An amazingly rare artefact has surfaced in the collection of director Waris Hussein – his original, personally annotated studio floorplan for Doctor Who’s pilot episode from 1963. The document is dated “25/9” – 25 September, today’s date 50 years ago.
This week, five decades ago, the cast and crew of Doctor Who were busy gearing up for episode one, An Unearthly Child, which would be recorded on Friday 27 September. While the actors rehearsed in the less-than-glamorous Drill Hall in Uxbridge Road, London W12, the BBC design team and set builders were constructing the sets according to this floorplan at nearby Lime Grove Studios.
The episode was written to be taped “as live”, with only one break in recording. “In those days,” says Waris, “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.”
By studying Waris’s diagram (above), we can see how the action was captured on four colour-coded cameras, and how the sets made maximum use of the permissible floor space, constructed right up to its perimeter.
It also reveals the layout of the sets in the confines of Studio D: how the junkyard set (top left) faced the classrooms at Coal Hill School (bottom left), while the “outdoor” set of Totter’s Lane (top right) ran beside the doors to the Tardis (bottom right).
We have broken the floorplan down into the individual sets…
This section shows the length of Totter’s Lane leading to the junkyard gates (far left) along which a policeman strolls in the fog at the start of the episode. Schoolteachers Ian and Barbara also park here later on.
Along the top perimeter is a backdrop indicated as a “20’ PBU [photographic blow-up] in stock photo frame”. Below that are outlines of buildings, and an instruction for “floor painting as roadway and pavement”.
The coloured discs show the positions of Camera 3 (green) and Camera 4 (yellow). The blue square (left) is the microphone boom.
Note that the yellow Camera 4 disc is positioned here over the “floating screen with doors” of the Tardis control room set. So presumably this screen could be rolled aside for camera access.
Coal Hill School
Along the studio perimeter is a school corridor, leading to Barbara’s classroom and Ian’s laboratory. On screen the illusion is created that these are separate rooms but they’re actually two halves of one set, as Camera 2 (blue) points in different directions.
The sets are furnished with desks and Ian’s lab counter.
All the scenes in the junkyard take place at night so the surrounding backdrop is a black velour drape.
Towards the back there’s a ladder leading to a raised platform. To the right is the gate that swings open of its own volition at the start of the episode. And most importantly, in a prominent position, is the mysterious police box.
You’ll spot the microphone and colour-coded camera positions. Note, too, that the control room (ie the production gallery for director Waris Hussein, producer Verity Lambert and the team) overlooks this set.
And here it is – the Tardis control room! In all its (overhead) glory. (NB We’ve rotated this image to improve legibility.)
The outline of the original control room follows exactly the outline and a weird kink in the studio perimeter. The “walls” include a 40ft artist cloth at the back, a long section of 28ft photo blow-ups of circular “indentations” and, lower down, a 12ft 4 “floating screen on casters” and of course the door section, which proved problematic during the pilot recording, as the doors refused to close.
The back of the set features a complicated structure containing the elevated scanner screen, perspex panels and what would later be identified as the fault locator. There’s also a curious mirrored column.
The central hexagonal control panel is surrounded by aluminium floor sections, alongside a “canopy suspended at +10ft”. This piece was so cumbersome, it would feature in few subsequent episodes. (For this November’s BBC2 drama, An Adventure in Space and Time, which painstakingly re-creates this Tardis set, Mark Gatiss told me the canopy will be rendered via CGI.)
All four cameras (colour-coded by Waris) peeped through the section of the set that was left unbuilt – aka “the fourth wall” – primed for the long scene that takes up the latter half of An Unearthly Child.
As many Doctor Who fans will know, the Pilot episode, once completed, was deemed unsatisfactory. The script was revised and An Unearthly Child was recorded again, remounted on this same floorplan, on Friday 18 October 1963.
A massive thank you to Waris Hussein for his help with this feature.
Both versions of An Unearthly Child are available in the BBC DVD box set, Doctor Who: the Beginning.