Friday, 5 July 2013

BFI Southbank: William Hartnell




The BFI's stunning artwork for their 50th anniversary season. (Courtesy BFI)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 12 January 2013


The British Film Institute’s year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary gets under way with the screening of the very first story.

If ever you wanted an indication of what a multi-media institution Doctor Who has now become, it was to be found in the three film crews and various radio and internet journalists covering the British Film Institute Southbank’s first Doctor Who at 50 event. According to BFI staff, they could have sold it out four times over, and February’s presentation of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ is already booked up. For a long time enthusiast this is brilliant; almost unbelievable, when you think how far the programme fell from favour in the 1980s. I couldn’t help wondering whether the series would be getting this much media attention if it hadn’t come back 2005, but it’s a safe bet that the loyalty and affection Doctor Who generates would still have seen the NFT1 auditorium packed to capacity for the screening of the first story, ‘An Unearthly Child’.            

First up, in front of the BFI’s stylish montage of all the Doctors projected on the big screen, presenters Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson welcomed heavy-hitters Mark Gatiss and Executive Producer Caroline Skinner, who informed the audience that on behalf of the BBC it was a “privilege and a pleasure” to be associated with the BFI’s year-long festival and she was “utterly delighted” with the many “exciting treats in store” to be revealed throughout the year.

Hosts Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddy
with guest Mark Gatiss.
(Courtesy BFI)
Steven Moffat would have loved to have been there, Skinnner said, but he was chained to his computer writing something-or-other that was going to be seen in November. Mark Gatiss admitted he should have been chained to his, but revealed that he was about to complete the final draft of An Adventure in Space and Time, the much anticipated drama about the origins of the show. Amusingly, considering the various titles applied to Doctor Who’s first story, Gatiss had seen his drama given three different titles on BBC documentation; nothing changes, it seems. Concluding with a short speech, he stated that whatever the first story was called, “it’s special, intangible and magical – [and] still brilliant.”

As the titles for ‘An Unearthly Child’ rolled, I remembered the first time I’d seen it, at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s second convention in 1978, when I was 14. There’s been a helluva lot of water under the bridge since then, both for me and the series. But that’s part of the appeal of the show: for good or ill, you can map the different stages of your life through it. Watching the first episode on the big screen again 34 years later, its power hadn’t diminished a bit. The original signature tune, like nothing heard on television before or since, and the eerily expressionistic title sequence, suggest horror rather than science fiction, a stylistic theme carried through to the creepy junkyard set, foreboding incidental music and otherworldliness of Susan. And the moment William Hartnell appears as a vaguely sinister old man, he completely owns the screen.

In a break between the second and third episodes, sound designer Brian Hodgson and vision mixer Clive Doig, two men responsible for the success of Doctor Who’s initial impact as much as anyone, were asked to the front of the stage for a short interview. It was revealed that composer Ron Grainer was talked into writing the Doctor Who theme by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Desmond Briscoe, as Grainer didn’t want to do any more signature tunes. When he heard Delia Derbyshire’s remarkable realisation, he said “Jeez, Delia, did I write that?!” Her reply: “Most of it, Ron.” Doig also mentioned William Hartnell’s rather unusual ideas about a global “steel conspiracy.” (No, me neither).

After the final episodes, which were notable for the implied violence of the animal attack on the caveman Za (Derek Newark) and the actual violence of the climatic fight between him and the villainous Kal (Jeremy Young), Doctor Who’s first bad guy took the stage in the illustrious company of ‘An Unearthly Child’’s director Waris Hussein, William Hartnell’s granddaughter and biographer Jessica Carney, Season Three script editor Donald Tosh and original companion actors William Russell (Ian Chesterton) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman, the unearthly child herself).

Back together after 50 years: director Waris Hussein
with Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and William Russell (Ian
Chesterton). (Courtesy BFI)
The discussion was by turns affectionate, proud and good humoured, with Young in particular, who as far as I know hasn’t been interviewed before, proving very amusing, exclaiming to Carole Ann, “Fifty years and you haven’t changed a bit!” and revealing that his bad temperedness as Kal was exaggerated by an outbreak of sand fleas on the set. Hussein admitted to being “a reluctant recruit” at the beginning, but was convinced the story could be done by its innovative young producer, Verity Lambert. After watching his episodes on the big screen again, he professed to “being happy to be part of it”, a point elaborated on by Russell who declared unequivocally “I thought it was great... Everybody took it very seriously. We believed in it.” Ford revealed that she left the show because the character as promised to her wasn’t adhered to, while Tosh told some amusing anecdotes about the chaotic production of Doctor Who’s third series.

Touchingly, the panel were unanimous in their praise and admiration for Hartnell, with Hussein in particular praising his “dangerous and unpredictable” performance, and Carney highlighting the delight of a man known for playing hard-bitten figures being able to start with “something of a blank slate” and create a three dimensional character for children. A last question from the audience about Lambert, “the first important female producer”, brought equally unreserved praise from the assembled guests for the woman who started it all.

The event ended on a forward-looking, upbeat note when Russell and Ford were asked that if they were invited to appear in November’s anniversary special, they would agree? On their affirmative “Yes”, there was a rousing, valedictory round of applause from the auditorium.        

As the nostalgia-warmed audience filed out, I reflected that there had been a lot of love in the room for my favourite old TV show. We’ve got 11 more of these events to go, so long may it continue.

Carole Ann looks to the future?  (Courtesy BFI)


  1. Great stuff Rob. Carole Ann has my sympathy. As with many female companions, all she did was scream and mess things up. And then she went and married a human. (Why is it that the Doctor never pops in to see her?)

    1. Ah, but he did, Liz, if you know your audio Dr Who. Paul McGann dropped in to see her a few years ago.