Doctor Who director Waris Hussein on Burton and Taylor, racism and An Adventure in Space and Time

Concluding a candid, two-part profile, Doctor Who's first director discusses the trials of directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, racial prejudice in Britain and the joy of being immortalised in Mark Gatiss's Who drama

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Doctor Who director Waris Hussein on Burton and Taylor, racism and An Adventure in Space and Time
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

[Read part one of the interview here]

By the early 1970s, Waris Hussein’s plan to segue into movies was bearing fruit. No longer a BBC staff director, he shot Melody, a vehicle for Mark Lester and Jack Wild, both fresh from Oliver! A lyrical tale of school days and summer haze in 1970s south London, Melody is a quirky, directorial masterpiece, well worth seeking on DVD. It was written by Alan Parker and produced by David Puttnam. “This was both their first job and they’re now Sir Alan and Lord Puttnam. Again it illustrates: where did I get off that train?” sighs Waris, who feels his achievements have been forgotten over the years.

In the 70s, he at last branched out into Hollywood with The Possession of Joel Delaney, a psychodrama starring Shirley MacLaine. He also clocked up such hits as Henry VIII and His Six Wives (the 1972 film starring Keith Michell, pictured right with Waris), Shoulder to Shoulder for the BBC, and The Glittering Prizes, which gave Tom Conti’s career a huge boost.

Crowning the decade was Edward and Mrs Simpson, a prestigious ITV series that garnered universal praise and, for Waris, a Bafta. Again, this was a collaboration with Verity Lambert, whom he’d met on Doctor Who 15 years earlier. “When she became head of drama at Thames Television, she specifically asked for me.” But the 1970s weren’t all rosy.

The Burton and Taylor nightmare

In 72, Waris was brought onto a project for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Divorce His – Divorce Hers was going to be made by HTV, an ITV company that Burton as a Welshman wanted to support. “At the time,” says Waris, “I was one of the top directors in taped television and this was going to be the first drama that they’d ever done on tape.”

But Taylor soon caused ructions. “When Elizabeth heard about this, first of all she said she couldn’t afford to stay in England because of tax. Secondly she was definitely not going to shoot in a studio with four cameras continuously. I realised why when I got to work with her. By this time she was in her 40s and was not growing old well. She’d put on weight and you had to shoot her carefully.” The project was suspended, then relocated to Rome and Munich.

Waris and Richard Burton (above) “got on incredibly well. He took to me; partly he respected me. He was a failed intellectual. He wanted to be a don at Oxford. Which he never became. He saw in me somebody who was a curious mixture of the East and West. He took me aside and said, ‘Waris, can I call you Warisco?’ I said, ‘You may if you want.’ He said, ‘Don’t ever call me Dick.’ He said, ‘I’m Welsh, you’re Indian. Neither of us is English.’ And that caused us to have a bond. He was fiercely Welsh.”

But Burton had his demons. “He wanted to prove that he was not an alcoholic by waving a bottle of Perrier around every time we walked in somewhere. The first week of filming was fine, and then along came Elizabeth and everything changed. He hit the bottle. They had a dysfunctional relationship and I was in the middle of it. It was like waiting for a hand grenade to go off because they were privately in a very bad way and publicly pretending everything was all right.”

The production never recovered. “Because Richard liked me, I suddenly realised there were two camps on set. One for Richard and one for Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth found I was not in her orbit, she became indifferent. I wouldn’t say unpleasant in an obvious way. It was done with enormous subtlety. It was like, ‘Yes I know you’re here, just don’t say anything, keep away.’ It’s very hard to direct someone when they’re aiming that arrow at you and Richard became incapable when the drink took over. He more or less collapsed under the weight of it all.”

Divorce His – Divorce Hers was a disaster, a lowlight of Waris’s career. He views Taylor as “a pathetic, sad woman” and believes, “She was aware of mortality from a very early age and that influenced the way she behaved.” Her father had died, as had her husband Michael Todd, her friend and co-star Montgomery Clift, and subsequently Rock Hudson. I interject that she was famously supportive of her many gay mates. “Yes, Roddy McDowell was one of her closest friends. I’m not diminishing her friendships or the work she did for the Aids Foundation, but she was basically, if you want to be crude about it, a fag hag. Not that I benefited from this – far from it!

“I learnt so much from that film. If I could survive those two, I could survive anything. When someone tried to bitch at me once, I said, ‘Don’t bother. Elizabeth Taylor cut them off years ago.’ ” He chuckles. “It’s a good way of stopping them in their tracks.”

Seizing TV's first Aids drama

In the 1980s, the emergence of Aids was to have a deep effect on Waris’s life, as it would on that of many others. He had been booked to direct Early Frost, the first US drama bold enough to tackle the condition head-on, “but I hadn’t signed the contract and the head of department changed and wanted to make his own mark.”

Then Waris heard that Central Television in the UK was planning its own drama about Aids – Intimate Contact. “I more or less banged the door down for it.” Written by Alma Cullen, Intimate Contact (1987) starred Daniel Massey as a middle-class man leading a double life, who had to admit he’d contracted the virus to his wife. She was played by Claire Bloom (pictured left with Waris and now one of his close friends). “I campaigned, I really fought to get that show. I said, ‘I know what this is about. You can’t give it to anybody else.’ ”

No one on the production had the slightest idea that the story was close to home. “I kept it to myself. I pretended to know nothing about the subject. They even gave me an adviser. It wasn’t easy – Daniel Massey dying on screen of Aids, me having to direct him on that level, knowing that the person in my life had the same illness.”

It’s the first time Waris has felt ready to be candid about this. “Now of course it’s something that can be talked about but not then. My then partner Ian had contracted the illness and was in hospital at a time when Aids was ravaging the country and prejudice was rife. Almost by association you were contaminated in people’s minds.”

Ian was originally from New Zealand and within a week of arriving in England, had landed a job with one of the top jewellers in London. He and Waris were together 12 years, before he succumbed. “In those days, they pumped you with inappropriate medicine like AZT. It was a death sentence really. The doctor said to Ian in front of me, ‘You’ve got 18 months maximum. I suggest you put your house in order.’ It was blunt but he was compassionate, realistic.”

At first, Waris was optimistic. “I said, ‘This is not going to happen. We’ll get through this.’ I was so bloody naive, blindfolding myself from the reality and thinking about bringing Ian through, flushing him out, making him a new person and it would be fine… And of course it wasn’t going to be fine. Exactly 18 months after Ian was told he was going to die, he did. At St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.

“The odd thing is, it never occurred to me that I might have been infected. It was only when someone said, ‘Have you had yourself tested?’ I suddenly thought, ‘Jeez, am I in for this?’ I went to the doctor and was negative.”

Combating racial prejudice

I wasn’t even considering broaching the “race” issue, but Waris is keen to make the point that throughout his career he’s had to “put up with a lot of barriers, latent prejudice – I grew up with that atmosphere.” Especially in the early days at the BBC: “Going down to the studio to direct a piece, being who I am, not conforming to the cliché and not speaking with the guttural Indian accent, talking with a posh accent… often I’d have a red-necked crew, watching my every move, wanting to know, ‘When’s the bugger going to trip and fall?’ That was the mentality. Not that they were verbalising it but they were thinking it – and I’m thinking it.”

He didn’t mind being teased by Douglas Camfield, his assistant who became a renowned TV director. “We were a good partnership. There were times when he’d say, ‘Waris, come on, we’re falling behind. I’m going to put you on the next boat home.’ That was his joke. That’s fine if you can laugh at it but there was an undercurrent.”

[Above: Waris with his mother Attia and sister Shama in Chelsea, early 1970s]

While the problem today, he says, is Islamophobia, in his day the focus was more on anti-immigration. “My sister Shama left England because of all this. She went to Cheltenham Ladies College, to Cambridge, is highly educated, far more intelligent than me.” One day she was waiting at a bus stop on Clapham Common and a drunkard abused her. “ ‘Why don’t you f****** people go home? You breed like rabbits. You smell of curry.’ Nobody said anything. She came home in tears and said, ‘I can’t live here any more. What has it all meant? Why did I go to school here when this is what I’m reduced to?’ ” (Shama Habibullah is now a very successful film producer.)

Waris received similar abuse at a dinner party in the late 70s. “It was a very smart, upper-class dinner in Campden Hill. All male company. This man sat next to me and said, ‘And what do you do?’ I told him I was directing Edward and Mrs Simpson and he replied, ‘Fancy! I had no idea we’d have colonials telling us about our lives.’

“After dinner this man said, ‘Ugh, I really don’t think I can be in the same room as that man over there,’ pointing to me. I stood up and said, ‘I’m going to spare you that embarrassment. One thing I will say is I was brought up to be polite and a gentleman under your British rule, and I know what the rules are. Some of you obviously don’t. I’m going to leave now.’ Ian followed me.”

Long ago, Waris contacted a journalist friend, a fellow Asian, seeking a way to alleviate the situation, to get the media to focus on Asian people “who are positive in this society. All the talk was of people getting off boats illegally. Why wasn’t the media talking about doctors or lawyers or people like myself, a film director? That was then, and it’s one thing now to see Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar every five minutes representing the Asian community, but at that time I had nobody backing me up. It’s a very selective business. They will end up as Lord and Lady. These are the token Asians. I’m not a token Asian and refuse to be one.”

Current projects

Waris may be in his 70s, but he’s firing on all cylinders and looking for new projects. He still works in the US, and has been teaching film-acting at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. There’s a potential movie of The Winter’s Tale, and he’d like to re-stage A Single Man, a play based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, which he first directed in 1989 at Greenwich Theatre with Alec McCowen. “It’s a wonderful piece. Way before Tom Ford’s film version [starring Colin Firth], which I’m afraid I did not like.”

He’s working with a writer on a screenplay about his entanglement with Burton and Taylor: “A producer is interested, despite the recent BBC4 version with Helena Bonham Carter. I thought that might kill us but it hasn’t.”

The joy of An Adventure in Space and Time

Waris has been hugely looking forward to Mark Gatiss’s forthcoming BBC2 drama about the early days of Doctor Who, in which he appears as a major character – and at a private screening in early October, he finally managed to see it. He sounds bowled over and says that David Bradley is particularly outstanding as William Hartnell.

He has the highest praise for Gatiss and for his moving script and also credits his meticulous research. Waris gladly assisted in the early stages. “Mark and I worked closely on how I would be played, on how he’d create my character. I wasn’t trying to put a spoke in Mark’s creative wheels but I said, ‘I don’t want you to overplay certain elements. If you’re going to imply anything, make it subtle.’ And I think he's graded it very well.”

He gave Gatiss guidance on how the four-camera recording studio at Lime Grove operated and wanted to convey his anxieties at the time in dealing with the scripts. He also gave a few notes on Verity Lambert’s character. In an early draft, Waris noticed that she was living in Bayswater and travelled to work by bus. “Far from living in a basement flat in Bayswater, Verity had a very nice mews house off Eaton Square. She was very comfortably off. She’d been to Roedean. And she didn’t ever go on a bus unless something tragic happened to her car. She drove a very smart car. She always did. She was impeccably groomed.”

And what of the casting of former History Boy Sacha Dhawan (right, with Mark Gatiss and Waris)? “I’m very happy that he’s playing me. He comes from Manchester and I’d told him categorically that no way could a Mancunian accent invade this character, and I have to say he studied it very well. I also said to him, ‘Please do not play gay. I do not want limp wrists and hip swinging,’ because that is one thing I would not have been and could not have afforded to be. Sacha has done me a lot of justice.”

Back in January, Waris attended the script read-though and found it fascinating. “I sat at the back. I didn’t want to be part of the table-reading. I just wanted to hear the words read. And we had to introduce ourselves. Finally it came round to me and the moment I mentioned my name, they all applauded. I have to say it was very touching.”

He also attended the first day of the shoot (3 February) at BBC Television Centre, and found it “odd more than moving. It’s like having not quite a dream… Listen, how many times in one’s life is one going to be portrayed on screen?” He’s one of the few survivors from those days and thinks that Jessica Raine has beautifully captured Verity Lambert, who died in 2007. “I miss her terribly for all sorts of reasons. She was such an extraordinary person.”

He says that usually he laments the fact that “in this business there’s no sense of tradition or knowledge of what’s happened in the past”. But An Adventure in Space and Time will redress the balance. “Ironically my career has now come full circle with Doctor Who. I’m back to where I started, and with the irony of being portrayed on film by an actor. It feels odd, surreal, in a way thrilling.”

For Waris, it atones for his sense of being overlooked. “That film will now exist well into the future, well past my time. Suddenly I’ve been brought back to life. I feel like they’re going to say, ‘Oh my God, was that you?’ And I think, ‘Yeah, I’ve been sleepwalking all this time.’ ”

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