On November 23, 1963, a television legend began when the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on BBC One. The genesis of that production is told in the two-hour movie An Adventure in Space and Time, which premieres on BBC America next month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series.
David Bradley portrays actor William Hartnell, who was cast as the very first Doctor. At 55-years-old, Hartnell, a well established character actor, reluctantly took on the role, which changed his life and, after years of working, finally made him a household name.
David Bradley came to the TV Critics tour to talk about the beginnings of this sci fi phenomenon.
What kind of research did you do for this role?
When I first got the role I didn’t know anything about William Hartnell. I admired him as an actor. I thought he was one of the great unsung British character actors of his time. [I had] access to lots of DVD footage of him that was very useful for recreating the episodes, and I read his granddaughter, Jessica Carney’s, biography about him.
What did you learn from those?
In spite of having claimed to have been brought up on a farm in Devon, with a kind of idyllic picture of his upbringing, in fact, he was born illegitimately behind St. Pancreas Station in London. And he never knew his father.
When he was a child, at the turn of the century, in1908, when he was born, he suffered a lot of taunting for his illegitimacy. He never talked about it, but one feels that it left him with a deep insecurity, that occasionally would come out and explode when he was on set.
When I spoke to William Russell and Carol Ann Ford about him, what he was like to work with, they said he was absolutely delightful, but he had his funny days. I think Mark (Gatiss, who wrote the tv movie) brought out all the complex nature of the man in the film, and as far as I’m aware, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal.
Was it a challenge to play him?
Mark didn’t try and sentimentalize his life. He showed all the different sides to him. It’s always great for an actor to play someone who’s got a secret or lots of colors in his nature.
There’s more to explore, and that makes him more complex and interesting. So that’s the challenge, but also the pleasure of discovering what he was like. I think they’ve been pretty faithful to his life story.
Did you understand why William Hartnell was so hesitant to play the role?
I could understand Hartnell’s reluctance initially when he met Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, because he just saw a couple of kids with a crazy kid’s idea. It’s easy to look back now and imagine it arrived fully formed.
Someone put the script on a producer’s desk and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s throw money at that. That’s great.’ But, of course, television is never like that. And this had more problems than most, I suspect, as the head of the BBC, after the first pilot, said, ‘Just kill Doctor Who.’ I think that’s in the film.
What was it about Doctor Who that people embraced it from the beginning?
I think once the Daleks came in, that’s when it really took off. And we have the guy who did the voice in the [movie] When I was young and I saw [the series], I had no idea that it was just a guy sitting in the chair at the side with a wrap-around microphone.
It was all done live while he was watching the action. I just assumed it had all been added on after, or it was prerecorded. You see little glimpses behind the scenes in the film.