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Mary Tamm – The Perfect Companion

Romana and the Doctor, Mary Tamm and Tom Baker

Unfortunately I may have got to the age when the authors and musicians, actors and actresses of one’s formative years seem to pass from life with alarming regularity. Sometimes one views their passing with a raised eyebrow or a mild note of surprise. Sometimes, though, it instils a real sense of loss, as if a little bit of one’s childhood was taken away with them.

That is certainly the case with the death of the British actress Mary Tamm at the all too early age of sixty-two (and from cancer, but of course). Sixty-two? What a terribly short life that is when one thinks about it. Three score years and two is no time to have experienced all that this world has to offer. How unfair it seems.

The Doctor and Romana, Tom Baker and Mary Tamm

Mary Tamm, in the character of the Time Lord Romana, was for me the greatest Doctor Who companion, bar none. No shrinking violet, or substitute adolescent-cum-viewer, she was every bit the equal of Tom Baker’s wonderfully exuberant, idiosyncratic Doctor. Intelligent, self-confident, elegant, she put every female companion before and after her to shame. Unfortunately in some ways that was her undoing as writers and producers latterly pushed the character towards the more traditional role of women in Science-Fiction. Lots of screaming, knuckle-biting, and falling over one’s high-heels while fleeing monsters. Eventually she left the show and it was all the poorer for it. Until the character of Amy Pond appeared there was no one really like her in the Who universe.

Perhaps that’s why I’m attracted to smart and articulate women? Exposure to a genuine female role model at a very early age? (And why I detest tramp-stamp Barbie dolls and Jersey Shore wannabes. In Ireland they inhabit the television space titled appropriately enough Fade Street. Though looking at the pictures of Mary Tamm today I’ve just realised that quite a few of my ex-girlfriends had more than a passing resemblance to her in the role of Romana, and not just in terms of personality…!)

Not so long ago I purchased a Doctor Who boxset, The Key of Time, first broadcast on the BBC from 1978 to ‘79. It was a vague recollection from early childhood that surprised me by even better in reality that in memory. Thanks in no small measure to the quality of Mary Tamm’s acting. She and Tom Baker excel as the two bounce off each other in the sort of Douglas Adams‘ verbal jousting that one rarely sees on television these days (Aaron Sorkin apart. Talking of which, The Newsroom, excellent acting but also a little dated, preachy and wide-eyed optimistic. American TV journalism as American liberals would wish it to be – but not as it actually is. Of course Ireland’s journalistic elite are just as bad).

If only all classic Doctor Who stories had stood up so (relatively) well to the passing of time. Have you tried watching any of the Davidson, Baker or McCoy era programmes? While one can make allowances for the antediluvian period they was made in, limited budgets, the audience demographics and all the rest there are only so many excuses one can bring forth. Be honest. Much of it is terrible. In fact as far I remember I was an early escapee from the sinking ship, abandoning the good Doctor in the first outing of Sylvester McCoy’s cringe-inducing Time Lord and his companion, the apocalyptically awful Melanie Bush (Bonnie screamin’ Langford!), followed by the less awful but just as irritating Ace (Sophie Aldred, in proto-Rose Tyler form, jacket covered with “right-on” badges. Arrrgh…!).

One longed for the class, wit and poise of the original Romana, and an actress of the calibre of Mary Tamm to bring those attributes alive.

Two Time Lords are better than one, the Doctor and Romana, Tom Baker and Mary Tamm

From the obituary in The Guardian:

“The Doctor Who actor Mary Tamm has died aged 62, her agent has said.

Tamm, who played the Doctor’s companion Romana alongside Tom Baker, died at a hospital in London on Thursday morning. She had been suffering from cancer for 18 months.

The actress was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, the daughter of Estonian refugees, and had a long career on stage and screen. She starred in the films The Odessa File and The Likely Lads and had recurring roles in the soaps Brookside and EastEnders.

Tamm, who lived in Battersea, south London, trained at Rada. Her first professional job was at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre where she worked alongside Derek Jacobi, Joan Sims and Ronnie Barker. From there she moved on to television work and film, her first feature film being Tales That Witness Madness with Kim Novak.”

I think I’ll have another watch of Mary Tamm in one of her most enjoyable roles this weekend, in tribute and affection (and a wee bit of mortality-driven nostalgia. Ah, age…)

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