Fifty years ago, Radio Times photographer Don Smith took the first publicity photographs of the cast of Doctor Who.
As the actual sets from the first episode, An Unearthly Child, weren’t available, the RT photoshoot used special mock-ups of a classroom and a junkyard, suggesting the settings that would feature in the episode.
I gave Don a call (he’s now retired but enjoying life as a musician) to pick his brains. Despite the passage of time, he recalls the assignment clearly. “Oh yes, I remember it well. I took them in the photographic studio in the basement at Television Centre, which was just a large room – most uninspiring. We had bits of furniture in the waiting room, and it was just a matter of dragging anything in.
“Because our press day was a few weeks ahead of transmission, we naturally had to shoot things like this in rehearsal rooms and studios or anywhere we could. And in this particular case, we had [first Doctor] William Hartnell, and [his companions] William Russell, the girl teacher Jacqueline… I never remember her name [Hill], and Carole Ann Ford. It was a terribly uninspiring session – just a matter of putting them together in a schoolroom. I don’t remember the junkyard as such.
“There was nothing jokey. No big arguments. It was just a straightforward shoot: ‘You stand there. What’s the relationship between you two?’ You’ve got to try to put across in a limited number of pictures whether William Russell and Jacqueline Hill were lovers or not. What was their relationship with the strange William Hartnell character…
“I’m sure that [producer] Verity Lambert was at this photo session. Waris Hussein directed that first one. It’s funny – I’ve covered many of his productions but I don’t think I’ve ever actually spoken to him. You see, directors and producers would be up in the control room while we were working on the floor."
William Hartnell had a reputation for being crabby but Don says, “In the period he was Doctor Who, I had quite a lot to do with him. I always found him OK. He was never tetchy with me. I would always say to him, ‘Please may I take a picture of you doing this or that?’ and I don’t ever remember him saying no.
“My main memory of photographing Doctor Who is at Lime Grove [the BBC’s former studios in Shepherd’s Bush]. I dare say I did it at Riverside [other facilities in Hammersmith], but I’m not sure. I’ve got all my work diaries from when I started in 1955. They’re tattered and torn to bits, so I can check.”
Don wants to share another sharp recollection, from a few weeks later in 1963: “One of the BBC publicity photographers, Douglas Playle, who’s still a dear friend of mine, came back to TV Centre, where I was doing something else. He said, ‘I’ve just been down to Lime Grove photographing an episode of Doctor Who. And they’ve got these fantastic things – they’re like inverted dustbins on wheels. It’s fantastic the way they move about.’ And this is the point: Doug said, ‘I can see them becoming very popular and being the in thing.’ I’ve often thought back on that.”
Of course, Don himself would go on to meet the Daleks and photograph them many times for RT – and capture on film dozens of Doctor Who classics right into the 1980s.