An Adventure in Space and Time: David Bradley tells RT about the role of a lifetime

RT's Patrick Mulkern meets the actor on set and talks to him about his career-topping role

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I keep doing double takes. It’s uncanny how closely David Bradley resembles William Hartnell.

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He wasn’t on set the day I went to watch filming at Television Centre, nor was he required for the Dalek shoot on Westminster Bridge, so today (25 February) is the first time I’ve seen him in character – the first Doctor in the flesh, in colour, in 3D, as it were.

When I arrive at Wimbledon Studios, Bradley (as Hartnell) is berating his co-stars on the set of the lost 1964 classic Marco Polo. Later, I’m chatting to a member of the crew, when suddenly the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan (the original Tardis team) walk past me in gorgeous re-creations of their costumes from The Reign of Terror (another early historical Who). For this scene, Bradley now turns on Hartnell’s charm when his young granddaughter visits him on set.

Most rewardingly, I see him in the Tardis control room set, running through several takes where he has to fluff his lines, as Hartnell was wont to do. This particular fluff, while not obscene, was rude enough to necessitate a retake. 

At lunchtime, I find myself in the very odd position of standing directly behind the “first Doctor” in a queue at the snack bar. He has a bandage round his head for a small scene from the 1964 serial, The Edge of Destruction. I introduce myself and as he turns round, I am almost disappointed that he doesn’t snap testily, “Yes, what is it? What do you want!?” à la Hartnell.

For David Bradley, despite all the old miseries he is cast to play, is charm itself. A delightful and unassuming man, very popular in the business. We have a brief chat but, as these things often go, he’s needed in every scene, so our full RT interview has to take place some time afterwards…

Could you explain how Mark Gatiss first broached the subject of playing this part to you?

It was last year, when the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla was rolling down the Thames and I was on the South Bank, watching it from a party on a balcony at the National Theatre. Overlooking the river. We couldn’t see a thing because it was pouring down with rain.

I had a tap on the shoulder and it was Mark and he said, “What are you doing later in the year?” I think it was going to be last November but it was delayed a bit in the end and he told me that he was writing this thing and thought I’d be ideal for William Hartnell and was I interested in that? I was absolutely blown over. Thought it was terrific. So I said, “Yes please, when you’re ready, mate.”

Had you worked together before?

No, I’d just met him socially and admired his work as an actor and as a writer, of course. I’d seen a lot of his work with League of Gentlemen and Sherlock and I knew then it would be good as a piece of writing.

Was that before or after you’d done your Doctor Who episode, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship?

Oh after I’d done that.

Did you have to keep it secret for a while?

Well, once it was all settled, no I don’t remember having to keep it to myself. I was so thrilled and it got me very excited and once it was confirmed, the BBC sent me DVDs of the early episodes, An Unearthly Child, parts of which are re-created in the film.

Did you watch any Hartnell films like Brighton Rock?

Oh yes, Brighton Rock and I’d already watched This Sporting Life more than once. One of those brilliant iconic British films and he was those of those brilliant iconic British actors.

Did you have any trepidation taking on the role, because in effect you had to play Hartnell and also play him playing the first Doctor? How did you approach the two different characterisations?

There wasn’t much to go on visually of him as a private man but the DVDs were helpful for watching and capturing his mannerisms as Doctor Who, his comic rhythm and energy, which would have to be re-created for some scenes. I felt quite a responsibility about playing someone who I admired as an actor because you want to do him justice.

I was helped a lot by Jessica Carney’s wonderful biography of her grandfather. It’s going to be republished. I found it so helpful about his early life, even though none of it features in the film, it all feeds in to understanding why he was sometimes difficult. She doesn’t try to portray him in a rosy glow. She talks about the issues he had about his early life, the stigma of his illegitimacy, which I think carried on throughout his life and left him with a sense of insecurity.

He demanded a professional attitude from all around him and not least from himself. When he first started to get ill and lose his memory, it affected him deeply in the sense of his professional pride.

But as Mark’s wonderful script shows he was capable of great generosity and fun. And apparently he was great company in the bar and the pub – he’d had plenty of practice. There were many sides to him. The more complex the person and the more colour you have to work with, the richer the portrait.

Talking about research, in the end what you’re left with, whether you’re doing Shakespeare or Pinter or whatever, you can read around a subject as much as you like, but in the end it’s the words on the page that you have to learn and say that are important. And this is a terrific script.

The day I met you on set, Jessica Carney was there too and brought her grandfather’s hat and ring along.

Just to put the hat on – it was quite a thrill. I had one made just like it and it was presented to me at the end.

How did people react on set when they first saw you in the full costume?

Well, I’m told people just gasped. What was really thrilling is it had that effect on Carole Ann Ford and William Russell who were also on set a few times, and you could ask them what was he like and they were very helpful and clearly held him in great affection.

What did you enjoy most about the filming?

Every day coming onto the set with that great group of people – like [director] Terry McDonough who I’d worked with before on Jimmy McGovern’s The Street. I just remember a lot of laughter. And Mark was on set a lot of the time. He even turned up on set one day dressed as Jon Pertwee.

I’ve seen that photo.

You’ve seen it!

It looked good with the three of you. They got together a very good cast.

Yes, I didn’t know Jessica Raine who’s the amazing Verity Lambert. And there’s Sacha Dhawan as Waris Hussein. And Jamie Glover [as William Russell] and Brian Cox who I’d worked with before. More than 20 years ago we toured the world with King Lear, so we were old buddies. Just great working with him again.

So that Lear, is that the one you won the Olivier Award for?

Yes, that’s right.

Which part?

I played the Fool and understudied Brian as the Fool. So every night I was checking his throat – and I actually went on one night when he became ill, so I can actually say I played King Lear.

At the moment you’re probably best known to kids or a family audience for the Harry Potter movies. Do kids recognise you and how do they react?

Yes, in spite of all the make-up and the fake teeth, hair extensions and grime, I still get recognised for that character.

So you shine through all of that.

Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you. I still enjoy it. It seems like a long time ago now and other things have come in like Game of Thrones that people look at me in the street for.

And Broadchurch of course. Are you already getting attention from Doctor Who fans?

Well, yes, I don’t do tweeting but my daughter sends me stuff – people speculating and it’s all quite positive. I was out in San Diego and LA promoting it. At ComicCon, which was the most wonderful crazy few days. 140,000 comic fans descended on San Diego. One young lady came dressed as a police box.

I hope you didn’t have to give an autograph to all of them.

Not all. But I think I got through most of them.

Will you make any other public appearances to promote the 50th in Britain?

No, there’s a BFI screening with a Q&A [12 November]. So far that’s all I’ve been asked to do.

How does it feel becoming part of the Doctor Who legend?

Wonderful. I’m young enough to remember William Hartnell as the Doctor. That was before I even thought of becoming an actor, so if you’d said to me one day I’ll be playing that man, it would have been unthinkable. I’d already been in Doctor Who with the dinosaurs and I thought that was it, my Doctor Who experience. One I could cross off the bucket list. It was a lovely time with Chris Chibnall who wrote Broadchurch.

You’ve had a long and distinguished career. I spoke to my dad yesterday and he wanted me to tell you that you’re his favourite actor.

Oh wow, that’s lovely.

He said you always seem to play characters that other blokes would like to be – ne’er-do-wells, complex reprobates…

Please thank him for that, will you?

You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and Pinter.

Yes, and I hope to do more theatre work. It’s been two and a half years now. I just love it and can mix the TV and film and occasional radio. Just keep it all fresh.

What projects are coming up?

Nothing I can talk about. A theatre thing we’re workshopping I’m excited about.

Anything in the can?

An episode of Silk for the BBC playing a high court judge. I don’t know when that’s coming out. I’m usually the guy on the other side saying, “Not guilty, milord.”

What about Benidorm? Any more of that?

Oh I wish. I enjoyed it so much. A lovely place to be, a great bunch of people, up for a good night out.

So what with Steve Pemberton in that, Mark in this, and Reece Shearsmith, you’ve actually worked with all of the League of Gentlemen now.

Oh I have, yes! What with Reece – we did a pilot called Bad Sugar, which didn’t get taken up but of course now he’s Patrick Troughton. They’re a cool bunch, those guys.

So what would you say have been the highlights of your career so far?

Usually I say it’s the last thing I’ve done because that’s freshest in my mind but in this case, it has to be An Adventure in Space and Time. It was just one of those really special jobs, playing someone who I admired as an actor and I just hope his family are pleased with the portrait, shall we say.

Have you seen An Adventure yet?

I haven’t yet. When I was out in the States I saw the trailer a couple of times. Mark offered to send me a link to watch it on a laptop but I’m so excited about it, I want my first experience to be a big screen and hopefully with my family and the lovely group I worked with on it. It was really a very special job and I hope I can do justice to the man.

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Last night David Bradley did finally get to see An Adventure in Space and Time at the BFI in London. The audience gave him, the drama and everyone involved in it a very long standing ovation. His is a truly wonderful performance, capturing the crabbiness, the twinkle and the pathos of William Hartnell.

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At the celebratory post-show drinks I snapped David with Waris, and Waris snapped David with me…