Meera Syal is best known for playing the gran in The Kumars At No 42 and as part of the groundbreaking comedy team that gave us Goodness, Gracious Me . But she also has a long list of dramatic roles on her CV, including a stint on Holby City , a part in Steven Moffat’s Jekyll , Kingdom and Bombay Dreams . And now she fulfills an ambition by guest starring in the two-part Doctor Who story, “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood”, starting next Saturday.
SFX: Can you tell us something about your character?
Meera Syal: “My character’s a geologist, a very high-up, innovative geologist who is working for a company. And her project is to drill as far as she can towards the centre of the Earth. And, in fact, the episode opens with her reaching the target, and she gets further than anybody else has ever done. And that’s what starts off the problems!”
And how does she encounter the Doctor?
“The Doctor happens to land where all this is going on, and there are really strange things happening in the village. And he traces all these weird happenings to what she’s doing. And then it all kicks off – that infrastructure starts collapsing, and she ends up going off with him, to find out what’s going on beneath the Earth. She’s bossy and she won’t be told what to do – he obviously tells her to stay behind, but she’s quite a tomboy, and this is her life’s work, and her one chance to see what’s below, so she takes it. They actually end up being quite good buddies. They admire each other’s passion.”
How was the location filming?
“We had a lot of running up and down Welsh hillsides with heavy equipment! So we all got very fit. It was winter, and cold, so we earned our indoor filming! We did the hard bit first and then we went indoors.”
Did you watch Doctor Who as a child?
“I did, yes, absolutely. Tom Baker was the one who was around in my childhood, and I was very fond of his Doctor. The Daleks and the Cybermen were the two that really scared me. And I did do the classic thing of hiding behind the sofa. And then like a lot of people I grew out of it, so I clocked off towards the end of that cycle. But since Chris Eccleston started I’ve been watching it.”(opens in new tab)
Were you aware of the Silurians?
“No – and I should have been, apparently, because they’d been around! Which is very bad of me, and proves I obviously didn’t watch every episode! They’re really well-drawn and formed and have this really precise history. So for the fans it’s really nice when they return. And I think they’re beautiful. Scary beautiful. They’re amazing to look at.”
As someone who grew up with Doctor Who was it a thrill to get the call to do it?
“I’ve been knocking on that Doctor Who door for so long! Really since it started with Chris. I saw the first one and I thought this is just fantastic, what they’ve done, how they’ve managed to make it extremely cool and bring it up to date without making it too American – it still feels really British, in a really good way. I think it’s the hardest thing to do, to take a genre that became old and dated, revitalise it, capture an audience that is adults and children and also cross over to the Twilight Zone area, which I think they’ve done brilliantly with Doctor Who . Some of it is psychological. It’s not just about scary monsters – it’s big stuff, it’s existential stuff, and that’s really hard to do. I’m a huge admirer of the series. So I’ve been on at my agent for ages, and watching all these other actors going and doing it. I was really delighted when I got the call – and even more delighted that I didn’t have to spend eight hours in make-up before going on set!”
Does the show demand a certain style of performance?
“Yes, to some extent. It’s not camp. I think sometimes you can make the mistake of thinking because it’s ostensibly for younger people, and huge things happen that wouldn’t happen to you in real life… I think it works when you play it as real as you can, but you are absolutely aware that you’ve got to find a million different ways of saying, ‘What’s going on, Doctor?’ Because I said that a lot – we all do. Inevitably the characters around the Doctor are often in a state of complete shock and ignorance, because he’s usually the only person who knows what’s going on. So it’s finding the shades in that that’s the tricky part. But actors are just big kids, really. It’s how you play when you were little – you pick up a stick and it’s a gun, and you run around and you’re being chased by things and you rescue people… You never think as a grown up that you’re ever going to have a chance to do that! It appeals to the child in all of us, really.”
How did you feel walking into the TARDIS?
“It’s amazing. You think oh, it’s a set, and I can see the struts behind it… but it does have this real emotional impact. It’s one of those things that you dream of doing when you’re little.”
Have you had any reaction from the fans?
“I’ve never been in any show that’s been followed so much by the general public. You think, ‘How did they know we were here?’ You turn up at a location, somewhere far flung, and they’d be there with their camera phones. I’ve been invited to a convention already. I was totally surprised, though somebody did warn me. One of the crew asked me, ‘Are you prepared?’ I said, ‘Who’s going to ask me? I’m only in two episodes!’ They went, ‘You’d be absolutely surprised. People who are in one scene in one episode get invited!’ Have you seen Galaxy Quest ? I just think of that – old and bitter! I might just do it, for the whole experience. I will definitely go along and have a look, because I’m quite interested by people who have a bit of an obssession about things.”
How did you find Matt?
“I think he’s fantastic. What a tough gig for any actor, to take on an iconic role, and also coming after David and all that. But I think he’s really aware, and he’s done what any good actor does and absolutely made it his own. He’s very charming, very quirky, very bright and he’s really gone for it. He’s come up through theatre, Matt, he’s a proper actor, tried lots of stuff on set, was always willing to try something new. Very generous. It sounds like a bit of a love letter but it’s true.”
“She’s great. Really quirky. They’re a very interesting pairing. And really tall! I felt like a midget next to them. But because they are younger there’s a different energy about them.”
So what kind of dynamic does your character have with the Doctor?
“Erm, Mrs Robinson and Benjamin? No, I’m joking. There’s a bit of banter and then I think there’s a recognition that she’s really passionate about discovery, in the same way that he is, and it really bonds them.”
What did you make of the Silurians when you first saw them?
“Absolutely extraordinary. They are aesthetically beautiful. They can be scary but – like the alien is in Aliens – there’s something aesthetically beautiful about the way they were made. But the poor actors who were playing them, what dedication – hours in make-up, hours and hours, but it showed. Every single one of the main characters you recognise, because they’ve made each one slightly different. They’ve all got a personality – this one’s got a different nose, this one’s got different eyebrows, and they follow the features of the actors who are playing them, so they feel like real personalities rather than just a row of them that you couldn’t tell apart.”
How scary are the episodes?
“It’s not sick-in-the-stomach, your-kids-are-going-to-have-nightmares scary like that recent one with the water [“The Waters Of Mars”], but there’s peril. Moderate peril, as they say! I think the little kids will be frightened. But it’s action – the nearest I’m going to get to anything to do with action! So I quite enjoyed all the running around and dodging explosions. It’s not something you get to do very often.”
Lots of tongue-twisting dialogue?
“Oh my god, so much! And you absolutely have to know it. I sort of got into practice with that when I did Holby City , because I had pages of medical stuff which I didn’t really understand when I got it. Actually it sort of helps, weirdly. I quite like having stuff like that, because it does make you feel vaguely intelligent! [laughs]. I prefer that to the, ‘What’s going on?’ dialogue. And I have to know what it means, otherwise I won’t say it with any conviction. A lot of the stuff I had was geologically accurate – the writer really did his research – and you’ve got a lot of clever scientific types watching, and they will let you know!”
If a mad bloke in a blue box turned up today and asked you to go with him, would you go?
“Depends what he looked like!”(opens in new tab)