a real world point of view
|Birth date:||8 January 1908|
|Death date:||23 April 1975 (aged 67)|
|In the DWU|
|Main roles:||First Doctor|
|Main time period active:||1963-1966|
|Notable non-DWU work:|
The Bells go Down
Carry on Sergeant
Tomorrow at Ten
William Henry "Bill" Hartnell portrayed the first incarnation of the Doctor. For many, his remains the definitive portrayal of the character. Elements of his performance are evident in those of all his successors on the television series and beyond.
Hartnell was born in St Pancras, London, England on 8 January 1908, the only child of an unmarried mother, Lucy Hartnell. He was raised primarily by his aunt Bessie (Wood, 208). Hartnell never discovered the identity of his father, whose particulars are left blank on the existing birth certificate, and despite efforts made by him in later years, his absent parent was never traced. Hartnell was apparently so ashamed of his illegitimate background that he deliberately concealed it – claiming instead to come from a farming family in Seaton, Devon, where he had spent many happy holidays when he was a boy.
Often known as Billy, he was educated at home and at Imperial Service College. After training as a jockey (having learned to ride during his childhood holidays in Seaton) and then as a boxer, he studied acting at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and entered the theatre in 1924 working under Frank Benson. The first of his more than sixty film appearances was in Say It With Music in 1932. He was invalided out of the Royal Armoured Corps of the British Army during the Second World War after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Noel Coward famously gave him a dressing down on the set of In Which We Serve for being very late - keeping the cast and crew waiting. He was summarily dismissed from the role of 'a Royal Marine'.
Until 1944, Hartnell usually played comic characters. Then he was cast in the robust role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead. From then on, his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs — although he was noted for his ability to bring complexity to such roles; for example, in his widely praised performance as Dallow in Brighton Rock. In 1958, he topped the bill in the first Carry On film, 'Carry On Sergeant', playing Sergeant Grimshaw, and in 1963 he appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting Brothers' film 'Heavens Above!' with Peter Sellers. Hartnell also appeared as Will Buckley in the film 'The Mouse That Roared' in 1959 (with Peter Sellers).
Hartnell's first regular role on television was in 'The Army Game' from 1957–1961. In 1963, he appeared in a supporting role in the film version of 'This Sporting Life', giving a sensitive performance as an ageing Rugby League talent scout known as 'Dad'.
His performance as a tough yet sympathetic character in This Sporting Life was noted by Verity Lambert, a young producer who was setting up her first television series for the BBC, namely Doctor Who. She offered him the title role. Hartnell was uncertain if he wanted to take on the part. Lambert and director Waris Hussein convinced him to play the character for which he gained his highest profile and for which he is now most widely remembered. Hartnell relished particularly the attention and affection from children that playing the Doctor brought him. He became very fond of the role. By 1966, when his final season aired, the role also earned Hartnell a regular salary of £315 per episode. (In comparison, his co-stars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze earned £68 and £52 respectively per episode.)
According to some colleagues on Doctor Who, he could be difficult to work with. Others, notably actors Peter Purves and William Russell and producer Verity Lambert, spoke glowingly of him after more than forty years. His bad health (arteriosclerosis) and poor relations with the new production team following the departure of Lambert mid-way during the first half of Season 3 ultimately led him to leave Doctor Who in 1966 when his contract expired.
Some commentators contend reports of Hartnell's illness were exaggerated by succeeding producers John Wiles and Innes Lloyd to justify their effort (ultimately successful) to remove him from the series because of the expense of his salary. Wiles had considered this as early as the pre-production plans for The Celestial Toymaker. Others suggest it was a mutual decision of Hartnell and the production team that he should leave the programme. Lloyd has stated Hartnell even approved of the choice of actor saying (according to Lloyd), "There's only one man in England who can take over, and that's Patrick Troughton." However Hartnell claimed in later life that he did not want to leave the series, writing, in an oft-quoted letter, "I didn't willingly give up the part". Suggestions that Hartnell's health was failing him are contradicted by his return to demanding theatre work almost immediately upon leaving Doctor Who. He also made television guest appearances during the late 1960s, which include 'No Hiding Place'.
Hartnell was fifty-five when he made his first appearance as the Doctor. As of 2012, he remains the oldest actor to be cast as the Doctor. He suffered injuries while in the role, most notably during filming for The Dalek Invasion of Earth when the ramp of the Dalek spaceship, down which he was being carried on a stretcher, collapsed and he was thrown to the floor and temporarily paralysed after landing awkwardly on a camera steering circle. He returned to work after just a week's bed-rest. During recording of The Myth Makers, Hartnell not only suffered another injury, a shoulder bruised when he was struck from behind by a camera, but also a bereavement – his Aunt Bessie passed away. Hartnell found himself unable to take time off to attend her funeral due to the tight production schedules.
Life after the Doctor
Hartnell reprised the role in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors (made in 1972, broadcast 1972-1973) with the help of cue cards, but appeared only in pre-filmed inserts seen on video screens. Hartnell's health had deteriorated in the early 1970s, and in December 1974 he was admitted to hospital permanently. In early 1975 he suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died in his sleep of heart failure on 23 April 1975 at the age of sixty-seven. His death was reported on the BBC News and a clip of the Doctor and his companions in the TARDIS control room from the end of "The OK Corral", the final episode of The Gunfighters, was shown. Hartnell has the distinction of being the first major actor of the Doctor Who franchise to pass away; the next wouldn't be until companion actor Ian Marter's death eleven years later.
A clip of his scene from the end of the serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was used as a pre-credits sequence for the twentieth anniversary story The Five Doctors (1983), although another actor, Richard Hurndall, played the role of the First Doctor for the remainder of the story. Hartnell and Hurndall were both included in the story's on-screen credits for the role of the Doctor. Hartnell was credited because some black and white footage from his Doctor appeared before the opening titles as a tribute to him.
Biographical information about William Hartnell is hard to substantiate because of conflicting information from different sources. Hartnell himself gave accounts of his birth and upbringing which differ from verifiable facts. The only published biography is by his granddaughter, Jessica Carney. Although criticised by some as a hagiography, Carney's Who's There? does refer to these difficulties and makes it clear that a great deal of research has been done, drawing from primary sources, as well as Hartnell's family's own extensive archive. Notwithstanding an often negative view of its subject, the family link with the author makes some critics view this work as biased.[source needed]
Hartnell exists within the Doctor Who universe. AUDIO: Pier Pressure contains the character Billy, a young actor in 1936 Brighton who had appeared in the films I'm an Explosive and While Parents Sleep. Both titles are real-world films in which young Hartnell appeared, credited as "Billy Hartnell."
Hartnell's occasional mistakes in his lines while in Doctor Who have been named "Hartnellisms" (or "Billy-fluffs") by Doctor Who fans. It should be noted that the methods of television production at the time — effectively recording long takes "as live" with retakes only being undertaken in extreme circumstances — led to the inclusion of far more of these small errors than would have been apparent in any more modern production. It is also worth noting that sudden, short-term memory loss or a momentary loss of concentration are recognised symptoms of arteriosclerosis, which Hartnell was suffering from, undiagnosed. In light of this, overt mocking of this small tendency has increasingly been considered to be in poor taste, especially when it draws attention away from Hartnell's other achievements with a consequent effect on his reputation.
Additionally, some so-called Hartnellisms can be viewed in the context of the character and were scripted (other characters draw attention to this tendency in dialogue). For example, the Doctor frequently misspoke companion Ian Chesterton's name (calling him "Chesterfield" in one episode, "Chatterton" in another). In the fifth episode of The Keys of Marinus, "Sentence of Death", Hartnell appears to repeat a line of dialogue when he mixes up the words 'improve' and 'prove', but according to the DVD text commentary for the episode this error was actually scripted.
- The TARDIS crew was looking over some anti-radiation drugs. The Doctor told the group that they were anti-radiation gloves, then quickly corrected himself by saying "drugs". (TV: The Daleks)
- A Hartnellism that occurred during rehearsals of TV: The Edge of Destruction, but not in the finished programme: the Doctor was to tell Susan to "check the fault-locator". Instead, he told her to "check the fornicator". All indications are, however, that this was done as a joke.
- Barbara worries about the sea surrounding the island of Marinus being frozen. The Doctor tells her it would be impossible to be frozen in this temperature: "Besides, it's too warm". (TV: The Keys of Marinus)
- The Doctor scolds Ian for not wearing his shoes, because he could have lent Susan hers (not yours). This, too, appears to have been intended as a humourous add-in. (TV: The Keys of Marinus)
- The Doctor intends to tell a space captain named Maitland to stabilise his ship, but instead says "Stabilise us, Matron!" (TV: The Sensorites)
- Perhaps the most famous of Hartnell's fluffs was when the Doctor warned Ian and Barbara that they could wind up as two "cinders floating around in Spain", rather than space. (TV: The Chase)
- Hartnell also stumbled upon certain words as he struggled to remember his lines, often saying something strange. (TV: The Romans; TV: The Space Museum)
It has been said that as time went on and Hartnell's health ostensibly failed, the number of Hartnellisms increased, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. However, listening to surviving audio copies of his later serials – such as The Savages and The Smugglers – shows this assertion to be demonstrably false.
Additionally, when Hartnell played the Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre (identical to the Doctor physically, the Abbot has more screen time than the Doctor himself), he managed to say all his lines without a hitch.
In Hartnell's final full story, The Tenth Planet, the Doctor is given far fewer lines than normal. It has been speculated that this was done deliberately to prevent such problems, but there is no evidence from either production office records or surviving members of the production team to suggest that this was the case.
- Hartnell always claimed he was born in Seaton, Devon, England, but was actually born in St. Pancras, London, England.
- At one time he shared the same agent as Nicholas Courtney, who later played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Courtney appeared alongside Hartnell as Bret Vyon in the The Daleks' Master Plan. (Masterplan director Douglas Camfield also directed the Brigadier's premiere story, The Web of Fear.)
- Internet Movie Database at the
- William Hartnell Dot Com
- BBC Online — William Hartnell
- Citizen Of The Universe - William Hartnell article at kasterborous.com
- William Hartnell biography @ Carry On...