My grandma appeared in Doctor Who once. She played President of the Earth. It’s the kind of fact that gets people talking - easy to flourish at the right moment. She appeared in the 1973 Frontier in Space sequence, back when Jon Pertwee was racketing around in the Tardis with Katy Manning (Jo) at his side.
She wasn’t just any President of the Earth either. This ruler held her power with style. As my grandma said of director Paul Bernard, “he had a completely new idea of what a female president would look like: feminine, pampered, nails painted, pearls in her hair.” Sartorially this translated into stiff orange collars, long gloves, patent high heels, and a particularly clingy blue dress (so clingy, in fact, that it was sewn onto her body)… She had her temples massaged and spoke with authority. This was a character who walked with real presence.
It’s been years since I watched it. We had a version on VHS (back when that was a thing people actually used), once sitting down as a family to plow our way through all six episodes. Monsters and moments of peril aplenty. When I think of my grandma in Doctor Who though, it’s stills that come to mind rather than moving images. We have plenty of portraits stowed away – close ups of her looking fabulous and futuristic.
I mentioned above that it’s a fun detail to let slip. It is. Doctor Who is something of a cultural institution. To be related to someone who contributed to that is pretty great. But I’m aware that the full sentence should be this: “my grandma appeared in Doctor Who once: it’s the thing she’s least proud of.” She took it on because she knew the director. She was also a widow with two young children by this point, a little more preoccupied with an ill son at home (my dad) than focusing on a stunning performance. “I think nothing of it,” she commented a few weeks ago when we were discussing it, “it was really just a time filler – a kids' TV show.”
What is she proud of? Playing Anne Frank’s mother onstage in her mid-twenties. Being in the first English production of A View from the Bridge in Liverpool, directed by Sam Wanamaker. Performing Shakespeare across America. Getting into RADA in the first place, her thick Czech accent an issue – but not a barrier.
Then there are the things that aren’t necessarily to do with pride, but provide wonderful embellishment nonetheless. Such stories! She was chased by a toothless lion on the set of a dodgy B-movie filmed in Kenya, and rode a one-eyed rhino for a bet with the crew. She was once trapped in a lift in New York with Salvador Dali, zooming up, down, up, down five times as he wouldn't let her leave and deemed her “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” (funny, as he said it to a looooot of other women too). One evening she went drinking with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in Soho. On another the young woman she was meant to be chaperoning at a party disappeared, only to be discovered in a nearby B&B making use of the ‘bed’ part with a certain very well known bad boy Scottish actor – who apparently grinned at my grandma when she told him off.
I love all of these details. They make for rich pickings – little delicious morsels of tales. Her life continues to be enlarged in each retelling. It also finds further echoes online. For the first time ever today, I googled ‘Vera Fusek Doctor Who’ and spent a good half hour scrolling through various websites and blogs. I discovered a few images, this profile of her character and, to my complete surprise, a reference to a comic book from 2012, where a character named ‘President Vera Fusek’ appeared alongside the Eleventh Doctor. All of these resonances and references feel intriguing – divided off from the woman I know who is deprecating about that one small part she played more than forty years ago. But you know what? Even if she’s not proud of it, in some small way I am. But maybe that’s because I view it as part of a larger mosaic of anecdotes, experiences and snippets from her life.
Besides, I’ve got the dress now too (pictured above). It may not make me feel like President of the Earth, but it does encourage a certain sense of power...
Having possession of this dress feels very special indeed - and I wanted to pay tribute to its futuristic beginnings. So here it's styled with ridiculous heels from eBay and plenty of vintage jewellery. Below are a selection of stills of my grandma. Look at those outfits!