Creating ‘Doctor Who’

David Whitaker (Script Editor)

What we had, which no other show of the time could boast, was a tremendous drive to produce something that was credible as well as enjoyable. We weren’t exactly labouring with a massive budget and I was particularly aware that we had to balance our stories with eaach other, to make sure that one wasn’t brilliant and another awful. In those days, that was what often happened. It’s my belief that ‘Doctor Who’ went on and on because it could be incredible and credible at the same time. Our directors and designers would use virtually any trick they could to make it look good and, for the time, they generally succeeded.

Heather Hartnell (William Hartnell’s wife)

I will always remember that first telephone call. Terry (William Hartnell’s son-in-law and agent) phoned me up from London saying that he was coming down to the cottage because he had this most incredible script that he wanted Bill to read and tell him about. ‘I don’t know what he’s going to say, but it’s for a children’s serial’. I was a little taken aback and asked if it was a tough guy part. ‘No, it’s an old man with long white hair, an old professor who’s a bit round the bend’. Well, I said ‘Bill will love it’, but Terry still remained a little apprehensive. Anyway, he turned up that evening with the script. Bill took it and sat in absolute silence, reading it through from beginning to end, and eventually said ‘My goodness, I want this part!’.

Sydney Newman (Co-Creator)

Sports had a tremendous audience and then, suddenly, there was a dramatisation of Dickens or ‘The Water Margin’ or something, and everyone tuned into ITV or switched off. So my bosses thought maybe I ought to come up with another kind of drama that would hold the sports-loving audience. I moved the classic serial to Sunday afternoons and dreamed up ‘Doctor Who’ to replace it.

“Doctor Who was really the culmination of almost all my interests in life: I wanted to reflect contemporary society; I was curious about the outer-space stuff; and also, of course, being a children’s programme, it had to have a high educational content. Up to the age of forty, I don’t think there was a science fiction book I hadn’t read. I love them because they’re a marvellous way – a safe way – of saying nasty things about our own society. I’d read H.G. Wells, of course, and I recalled his book ‘The Time Machine’. That inspired me to dream up the time-space machine for ‘Doctor Who’. It was a great device which allowed my audience to be taken to outer space, to elsewhere in the world today, or back into the past.

“I then dreamed up this senile old man of 740 years of age to be the running character. He has fled in terror from another planet in this spaceship which lands on Earth in the form of a police box. He’s wandering around in the London fog when he’s met by two school teachers who are walking home one of their pupils. They help him to what they think is his house, but it’s a police telephone box in a junkyard! But inside, it’s really a vast spaceship! However, this dim old guy doesn’t know how to operate the machine, presses the wrong button and they take off. And that was the idea.

“Donald Wilson thought it was ‘possibly’ a good idea. Although a Scot, he was frightfully English – very correct, pip-smoking, everything but a handkerchief in his sleeve! He was very cautious and wouldn’t commit himself. I loved that man, because he was so different from me. He was very cultured, tall and lean; and he was always amused by me, because I was so crude.

“I remembered this extremely bright girl called Verity Lambert, who had worked for me as a production assistant at ABC. I called her up and said ‘D’you want to be a producer?’. She was only a personal assistant and said ‘Of course!’. I gave her a two-page memo on ‘Doctor Who’ and said ‘Can you do it?’. She said ‘Yeah, okay’ and she did! I’d give a million bucks if someone could find that memo.

“Verity was the one who realised it all, although I had a hand in the casting. I helped her quite a bit in the beginning, because she was inexperienced as a producer, and she was frightened to death coming to the BBC. However, she had worked with some of my best directors – like Ted Kotcheff and Philip Saville – so she knew the production grass roots extremely well. And she turned out to be a real winner. I’m told there were quite a few rumblings within the BBC, because she’d never been a director, and because she was a girl. She was tough, good-looking and stubborn. If she didn’t like something, she came out honestly and said so. It wasn’t ‘I don’t know why I don’t like this’, it was ‘I don’t like it because of X, Y and Z, it should be A, B and C’. She was very positive, as a good producer has to be.

Hugh David (Future Director)

Rex Tucker, a very good friend of mine, was approached by Sydney Newman, who felt that there should be a serial which gave the children something new, and Rex knew that science fiction would be popular. So they developed the idea of this eccentric with the ability to go backwards and forwards in time, but it was still all very vague. I remember Rex giving me either the back of an envelope or a serviette, something like that, on which they scribbled down the vague idea behind the serial, and at the bottom they wrote ‘Doctor..? Who?’. They left a space to fill in the name, but they just couldn’t think of anything suitable, and when they took a casual look at it, Rex said ‘Doctor Who’, and that’s how it stuck. I actually kept that scrap of paper for many years, before I lost track of it. I wish I’d held onto it, because it would be priceless now.

“Bunny Webber wrote the first script and Rex was acting as producer / director. In fact, he asked me if I’d like to play the central figure, Dr. Who. My answer was no, because I’d just played the lead for a year in a soap opera called ‘Knight Errant’ for Granada, and like anybody who appears on television, I was stopped in shops and asked for my autograph all the time. Initially it’s quite gratifying, but after a while you can’t go out, you can’t eat in a restaurant, and you have no privacy. But I did earn a lot of money from it. I didn’t relish the idea of another long-running serial so soon, because I hadn’t much enjoyed the previous experience.

“One day, an old colleague from ABC, Verity Lambert, phoned up Sydney Newman and asked if he could find her some work at the BBC. She was a very bright woman, and Sydney knew she’d be perfect for ‘Doctor Who’. She obviously had her own ideas for the lead actor, and how the show should look, and it eventually came on air in 1963.

Verity Lambert (Producer)

Doctor Who was never intended to last just six weeks. Right from the beginning, we were told it would be a year-round production. Certainly by the time the first episode was shown, we had most of our scripts together for the full season. The only thing we didn’t know then was that there would be another season after that. This myth about the show only being planned to last six weeks is one that has grown over the years, probably as a result of inventive reporting.

Dennis Spooner (Future Script Editor)

While he was working at ABC at Teddington, Sydney Newman did ‘Armchair Theatre’ and that was where Verity Lambert started. The BBC at this time were getting a terrible beating from ITV as they still hadn’t changed from their 15-minutes-of-the-potter’s-wheel interval style. ITV had become far more viable, and there was pressure from the government for the BBC to increase their hours and provide a proper channel. So the BBC brought over Sydney Newman, who in turn brought over Verity Lambert, and ‘Doctor Who’ was one of the first products of the shake-up.

Verity Lambert (Producer)

It was commissioned to run for a year, (and) it was designed to appeal to eight to fourteen year-olds, which of course it didn’t, it appealed to everyone, which is wonderful. And the only way I could judge that, because I didn’t have any children, was to say well if it pleases me, hopefully it will please them.

Peter Purves (Steven, and friend of William Hartnell)

(William Hartnell) did ‘This Sporting Life’, wonderful part, which he claimed got him the part in ‘Doctor Who’, Sydney Newman suggested… I think he auditioned several times for it, or was seen several times for it before he got the part. But it was actually his performance in ‘This Sporting Life’ that won them over.

William Hartnell (The Doctor)

My agent said the part was that of an eccentric old grandfather- cum-professor type who travels in space and time. Well, I wasn’t that keen, but I agreed to meet the producer. Then, the moment this brilliant young producer Miss Verity Lambert started telling me about Doctor Who, I was hooked. I remember telling her, “This is going to run for five years.” And look what’s happened.

Before the part came along I’d been playing a bunch of crooks, sergeants, prison warders and detectives. Then, after appearing in This Sporting Life, I got a phone call from my agent. He said, “I wouldn’t normally have suggested you work in children’s television, Bill, but there’s a sort of character part come up that I think you’d just love to play.

I brought something of myself to it, I’m sure, but if he and I sat down together we would seem very different. I think he’s a wonderful character, very mysterious and enigmatic but very kind beneath the veneer of grumpiness.

It may seem like hindsight now, but I just knew that Doctor Who was going to be an enormous success. Don’t ask me how. Not everybody thought as I did. I was universally scoffed at for my initial faith in the series, but I believed in it. It was magical.

William Russell (Ian)

I was contacted by Verity who said she wanted to meet to discuss a part in a new serial she was doing. I went along to talk to her about it and got myself into a lengthy discussion about the series, what it was about, what my character was supposed to be doing in the whole set-up and roughly what the other details about it were – how long the engagement would be, etc. Eventually, all was agreed and I signed my contract, which was interesting as the BBC had an escape clause whereby had the series been a flop they could have dropped us at any time, whereas we were bound to keep to our side of the bargain. I have to admit that none of us thought that ‘Doctor Who’ would be around for a very long time, except Billy Hartnell, who had the kind of confidence in the project that the star needs to have.

Jacqueline Hill (Barbara)

I was at a party one evening and the usual bunch of friends were there. I’d known Verity Lambert socially since she had joined the ABC television company for whom both my husband and myself had done some work. She was one of Sydney Newman’s proteges, and by this stage she had transferred with him to the BBC, where she had been asked to become a producer. Anyway, this party came at just the right point for me, because Verity was in the process of casting the regulars for her new television serial ‘Doctor Who’. We talked about it, and shortly afterwards, she offered me the part of Barbara Wright, which I was more than happy to accept.


One Response to “Creating ‘Doctor Who’”

  1. dailypop Says:

    I appreciate all of the hard work that you put into these articles, they provide such insight into Doctor Who.

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