Soho Stories • Clayton Littlewood on Katy Manning
8pm. I’m sitting on a small leather settee in a packed theatre bar. On my right sits ‘a sneezing’ David Benson, and on my left his friend Katy.
As they’re both actors the conversation revolves around plays, avant-garde performers and Katy’s recent one-woman show. You see, Katy is none other than Katy Manning. One of the original Dr Who girls. And as she talks, shaking her blonde locks from side-to-side, peppering her speech with show biz anecdotes, although it’s interesting, all I can think about are … the Daleks.
When I was growing up the Daleks were scary. I mean really scary. They were like the Terminators of their day. I must’ve been about eight when I first saw them and whenever they appeared on TV, like thousands of other kids, I’d hide behind my parent’s flower-patterned red velour sofa, peeping nervously from behind the arm-rest, pee spots permeating my pants. And now the actress who fought them, who controversially posed nude draped over one of them, is sitting right next me. It’s a real step-back-in-time moment; reminding me of my Mum serving the family’s dinner; of settling down in front of ‘The Box’; of that classic theme tune; of the noise of the Tardis and, of course, of those Daleks.
It’s hard to describe why the Daleks were so terrifying. They didn’t eat people. They didn’t ‘attack’ people. They were just metal boxes spinning round threatening to ‘exterminate’ people. But somehow it worked. Somehow they managed to impregnate the national consciousness and became this terrifying symbol of destruction. Maybe it was the weird staccato voice. Maybe it was a fear of the Nazis on which they were apparently based. But whatever the reason they used to give me nightmares. I would dream that I was being chased by them, a dream that went on for years (until my Dad re-assured me that they couldn’t climb stairs). So I just have to ask her about them.
‘So how did it feel to be a Dr Who girl?’ I ask, trying to casually introduce the subject. ‘It must’ve been an incredible way to start your career.’
‘I suppose so darling. I didn’t really think about it,’ she replies politely, although I’m sensing that this isn’t a topic she wishes to dwell on, probably because she’s been asked about it so many times. Then she leans forward. ‘Now,’ she says, sounding more interested, ‘tell me about your play. Will I be able to see you in it any time soon?’
‘Err, yes. Hopefully. But I’m not an actor.’ I quickly add. ‘I just narrate the thing.’
I’m not trying to be modest here, it’s just that I’m aware that I’m sitting between two experienced actors, and as they’ve been talking about Chekhov and Shakespeare, with my one little stage appearance, I’ve been feeling a bit out of my depth.
‘But darling!’ she beseeches. ‘Narrating is acting!’ She reaches over and taps David on the leg. ‘Tell him David! We’ve been doing it for years haven’t we darling?’
David nods politely and then he sneezes. I quickly turn my head. Partly to avoid a face full of phlegm but also because there’s something else I want to talk to Katy about. Her friendship with Liza Minelli.
Katy and Liza have been friends for years. They grew up together and apparently, when they were young, they’d often find Judy Garland collapsed on the floor in a drunken stupor. Of course I’ve read all about this over the years, but to be sitting next to someone who actually witnessed it; someone who was so close to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, the gay icon of her day, as she was self-destructing, well, I really want to hear about these stories. But how can I drop Liza’s name into the conversation without it sounding too obvious?
‘So, err, Katy. You must’ve met loads of show biz people over the years.’
‘Anyone in err, particular?’
‘There’ve been so many.’
‘I just thought that maybe, well, when you were young, maybe you met a few show biz kids.’
‘Oh yes. I did meet a few.’
God. Now what?
Then, just as I’m about to start humming the opening bars to ‘Mein Herr’, David sneezes again. So, as he’s looking a bit rough, we drink up and leave.
Out on the street we say goodbye to David, and then Katy and I walk to Leicester Square tube station.
OK. It’s now or never. If I’m going to ask her about Liza this is my last chance.
‘Katy I just wanted to-‘
‘Thank you for a gorgeous night darling. I’ll see you soon!’ and she reaches up and kisses me on each cheek. Then she scans her Oystercard and disappears down the escalator.
‘Yeah,’ I reply, with a feeble wave. ‘See you soon.’
Now, I wonder if Daleks could’ve managed escalators.