Thursday, June 11, 2009

The naked and the dead

Finished Naked, the second half of the autobiography by former Doctor Who girl Anneke Wills (I blogged part one in October 2007). It picks up with Anneke now 30, stuck in a one-sided marriage in a nice house in Norfolk, with her two young kids.

As before, it’s a breathless, wide-eyed account of events, even the worst of it told with little bitterness. At the end, she describes writing the thing as “a meditation in letting go.” There’s an awful lot to be rid of: the callous way her husband (actor Michael Gough) only gets close to her just before he leaves for good. There’s the more and more common deaths of loved ones, most especially the shock of her daughter, Polly, being killed in a car crash. And there’s her decades-long following of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where, as “Anita” or “Neet”, she seems to have spent her time wearing red and orange and doing the most menial jobs.

This spiritualist stuff takes up a lot of the book – Bhagwan’s teachings, the advice of ghosts, the drugs and song lyrics of the time. Groog, I thought: it’s going to be a hippy ex-actress wittering on about crystals for 30 years. But Anneke’s abrupt honesty about her own experiences are often fascinating. We get her fears and her contradictions – for all the humility imposed by Bhagwan’s teaching she’s still very much into her groovy clothes, while the free love enjoyed by her fellas leaves her raging and insecure.

Then there are her observations about the burgeoning power politics around her cult leader. In the US, for example, this man of peace is surrounded by guards with machine guns. There’s a bullying cook who keeps Champagne and chocolates to herself, and the horror amongst devotees when Anneke’s boyfriend wears colours of the wrong rank. For all these people are apparently seeking to transcend the crude matter of being, they are bound by the mundane. Funny how this quest to be more of an “individual” means conforming to the same clothes and rituals. There’s the same gossip, infighting and scandal as any community.

While Anneke is often surrounded by like-minded, hippy friends, a lot of her relationships seem hard work. She admits she’s attracted to difficult men, and her main loves all leave her for younger women. She’s on good terms with her son and on better terms with her mother than in the first volume, though it’s difficult to share her empathy for the pain felt by her ex-husband and the father who left her when she was a child. For all her spiritual retreats and courses and reading, Anneke is still bent under a great burden of guilt. She is not quite the free spirit she claims.

There’s a constant sense of yearning as she travels round the world, as if she’s struggling to escape from under this terrible weight. The death of her daughter comes at just the moment she seems to be sorting things out for herself, and the grief casts an awfully long shadow.

Of course, the book seems primarily aimed at Doctor Who fans, though Anneke’s time in the series was dealt with in volume one. The series crops up at regular intervals, for the most part when she’s surprised to be recognised for the part she played so long ago. Then she’s “rediscovered” by the fan community in the early 1990s and describes the excitement and generosity of conventions. She’s got notes to give on each of the Doctors – including Eccleston’s performance onscreen, as he's the only one she’s not met. For the rest, its tiny insights into them as actors, real people. There’s climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge with Colin Baker, a drunk Sylvester McCoy playing the spoons against a bouncer, and her response to Paul McGann:
“I fancied him. He’s beautiful, and shy, and real. If only I was twenty years younger…”

Anneke Wills, Naked, pp. 27-8.

It’s a bit weird to hear her natter about mutual friends (especially in the same paragraph as she mentions Jim Broadbent), and even events I was at myself. But this isn’t a book about “us”, the fans. Nor is about the famous people Anneke has met. It’s about her coming to terms with herself.

Especially at the end I found myself reading between the lines: for “independent” you might read “difficult”; for “single-minded”, “pain in the arse”. I cringed when at a convention she rants about a first draft of a script while its author (one of my chums) is in the audience. For all the peace-and-love stuff, that's the kind of thing that'd make me want to curl up and die.

But the appeal of the book is its matter-of-fact honesty, and she's unflinching about all she's done. There’s her periods and pooping, drugs and experimental sex mixed in with thoughts on music and films. It proclaims, “This is me; this is all I am. You can think what you like.”

And it’s that, ultimately, that makes Anneke’s life story such a joy.


Tim Hirst said...

Thanks for this Simon... glad you enjoyed the book (I think). As someone who knows Anneke very well, I think most of your observations are spot on... a reflection of her writing or of your powers of perception?! If I may be allowed a small plug.... the book, and its predecessor 'Self Portrait' are both available, signed, from

0tralala said...

Cheers Tim. Yeah, I enjoyed it - found it fascinating!