Amazing Grace – Daphne Ashbrook at Panopticon Lite

Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: Daphne Ashbrook

By James Ashworth

Back in the heady days of 2019, when people could gather into rooms full of others they didn’t know, Panopticon Lite brought together figures from the Eighth Doctor’s era on screen and audio, all in one place. One who has perhaps had less chance to shine than the rest is Daphne Ashbrook. Otherwise known as Grace Holloway, she could have starred in the proposed McGann-led television series, had it been picked up. As the convention got underway, Daphne sat down to discuss her career as a life-long actor.

Being born in the same year the Doctor Who would first hit the screens, it may seem like Daphne was destined to be in the show. But it was theatre, not TV, where her imagination was first hooked, with her first experiences of acting formed hanging around backstage watching  her actor parents, Buddy Ashbrook and D’Ann Paton, perform. As a result, she says her own decision to become an actor “happened naturally.” This led to her first role at the age of six, playing a Native American in a play directed by her father. The next year, she would go on to win an award for her performance, cementing her decision to act for a living. 

After growing up in San Diego, she would head to Los Angeles to tread the boards, appearing in a number of “little theatre” plays before intending to head to New York for the height of American theatre – Broadway. However, before she could follow that goal, she ended up in the TV business, landing her first guest starring role in the episode ‘A Knight in Shining Armor’ on Knight Rider. Over the next few years, this would see her compete with countless other actors in Los Angeles during the casting season. 

“It was a job to get out there and find a job,” she said. However, the work paid off, seeing her land the lead role as Liz McKay in the television series Our Family Honor. It was a “fun, exciting” time as she appeared in a variety of shows over the years, including plenty of pilots for TV shows that were never picked up. One of these was Sisters, directed by Mimi Leder, who she said “valued her take on things.” While Daphne was a big fan of the concept, which examined the lives of three sisters in Manhattan, it came at a bad time, with two other pilots sharing  the same name being pitched that same year. While the others were taken forward to series, Daphne’s was unfortunately consigned to the history books.

However, 1990 would also see her continue her ongoing relationship with cult television, following appearances in Knight Rider and The A-Team. Appearing for the first time in Murder, She Wrote, she would later go on to appear twice more in the show; both times as the killer. In the last episode, ‘Nailed’, she would appear alongside Rosalind Chao, a frequent guest star of her first foray into science fiction – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Daphne would appear in the episode ‘Melora’ as the titular Starfleet officer, whose species exists in a low-gravity environment. She said that the episode was “really hard to shoot,” with over three and a half hours of makeup and costuming before she could get onto the set. This led to a “23-hour shooting day,” on three hours of sleep, where she recalls she had to stop drinking liquid to ensure the costume wouldn’t break. 

Following Star Trek, Daphne returned to acting in pilots and TV series before she was sent across a script with the name Doctor Who. “I thought the title was kinda cool,” she said, not having heard of the show before. The script caught her attention, however, and within a month, she had the job. Being whisked off to Vancouver, she wasn’t used to the rehearsals taking place before the program, but quickly threw herself into them. This helped elaborate some of the scenes in the script, especially the more humorous moments with the Doctor she hadn’t quite picked up on while reading through. She said that Paul, who she had first seen in Withnail and I, was “a great actor who made [her] a better actor.” Daphne says that she was asked if she was interested in continuing if a series had been commissioned, but that the show had been  “set up” by the American scheduling. The TV Movie was scheduled against ‘The Wedding’ episode of Roseanne – viewed by some 23 million viewers – leaving Doctor Who with a below average viewership for its slot of 5.5 million, much below Philip Segal’s hoped figure of 9-10 million to greenlight a new series. As such, despite a strong UK showing,  it was passed over for a new series.

While she hasn’t been able to reprise the role of Grace since, Daphne has since worked for Big Finish on a number of occasions, be that as Perfection in The Next Life or Captain Ruth Matheson, a UNIT operative, as well as a guest appearance in the Dark Shadows range. This involved flying to the UK, where she also got to pay a visit to the dearly-missed Doctor Who Experience. “I managed to find one trace of her [Grace],” she said. “The bespoke ball dress has vanished though!”

Though her character may have been absent from the Experience, it’s not the worst experience Daphne’s had in television. She instead attributes this to working on JAG, one of the many crime dramas that she’s acted in which “all mush together.”

“I had to cry all day on cue,” she said of one of her episodes, “and just before the last scene, the director said: ‘if you don’t cry now, every scene you’ve shot today means nothing.’” Daphne, who said she was “exhausted” from the filming day, said that direction made it difficult to continue, with the anger at the director clouding her ability to perform.

Looking back, Daphne Ashbrook has managed to carve a niche out of a series of small and short-lived, but memorable performances. Whether that’s in cult television or on the stage, she has always put her best foot forward. While we may have to wait for another Big Finish adventure – there’s none on the cards “at the moment” – we can but hope that maybe one day, Grace Holloway may be able to make her triumphant return to Doctor Who. In the current climate, having two doctors, rather than just one, may be exactly what we need.

Background info from Regeneration by Philip Segal and Gary Russell

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