The BFI's Doctor Who at 50: An Unearthly Child

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary starts here… RT’s Patrick Mulkern reports from the BFI Southbank in London

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The BFI's Doctor Who at 50: An Unearthly Child
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Patrick Mulkern

Saturday was a big day for Doctor Who – the programme and fans – as the British Film Institute launched Doctor Who at 50, its year-long celebration of the Time Lord. Every month they’ll be screening a classic story for each Doctor and reuniting many luminaries from the world of Who.

To kick off, it was right back to the very beginning, to An Unearthly Child, the atmospheric four-part serial that launched the series on BBCtv in November and December 1963. And it was amazing how many guests were able to attend, people directly involved on that programme or with the era of the first Doctor, William Hartnell. They included (pictured above) William Russell and Carole Ann Ford (companions Ian and Susan) and Jeremy Young, who played the first villain.

These were some of the hottest tickets in the BFI’s history, quickly selling out. I snapped up four on the day of release for myself and three friends: TV producer Richard Marson, überfan Ian Levine (who secured several guests for the BFI) and Waris Hussein, director of An Unearthly Child. In the event, Waris was offered his own tickets and Ian invited his cousin Shirley Cooklin to join us.

As many fans will know, Shirley has her own Doctor Who pedigree – she was married for 14 years to 1960s producer Peter Bryant and guest-starred as a sly villainess in 1967 classic, The Tomb of the Cybermen. To our delight, she was singled out by the BFI organisers and stood to take a bow just as the event got under way. (Shirley, pictured with Ian Levine and Mark Gatiss.)

BFI programmer Justin Johnson and TV consultant Dick Fiddy invited Caroline Skinner, one of the current executive producers on Doctor Who, to the stage to inaugurate the proceedings. Reinforcing what an exciting year 2013 is going to be, she explained that showrunner Steven Moffat was unable to attend as he’s toiling on his script for the anniversary. 

Mark Gatiss joined her and gave away only the smallest hints about his “origins of Doctor Who” drama, which goes into production next month. At Radio Times, we’re all delighted that he’s calling it “An Adventure in Space and Time” – the tagline printed on every single Who billing in RT in the 1960s. 

Then the first two episodes were shown, looking fabulous on a big cinema screen. It really is remarkable how well they hold up, given their age, the grainy images, and the minuscule budget and studio facilities available back then. 

An intermission saw two more guests: Clive Doig, a BBC vision mixer in 1963, who witnessed the original cloud-pattern title sequence being made. He explained how the early episodes were shot like short plays, a continuous performance with very few recording breaks.

Brian Hodgson, former head of the Radiophonic Workshop, was the sound effects genius who created the famous Tardis takeoff noise (by scraping his mum’s house keys along an old piano wire).

He found it strange watching the episodes again. “It’s half a century old – which dates us! But the quality is much better than I remember." 

The final two classic episodes rolled out, and then Justin Johnson welcomed six more guests on stage. First, Jessica Carney, Hartnell’s glamorous real-life granddaughter and biographer, who was six when Doctor Who began.

“Watching it now, it seems quite scary for a six-year-old,” she said. Right from the start, she noticed, the Doctor was “a very three-dimensional character and there was a lot of suspense” in these opening episodes.

Waris said he was “relieved and happy”, having not seen his early directorial work in years. “I’ve got a DVD box set but deliberately didn’t look at them. I must say there were moments where I thought, Oh my goodness!”

He thanked the actors for “making it feasible and keeping the suspense going”.

 “I thought it was great. I was astonished! And relieved!” beamed William Russell. “The secret, in a sense, was everybody took it very seriously. We believed in it. It may have struck us as we read it as far-fetched, but when we got into it, we were committed.” He praised Hartnell for being a great leader of the team.

Carole Ann Ford had always hoped Susan would be more complex. “I wanted her to be alien, to be strange, unusual...” “But you were, Carole,” cut in Russell, to hoots of laughter from the BFI audience.

Carole admitted she left after one year because, “They didn’t want her to grow old enough so that she would lust after Ian Chesterton.”

“It’s 50 years and she hasn’t changed a bit,” joked Jeremy Young, who played caveman Kal. “I did enjoy jumping on your back,” laughed Carole.

He hadn’t seen the other two for 50 years, and Young pointed out to Russell that they share another claim to fame: “In Coronation Street, we played characters who both played court to Rita.” “I married her!” exclaimed Russell, trumping Young instantly.

Young also related a hilarious story about a shapely female extra who was dismayed to be dressed as a cavewoman and get caked in mud. She was actually a model, whose agent had told her, “Get down to Ealing – they’re shooting something with furs.” She fled the set in horror.

Donald Tosh, only surviving script editor from the Hartnell period, spoke drily about when sci-fi can and cannot change history. He also confirmed once and for all – sorry, naysayers! – that his 1965 characters Katarina and Sara Kingdom, albeit short-lived, were always intended as companions. (Their status has long been debated.)

They’d hoped actress Jean Marsh would continue as Sara but during the 12-part The Daleks’ Master Plan “Jean suddenly announced, ‘Can’t stay, dears. I've got my own show coming on.’”

The panel ended on a sombre note as Waris remembered Verity Lambert. “She was the first important female producer in what was a testosterone-fuelled organisation. An extremely talented, capable person. She made Doctor Who work. It was not an easy task. We became very close friends.”

A TV legend (also producing Adam Adamant Lives!, The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies, Minder, Widows, Jonathan Creek, Love Soup…), Verity died in 2007.

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After the screening, I hooked up with Verity’s modern counterpart, Caroline Skinner (pictured with Doctor Who brand manager Edward Russell). As executive producer, especially during this anniversary year, she must be fiendishly busy but always appears chilled.

She’s well up on her Doctor Who and I felt a kindred spirit when she revealed some of her favourite stories from the past – they were aired a long time ago. 

I also spoke to Carole Ann Ford, the original Unearthly Child, who was wearing a fluffy coat. I teased her that, despite the cold outside, perhaps she’d chosen something furry specially…? “There are no fleas on me,” she laughed, cottoning on at once. One of her well-worn anecdotes is how she and the poor cavemen actors in An Unearthly Child were assailed by fleas in the furs they wore on set. 

I was delighted to see William Russell again. Russ or Russell to his friends, he was the original Doctor Who hero, Ian Chesterton. I interviewed him for RT in 2010 and have been to his home in north London several times. (His wife Etheline makes the finest macaroons.)

He’s a dapper gent with lots of energy – remarkable, given that he’s now in his late 80s.

I introduced him to my old chum Richard Marson, who used to be Blue Peter editor; he also made the nostalgic BBC4 doc Tales of Television Centre and is about to publish a biography of 1980s Who producer John Nathan-Turner. (Pre-order it! It’s the most impressive Who-related book I’ve ever read.) Richard was soon grilling Russell about the early days of BBC TV Centre.

Brian Hodgson and I have been threatening to meet again ever since our RT interview in 2009. He lives in Norfolk, and I’m there next weekend with friends, so oddly we’ll now see each other two weekends running.

Brian (pictured here with Waris) is a lovely man, and is planning to build his dream house. He fished some architectural sketches from his blazer pocket and I said he should be on Grand Designs.

There was another frisson in the room – a timely encounter of “certain persons”. Sorry to be cryptic but this “story” is currently embargoed. Rest assured, I have photographs and they might be published soon.

Meantime, here’s a shot of me with Waris. We’ve become close friends over the past six years, but hardly ever speak about Doctor Who. That would be very dull – especially when he’s worked with Bette Davis and Liz Taylor. But I’m delighted that he has now seen on a cinema screen that he created four incredibly atmospheric programmes (which stand up better than many episodes that followed).

Television is always a team effort but Waris's skill as a director was vitally important to the early success of Doctor Who. To this day, An Unearthly Child remains television magic.

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Afterwards a small band headed off for dinner (Pizza Express – nothing fancy!): Ian Levine, Andrew Beech (who once ran the Doctor Who Appreciation Society and now curates the Doctor Who Experience exhibition in Cardiff), Waris, his partner Jean Louis and fabulous Shirley Cooklin. I do love an octogenarian with spicy tales to tell.

One day soon, I tell myself, I will be Who-ed out! One day…

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A gallery of photos from the event.

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