Monday, 23 April 2012

William Hartnell The First Doctor

William Henry Hartnell was the first actor to portray the role of the Doctor in the BBCtv series Doctor Who. He first played the role in the unseen pilot version of An Unearthly Child before Sydney Newman ordered the pilot to be reshot.

William Hartnell was the only child of Lucy Hartnell, an unmarried Mother. He spent many a happy childhood in Devon with his Mothers family of farmers, it was there that he learnt to ride a horse. Hartnell made various efforts to trace his Father, but unfortunately without success.

Hartnell entered the Theatre in 1925, working under Frank Benson as a general stagehand. It was whilst appearing in the play Miss Elizabeth's Prisoner that he met Heather McIntyre, they married the following year.

He appeared in more than sixty movies, beginning with Say it with Music. It was after playing the tough Sergeant in The Way Ahead in 1944 that he perhaps got typecast as thugs and policemen, he was usually known for comical roles prior to his appearance in this movie.

He made a memorable appearance in the very first Carry On Movie as Sergeant Grimshaw, the true star of Carry On Sergeant, but again he was playing another tough character.

It was Hartnell's performance in the film This Sporting Life which drew him to the attention of a young Verity Lambert. She had just been handed the producership of a brand new BBC sci-fi series, Doctor Who, and was looking for an actor to cast in the lead role.

Despite meeting with Verity Lambert to discuss the role, he was not overly keen to take the role initially, but was soon persuaded to accept the role. So began the very first era of Doctor Who with William Hartnell at the helm of the TARDIS, although it was usually just referred to as The Ship in his era. We didn't know at this point that he was a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey, he was just a wanderer in space and time with unknown origins.

Hartnell's era is a mixture of sci-fi and historical stories, when the show was trying to establish itself. Undoubtedly it was with the second story which featured the alien creatures known as the Daleks which catapulted the fledgling Doctor Who series into an instant hit.

It became a show which everyone knew about and wanted to watch. Hartnell's brusque performance of the Doctor, softened over his tenure in the role. To many the Hartnell era was definitive Doctor Who, where the show stretched it's format in many ways with stories like The Gunfighters and The Web Planet. This first era is looked back with much affection, as this era saw the birth of a show which would end up being a British Television Institution and later a Television Legend.

Hartnell left the role in 1966 in a story called The Tenth Planet, after becoming estranged with the shows new production team following the departure of Verity Lambert, and also because of health reasons, he suffered from arteriosclerosis which affects the memory.

However in 1973 he returned to the role in the story The Three Doctors, alongside his successors in the role - Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Despite being ill with his failing memory, William Hartnell appeared on pre-filmed inserts where he read his lines off cue cards. This would be the last time he would appear on television, and it is very fitting that it is on the show he helped to create and made one of the most popular and beloved television shows of all time.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to William Hartnell who began the famous role which continues today with Matt Smith in the illustrious role. Hartnell passed away on 23rd April 1975, at the age of 67 in his sleep following a series of strokes. He will never be forgotten. He gave birth to one of the most popular roles on television.

For anyone who has not seen any of the Hartnell Doctor Who stories on DVD, you don't know what you're missing. Although his era may have been quite experimental with it's choice of stories, Hartnell gives his all in the role. Let's not forget that his era was when Doctor Who was trying to establish itself, it was a very new series when he took up the role.

So please support the official DVD's from 2|Entertain, there are quite a few stories available from his era to buy. You wont be disappointed.


  1. Fantastic tribute mate. Though the stories are quite slow, they are still a joy to watch! Shame I wont be joining you. Hope it's a good session!

  2. Inasmuch as Tom Baker was my first doctor, I’ve grown to really cherish the Hartnell years. I especially like the “Socratic questioning” method he usually used when he made a response (although at times it does get on ones nerves). Great job, David. A very thorough, educational tribute that benefits both new and seasoned whovians alike. Cheers!