael Gough.

Inexperienced in relationships, at 17 she had an affair with Newley after working with him on The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, then became pregnant and went through a traumatic abortion when he decided to bugger off with Joan Collins instead. There's a callous side to Newley (the note she discovers that coldly says 'Get Wills aborted'), and Wills acknowledges this, and yet it seems the darker side of the male ego is something she finds strangely attractive. As she commented in a Daily Mail interview in July 2006: 'My heart has been broken several times. I have always been attracted to men who are extremely talented, beautiful and absolute b******s.' The abortion leaves mental scars that only years later does she confront and seek to heal. As she whirls through a Chelsea-set 1960s life, with parts in The Avengers and Strange Report and a social life filled with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Sammy Davis Jnr, the Establishment, the Troubadour Coffee Shop, you get a real sense of how the 1960s shook up the strict social mores of the 1950s but also how ill equipped emotionally people were when confronted by the relaxing of social morals.

In the midst of this breathless, almost wide-eyed, absorption of the cultural and social revolution, she does spend a little time talking about her role as Polly on Doctor Who. It's obvious she has great affection for Michael Craze, who played Ben, and for Patrick Troughton. The impression here is that she had an absolute ball making the series and it offered her the potential to develop her television career. However, that's not the route she actually chooses.

Just as she's buried the fallout from Newley's relationship with Collins and the abortion, she moves in with British character actor Michael Gough. Pregnant with her daughter Polly by Newley, there is a lot of tut-tutting from those outside her inner circle about how he's 28 years older than her. The relationship with Gough is odd, both of them acknowledging their affairs outside of the marriage but with Gough it's one rule for him and a very different one for Anneke. Clearly not getting enough love from Gough she has a number of dalliances, and one with a decorator sends Gough ballistic. In fact, his fits of jealousy, if that's what you could call them, lead to domestic violence and the marriage faltering on the rocks. It's this incident that probably destroys any sense of trust between the two of them and Self Portrait concludes with Anneke deciding to stop her acting career, move the entire family to Norfolk and attempt to rescue her wreck of a marriage. The death of her brother Robin is also a huge shock and also must have affected her decision. His death is shrouded in mystery, a veil that Anneke briefly parts towards the end of Naked.

Naked, the second volume, picks up straight away in 1970. She still has a difficult marriage but living in Norfolk gives her hope that the bonds between her and Michael Gough will be repaired. The best thing about Naked is that it signals that Anneke's story is far, far from over and is in fact only just beginning. Anneke's sense of dislocation intensifies in the second volume and her impulsiveness sends her off on a tragi-comic journey from Norfolk to India, then to North America and Canada. Her love for her two children, Polly and Jasper, shines through the book as does an increasing sense of her wish to connect with 'something' or 'someone' spiritual. She is a woman in search of her roots but always seems to be thwarted by bad relationships. At the centre of this book is the tragic death of her lovely daughter Polly. The strength of Wills' present tense narrative is so strong that as a reader you are drawn in completely and the death of her daughter is an extremely sad moment and casts a further shadow over Anneke's search for some kind of inner peace. You'll certainly have to pause for thought and probably wipe away a few tears.

The spiritual connection comes with her time spent in India at the ashram of the controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She obviously finds the meditations and therapies of great benefit and the work is hard, often harsh, but it gives her an opportunity to address the gnawing anger, guilt and anxiety about her often traumatic encounters with men that's been building since her childhood. There's a huge sense of relief when it seems she finally gets to grasp with these issues. Many raised their eyebrows when she, her son and daughter all took off for India to mediate at the ashram of the alleged 'sex guru' but there are certainly no descriptions of hippy debauchery in the book. Yes, she has sexual encounters but it's also clear that being at the ashram helps her develop into a very generous spirit, a woman unafraid of hard work who can more or less turn her hand to most labours.

Whilst reading the book and looking in from the outside at the activities of the Bhagwan, it's clear that his move from India, where he was allegedly under increasing criticism for his activities and threatened action by the Indian authorities, to Oregon in the North West of America was the thin end of the wedge. Various factions seemed to be vying for control of the community which led to its collapse in 1985. Anneke's text gives us a sense of her own concern about what mental and physical state Rajneesh was in. It also signals her own distancing from the movement, perhaps as part of the general come down from the optimism of the late 1960s and 1970s, and her re-location to California, getting work as a gardener and interior designer and finally finding another spiritual home in an artists' colony in Hornby, Canada. Hornby and its inhabitants offer her a salve and a boost to her confidence when she's offered an opportunity to direct plays for the Horny Island Theatre Trust. Creative people need each other and as an artist, I can connect both with Anneke's creative thinking and how she finds peer support in a such a place as Hornby.

In 1991, at the age of 50, she reconnects with the world of Doctor Who and is invited to a convention in Manchester, England. It's when the Paul McGann TV movie is filming in Vancouver that further connections with Doctor Who develop and she blags her way into the wrap party. She also is reunited with her father, now living in South Africa, and she records her thoughts on the death of Diana Spencer and 9/11. A letter from Coral Atkins casts a new light on the death of her brother and Anneke yet again holds you transfixed by her intimate and heartfelt observations of the machinations her brother was at the centre of. By the end of the book she returns to England, living in Devon, and there is a great sense that many demons have been exorcised and that she has taken a very long journey to arrive at state of being where she is actually comfortable just being Anneke Wills.

Two excellent volumes, written with great honesty and passion and revealing a woman of immense charm, who lives life with great intensity of feeling. What more could you want but someone telling you truthfully exactly how it is? And in the telling, producing a life story that is, as cliched as it might sound, a real page turner and one that is genuinely tragic and comic and often both at the same time. Each book is also a feast of Anneke's personal collection of photographs and her precious drawings and paintings.

SELF PORTRAIT - My Journey as an actress, wife and mother in the swinging sixties: Anneke Wills (Published by Hirst Books, 2007 ISBN 978 0 955714900)

NAKED - Tragedies, comedies and discoveries. The journey continues...: Anneke Wills
(Published by Hirst Books, 2009 ISBN 978 0 955714917)

Anneke Wills Official Website

Hirst Books

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