March 2016

Former ‘Dr Who girl’ returns to Lourdes Hill College

As a self-proclaimed iconoclast and a constant questioner, Janet Fielding’s life has taken her from an ordinary Catholic childhood in Brisbane to a career in acting on stage and screen, advocacy for women and young people, and a lifelong passion for what she describes as “everyday feminism”.

BY Debra Vermeer

As a self-proclaimed iconoclast and a constant questioner, Janet Fielding’s life has taken her from an ordinary Catholic childhood in Brisbane to a career in acting on stage and screen, advocacy for women and young people, and a lifelong passion for what she describes as “everyday feminism”.

“I didn’t really plan any of this,” she laughs.

“I simply followed my nose and took up interesting opportunities when they presented themselves, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”

Janet was born in Brisbane in 1953, spending her early years in Cloncurry and Townsville before the family settled in Brisbane, where she attended Lourdes Hill College, a Good Samaritan school, from 1966 to 1970.

But prior to starting at Lourdes Hill, Janet lived for a year in Washington DC, where her father, a scientist, was working on medical research.

“That period was an amazing time for me,” she says.

“Brisbane in those days was very, very provincial. So moving to the United States was an enormous eye-opener on all sorts of levels, especially at that age, around 12.

“In Brisbane we had been very much part of the Catholic culture. We went to Catholic schools, the people we associated with were Catholic. That little world was all I knew.

“So it was a big change to move to the US and mix with people of different religions and different outlooks. It was an exciting time, a stimulating time.”

Returning to Australia as a 13-year-old, Janet says she recalls her time at Lourdes Hill College fondly.

“It was interesting to grow up in a society governed by women, which is how it was with the nuns at Lourdes Hill,” she says.

“Despite the appalling situation with women in the Church, the convent movement showed you women could, and did, run and manage large-scale institutions, and that they were not just concerned with educating, but with doing good works.”

Janet says the debating team was her great hobby and obsession at Lourdes Hill.

“Ideas were important and my close friendships were formed via that,” she says. “I was the only Student of the Year Quest finalist who wasn’t a prefect and I think that is a telling point, because I’ve never particularly seen myself as a leader, although I’ve sometimes been cast in that role. I see myself more as an iconoclast than a leader. I’ve always been too much of a ratbag, or a questioner.”

Janet recalls Sister Laureae Ryan, the Principal of Lourdes Hill during her time there in the 1960s as being someone she admired.

“She was a strong leader and I respected her,” she says.

After leaving school, Janet took up a Commonwealth Scholarship to study journalism at university, where she became involved in university theatre groups and took up a part-time job with the Australian Broadcasting Control Board.

Upon finishing her degree, she moved to Melbourne, where she saw a show at the Pram Factory by the Popular Theatre Group.

“As soon as I saw it, I thought, that’s what I want to do,” she says.

“The Popular Theatre Group at that time was highlighting what was happening with racism in Australia. It was socially and politically aware theatre during a very interesting period and I loved it, because I had already become politicised at university during the 1971 Springbok tour protests against Apartheid in South Africa.”

Janet joined the group and when they took a show to England she jumped at the chance and soon found herself working with the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, with actors including Bill Nighy and Bob Hoskins.

After a stint in repertory theatre, Janet broke onto the small screen when she was cast in the iconic Dr Who television series, as Tegan, a companion to the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, and later the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison.

Janet says that being a ‘Dr Who girl’ confirmed her feminism, but she has come to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity it was.

“It helped me enormously,” she says. “You go through a phase when you don’t want to talk about it and then you realise, ‘Hang on, I was lucky to have that role and it was a privilege’.”

Janet was nearly 30 when she finished her stint on Dr Who and as she looked at casting notes for acting work, she realised there was nothing out there for women in their 30s.

Never one to accept the status quo, Janet and some friends set up a group called Reel Women, to represent the interests of actresses at that stage of their career.

At the same time she became aware of another group called Women in Film and Television, which was using an American model and, after volunteering with them, she was offered the role of becoming the first Director of Women in Film and Television in the UK, in 1991. The successful campaigning organisation is still going strong, 25 years later, with its members including some of the biggest names in the film and TV industry.

“It was an interesting time, and I’m proud of what we did there, but after a while I felt I was getting too comfortable and I needed to move on,” she says.

She took over a friend’s theatre management agency and that job took her to the Oscars, where one of her clients won an Academy Award for production. She also represented actors such as Hugh Bonneville, who has most recently played Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey.

When she again felt it was time to move onto something new, Janet took up writing for television and had a few projects picked up, only to see them languish for several years in “development hell”.

“Then in 2008 I moved to Ramsgate in the coastal south of England, and started to see that British coastal communities had suffered enormously since the 1990s when European airfares became really cheap and people stopped holidaying at home in the UK and took off to Europe instead,” she says.

So she started Project MotorHouse, a charity and social enterprise that works with local deprived youth and communities.

Three years ago, however, her work was interrupted when she was diagnosed with anal cancer.

“I thought it was a haemorrhoid at first, and so by the time I looked into it, I was lucky it hadn’t metastisised,” she says.

“Initially I was embarrassed about it and I didn’t actually tell anyone. But in a small community you can’t hide these things, especially when you’re having surgery and so on, and so I started to open up, and the people in the community were wonderful. I had to go to Canterbury for radiotherapy every day for several weeks and they organised it all so that I didn’t have to worry about any of it.

“If cancer taught me anything it taught me about the goodness of people.”

Deciding to turn her cancer diagnosis into a positive thing, Janet used her experience to raise funds for Project MotorHouse.

“Peter Davison, my Dr Who, rang to ask was there anything he could do for me,” she says. “And I said, there sure is, you can come down and we’ll hold a Dr Who convention to raise funds for the charity. We ended up doing three of those and they were a big success. So in the end I was able to keep going with the charity because of Dr Who.”

Currently, MotorHouse is part of a big project with the Heritage Lottery Fund, working with young people who are from an area in the top 10 per cent of multiple indices of deprivation.

“We’re trying to awaken a passion in them, and we’re working with a number of prominent artists, who come and work with the kids on a photographic project where they’re taking photos of their coastal community and putting it all together into a beautifully designed book,” she says.

While Janet moved away from her faith as a teenager, she says her work with young people today has shown her that many are floundering because they have no moral compass.

“I now work with kids who aren’t getting a lot of moral leadership and I think moral leadership is important. It’s core to who we are as social creatures. It matters. It really matters. And I think we had a really strong grounding in that from our parents, our teachers, and the Church,” she says.

As guest speaker at Lourdes Hill College’s International Women’s Day Breakfast earlier this month, Janet shared her experience with the students and urged them to grab all the opportunities that come their way.

“I really wanted to tell the girls at Lourdes Hill that International Women’s Day did not start out to be about exceptionalism. I certainly don’t see myself as exceptional. You don’t have to be the CEO of a major international corporation to be considered a successful feminist,” she says.

“I want them to understand that gender should not be a limiting factor in their lives, and help show them how to become an everyday feminist, like my grandmother was, who was born in 1888 and believed that women should have the vote and be equal.

“These girls are growing up in a world where the Internet has brought to light a lot of sexism and latent hostility to women.

“I think we need to equip them to fight against that and to ensure that it isn’t the case anymore.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.