(8th January 1908 – 23rd April 1975)
William Henry Hartnell was born on 8th January 1908 in the slums of London. He was an only child to Lucy Hartnell who was an unmarried mother. His father was never mentioned on his birth certificate and although steps were taken to locate him, he was never found.
William was brought up mostly by Lucy’s sister who became his foster mother and he enjoyed holidays in Devon on a farm belonging to his mother’s family, he learnt how to ride and wanted to become a jockey but he left school at 14, with no prospects, no qualifications, and dabbled in petty crime.
He joined a boxing club and was noticed at the age of 16 by Hugh Oswald Blaker when he was fighting bouts as a flyweight boxer at Kings Cross. He was taken under the wing of Blaker who became his unofficial guardian. Blaker born 1873 was an English artist, connoisseur, dealer in Old Masters, writer and a socialist and was passionate about theatre. Blaker gave the young Hartnell a roof over his head and enlisted him into the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
The Academy of Theatre Arts was the dream child of Italia Conti, an established actress, who after discovering her natural gift of managing children, devoted nearly all of her time to teaching children to act, sing, dance and speak.
Blaker paid to send Hartnell to the Imperial Service College for some strict refinement of manners, but the strictures were too much for Hartnell and he left.
At the age of 17 Hartnell began his career in theatre as a general stagehand, working under Frank Benson’s Shakespearian group. He took on many roles before he had the opportunity of acting within the theatre, from dogsbody, call-boy, assistant stage manager, property master and assistant lighting director, and occasional small walk on parts. In 1926 he appeared in many Shakespearian plays such as The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest, before leaving the theatre company two years later to go on tour, working for various companies around Britain.
When he returned to the UK he married actress Heather McIntyre whom he’d appeared with in the theatre production Miss Elizabeth’s Prisoner in 1928, a play written by Robert Neilson Stephens and E. Lyall Swete. They lived in one of Blaker’s adjacent properties in Isleworth and in 1929 Heather gave birth to their only child Heather Anne.
Over the years William Hartnell was to appear in almost 75 feature films, including Say it with Music in 1932. In the Noel Coward film In Which We Serve he was to play Albert Fosdyke but he turned up late on the first day of shooting, and after he was berated and made to personally apologise to the entire cast and crew, was sacked.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Hartnell served with the Tank Corps but was invalided out after 18 months after suffering a nervous breakdown. He returned to acting.
The films Hartnell appeared in were mainly comedic characters until he took the role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead in 1944. During the early years in film and stage he was referred to as Billy Hartnell.
The Way Ahead was written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov and directed by Carol Reed and told the story of Lieutenant Jim Perry played by David Niven, who was a veteran of the British Expeditionary Force who is posted to the fictional Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry known as the ‘dogs’, in which to train a bunch of grumbling ex civilians into soldiers. After their training they were shipped to North Africa to do battle against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
On the back of this film Hartnell was to become known for his roles such as policemen, soldiers and thuggish characters. It bothered him greatly that he was typecast in these roles, even in comedy he was portrayed as a ‘heavy’.
In 1958 he played Sergeant Grimshaw in the first of the Carry On films – Carry On Sergeant. It was written by Norman Hudis and directed by Gerald Thomas. The story told of Sergeant Grimshaw who was due to retire and who took on a £50 bet from Sergeant O’Brien (Terry Scott) to prove that his last bunch of squaddies would be his first champion platoon.
The film was in black and white and featured the familiar faces of Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques. It was entertaining and had a happy ending for the Sergeant in the story.
Hartnell’s first regular role on television came in The Army Game when he played Sergeant Major Percy Bullimore from 1957-1961. The creator had been inspired by the 1956 film Private’s Progress which also starred William Hartnell as well as Ian Carmichael, Richard Attenborough and Terry-Thomas. The story was based around the latest conscripts who were assigned to the Surplus Ordnance Department at Nether Hopping, Staffordshire. Billeted in Hut 29. It was a very similar in story to the Carry On Sergeant where the recruits were men who were doing their National Service and had more fun than actual training.
The programme ran on the ITV channel and out of the 155 episodes made, only 50 are thought to have survived.
But it was his role in This Sporting Life where he played an ageing rugby league talent scout known to everyone as ‘Dad’ that caught the attention of Verity Lambert, who was at that time looking for the ideal person to play the cantankerous old man who lived in a junk yard and travelled in a ‘magical’ blue box. At first Hartnell was sceptical about the role, given that this was a children’s series and he’d played very adult roles in the past. But with the help of Waris Hussein, Hartnell accepted the role of the Time Lord and became the iconic figure we know of today.
Hartnell was to play the role of the Doctor from its launch on 23rd November 1963 till 1966.
During his tenure as the Doctor, Hartnell enjoyed the new found attention it gave him. Stepping away from the typecast thuggish roles of the past and becoming this ‘grandfather’ figure to children ‘of all ages’ who watched his performance in the sci fi show every week around their black and white television sets, he was also recognised in the street by a new generation. Children. For his role as the Doctor Hartnell had to wear a wig as the First Doctor had long hair but in private life, Hartnell favoured the short back and sides look.
In the role of the Doctor, Hartnell was paid £315 per episode which in modern terms would be around £4,050 a week, which was much less than his co-stars in the programme received.
As the years progressed and the workload grew heavier, and scenes were usually filmed in the first take, Hartnell’s health began to suffer. William Hartnell suffered from Arteriosclerosis which caused a hardening and thickening of the arterial walls in the arteries. It also affected Hartnell’s ability to read his lines. By 1966 he was too ill to continue, and stepped down from his role as the Doctor. But this left the producers with a problem. How do you continue with Doctor Who when the main star leaves? Simple! As the Doctor was an alien it was decided by the producers that he could regenerate, change his whole DNA to a completely new body. But who could they find at such short notice?
"There's only one man in England who can take over, and that's Patrick Troughton."
In the 4th episode of the Tenth Planet, the First Doctor regenerated into the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton.
Although that was theoretically Hartnell’s last moment as The Doctor, he was to return in an audio drama called Peer Pressure, playing a separate character to Colin Baker’s Doctor. Although he reprised his role as the Doctor during the television episode celebrating the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who in The Three Doctors although when his wife Heather found out about it, she insisted that he played all his appearances seated and read his lines from cue cards. This was to be his last ever role as an actor.
In the early 1970’s Hartnell’s health worsened and he was permanently hospitalised in 1974. He suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died in his sleep on April 23rd, 1975, he was 67.
I was too young to know of William Hartnell’s first outing as the Doctor, but over the years I have watched many of the programmes he was to appear in before his tenure as the Time Lord from Gallifrey.
In 2013, Hartnell’s life as the Doctor was immortalised in the drama An Adventure in Space and Time where his role was portrayed by David Bradley who looks uncannily like Hartnell. It gave people like me an insight into the man and the history of Doctor Who.
There is a published biography of William Hartnell written by the one person who would know him very well, his grand-daughter Judith “Jessica” Carney, an actress herself. The book entitled ‘Who’s There? The Life and Career of William Hartnell was originally published in 1996 by Virgin Publishing but in light of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who was revised and republished in 2013 with Fantom Publishing.
©BBC Doctor Who 1963