William Hartnell

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

William Hartnell Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 1/5/15

Five weeks into the BBC’s new flagship early evening Saturday television show, fledgling producer Verity Lambert played her trump card. Convinced of her belief in writer Terry Nation’s creation, she introduced children to the Daleks and Doctor Who blasted off into the stratosphere.

Like millions, I watched from behind the sofa, totally transfixed each week as the Doctor and his companions explored the universe in the TARDIS, a sentient time-travelling space ship with the exterior appearance of a blue British police box, a common sight in Britain in 1963 when the series first aired.

For William Hartnell, already a veteran of stage and screen work for more than three decades, December 21, 1963 was a defining moment, the point where personal reservations evaporated, and hitherto unforeseen national fame would beckon.

Hartnell was born in St Pancras, London, in 1908 to an unwed mother, a huge stigma at the time, especially in light of prevailing trends. Illegitimacy rates in the early 20th century were relatively low in England and Wales* compared with previous periods, except during the two world wars. This statistical increase in both wars was partly attributable to moralizers that seemingly countenanced outrageous behaviour amongst the young, a demographic group liberated by wartime conditions. Of greater significance was the number of marriages prevented, or delayed, due to the absence and/or death of men at war, and there is clear evidence of this for WW2 from the Registrar- General’s statistics. These figures demonstrated clearly that during the war, illegitimacy rose by about the same rate as premarital pregnancy fell. The natural conclusion was clear – this correlation was due to wartime separation delaying marriages for couples who would otherwise have married, and perhaps so did later.

*Statistics supplied by The Economic History Society – a learned society established at the London School of Economics in 1926 to support the research and teaching of economic history both in the United Kingdom and internationally. The society also acts as a pressure group working to influence government policy in the interests of history and economic affairs, alongside other societies and professional bodies with similar interests.

The young Hartnell was stigmatised by his background, and in later years would concoct tales about his formative years. His mother hailed from Devon but he most certainly did not, although the young William would visit relatives, and learned to ride horses there. When his mother went to Brussels to work as a nurse, he was fostered by a bootmender’s family and, living in abject poverty, turned to shoplifting.

His granddaughter writes in her 1998 biography : “He was a bit of a young scally, and was bullied for being illegitimate. He shoplifted because he was poor. His mother returned, but they had a difficult relationship, and he began to dread going home. She would hit him with a broom and throw things at him. He was hungry a lot of the time and got very skinny.”

At the age of fourteen he met his mentor Hugh Blaker, an artist and philanthropist who took it upon himself to help. First he sent William to train as a jockey, and then to the Italia Conti acting school. He was a success and joined a touring theatre company in 1925. After marrying Heather, they had one girl, Heather Anne. As well as the first Carry On film and The Army Game TV comedy, Hartnell also had roles in classic films including Brighton Rock and This Sporting Life.

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Opinions are divided amongst surviving cast members about Hartnell’s views on racial equality. The following blog offers a reasoned argument for placing the man within the context of his times.


In any event, it should be apparent to millions – even in these so called enlightened times – that whilst society is purging itself of outright public displays of racism, what continues to exist in people’s minds is something else.

In Britain, society chose to purge itself of its racist edges in the late 90’s – a course of action broadly coterminous with the emergence of the Macpherson Report. In my opinion, this was a groundbreaking investigation, and the framework upon which the UK government would justify an unparalleled increase in its own powers to sanction such undesirable proclivities. Unfortunately, matters are now out of hand, with the patients running the asylum.

At the time however, and clearly well intentioned, public pressure was instrumental in generating an inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1997. Sir William Macpherson – a retired high court judge – led an inquiry into the conduct of the police during this murder investigation. The ensuing report analysed the institutional and individual behaviour of the police during the murder investigation of Stephen Lawrence, criticising the enforcement agency for failure to carry out the investigation in an appropriate manner. Most damningly, the report labelled the Metropolitan police force as ‘institutionally racist.’

Originally published in 1999, the Metropolitan Police’s key areas of failure during the investigation included failure on the part of officers first on the scene, to administer first aid to Stephen Lawrence, and secondly, of being insensitive and acting in a racially stereotypical way due to Stephen’s ethnicity.

Fifty years later, Hartnell would probably have been dropped from Doctor Who by the BBC – albeit after a severe reprimand – and yet his views were merely representative of the old colonial perspective on life. Britain, the Empire, the naval fleet, there was much to engender a feeling of superiority amongst those born early into the twentieth century.


In any event, many of these accusations are mitigated by the recollections of numerous people who worked with him, and who have defended him against such claims. Carole Ann Ford, his time travelling companion, is Jewish, and she has always spoken of the warm affection between the pair. Nevertheless, working agreeably in close proximity with an affable, industrious and professional colleague, is no indicator of a person’s wider ethnic views. Being of mixed parentage myself, I have encountered individuals who have temporarily dropped their guard to reveal their true prejudices to me, each one of them temporarily oblivious to how I might well view their beliefs and opinions. I’ve never been personally offended; mixing with two different cultures as part of my family background, both highlights and reinforces their idiosyncracies and foibles, and most distinctly, their sense of humour, much of which I love.

The following link to an article by Alicia Colon of ‘The Irish Examiner Newspaper’ – which appeared in the USA in 2010 – highlights the lamentable effect that ethnic hypersensitivity is having on our sense of humour. Her premise is simple : “Apparently we’re no longer allowed to laugh at anything remotely unflattering to ourselves or certain minorities, and that’s not only a shame, it’s downright dangerous.”


In the final analysis, it appears most unlikely that Hartnell wasn’t rascist, yet that made him no different from millions of his generation, and indeed, millions to this very day. In any event, I merely look for certain subject areas to both discuss and consider within the context of that person. Picking at the carcass of a deceased celebrity like some over zealous vulture may be a favourite pastime of the British tabloid press, but it’s not mine.

In his defence – if such mitigating factors are required – there was his love for his viewers, and especially children, which has become legendary; also the public appearances at fairs and charity events at his own expense, the copious amount of downtime he would spend with adoring children, and the voluminous amount of fan mail he would personally sign at weekends – all these acts are indicative traits of a warm avuncular personality.

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Recommended listening

Desert Island Discs (23/8/65)


Hartnell’s appearance on the BBC radio series was long thought lost, but thankfully around 40% of the programme would resurface in 2015. Unfortunately, the surviving fragment ends before we can once again enjoy his feelings on portraying The Doctor.

“This is the only extract the BBC has of this edition of Desert Island Discs and begins with the castaway’s first choice of music,” notes current host Kirsty Young at the start of the recording.

Hartnell’s favourite piece of music is ‘The Spring Song from A King in New York’ by Charlie Chaplin.

His top book is English Social History by G M Trevelya,n and his luxury is cigarettes.

During the interview Hartnell talks about preferring horses to the theatre, and running away from school at an early age with the hope of becoming a jockey. He also discusses his favourite film appearances.

He’s unfortunately, less than forthright about his childhood. Responding to host Roy Plomley’s questioning, he claims to have been born in the Dorset countryside, but in reality was brought up without a father in the semi-slums of London’s tough St Pancras area. Leaving school at fourteen without prospects, he became involved in shop-lifting. The young William (Bill to all his friends) was fortunate to be taken under the wing of an older man who would pay for him to go to the Italia Conte stage school.


Recommended viewing

The Way Ahead (1944)

Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957)

Hell Drivers (1957)

Carry on Sergeant (1958)

Dr Who (BBC Tv Series) 1963-66


The Hartnell “Doctor Who” archive is far from complete – 44 episodes are currently missing.

Marco Polo – all seven episodes missing
The Reign of Terror – episodes 4 and 5 (out of six) missing
The Crusade – episodes 2 and 4 (out of four) missing
Galaxy Four – episodes 1, 2 and 4 (out of four) missing
Mission to the Unknown – single episode story, missing
The Myth Makers – all four episodes missing
The Daleks’ Master Plan – episodes 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12 (of twelve episodes) missing.
The Massacre – all four episodes missing
The Celestial Toymaker – episodes 1, 2 and 3 (out of four) are missing
The Savages – all four episodes missing
The Smugglers – all four episodes missing
The Tenth Planet – episode 4 (out of four) missing

Scripts of the missing episodes are available via:


A brief history of what happened to the Doctor Who archive is available via:


An Adventure in Space and Time (BBC Tv) 2013

Wonderfully written and beautifully realised, this period piece crackles with the warm glow of childhoods past, a world of monochrome 405 lines and flickering screens, a moment in time when space travel captured the imagination of millions around the world.

Overlook, if you will, the Daleks’ toilet plungers, the dodgy sets and fluffed lines, and revel in David Bradley’s recreation of the actor behind an iconic British institution, at times curmudgeonly but often affectionate, ably assisted by a first rate supporting cast – Brian Cox as the Beeb’s newly arrived brash Canadian executive Sydney Newman, all hot to trot with fresh ideas, and the scene stealing Jessica Raine as budding producer Verity Lambert.

Bradley’s Hartnell is ‘real,’ whether prickly or avuncular with his granddaughter, obstreperous with the BBC floor crew, vainglorious with Newman yet tender with Lambert. A journeyman at the end of his career, and out of touch with every generation that wasn’t his, writer Mark Gatiss’s script recalls an ageing actor reinventing himself with a new sense of purpose.

Hartnell would, like the rest of Britain, fall in love with the Doctor, yet failing health – too much nicotine and brandy and Lambert’s move to production pastures anew – would eventually lead to his premature departure from the series. Other work would follow but the actor was essentially a broken man, cerebrovascular disease precipitating a series of strokes that would eventually lead to his premature death at the age age of 67 from a fatal heart attack.

I recorded the drama for posterity, since there remains a need to stay in touch with the little boy inside of me. Too much world weariness is not a good thing. Mind you, I sat comfortably to watch the programme – no more crouching behind the sofa!

Recommended reading

Who's There: The Life and Career of William Hartnell (Jessica Carney) 1998 Reprinted 2013

In her book “Who’s There? – The Life and Career of William Hartnell,” the First Doctor’s real-life granddaughter, Jessica Carney, tackles the life story of the actor who originated the role. First published in 1998, the biography was updated for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.


Clearly a loving memoir of her grandfather, Carney does an excellent job of placing into context the life story of a very complicated man. His infamous fits of ill temper, failing memory and declining health, are all recalled with objective clarity; factors that would prematurely end his time travelling days at the BBC in 1966.

In her book, she writes: “The marriage was complicated. Heather admired his talent and enjoyed his success but was driven to distraction by his heavy drinking and womanising. He admired and needed her so much yet still chased after other women. “It went on until late in life. I found a letter he had written to my gran saying, ‘I know I haven’t been a very good husband’. It was heartfelt.”

Jessica, a talent agent from London*, maintains that her grandmother wanted to divorce Hartnell many times, and in the late 1940s even enlisted a family friend to get the proof of his infidelity that was necessary to start proceedings in those days. The bid failed because he got too drunk to have sex with the young woman he picked up. Many years later, and soon after his retirement from Doctor Who, he embarked on an affair with an actress starring with him in pantomime.


His granddaughter elaborates further: “Heather found out but was by now so fed up, she apparently let it be known that the girl could have him if she wanted. That decided it. Bill didn’t want to leave Heather. That was what was so ridiculous – he was outwardly very proud of her. But that didn’t stop him causing her unhappiness.”


William Hartnell - Steve Hill's image archive


246 screen ‘captures.’