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.”