When the Doctor stepped into I.M Foreman’s scrap yard on a cold, wet night in November 55 years ago, it represented both the start of a television institution and the defining role of William Hartnell’s long career as an actor.
Tragically, and in stark contrast to the entertainment business of today, Dr Who would not introduce Hartnell to Hollywood movies or starring roles in big budget Netflix series. Instead, due to ill health, he rarely acted again, save for an appearance in pantomime and a couple of television appearances, including one alongside Cliff Richard. The role of the Doctor was, therefore, more of a last hurrah to his acting career than its triumphant curtain-raiser. However, to celebrate this year’s anniversary, and more importantly, the man who started it all, we’re going to look back over Hartnell’s career prior to his fateful encounter with two school teachers, picking out some of his greatest roles that are well worth revisiting.
It’s a cliché when talking about Hartnell to discuss his typecasting as military men or street toughs, and, as strong as Brighton Rock (1948) and The Way Ahead (1944) are, this article is more interested in highlighting those Hartnell roles of which you may be unfamiliar. Indeed, a role that is rarely mentioned in the roll call of tough authority figures is his portrayal of Superintendent Frawley in Jackpot (1960). He shows up halfway through the film, following the robbery of a London nightclub, within seconds of which, you wonder how Jackpot made it through the first twenty-five minutes without him. Frawley is decidedly no-nonsense, barking orders to his underlings (“Why don’t you get yer hair cut?” being a particular highlight) and demanding information from any criminal or witness who stands in his way. Whilst Hartnell’s apparent ease in completely stealing the show from the ex-con and safecracker we meet at the beginning of the film is surely due to watching it post-Who, he is objectively the most charismatic and engaging actor in the production. That said, as entertaining as Hartnell clearly is in the role, it’s not the most developed character, essentially one of his infamous military men in a detective’s suit.
In contrast to upstanding lawmen like Frawley, Hartnell often played criminals, such as Pinky in Brighton Rock or Leo in Appointment with Crime (1946). There’s an entry on Hartnell’s Wikipedia highlighting that he also played criminals in a number of comedies, but was rarely allowed to flex his comedy muscles. If there’s an exception that proves the rule, it’s in the Brian Rix boxing farce And the Same to You (1960).
Hartnell plays Wally, a dodgy fight promoter organising matches in the church hall which he leases from the local bishop. The film itself is a fairly dated and tiresome farce involving fire extinguishers to the face, forgotten trousers and assorted other slapstick tropes. Thank goodness for Hartnell’s crafty, conniving boxing promoter ducking and diving his way through some stand-out scenes with rival Sammy Gatt (Sid James) and the visiting bishop. He’s given some wonderful dialogue to deliver (Dalek creator Terry Nation gets an “Additional Material by” credit), which raises the film above its hokier slapstick tendencies. It is in roles like this that you get a sense of the versatile character actor Hartnell had always aspired to be, and whilst those early days of Doctor Who were very much an ensemble piece, it’s worth taking a look at one of his other starring roles to understand how capable he was of shouldering a production but also to emphasise the tragedy of the illness that essentially put a stop to his acting career.
One of the finest performances of Hartnell’s career is in a 1945 film, long believed lost and rediscovered relatively recently, called The Agitator. Unfortunately, the film isn’t yet available on DVD but you can occasionally find it, and many other Hartnell films on the fantastic movie channel Talking Pictures, without whom this article would not exist.
Hartnell plays Peter Pettinger, a socialist activist who is forced to question his beliefs when he inherits ownership of the factory in which he works. It’s an incredibly layered performance, in which Hartnell rattles off long speeches (with nary a fluffed line) with a palpable sense of righteous fury, whilst his later inner turmoil is utterly compelling viewing. Pettinger is a fascinating character, the sort of extreme left-winger who irritates both the working man and the upper classes in equal measure. The feud that he has with his fellow factory worker is played with a simmering intensity by both Hartnell and Dad’s Army’s John Laurie, building to a violent showdown. There’s also a detectable sense of glee when the factory owners realise Pettinger is entitled to ownership of the firm. That we sympathise with him as he goes through such a radical reevaluation of not just his political beliefs but his own family history is all down to Hartnell’s nuanced performance.
In some ways, The Agitator is a pre-cursor to the angry young man films of the British New Wave, given that it puts working-class life right at the heart of the story. These films gave the English working classes a voice and representation on screen, detailing their everyday life and class conflicts. Hartnell was cast in the last of the films to be grouped under the New Wave movement, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963). Whilst critically acclaimed, the film failed to make much money at the box office and the Rank organisation decided not to invest any more money in “Kitchen Sink” dramas. To quote BFI Screenonline: “…producers were unwilling to invest their money in more gritty, realist topics. It was felt that audiences wanted escapism again.” Interestingly, on television, people like Sydney Newman were still keen to reflect real life through slots like The Wednesday Play which brought us Ken Loach’s (shamefully still relevant) Cathy Come Home and it’s the formats and processes Newman put in place that would also give us Mike Leigh. Loach and Leigh are, of course, still working today and are two of the only UK directors who directly address issues of class in their work. Sydney Newman of course, brings us, rather neatly, back to November 23rd, 1963.
Verity Lambert cites Hartnell’s tender portrayal of down on his luck former sportsman “Dad” Johnson in This Sporting Life as inspiration for her casting him as the Doctor. In a (mostly lost) episode of the Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs, Hartnell described This Sporting Life as the only other time, apart from as Dr Who, where he was “allowed” to fulfil his ambition of playing a much older character on stage or film. Both Lindsay Anderson and Verity Lambert clearly saw the potential in him as a character actor to take on these older roles and imbue them with such warmth and humour and sadness. There’s also something apt about This Sporting Life leading Hartnell directly to Who. Given British cinemas inclination to opt for more escapist titles following its poor showing at the box office, the UK film industry of the 1960s favoured The Beatles and James Bond and, for a brief moment, Doctor Who itself. UK cinema’s tendency towards familiar franchises and television adaptations continues to this day with Harry Potter and James Bond and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. The story of Doctor Who is often said to be the story of television itself, but in the story of its origins, it can also cast new light on British cinema.