Fan Myth RIP #2 - William Hartnell Was Playing Himself
For years, moreso from word or mouth than printed reviews, fans had heard the refrain - mainly from critics of William Hartnell - that his Doctor was basically the actor playing himself in the scripts - irascible, absent-minded professor, prone to gaffes, irritable, grand-fatherly but bad-tempered. It was even claimed that some of the scripted gaffes (where the Doctor gets Ian’s last name wrong) were not actually scripted. This view of Hartnell’s performance took somewhat of a beating when the soundtrack to The Massacre was released on CD for public purchase in 1999. At that point fans far and wide could hear for themselves the very different role that Hartnell plays in the story, that of the Abbot of Amboise. It should have proved to people Hartnell was a good actor who simply chose to perform the Doctor the way he did because it suited the character he was helping to create with his performance - however the view that he was essentially playing himself on screen persisted in certain quarters.
However, it was arguably the discovery and release in the past few years of two interviews with William Hartnell taken from the 1960’s which pretty much nailed the coffin lid shut on this fan myth. First there was the only known-to-still-exist video interview with Hartnell after (or even during) his time on Doctor Who which was released on The Tenth Planet DVD in 2013. Now, you can certainly argue that Hartnell sounded irritable in the interview, but that argument has to be countered by pointing out that just about any actor would have found those (in some cases insulting) questions posed to him (or her) as being very irritating, particularly in a dressing room. The main thing that strikes the viewer is just how different Hartnell’s mannerisms and vocal patterns are - he sounds much gruffer here when he is legitimately irritated than when he plays irritation as the Doctor. Gone is any trace of sounding or acting like a professor or a learned man of science. That’s clearly an act, as it should be given that this is required as part of the role.
Perhaps more startling is the 2nd Hartnell interview to be discovered, which dates from about a year and a half earlier, in 1965 when he is still playing the role. This interview is from an episode of Desert Island Discs, a popular radio programme where celebrities pick what records they would choose to have if they were stuck on a desert island. The first time I heard this I had to re-check the link about three times to make sure it was the correct one. It just didn’t sound like Hartnell at all - or at least, the version of Hartnell that I was familiar with, which was, for decades, the 1st Doctor. He sounds so incredibly different that it took me some time to realize it was the same man I’d been watching and listening to episodes of since the mid 1980’s.There’s no trace whatsoever of his first Doctor character in this interview, of which we hear far more of his speaking voice (and in much less-trying circumstances) than we do in the film interview that is on The Tenth Planet DVD. Even more than the other interview and his performance in other roles, this interview demonstrates that his first Doctor was a character he created and wasn’t merely an extension of himself.
For those that haven’t heard it (and we’ve posted a link to this before on this blog but frankly it’s worth a re-listen), you can find the clip on youtube here.
Posted by Luca on Sunday, July 17 at 8:37 pm