Doctor Who’s beginnings- the `real` behind the scenes story
as researched by JJJ Pixley
|The cast flee after reading the first script|
Sydney Newman liked to tame lions and it was this mixture of bravery and madness that he brought to the BBC in the early 60s. Fired out of a cannon he arrived at Broadcasting House full of ideas for programmes. A new science fiction based series aimed at children had already been discussed when Newman had a glorious idea. He was walking through Hyde Park one afternoon in late 1962 when he saw a crotchety old man trying to strangle a duck. This set him thinking; what if there was a series featuring a crotchety old man. At this point that was the only idea he had; in fact the same crotchety old man was approached to star in the series but was deemed too fierce for television.
Instead, Newman developed his idea to encompass a mysterious, but crotchety, old man travelling through time and space in an open topped bath. As it was the early 1960s, children were still locked in boxes after 6pm and made to re-tile roofs at weekends thus an educational content had to be included by law in every programme aimed at the under 20s. Newman decided that his unconventional hero would be a crotchety old university lecturer travelling through time and space handing out facts to children across the Universe. Being Canadian, Newman actually though travelling in time and space was possible; when he discovered it wasn’t really, he lost interest and decided what the show needed was a fireproof young producer.
|"It is a chocolate cake on his head isn't it?"|
Verity Lambert was only 12, but was offered the job because it represented a chance to be allowed out of her box at night. She had already made steady progress through the ranks of the BBC. At the time, the Corporation consisted of 1,547,883 departments and thus decision making could be slow; in fact, one programme Uncle Hoobie’s Breakfast Gazebo took 11 years to be approved after the proposal was lost for half a decade on the 17th floor. Verity Lambert was a determined producer however and managed to refine the fledgling series and get it approved in a matter of weeks by not actually telling anyone she was making it. Instead, she got a team of people together to re-work the concept. The crotchety old man part remained but it was decided he would travel in a police box and to add three other leading characters. Susan Foreman was a contemporary girl from the early 60s who would be telepathic and able to juggle eels with one finger. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright were to be two of her teachers, thus providing the educational content and leaving the crotchety old man to be simply crotchety and old.
By spring 1963, Verity started looking around for people to cast. William Hartnell had, at that time, gained a reputation for being quite appalling but when Verity read that he was considered `crotchety` she knew she had found her leading actor. As Ian and Barbara, Verity cast William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, a professional tumbling duo from Scunthorpe and for Susan, she decided on Carole Ann Ford, who at 47 was rather old to be playing a teenager.
|Friday was dress down day in the production office|
The cast assembled for the first time in mid 1963. It was only later that they discovered the show would be done entirely live and in sequence meaning that they would sustain many bruises and experience many near death encounters over the years. Amusingly, a whole two part story was later created from footage of Ford trying to kill her fellow cast members with scissors. This was typical of a 1960s pressure cooker studio environment and later interviews revealed the full story of how the team worked. In 1975, Ford said; “I was always setting fires and being constantly disappointed when the others weren’t even singed.” Most significantly, Hartnell developed a reputation as being difficult to work with even by himself.
Despite these problems the team pulled together to make an opening episode called `An Unlikeable Child`. This turned out to be very different in tone to the version that teatime audiences sat down to in November 1963. Now known as the pilot, this episode featured Susan tear gassing Ian and Barbara when they follow her, the Doctor trying to eject the two teachers into space and a five minute lecture on electrolysis. On seeing this footage, Sydney Newman told them to re-film it and the second version was transmitted on November 23 1963. There was a hold up because Hartnell was suspected of involvement in the Kennedy assassination, but once the cast got started, things went rather well. Afterwards, the head of the BBC commissioned the show for a further 26 series. Doctor Who was on its way…