A true hero of cult; best known for being the original Doctor. It may have turned out very different, for the boy known as Billy, if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting at the age of fourteen.
William ‘Billy’ Hartnell was born in London on the 08/01/1908. He was born to an unmarried mother and no father was ever put on his birth certificate. Despite spending most of his adult life searching William would never find out who his father was.
He was not very academic leaving school without any qualifications. His early teenage years would see him mainly splitting his time between boxing and petty crime.
At the age of fourteen William met famous art collector Hugh Blaker. Blaker saw something in William and took him under his wing. Initially he encouraged William to train as a jockey but, on discovering they had a mutual love of theatre; paid for the young Hartnell to attend the famous Italia Conti Academy to train in the arts.
William would then, again encouraged and paid for by Blaker, attend Imperial Service College. This lead to Hartnell gaining work as a stage hand. This was his entry into the world of theatre which, would lead to Hartnell becoming a respected Shakespearian actor.
The break out of World War Two would see Hartnell having to leave acting joining the Tank Core. He struggled with the realities of war. This would see him eventually discharged from the Army on medical grounds after he suffered a nervous breakdown.
A return to acting saw Hartnell successfully audition for his first film role in ‘In Which We Serve’. Only to be sacked on the first day on set, by director writer Noel Coward, for being late.
More film and TV work followed which saw him appear in first of the Carry On films ‘Carry On Sergeant’. Both the film and his role were loosely based on the successful TV series The Army Game in which, Hartnell had starred as Sergeant Major Bullimore.
Despite some success Hartnell was becoming disillusioned with acting. He was constantly being typed cast as a policeman, solider or thug. His salvation came when producer Varity Lambert saw Hartnell in the film ‘This Sporting Life’ and thought he’d be perfect for the lead role in a new show she was developing.
Partly due to his success in films, and partly because he hadn’t bonded with his grandchildren, Hartnell was at first reluctant to take a role in a show pitched to him as ‘for children’. After some persuasion, by both Lambert and director Waris Hussein, he relented. Seeing the Doctor as a character he could help develop.
Hartnell played the Doctor for three years highly successful years. Unfortunately ill health lead to him being unable to remember his lines. In 1966 he was replaced and the Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton.
Hartnell continued to work after his spell as the Doctor and returned to the show, along with Troughton and the then Doctor Jon Pertwee, in 1972s ‘The Three Doctors’.
William Hartnell died of heart failure at his home in Marden Kent 22/04/1973 aged 67. He is best remembered as the first Doctor. Many of those who worked on those episodes have said that the show would never have been a success if it hadn’t been for his commitment and professionalism. The fact that the show is still here and loved the world over is his legacy.
Recommended films and TV appearances (outside of Doctor Who):-
Dallow – Brighton Rock
Sgt Grimshawe – Carry On Sergeant
Johnson – This Sporting Life
Sgt Major Bullimore – The Army Game