Doctor Who - An Adventure In Space And TimeDoes William Hartnell Need Protecting?

Adventure When watching An Adventure In Space And Time, I noticed one feeling dominated all others. It wasn't excitement at seeing early Doctor Who recreated in high definition colour. It wasn't admiration in the playing of the lead actors (all wonderful), nor even some fannish desire for accuracy (I let several anachronisms of speech and behaviour slip by, suspending my disbelief in the spirit of the piece). The overwhelming feeling I had was one of protectiveness. I felt protective towards Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, even Sydney Newman, the old so-and-so. But I felt especially protective towards William Hartnell. As an actor his reputation is pretty much intact, despite a few swipes at his memory from those too ignorant to know better. But as a man I felt that he had been much maligned, and An Adventure In Space And Time could either support the myths, or set the record straight. In the mid 1980s, when most of us became fans, we had precious little source material to work from. We had the show itself of course, but in those days, unless we'd watched Hartnell on transmission in the 1960s, we only knew his stories from the 1981 repeat of An Unearthly Child and from the Target books, lightweight paperback adaptations of scripts which didn't really convey the magic of Hartnell's portrayal. Some of us had seen Hartnell's limited appearance in 1972's The Three Doctors but didn't get much of a glimpse of the real first Doctor in that. Our impressions were further distorted by his replacement by a different actor in the two cinema films. As the 1980s progressed, however, we fans began to get our hands on privately-made copies of Hartnell's stories. For those which had been wiped, we got copies of the soundtracks. Eventually, BBC video started releasing the Hartnell stories. We learned a lot. Hartnell was not only as good as he was in the books, he was better. There was a mercurial quality to him, something in his acting which allowed him to turn on a sixpence, from being a manipulative misanthrope to a genial grandfather in the same scene. Hartnell himself was dead by then, so co-stars like Peter Purves gave us information about what it was like to work with Hartnell, or "Bill" as he was known to his friends. Purves was full of praise for Hartnell's professionalism, particularly as the seasoned stage and film actor had worked out that there were big differences in the relatively new medium of television. Purves often recounted that Hartnell advised him to keep hand movements close to his face, where the camera would be pointed, rather than use the wide, expansive gestures of the stage. We knew from the few factual books about Doctor Who that were out at the time, that Hartnell's tenure had been an enormous popular success, with ratings in excess of 13 million in its heyday, eclipsing most of his successors (with the flukey exception of the time when the ITV strike made some later stories the only thing on mainstream television). And then something nasty happened - a few actors and colleagues made some bitchy comments about him. He didn't like Max Adrian, perhaps he was anti-Semitic, or homophobic? Perhaps he was an out-and-out racist? He was grumpy wasn't he? Of course it was only natural that an actor would be just like his character. Oh and ho ho, he always forgot his lines. The number of times that particular myth has been peddled rivals Dalek writer Terry Nation's mischievous assertion that he made the monsters' names up from the letters "DAL-EK" on the spines of an encyclopaedia volume . These myths persisted in the minds of many for several years until other primary sources came forward as witnesses for Hartnell's defence. Of course they didn't know they were testifying on his behalf. Rather, in the middle of a series of obligatory questions about their stage careers prior to and after Doctor Who, actors would be asked by fan interviewers "What was Hartnell like?" and after some answer that gave little in the way of praise or condemnation, a leading follow-up question would be asked "is it true that he was a racist?" or "Is it true that he could be difficult?" One or two may have agreed, but the majority of actors and production staff that worked with Hartnell attest to his professionalism and abilities as an actor. They don't report incidences of racism or bigotry, and certainly don't go on about forgotten lines. An Adventure In Space And Time's showing of Hartnell as a too-grumpy grandfather concerned me; I didn't want the character to be unsympathetic. His granddaughter's book "Who's There" didn't portray Hartnell like that, and though written by a family member, it was anything but a hagiography. Jessica Carney (the granddaughter in question) had touched upon Hartnell's drinking, womanising, his hiding of his illegitimacy and even some of the aforementioned slurs, and yet Hartnell still emerged a man to be admired, loved even. And yes, a man whose reputation I wanted fiercely to protect. Thankfully, the 'grumpy grandfather Hartnell' of An Adventure In Space And Time was short-lived and served to highlight Hartnell's dissatisfaction with his typecasting as a tough guy sergeant character. His later scenes with his granddaughter are delightful. I was concerned about the casting of an old man to play Hartnell. David Bradley is about twenty years too old for the part and doesn't exactly look young for his age. Thankfully he is also a fine actor, and his additional wrinkles were soon forgotten as he got into his portrayal. The issue of being "difficult" on set was addressed fairly early on. It was clear that Mark Gatiss (the writer) understood Hartnell's desire to make Doctor Who a good quality show and not to accept anything but the best. This is most evident in the scene where Hartnell emphasises that he needs to work with the TARDIS console and be familiar with it, in order that he can be consistent in his use of the controls. Alas, Gatiss goes for the cheap laugh when it comes to the Daleks. Yes we know the sucker arm looks like a plunger. That was rehabilitated and reclaimed in 2005's Dalek when it suckered a trooper to death. However, no matter what Jon Pertwee may have said, the gun does not, and never has looked like an egg whisk. It was real lump in the throat time as Hartnell said goodbye to Carole Ann Ford for Susan's last adventure, The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. But there were suggestions that Hartnell was calling Christopher Barry "Waris" because he forgot his name. But I have seen no independent evidence of this. Otherwise, the portrayal of Hartnell's declining health seems consistent with his reported symptoms and what we know of Arteriosclerosis. We can assume (or even hope) that surviving cast and crew members were consulted about the accuracy of this, as it would be a shame to establish further myths at this stage. Arteriosclerosis affects speech, and the ability to say lines, rather than memory. As an actor who had appeared in weekly repertory theatre, Hartnell had a reputation for being good at remembering lines. The volume of lines a leading man had to learn in a weekly television series like Doctor Who was quite staggering, and when one realises that the show was shot "as live", i.e. usually with no recording breaks, Hartnell's achievements are more impressive. We have plenty of footage of later Doctors making fluffs in their lines, though those were all edited out of the program and retakes were allowed. Hartnell didn't have that luxury in the early 1960s. Parts of this story were reminiscent of the Margaret Thatcher docudrama The Iron Lady, starting with a sanguine, older Hartnell reflecting on past glories. Just as Maggie had the reassuring figure of Geoffrey Howe with her throughout, Verity Lambert had the kindly Mervyn Pinfield. In fact Pinfield surely takes the place of several pioneers of Doctor Who who didn't really get a look in. Rex Tucker, Donald Wilson, C.E. Webber, and David Whitaker were all conspicuous by their absences (or near-absence in the case of Tucker), and Lambert's successors as producers John Wiles and Innes Lloyd were glaring omissions. In terms of casting, most was pretty well-done. There were some cameos from some of the Hartnell Years' original companion actors, but it seemed odd to see Maureen O'Brien (Vicki) and Jean Marsh (Sarah Kingdom) turning up at Verity Lambert's retirement party looking like older versions of themselves, and not disguised like William Russell and Carole Ann Ford. It was nice that these actresses were not left out of the fun in the fiftieth anniversary year though. The biggest casting disappointment was Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton. Not looking, sounding, nor behaving like Troughton, the only resemblance Shearsmith had was in the costume. This casting error actually helps us to be more grateful at the choice of David Bradley, when we think of how wrong it could have gone had a less-talented actor been cast, or an actor who failed to observe Hartnell's mannerisms and voice. Bradley successfully conveyed both the magic of Hartnell's Doctor with the humanity of the actor. Coupled with a script that hit exactly the right note, An Adventure In Space And Time is a fitting tribute to the pioneers of Doctor Who, and I thank all involved for at last doing Hartnell justice. Did you enjoy An Adventure In Space And Time? Share your thoughts below.
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English newspaper editor based in Wisconsin, USA. I was a lawyer for many years in London. I enjoy creativity and my family, and was a columnist with The VOICE Of Wisconsin Rapids newspaper for four years, a radio broadcaster for 18 months and a radio station photographer for 3 years. I am on the boards of the Wood County's Literacy Council, and River City Rhapsody. I am a member of River Cities 'Riters and the Wisconsin Writers' Association.