Friday, 15 November 2013



NFT1, 8.20pm, 12 November 2013

The Hartnell era lives again in Mark Gatiss's delightful salute to the early days of Doctor Who. 

Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and William Hartnell (David Bradley).
(Image: BBC)

Throughout these reviews of the BFI's Doctor Who at 50 events, I've reflected on how various periods of the series resonate with significant moments in your life. The last few weeks couldn't have been more significant for me as I came very close to losing my home. So, I arrived at the BFI on Tuesday night rather shell-shocked but victorious, as I'd managed to sort out the situation. My frame of mind seemed curiously appropriate, because, among other things, Mark Gatiss's film An Adventure in Space and Timis all about people triumphing over adversity. In years to come, I know the overriding feelings I'll have about the night I first saw this wonderful piece of faction, will be a surge of nostalgia and affection (rather than worries about housing).

I really didn't know what to expect. No one in the auditorium had seen the film (as far as I knew) and it seemed all of the Doctor Who fraternity wanted to. Waris Hussein, the programme's first director was in the audience together with Carole Ann Ford (Susan), the first companion actress. Philip Hinchcliffe, Tom Baker's first producer, was sitting a few rows in front with his wife. I was in a companion sandwich, with Louise Jameson (Leela) on one side - sitting in seat K9, appropriately enough - with Anneke Wills (Polly) on the other. Further down the row was Sophie Aldred (Ace), so it was nearly a triple decker.

A valedictory introduction by Clare Hudson, Head of BBC Cymru, was followed by a a few good humoured words from Gatiss himself. He summed up the mood of An Adventure in Space and Time, and indeed all this year's BFI celebrations, with the comment that the original Doctor Who production team had set out to make some 'tea time telly, but instead created magic.'

The author in a companion
(Image: Richard Parker)
As much as I'd like to enthuse about individual moments I can't, as the film isn't shown nationally until next week. That's very frustrating, as I'd like to praise at length, and with various examples, the accurate recreation of the working environment and practises of 1960s television, as well as the loving attention to detail in remounting key scenes from early Doctor Who's production history and fictional story. What I can say is that Gatiss's statement that his film was 'a love letter to Doctor Who' comes across in every frame. What also comes over in certain scenes - in particular, the first time the Doctor and co are confronted by the Daleks - is how an under budgeted and unloved (within the BBC hierarchy at the time) serial set the imaginations of Britain's children flying. 

At it's heart, An Adventure in Space and Time is about four people: Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), the Canadian executive poached from ABC to give BBC drama some commercial zest and 'fun '; Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), 'the pushy Jewish bird' who was Newman's assistant, promoted to Doctor Who's first producer; Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the BBC's first Indian, and gay, director and William Hartnell (David Bradley), a grumpy character actor who 'drinks too much and smokes too much', in the twilight of his career. What's striking is that a TV series about an outsider was created by outsiders, a point made in various scenes that highlight, but don't labour, the sexist, racist and anti-commercial attitudes within the BBC at the time.

All the principals are good, particularly Cox, who's garrulous, let's-make-some-fun Newman you can just imagine winding up the stuffed shirts in the BBC hierarchy who were stuck in the 1950s. But Bradley is something else. He might not have Hartnell's curiously high pitched voice, but he totally inhabits the man's character through his mannerisms, attitude and body language, as both the actor and the Doctor. It's such a successful portrayal that Jessica Carney, Hartnell's granddaughter who was present for the screening, was literally moved to tears.

It's a very bitter-sweet story for Hartnell. A man who was fed up with playing crooks and shouty sergeants gradually comes back to spry life as a hero to millions of children, nicely shown through the ever improving relationship with Jessica (then called Judith) and in the wonderful scene in which he and his wife Heather (Lesley Manville) meet some young fans in the park. The downside for Hartnell was that people he liked and trusted kept moving on from Doctor Who and in his heart of hearts, due to his failing health, he knew he had nowhere to move on to. At times this didn't make him the easiest man to work with - and the film doesn't back pedal on showing how difficult he could be - but the scene where he's told that even he is replaceable is absolutely heartbreaking. However, rather than ending the film on a downer, Hartnell's belief in a character who is 'C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas' is validated by a completely unexpected moment near the end. You really won't believe it.

David Bradley is William Hartnell is
the Doctor. (Image: BBC)
It's not surprising An Adventure in Space and Time got a standing ovation. David Bradley, watching from the stalls with the rest of us, admitted on the panel that followed the screening to being 'overwhelmed' by the audience response. His sentiments were echoed by the film's director, Terry McDonagh - one of the directors on Breaking Bad, no less - who was delighted to have found the same 'magic in this film as I did as a kid in Liverpool' and to be in 'an audience so engaged with what they were watching'. A now composed Carney was also flushed with the surge of affection in the auditorium, praising the film as 'exciting, nerve-wracking and strange - William Hartnell would have been so thrilled.'

In the concluding open mic section, the last questioner summed up the whole evening with his remark that An Adventure in Space and Time was 'well worth the eight hours in the returns queue.' After the gale of laughter that followed, there was time for one celebratory pint before the train home (which was fortunately still there).

This film has made me realise that what's great about Doctor Who is that for all the behind the scenes tensions, difficult egos and creative compromises, the audience only ever sees the magic (when it all works). What's brilliant about An Adventure in Space and Time is that you're shown behind the scenes tensions, difficult egos and creative compromises and the simple, infectious joy children see in the end result. This production will be praised for a lot of things (and criticised - this is Doctor Who, after all), but this aspect of the ongoing Doctor Who saga is something Mark Gatiss's film conveys particularly well.

Thank you for your love letter to the child in all of us, Mark.

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