Mary Tamm Interview

In the Autumn of 2009 I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Tamm for CT (issue 377). Mary was a delight – a lovely, warm person with a glint in her eye and a wicked sense of humour.

Little could anyone have known that this would actually prove to be one of her final published interviews. Mary’s passing at the tender age of 62 is terribly sad. By way of tribute, the interview is reproduced below. RIP Mary.


Born to Estonian parents in 1950s Bradford, early TV appearances in Coronation Street and Girls of Slender Means took Mary to leading roles in feature films, including the cult Tales that Witness Madness, and The Odessa File which pitched her career into the international arena. In 1978, Mary joined Doctor Who alongside Tom Baker as Romanadvoratrelundar for the “Key to Time” season.

When did you first decide you wanted to be an actress?
I think I was very young. I’d always had a great interest in going to the theatre and seeing films, mainly because my mother, who was an opera singer in Estonia, probably took me out twice a week to see opera, ballet and theatre. So I was influenced by all that stuff, but the actual turning point came when I was six or seven and was playing with a little girl in the street. She said; “I’m going to be an actress when I grow up”, and I suddenly thought; “I’d like to be an actress”. And that was it, something as ordinary as that! But I think that the groundwork was laid in a deeper way by my mother’s cultural influence.

An early ‘major’ break must have been appearing in the Odessa File. How did you get cast in that?
That came about because of my foreign background. Because of my parents being refugees from Estonia, my mother actually was half Russian, I was cast in a lot of things – mainly because I speak several languages, one of them being German. So they were looking for a genuine German girl in Hamburg, and my agent said “it’s unlikely they’ll cast somebody British, but I’ll put you up for it because I know your German’s good”. So I kept my faith up, and I got it! But it’s very much to do with the foreign background.

You worked with Jon Voight in that. He was a big name, of course he still is today, but was really at the fore then. Was he good to work with?
Yes he was lovely. He’d just been nominated for an Oscar in “Midnight Cowboy”, and I’d just seen him in it: so I was very nervous about meeting him! The funny thing is that in the film we don’t have many scenes together because he’s off doing this Nazi hunting, and I’m off doing various other things, and we get separated. But he was great to work with, and one of the thrilling bits was when his wife came over from America with a little baby in her arms, that I held. And of course I was the first person to get my hands on Angelina Jolie! (Both laugh)

So, the inevitable question – how did the role of Romana come about?
I was interviewed at the BBC by Graham Williams, Tony Reid and George Spenton-Foster, but I didn’t realise they’d already seen about 600 girls, so I came into it very late. Then they asked me to do a screen test with Tom, and I think they just decided that the chemistry between Tom and I was the best out of the six girls they tested. We got on very well from the word go, and I think it’s to do with the fact that we’ve both got the same sense of humour.

That leads perfectly onto my next question, which is to do with VT outakes and things such as “Doug Who”. They suggested a great relationship between the two of you. Was it genuinely that much fun working together?
We certainly had fun a lot of the time. There was also John Leeson, the three of us would have a nice little drink or chat in the corner together. We worked very well together, as you know John didn’t need to come into the studios, but he was a great help as he really formed the character of K9 for us. It was just one of those things, it was a very lucky season as we all got on so well, and I think the audiences noticed that chemistry as well, they really appreciated it. Because it doesn’t always work, does it?

No, that’s why I mentioned it because those clips have stuck in my mind for a long time. You have to work, but it certainly helps if you’re having fun.
It does. I met Tom just 2 days ago at a signing, and all we did was laugh from beginning to end: nothing’s changed! (Laughs) I’m glad to see he’s still as funny as ever.

Do you have a favourite story from The Key to Time Season?
I think it’s probably Androids of Tara: because I like the setting, Leeds Castle: I liked my costume: I liked the other actors. And of course I played three parts in it, the android, Romana and Princess Strella – it gave me a lot to do. I like to be busy, and I felt Romana came into her own in that story. I don’t think any other have companions have done three roles.

Did you find, after “Androids”, as the season wore on that the role got diluted? It’s often seen as a problem for the companion.
Yes it did. Everbody always asks why I left, and it was just for that reason. In those days with the 25 minute format you couldn’t have two leaders as it were. I hoped that with Romana being a strong character our roles might be reversed. In other words, The Doctor might get into trouble, and Romana could rescue him. Or he could ask “what’s that?”, and I could explain what it was for a change. But Tom had been doing it for quite a long time, and it was his show. He’d established the character and it would have been very hard for him to give up his ‘power’ in it, which is quite understandable. I realised it wasn’t going anywhere, so I left. But I did what I thought was a long time, 26 episodes is a lot of work for an actor. I did a lot of work before Doctor Who, and went on to do a lot later.

I have to say you have a fantastic CV, it’s like a listing of British TV topped and tailed by Coronation Street back in 1973 and Eastenders just weeks ago. It’s remarkable. Any particular favourites out of all those you’ve done?
My favourite show was Brookside because I was in that for nearly 18 months. What they did was get you up there, develop the character and then watch you. The writers would follow you around, watch you in the canteen, in between takes and so on. And then they’d start writing the character to be more like you. I had some fantastic storylines, some very emotional scenes, some very funny. That was really the longest running thing, but as you’ve said I’ve done cameos in soaps.

I’ve actually been in Coronation Street twice, because once I played Stan Ogden’s daughter in-law and then maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I played a character called Diana Black which was very brief, just two episodes. But then Eastenders, which was out in September, is a part I hope might have more mileage in it. She leaves, sort of, under a cloud and there is an opening for her to come back. I enjoyed that because the people in it were just fantastic. They are lovely, they made me feel so welcome because you’re going into something that’s a British institution and you’re a bit nervous. But they were so lovely, and the director was a guy I’d worked with on Brookside, so I felt very much at home. And of course being the most recent, it’s in my mind and I’ve had a very good response to it.

What plans do you have for the future apart, hopefully, from Eastenders?
For the next few weeks I’m busy on tour promoting my autobiography. And after that I’m writing the second volume of the book. Once I started writing, I realised that I had so much stuff to say that I couldn’t cram it all in. After all, I’ve been acting since 1971!

Mary Tamm, thank you very much.