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Doctor Who ‘The Doctors – The William Hartnell Years Behind the Scenes’ review

Doctor Who Hartnell
Credit: BBC

The latest compilation of interviews with the talent behind ‘Doctor Who’ features an impressive array of big names from the dawn of the show, back when William Hartnell played the very first Doctor. Each instalment runs to almost an hour as interviewer Nicholas Briggs (best known these days as the voice of the Daleks) meets the people who made the greatest TV show of all time for an in-depth talk about their lives and careers.

The first disc profiles two of the biggest hitters imaginable, not just for their strong influence in shaping ‘Doctor Who’ right from the very start, but because of their incredibly impressive careers in the entertainment industry long after they left the show. The first up is Verity Lambert, the original producer, who went on to enjoy hit after hit (Eldorado, which would have been a success a decade earlier, the only blemish on her otherwise stellar CV). Captured in 1996 (just over a decade before her death), at the time that the show was briefly resurrected in America, Lambert talks fondly of her time producing ‘Doctor Who’, when she was only in her twenties and at the start of an illustrious career. A fascinating and remarkable woman, it’s a shame in a way that her achievements beyond ‘Doctor Who’ are largely out of the scope of the interview, as her stories about working in the business are fascinating. She even reveals who she would have liked to play the Doctor had she been successful in bringing the show back after its cancellation in 1989!

Next up is the BAFTA and Emmy award-winning director Waris Hussein, who early in his career (like Verity Lambert, he was only in his twenties) was behind the camera for the very first ‘Doctor Who’ adventure, ‘An Unearthly Child’. He returned later in the same season to direct the missing Hartnell classic ‘Marco Polo’, before moving on to bigger projects. Unlike Verity, who spoke from inside the TARDIS, Waris is filmed at home, and this offers a touchingly personal and intimate view of the man. He recounts how his parents came to the UK from British India, and how studying at Cambridge afforded him his big break working at the BBC. By the end of the interview, he gives a little tour of framed photographs from his career highlights. We see him with numerous stars from productions he directed, including Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Angela Lansbury, Anthony Hopkins and even former US President Bill Clinton. I once had the pleasure of meeting Waris at a theatre press night, and perhaps I shouldn’t have led with ‘Doctor Who’… There was a gentle eye-roll, but he was so charming! “You must get that all the time?” “All the time, yes.” Seeing this interview and hearing how ‘Doctor Who’ fitted into his career has made me want to check out his much more high-profile projects, even if it’ll always be ‘Doctor Who’ that he’s stopped in the street to talk about…

Rounding out the first disc is the late Donald Tosh, who benefits from by far the most impressive location – he was at the time the interview was recorded (1999) the custodian of a castle! He recalls with great fondness his time as the script editor during the mid-Hartnell era. Tosh was responsible for bringing in Donald Cotton (more on him later) to write ‘The Myth Makers’ and ‘The Gunfighters’, but he speaks frankly and with warmth about the leading star. He recalls how he crafted rewrites that Hartnell would be able to commit to memory, how a fall badly affected the actor, and how his declining health was accommodated into his performance as the First Doctor.

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Doctor Who Hartnell
Making ‘The Tenth Planet’. Credit: BBC

The second disc opens with a dive into the archives, unearthing convention footage from 1986 that brought writer Donald Cotton, producer John Wiles and writer of ‘The Ark’ Paul Erickson together on a panel. Since they have all been dead for over twenty years, being able to view this footage is the only way to watch them recount their contributions to 1960s ‘Doctor Who’. Nicholas Briggs was on hand to speak to Donald Cotton backstage, asking him about working with Gerry Anderson as well as ‘Doctor Who’. As if to illustrate the essential nature of these documentaries in capturing the personal reminiscences of the talent behind the show, the footage was captured only a fortnight before Cotton’s sudden death from a heart attack. The sound and picture quality for this segment are surprisingly good.

The penultimate interview takes a trip out to Adelaide, Australia, to speak to incidental music composer Tristram Cary, who wrote many scores for ‘Doctor Who’, including ‘Power of the Daleks’ for Patrick Troughton’s opening story, and rounding out with ‘The Mutants’ for Jon Pertwee. On this release, it’s his work on the very first Dalek story that is most pertinent, as well as a handful of other Hartnell classics. Cary would also supply the score for the Ealing Comedy ‘The Ladykillers’ among many other credits. He is filmed at home, with a beautiful grand piano behind him, like the consummate musician that he was. This one was committed to film in 2002, six years before his death.

The final feature takes us to a ‘Doctor Who’ convention in 2008 that assembled some of the smaller stars from the William Hartnell era. Lyn Ashley and Susanna Carroll were two of the sinister Drahvins in ‘Galaxy 4’. We also hear from Edward de Souza, who reminisces about working with Roger Moore on the Bond movie ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and on the final ‘Sapphire and Steel’ adventure. Fiona Walker, who appeared in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ and much later in ‘Silver Nemesis’, talks very movingly about how she fell out of love with acting and left the profession. Finally, John Cater (interviewed less than a year before he died) speaks about filming ‘The War Machines’ but also recounts working on three episodes of ‘I, Claudius’ in 1976.

These documentary interviews are essential viewing for all fans of the classic series of ‘Doctor Who’. There are so few big names from the 1960s eras still with us, and fewer with each passing year, that over time, these little insights have become ever more precious. Stepping back in time to hear from the people who brought ‘Doctor Who’ to life in the early black and white days is a real privilege and pleasure. The compilation DVDs are an essential part of every fan’s collection, and fandom owes a debt of gratitude to interviewer Nicholas Briggs and producer Keith Barnfather for having the forethought, tenacity and dedication to capture these loving and well-crafted journeys into the lives and careers of the talents who brought ‘Doctor Who’ to our screens. Truly the stuff to send you to your happy place.

Doctor Who Hartnell
Credit: Reeltime Pictures

Cast: Nicholas Briggs, Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, Donald Tosh, Donald Cotton, Tristram Cary, Edward de Souza, Fiona Walker Director: Keith Barnfather Certificate: E Released by: Reeltime Pictures Running time: 314 mins Release date: September 2021 Buy The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years Behind the Scenes

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