Doctor Who's Waris Hussein on William Hartnell, Bette Davis, & Peter Cook loathing David Frost

In the first of a wide-ranging, two-part profile, Doctor Who's first director offers a unique window into the world of a rapidly changing film and television industry

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Doctor Who's Waris Hussein on William Hartnell, Bette Davis, & Peter Cook loathing David Frost
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

It feels weird sitting down to interview somebody you already know well, someone you count as a friend. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage? But when Waris told me of the countless interviews he is giving in this, Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year, I suggested the idea of a more intimate profile of the man I know, drawing out stories that others might not seek, putting on record some of the tales he’s told me over the years.

We first met at a party in Ealing in 2007, chatted into the night and have been chums ever since, often meeting up for supper, birthday picnics or just a stroll around town. Waris has a calm, gentle manner but strong opinions and a sharp sense of humour. A raconteur with pin-sharp recall, he can be a fount of salty anecdotes – which he’d flay me for repeating here. (Maybe he'll put them in the autobiography he's threatening to write.)

A talented, award-winning, now perhaps underrated director, Waris has worked with many of the greats from Laurence Olivier to Bette Davis. In 1965, he directed Sybil Thorndike in the BBC's prestigious adaptation of A Passage to India (left). And a few years later he endured a disastrous encounter with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

He has far more interesting things to talk about from his long career than one sci-fi series whose labour pains he eased 50 years ago. But it is Doctor Who that is thrusting Waris Hussein into the limelight in 2013 and underlines his extraordinary achievement as a youngster working in the television industry in the early 1960s.

It didn’t hit me until I was sitting in a dressing room speaking to Sacha Dhawan (the former History Boys actor who portrays him in Mark Gatiss’s BBC2 drama An Adventure in Space and Time) just how young Waris was. Sacha is a youthful 29, but Waris was actually five years younger, just 24, when entrusted with directing the first Doctor Who.

“It was a very peculiar sensation,” says Waris, “being that age and having to control a whole show. In those days we shot continuously on four cameras with very few breaks in the tape. You had to know exactly what you were doing. It was almost mathematical in its strategy.” It wasn’t just his youth that people found challenging. “I was the first Indian-born person working in that field. Mark’s put it in his drama. I was the very first person doing what I was doing at a time when there was a lot of sideways speculation about immigration.” Subtle and not so subtle racism is a theme we’ll return to.

For many years, Waris has divided his life and career between LA and London. He has an apartment in West Hollywood, recently refurbished after a devastating fire, and a comfortable house in Chelsea that he’s owned since 1972 and now shares with his partner. In their conservatory/study he’s surrounded by reminders of his illustrious career. There’s the Bafta for Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames Television, 1978), a classic drama in anybody’s book, as well as an Emmy for Copacabana, a 1985 vehicle for Barry Manilow (pictured right, with Waris).

In one corner, the walls are adorned with photographs from his productions reaching right back to the 60s. He calls this gallery “a spectrum of my work” and proudly points out: “How many directors do you know, especially of Asian origin, who’ve worked with everyone from Laurence Olivier, via Sybil Thorndike, to Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft to Barry Manilow?” There are also shots of Waris directing Anthony Hopkins, Ava Gardner, Claire Bloom, Ian McKellen, Janet Suzman…

He is buddies with many actors of a certain vintage – including Sian Phillips, Martin Jarvis, Francesca Annis – whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in his company. But today I am particularly impressed to spot two blurry Polaroids of Waris beside Bette Davis (below). They worked together on a TV movie in 1982. “This is a lady I not only had enormous affection for, but respect. She was incredibly professional – the last of those cinematic greats. She did not tolerate inefficiency. All she needed was guidance.”

They first met in her hotel room: “She didn’t greet me with any formality. She launched straight into showing me what her hairstyle would be, that this would be her wig. I said, ‘Miss Davis, can I interrupt? Your hairdo is unfortunately not period.’ She said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘It’s very 40s. We’re doing the 20s when the hair was much closer to the head.’ And she said, ‘Oh, the 40s. I was the 40s!’ But she agreed to do something about it. She came back with it absolutely right. ‘I’m so glad,’ she said. ‘Now I know that you know what you’re doing.’ So she’d tested me and I’d passed. She approved of me.

“She said, ‘I’ve been watching your series about Wallis Simpson. I’ve done my research, you know. I could have played her 30 years ago. I’ve been playing wicked women all my career and in Hollywood no actress wants to be wicked.’ ”

Spooling back now, way back to 1938, Waris was born in Lucknow in India, and spent his early childhood in Bombay. His father, Ali Habibullah, was high up in cotton and textiles, a supply commissioner for British cotton. “That’s why we came to England, not because we were seeking asylum, but my father was a diplomat sent here by the British government before Partition. Then India became independent and his job stopped but we were already at school here, my sister Shama and I.”

Waris’s father (pictured right in 1980 towards the end of his life) was obliged to return to India but his wife and children remained in the UK. “Monetary restrictions were huge in those days,” explains Waris. “He was allowed to send money for our education, but couldn’t support my mother. She got a job at the BBC as a broadcaster in the Far Eastern service at Bush House.” Attia Hosain became a well-known broadcaster in Hindi and Urdu, translated Shakespeare, and wrote several books, which have been republished by Virago. She died in 1998; this year is her centenary and in October Waris is organising an event in her memory at the Chelsea Arts Club.

If you're flummoxed by the profusion of surnames, Waris explains that Habibullah is his actual family name but early in his career it seemed “far too complicated”. He needed something “easier to put on a credit so I adopted Hussein. I should have used my mother’s maiden name Hosain but, like an idiot, I chose Hussein. It sounded like the King of Jordan then but [later] turned out to be more like Saddam – and that doesn’t help in life.”

At Cambridge with David Frost and Peter Cook

Waris read English at Cambridge in the late 50s, graduating in 1960. [Pictured left at graduation with his mother, Attia Hosain.] It was an epoch that would produce a rich seam of household names, such as Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Eleanor Bron – “A lot of my contemporaries from Cambridge have made their way to the top with enormous talent and skill.”

But he’s cooler about another – David Frost. “He, by dint of sheer ambition, got to the top of the tree. When he was at Cambridge, none of us really had much time for him because he was so ambitious. If he walked into a room and you were in the middle of a conversation, it stopped because you didn’t want him to overhear.”

Waris calls Frost “a fiddler – fiddling with people’s knowledge and how to use it. Peter Cook, who was actually the genius at Cambridge, couldn’t stand David Frost, who used to hang around Peter like a leech.”

Joining the BBC and creating Doctor Who

Having completed the BBC directors’ course in the early 60s, Waris’s first assignment was Compact, a hugely popular twice-weekly soap, which tested the 23-year-old’s mettle with two episodes in one evening – one aired live and a second taped for later transmission. Next up was Doctor Who in 1963 and Waris’s first encounter with its producer Verity Lambert, a woman who was to become a lifelong friend.

His first impression, when reporting for work at Television Centre, was of “an amazing, striking-looking woman. She had the latest Vidal Sassoon hairdo and Mary Quant dresses. She was extremely knowledgeable and strong, and when you meet somebody like that, you can’t help liking them. Woe betide anybody who didn’t like her. We clicked straight away – both Sagittarians.”

[Pictured right: the original Doctor Who team – producer Verity Lambert, director Waris Hussein and associate producer Mervyn Pinfield]

Yet the new project was daunting: “I walked into her office having read these four scripts and I was shocked because I didn’t know what to do with them. The first one [An Unearthly Child] was fine – introducing the characters, the school and the peculiarity of the junkyard, and the phonebox that then becomes Tardis. What I didn’t know how to cope with was the three following episodes about the quest for fire. I mean, look, you graduate from Cambridge with honours and you’re directing this piece about cavemen in skins. I thought, ‘Where have I landed up in my life?’

“Verity said, ‘We’re just going to have to make them work.’ Little did she or I know what we were about to launch. The production designer didn’t want to be involved. The BBC had no faith in it, and that’s in Mark [Gatiss]’s drama too [An Adventure…] although I think he had to tone it down a bit, otherwise it would be terribly anti-BBC establishment. But the fact was they didn’t want to make it.”

Waris is keenly aware of the irony that Doctor Who is now “one of the BBC’s hugest franchises ever, making a lot of dosh for everybody and we started off with practically nothing, a budget of £2,000 per episode.”

William Hartnell was Verity’s idea for the role of the Doctor. “When we approached him, he didn’t want to do it because he was doing well in films. Why would he want to commit to a series? Even when he accepted, I don’t think he had any idea how long it would last – especially with the BBC not being encouraging.

“When we met him he was not only reluctant but had to be persuaded after two very expensive lunches and he was bewildered by having a woman producer. He was dyed-in-the-wool Conservative British. So when you think he was being produced by a woman, directed by an Indian and the idea came from a Canadian [BBC drama head Sydney Newman]… Talk about three aliens. I said, ‘This is Doctor Who versus the aliens.’ ”

He and Verity pandered to Hartnell’s “actor’s enthusiasms and moods” to win him over. But the star tested Waris on set. “There was a wonderful moment when we were rehearsing in a hall somewhere and the outline of the sets had been marked on the floor in yellow tape. He watched me setting it up. I said, ‘I’d like you to move here and there,’ and he said, ‘What will happen if I move over there? I think I’d like to move over there.’ I said, ‘Oh, interesting, Bill – or William, I can’t remember what I called him. Interesting. Because there’s no set there and I won’t be able to see you, but you’re welcome to move there if you want.’ I had to counteract him patiently. Gradually, despite his irritable external self, he came round to liking me a lot.” 

Waris directed the first four-part story, then a few months later six episodes of an adventure in history called Marco Polo (which garnered Doctor Who's first RT front cover). “By the time I left, Bill was very upset. He’d got used to me, Verity, and the other cast. Then they all began to leave, and that's how it works in the drama [An Adventure…]. It’s sad – a man who came into his own, reluctantly, then accepting it, and then losing everybody. I find that moving.”

After Marco Polo, Waris severed his ties with Doctor Who. “Why would I want to continue? It wasn’t my career.” I point out that Douglas Camfield, who started off as Waris’s assistant, soon became a director and returned frequently to Who. “Douglas was happy in that landscape. It was a regular job. He became a staff director so for him it was a step in the right direction. For me it was just one step. I never wanted to be stuck. I wanted to make feature films.” Those would be a while off.

The great BBC plays

Waris was working on a prestigious project with Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train) when Verity pulled him off to direct the first episodes of another BBC1 soap, The Newcomers, in 1965. He was not best pleased. But soon Waris was assigned to higher-brow material such as The Wednesday Play. 

“People went home to watch it on a Wednesday night,” he says. “You kept nights free if you knew a new Harold Pinter or David Mercer would be on.” The BBC Play of the Month was especially prestigious. In 1965, Waris directed Sybil Thorndike (below) and Virginia McKenna in an acclaimed version of A Passage to India, and ended his run in 1972 with Janet Suzman and Ian McKellen in Hedda Gabler. 

These two productions have survived the BBC’s policy of wiping tapes, but many of Waris’s dramas did not. “Everything we do is ephemeral,” he concedes. “Nothing is lasting. I deal in the world of fantasy. Drama is fantasy.” But then he starts to seethe, admitting to “grief and disappointment mixed with anger. I’m really upset because some of my best work doesn’t exist any more.”

Waris directed three plays by Simon Gray (now lost) that even today would be rather startling. One called Spoiled (1968) dealt with homosexuality in a school. “It was about a married schoolmaster who seduces a student, a Catholic boy, and destroys his life. The boy, in his late teens, was played by Simon Ward, who in those days was a very pretty young man, and Michael Craig was the schoolmaster whose wife is eight months pregnant. It was very dark and sad, yet funny and dealt with all sorts of things that would resonate today.”

Sleeping Dogs (1967) starred Marius Goring as a colonel and Rachel Kempson (Vanessa Redgrave’s mother) as his wife. “They’re a couple who have just come back from Africa and the husband has a phobia about black men. He can’t stand the idea of his wife talking to a black bartender, so in a jealous fit he traps the man, kidnaps him and puts him in a cellar with a dog collar. It was very, very racist. A terrible comment on racism and colonialism. Where do you get that now?” Where, indeed… 

Waris has long had an appetite for taboo subjects and issue-led drama. By the 1970s, he was working again with Verity Lambert on Shoulder to Shoulder, a rousing and sometimes gruelling six-part serial about the suffragettes. Such was its profile that Radio Times produced a special magazine in 1974. But, says Waris, “It’s another underrated drama the BBC has forgotten. It’s always amazing to me that the BBC doesn’t know what it has.”

*

Part two of the interview: the disastrous film with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, directing TV’s first Aids drama, and more on An Adventure in Space and Time…

[Read part two of the interview here]

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