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William Hartnell: Misc


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William Hartnell
Role: First Doctor
Date of Birth: 8 January 1908
St Pancras, London, England
Date of Death: 23 April 1975 (aged 67)
Marden, Kent, England
Notable Works: Doctor Who
The Bells go Down
Way Ahead
Hell Drivers
Carry on Sergant
Heavens above
Tommorow at Ten
This article is written from the Real World point of view. TARDIS

William Hartnell portrayed the first incarnation of the Doctor. For many, his remains the definitive portrayal of the character. Elements of his portrayal are evident in the performances of all his successors on the television series and beyond.



Early life

Hartnell was born in St Pancras, London, England in 1908, the only child of an unmarried mother, and raised primarily by his aunt Bessie (Wood, 208). Hartnell never discovered the identity of his father (whose particulars are left blank on the birth certificate) and, despite efforts made by Hartnell in later years, his absent parent was never traced. Often known as Billy, he was educated at home and at Imperial Service College. After training as a jockey, and boxer, he studied acting at The Sylvia Young Theatre School and entered the theatre in 1924 working under Frank Benson. The first of more than sixty film appearances was Say It With Music in 1932. He was invalided out of the Royal Armoured Corps of the British Army during the Second World War, after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Until 1944, Hartnell usually played comic characters. Then he was cast in the robust role of sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead. From then on his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs — although he was noted for his ability to bring complexity to such roles, for example in his widely praised performance as Dallow in Brighton Rock. In 1958 he topped the bill in the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant playing Sergeant Grimshaw, and in 1963 he appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers. William Hartnell also appeared as Will Buckley in the film The Mouse That Roared in 1955 (with Peter Sellers).

A pre-doctor Hartnell

Hartnell's first regular role on television was in The Army Game from 19571961. In 1963, he appeared in a supporting role in the film version of This Sporting Life giving a sensitive performance as an ageing Rugby League talent scout known as 'Dad'.

Doctor Who

His performance as a tough yet sympathetic character in This Sporting Life was noted by Verity Lambert, a young Producer who was setting up her first television series for the BBC, namely Doctor Who, who then offered him the title role. Although Hartnell was initially uncertain of whether he wanted to take on the part, Lambert and director Waris Hussein convinced him to play the character for which he gained the highest profile and for which he is now most widely remembered. Hartnell came to relish, particularly, the attention and affection from children that playing the character brought him, and he became very fond of the role. By 1966, when Season 4, his final season, aired, the role also earned Hartnell a regular salary of £315 per episode. (In comparison, his co-stars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze earned £68 and £52, respectively, per episode.)

According to some colleagues on Doctor Who, he could be a difficult person to work with, although others, notably actors Peter Purves and William Russell, and producer Verity Lambert, speak glowingly of him after more than forty years. His poor health (arteriosclerosis) as well as poor relations with the new production team on the series following the departure of Lambert mid-way during the first half of Season 3 ultimately led him to leave Doctor Who in 1966 when his contract expired.[1]

Some commentators now contend that reports of Hartnell's illness were subsequently exaggerated by Lambert's successors in the role of producer, John Wiles and Innes Lloyd, to justify a desire (ultimately successful) to remove him from the series because of the expense of his salary. (John Wiles had considered this as early as the pre-production plans for The Celestial Toymaker.) Others suggest that it was a mutual decision between Hartnell and the production team that he should leave the programme. Innes Lloyd has been quoted that Hartnell even approved of his the choice of actor saying (according to Innes Lloyd) "There's only one man in England who can take over, and that's Patrick Troughton"[1] However Hartnell claimed in later life that he did not want to leave the series, writing, in an oft-quoted letter, "I didn't willingly give up the part". Suggestions that Hartnell's health was failing him are seemingly contradicted by his returning to demanding theatre work almost immediately upon leaving Doctor Who and he also made television guest appearances during the late 1960s, which include No Hiding Place.

Hartnell was 55 years old at the time he made his first appearance as the Doctor. As of 2010 he remains the oldest actor to be cast as the Doctor.

Life after the Doctor

BBC Publicity photo for The Three Doctors, Hartnell pictured with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee

Hartnell reprised the role in the 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors (made in 1972, broadcast 1972-1973) with the help of cue cards but appeared only in pre-filmed inserts seen on video screens. Hartnell's health had grown progressively worse in the early 1970s and in December 1974 he was admitted to hospital permanently. In early 1975 he suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died in his sleep of heart failure on 23 April, 1975 at the age of 67. His death was reported on the BBC News and a clip of the Doctor in the TARDIS from the end of The OK Corral, the final episode of The Gunfighters, was shown. Hartnell has the distinction of being the first major actor of the Doctor Who franchise to pass away; the next wouldn't be until companion actor Ian Marter's death 11 years later.


A clip of his scene from the end of the serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was used as a pre-credits sequence for the 20th anniversary story The Five Doctors (1983), although another actor, Richard Hurndall, played the role of the First Doctor for the remainder of the story.

Biographical information about William Hartnell is hard to substantiate because of conflicting information from various sources. Hartnell himself gave accounts of his birth and upbringing which seem to differ from verifiable facts, and the only published biography of him is by his granddaughter, Jessica Carney. Although criticised by some as a hagiography, Carney's Who's There? does refer to these difficulties and makes it clear that a great deal of research has been done, drawing from primary sources, as well as Hartnell's family's own extensive archive. Notwithstanding an often negative view of its subject, the family link with the author makes some critics view this work as biased.


Hartnell's occasional mistakes over his lines while in Doctor Who have been named "Hartnellisms" (or "Billy-fluffs") by Doctor Who fans. It should however be noted that the methods of television production at the time — effectively recording long takes "as live" with retakes only being undertaken in extreme circumstances — led to the inclusion of far more of these small errors than would have been apparent in any more modern production. It is also worth noting that sudden, short-term memory loss or a momentary loss of concentration are recognised symptoms of arteriosclerosis, which Hartnell was suffering from, undiagnosed. In light of this, overt mocking of this small tendency has increasingly been considered to be in poor taste, especially when it draws attention away from Hartnell's other achievements with a consequent effect on his reputation. Additionally, some so-called Hartnellisms can be looked at in the context of the character and were scripted (other characters draw attention to this tendency in dialogue). For example the Doctor frequently misspoke companion Ian Chesterton's name (calling him "Chesterfield" in one episode, "Chatterton" in another). In episode 5 of The Keys of Marinus, Hartnell appears to repeat a line of dialogue when he mixes up the words "improve" and "prove", but according to the DVD trivia track for the episode, this error was actually scripted.


  • The TARDIS crew was looking over some anti-radiation drugs. The Doctor told the group that they were anti-radiation gloves, then quickly corrected himself by saying drugs. (DW: The Daleks)
  • A Hartnellism that occurred during rehearsals of DW: The Edge of Destruction: the Doctor was to tell Susan to check the fault-locator. Instead, he told her to check the fornicator. All indications are, however, that this was done as a joke.
  • Barbara worries about the sea surrounding the island of Marinus being frozen. The Doctor tells her it would be impossible to be frozen in this temperature, plus it was too warm (DW: The Keys of Marinus)
  • The Doctor scolds Ian for not wearing his shoes, because he could have lent Susan hers not his. (DW: The Keys of Marinus)
  • The Doctor intends to tell a character named Maitland to stabilise his spaceship. Instead, the Doctor says, "Stabilise us, matron!" (DW: The Sensorites)
  • Perhaps the most famous of Hartnell's fluffs was when the Doctor warned Ian and Barbara that they could wind up as two "cinders floating around in Spain" rather than space. (DW: The Chase)
  • He also stumbled upon certain words as Hartnell struggled to remember his lines, often saying something weird. The Romans, The Space Museum

It has been said that as time went on, and Hartnell's health ostensibly failed, the number of Hartnellisms increased, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. However, listening to surviving copies of his later serials, such as The Savages or The Smugglers shows this assertion to be demonstrably false.

Additionally, when Hartnell played the Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre (identical to the Doctor physically, the Abbot has more screen time than the Doctor himself), he managed to say all his lines without a hitch.

In Hartnell's final full Doctor Who story, The Tenth Planet, the Doctor is given far fewer lines than normal. It has been speculated that this was done to deliberately prevent such problems in his final story, but there is no evidence from either the production office records or surviving members of the production team to suggest that this was the case.


  • He always claimed he was born in Seaton, Devon, England, but was actually born in St. Pancras, London, England.

External Links

  • William Hartnell at the Internet Movie Database
  • William Hartnell Dot Com
  • BBC Online — William Hartnell
  • Citizen Of The Universe - William Hartnell article at
  • William Hartnell biography @ Carry On...

Footnotes and Bibliography

  1. 1.0 1.1 Howe, David; Stammers, Mark; Walker, Stephen James (1992) Doctor Who: The Sixties, Doctor Who Books, London, pp 67-68
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at William_Hartnell. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the TARDIS Index File, the text of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0 (Unported) (CC-BY-SA).

This article uses material from the "William Hartnell" article on the Dr Who wiki at Wikia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

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