For me, one of the most surprising aspects of the Doctor Who début of William Hartnell in 1963 was that he was only 55 years old. With his flowing white hair and frail appearance, I always assumed he must have been well into his 60s. The fact that he played grandfather to Susan Foreman, the first “Companion” reinforced this impression. I can clearly remember watching the first episode from behind the sofa – twice. This was because it was shown twice after being overshadowed first time around by the previous day’s assassination of President John F Kennedy by the *Mafia/CIA/Aliens (*delete as applicable).
Hartnell’s flowing white locks turned out to be a wig, but the rest of his premature ageing appears to have been the result of heavy drinking, smoking and general unhealthiness. Maybe it wasn’t his fault. Looking back on Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems impossible that anyone could have a healthy diet. All the foods we associate with health and wellbeing in the modern age were either rationed or thought un-British. Cigarette-smoking was compulsory back then, and anything less than Capstan Full Strength or Senior Service untipped was regarded as half measures. If Fat Sick and Nearly Dead diet juicer Joe Cross had landed by T.A.R.D.I.S. [Time and Relative Dimension(s) In Space] in the London of 1963, he’d have been stuck with juicing suet pudding, bread and dripping, and corned beef hash.
Some people have said that Hartnell looked older in Dr Who because he was an actor playing the part of an old man. Fair enough, but he always looked older than his years. He seems to have been one of those guys, like Clive Dunn, who had an inner old geezer fighting to get out. The shot of Hartnell (right) is from the 1947 John Boulting-directed film version of Brighton Rock, his first great screen part. [The second was the title role in Carry On, Sergeant, 1958.] When this picture was taken, Hartnell would only have been 39 years old. Not even 40.
All right, so he’d had a hard life. Appearing on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs in 1965, he tried to glam it up a bit and claimed he’d been born in the Dorset countryside, but in reality Hartnell was brought up without a father in the semi-slums of London’s tough St Pancras area. He left school at 14 without prospects (but possibly with the contents of the trophy cabinet) and became involved in shop-lifting. Young old Bill only got into acting because an older man took him under his wing and paid for him to go to the Italia Conte stage school. Art dealer Hugh Blaker was 51 when he discovered the 14-year old fly-weight boxer at a boy’s boxing club at Kings Cross. I’ll move swiftly on…
As a recent BBC drama penned by Mark Gatiss asserted, Hartnell was something of a grumpy old git who liked his whisky and his women. One of the many contradictions of his life was that he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, but couldn’t help womanising. The year he left Dr Who, Hartnell appeared in pantomime at Taunton. His affair with one of his co-stars almost broke up the Hartnell marriage.
It seems William Hartnell always perceived himself as a great actor. In a regional interview for the BBC’s Points West that was unearthed recently, Hartnell is quite dismissive of his pantomime role.
Interviewer: Is pantomime something you’d like to continue doing in the future?
Hartnell: Ooh, no, no, no, no, no.
Interviewer: Oh, why not?
Hartnell: Well, I’m a legitimate actor. Pantomime is for the sort of person who is used to variety and going on the front of the stage, but I’m a legitimate actor. I do legitimate things.
Hopefully, by now it’s common knowledge that William Hartnell played “The Doctor” in Doctor Who. No one has ever played the part of Doctor Who. Not Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker (my favourite), Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McCann, Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant, or Matt Smith. Not even John Hurt or Peter Capaldi. I could go on about the William Hartnell character being referred to as “Dr Foreman” in the first episode and him countering with “Who is he? Doctor who?”, but I won’t bother. It’s a step too far.
Here’s William Hartnell’s last ever public appearance. He appears with Patrick Troughton and John Petwee playing the original Doctor in the Dr Who episode, ‘The Three Doctors’: