David Bradley discusses his meticulous preparation for playing William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time.[Published in Doctor Who 50 Years Issue #3: The Doctors (Panini UK Ltd, October 2013), pp. 16-20. Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]
Fifty years after he first appeared on our screens, the original incarnation of the Doctor is back on BBC Television, returning to the same junkyard on Totter’s Lane where we first met him. An Adventure in Space and Time tells the story of Doctor Who's early years, with David Bradley cast as William Hartnell.
Bradley was first offered the role of William Hartnell on 3 June 2012 while on the roof of the National Theatre in London. He was there to watch the Queen's Diamond Jubilee flotilla at it passed down the Thames. Mark Gatiss was also present. "I’d met Mark briefly in Covent Garden six, seven years ago," he recalls. "I was getting off the 73 bus, he was walking up and stopped and said hello. But we’d never worked together or anything. So it was a bit out of the blue when he asked if I’d be interested in doing this."
The BBC's press release announcing the drama quoted David as saying "I almost bit his hand off!" He laughs at that now. "Yes, I knew straight away, with it being in Mark's hands. I'd seen some of his stuff, not only The League of Gentlemen but his Sherlock series, and I knew he was a terrific writer. And he made it quite clear how passionate he was about the subject and how he'd always wanted to do this. So I didn't even think to ask if I could see a script or anything. I just said, 'Yes, please, when do we start?'"
For Bradley, researching the role meant watching lots of old Doctor Who. "Mark sent me a box-set of the first few stories," he says, "and the version of the first episode that had to be remade. And there was stuff on YouTube, little out-takes and things like that. There was lots of material to work from, but that was of course for the character of the Doctor. There’s little record of William Hartnell as he was in real life.’
Bradley was able to see a newly discovered clip of Hartnell promoting a pantomime soon after he’d left Doctor Who; the clip has subsequently been included on the DVD release of The Tenth Planet. But it’s only a brief glimpse of the man. "Otherwise," says Bradley. "all we’ve got are his films. Of course, I’d already seen The Way Ahead, This Sporting Life and Brighton Rock.
"He was one of those brilliant British character actors," he adds. "He was maybe even ahead of his time in terms of his naturalness – his power and sheer charisma on screen. He played a lot of authority figures. Sergeant-majors and rather stiff, domineering characters. In The Army Game he was the only one not getting laughs. And he was getting tired of that. He wanted to show that he could do comedy and light-hearted stuff."
As an experienced screen actor, what struck Bradley most about watching the early episodes of Doctor Who was how hard it must have been on the actors. "You had to do a whole scene in one fell swoop, without any breaks. If, under that pressure, an actor forgot his lines the camera had to keep rolling so it was virtually like live television. I should imagine it was quite nerve-wracking and tense. But watching the episodes now the way they handled it is so cool and professional." He laughs. "Nowadays we have it easy, really. If I blow my line I just stop and the director will say 'Okay, let’s pick it up from the line before.'"
That means Bradley is sympathetic to Hartnell’s occasional slips. "There are clips on YouTube where Bill has totally lost it and is struggling for his lines," he says. "William Russell [playing companion Ian] is leaning in, trying to give him a clue. It’s kind of funny but grim viewing because you know that this guy’s a perfectionist and demands a lot of himself. He’s struggling to maintain his own professional standards. It just makes him terribly human."
What really helped Bradley understand Hartnell was the biography, Who’s There, written by Hartnell’s granddaughter, Jessica Carney. "She gave me a copy to read," he says. "I was just amazed at his early life and his difficulties. He very nearly took to street crime and for a while was a bit of an urchin. There were the difficulties he had because of his illegitimacy, which nowadays we don’t even think about – it might even help you to get a book deal! But back then the stigma attached to it was such that he suffered quite a lot, at school particularly. So I was just finding out stuff about his life, which helped me get an insight about how he was as he was."
It also helped that, at the first read-through of An Adventure in Space and Time and again during recording, the actors and crew who’d known and worked with Hartnell were on hand to give advice. "It was a joy watching their faces walking through the studio, seeing the set as it had been 50 years ago," Bradley remembers.
"The first shot I did was me walking away from the camera on the way to the TARDIS for the last time. It was just a low tracking shot of my feet and the cloak flapping. Waris Hussein, the original director, was watching that on the monitor, as he would have been 50 years ago. Mark was standing alongside him and saw the tears rolling down his cheeks."
Bradley admits, however, that he was also a bit daunted by having the original cast and crew around him. "I just thought, 'Wow!' Because the responsibility of playing this man suddenly hit me. It helped, having them there, and thankfully they all gave me the thumbs up and were very encouraging and positive. I could wander up to William Russell and say, 'What was he like after a few drinks?' It was a real bonus.
"But the biggest bonus was of course Mark’s wonderful script. It shows a lot of different sides to Bill; it doesn’t try to soften or sentimentalise him in any way. It’s just a brilliant piece of astute character writing. Playing someone as complex a man as Hartnell was – and he certainly was, he had many different sides to him – is pure gold for actor.
"Three and a half weeks’ of filming isn't really long for a 90-minute drama," Bradley adds, "but it seemed to go without any huge hitches. I didn’t feel any pressure in that sense. I just felt the responsibility to do justice to the man and the actor. Hopefully, we’ve done that.
"Of course," he concludes, "we’ve made this for the fans but also we hope it stands up on its own for people who've never seen an episode of Doctor Who but are interested in a good human drama. It’s quite a story really; the start of Doctor Who was fraught with difficulties and very nearly didn’t happen. Hopefully this will stand as a testament to Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman (Doctor Who’s original producer and creator) as well as Hartnell. The three of them, they’re huge heroes in this story, sticking to their guns like they did. They left us with 50 years of a cultural phenomenon."
So, if he was asked, would David play the First Doctor again, perhaps looking in on his latest incarnation in the TV series itself? "Well, that is a question! It hasn’t come up but it’s a very tempting thought…" He considers. "If someone was to suggest it, I would certainly be interested, yes."
Although Hartnell’s film career is defined by a number of intense dramatic roles, David Bradley soon became aware that he was also adept at comedy. "I read some reviews of his early performances on stage, before he hit the screen," he says. "By all accounts he was a brilliant farceur, very funny and a great mimic. Just from watching his films you wouldn’t have known that. So watching him in Doctor Who, doing something a bit more whimsical, sensitive and light-hearted, made me realise how versatile he was.
"He could be quite cruel as the Doctor, as you know, and quite cunning and quite manipulative, but he could also be quite impish and have a sense of curiosity about the universe and everything in it. And I could see, as an actor, that he was having fun. I think it was the best thing that ever happened to him, really."
FIRST AND TWELFTH
Many members of Doctor Who’s original cast and crew visited the set of An Adventure in Space and Time – but there was also a visit from the show’s future. "I'd never met Peter Capaldi before, only admired him from afar," says Bradley. "We chatted for a while and he watched a scene and was very complimentary about what we did. He revealed that he’d been a huge Doctor Who fan all his life. That’s why he came along, just out interest. I don’t think he knew he was going to be the Doctor then, but now I'm thinking back I wonder if he’d been given the tip-off? I didn’t know. It was a huge surprise – a happy one – when he got that gig. He’ll be terrific."