Jodie Whittaker has just completed her first series starring in Doctor Who, and she has been a critical and ratings success, joyously rejuvenating the 55-year-old series. As today would be his 111th birthday, what might William Hartnell, the First Doctor, make of the woman taking over the keys to the TARDIS?
When Doctor Who debuted in November 1963, the Doctor was a crotchety old man who had little time for his time-travelling companions. Looking older than his 56 years, Hartnell soon gained a reputation for being as difficult as the character he played.
William Hartnell was born in the London slums of St Pancras, on January 8, 1908, to unmarried mother Lucy. Never knowing his father, Hartnell’s relationship with his mother turned sour.
He spent much of his youth in foster care, where he grew scrawny and ill-nourished. Leaving school at an early age, he turned to shoplifting.
Flyweight boxing near King’s Cross, the 14-year-old Hartnell met the middle-aged art dealer Hugh Blaker.
Blaker took him in, becoming young Billy’s mentor and unofficial guardian. Blaker paid for Hartnell’s further education, first as a jockey and then as an actor.
Hartnell joined a theatre group in 1925, when he was 17, and in 1929, when he was 21, he married Heather McIntyre.
They would stay together until his death in 1975, and he was a loving husband, father and grandfather. He was also a serial adulterer and an alcoholic who never came to terms with what he saw as a deeply shameful past.
Hartnell’s granddaughter and biographer, Jessica Carney, feels his affairs were partly an attempt to prove something to himself.
“The marriage was complicated. Heather admired his talent and enjoyed his success but was driven to distraction by his heavy drinking and womanising.
At the start of World War II, Hartnell served a year-and-a-half with the British Army, before being invalided out after a nervous breakdown. He would make his career acting as tough army types, hard men, and heavies, appearing in 75 films.
Despite his reputation for playing thugs, it was Hartnell’s sensitive performance as an ageing rugby talent scout in the 1963 film.
This Sporting Life which led Verity Lambert, producer of a new BBC science-fiction serial called Doctor Who, to offer him the lead role.
Afraid of being typecast as a bully, he took the role, and quickly the show became a hit. Hartnell came to embody the part, relishing the adoration of children. Ever the perfectionist, he worked out what every button on the TARDIS console did, so children might better believe in its reality.
“The difficulty is asking an actor to play eccentric, because then they start … acting,” says Waris Hussein, the First
Doctor Who director.
“Bill Hartnell wasn’t acting. He was just implicitly in his own way eccentric.” Guest-star Mark Eden describes Hartnell as “a grumpy old man”, and recalls the star throwing a tantrum at rehearsals.
Jessica Carney feels her grandfather’s personality was formed early: “I think the insecurity of being illegitimate when he was young, and teased… must have led to an awful lot of insecurity on his behalf, which in many ways explained to me the difficult aspects of his character.”
Harsher aspects of Hartnell have been rumoured, with guest-star Nicholas Courtney (who would go on to play later Doctors’ friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) inferring he was an anti-Semite.
However, Hartnell had great regard and affection for Sydney Newman, the BBC head of drama responsible for developing Doctor Who, and for Verity Lambert, the series’ initial producer. both of whom were Jewish. Hartnell also came to be a dear friend to Carole Ann Ford, the Jewish actor who played the Doctor’s granddaughter.
Waris Hussein is Indian-born and gay. Their initial meeting was disastrous, Hussein finding Hartnell deeply prejudiced. And yet the two men soon came to hold each other in the highest esteem.
Anneke Wills, the First Doctor’s final female companion, says he was deeply racist toward black guest-star Earl Cameron. Cameron, 101 now, says: “I have to be very honest, if he was unkind, I wasn’t aware of it.”
Jessica Carney says: “It was never an issue on a personal level and should be viewed within the context of the period. Plus he was not an educated man and would have had many prejudices in common with others he grew up with.”
Three years of Doctor Who’s 48-week production schedules took their toll on Hartnell’s health. Suffering from arteriosclerosis, and unable to remember lines in an era where reshoots were prohibitively expensive, Hartnell became ever-more bad- tempered.
The show’s new production team decided he would be replaced by character actor Patrick Troughton. It was a body blow to Hartnell, but yet he was quietly flattered to be replaced by an actor of Troughton’s calibre.
Three months after leaving Doctor Who, Hartnell took a role in the pantomime Puss in Boots, and was interviewed by the BBC. Asked if he saw his future in pantomime, a frail Hartnell bristled that he was not a variety actor: “Oh no, I’m legitimate. I’m a legitimate character actor. I’m legitimate.”
Hartnell had apparently survived his heartbreak. He was already sleeping with a co-star. Heather found out, and let it be known to all parties that if the young lady wanted Bill, she was quite welcome to him. That was the end of the affair.
He returned, once, to his beloved Doctor, for the 1973 anniversary special,
The Three Doctors.
The producers had hoped he would interact with his successors, Pat Troughton and Jon Pertwee, but it became apparent he was far too ill. Instead, he was pre-recorded, reading his lines from cue-cards. He passed away two years later, aged 67.
What might William Hartnell’s First Doctor make of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor?
Hartnell never had a problem working with women, and he loved working for Verity Lambert. His version of the Doctor was never — by 1960s standards — particularly sexist.
It is fun to imagine how Whittaker’s brilliant, decent, boundlessly-enthusiastic Doctor might react to being patronised by Hartnell’s starchy, impish, twinkly Edwardian grandfather.
“Hallo, my dear, and who might you be, eh? Are you the Doctor’s assistant, hmm?” As he was by Troughton, Hartnell would likely have been honoured to be succeeded by so fine an actor as Whittaker.
Jessica Carney says her grandfather would be “tickled pink that the character he helped create is still thrilling audiences today. He’d have been so, so thrilled by that.”
Happy Eleventy-First Birthday, Doctor.
William Hartnell, January 8, 1908 – April 23, 1975.