The 1963 Doctor Who diaries of Waris Hussein – part one
For the very first time, the veteran director shares his personal journals from 1963. In part one, the troubled birth of the sci-fi classic 60 years ago.
Much has been written about Doctor Who across the past six decades, but surely little could be more striking and fascinating than the diary kept by Waris Hussein way back in 1963 – his contemporaneous account of those crucial months 60 years ago when the sci-fi series was slowly, sometimes painfully, coming into being.
As Doctor Who’s very first director, he was heavily involved in the programme’s inception and can be counted among its talented band of founding parents. Other key figures included Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who dreamt up the concept of the series, and the first producer Verity Lambert, who eventually became a close friend of Waris.
What follows is not a day-by-day diary. In 1963 Waris was far too busy for that. Instead, whenever time allowed, he kept a journal in a notebook, sometimes recording his thoughts on one particular day or else summarising recent events. That year he was also directing the BBC soap Compact, a Sunday Play called The Shadow of Mart and wartime espionage series Moonstrike. His diaries cover those in depth, as well as many private matters. For this series of articles exclusive to Radio Times, he has kindly allowed us to edit his accounts, extracting aspects pertinent to Doctor Who.
Over two sessions at his London home, Waris read through the diaries for the first time in six decades and was highly amused to be reacquainted with his youthful self, aged just 24. Many forgotten details flooded back, as well as his frustrations and anxieties at that time, less than one year into his remarkable career as a director. Waris’s fresh observations appear below in parentheses, as do RT’s explanatory notes.
This is the first diary mention of Doctor Who…
Wednesday 29th May 1963
Today I reported back to the BBC and Mavis informed me that I was going to do a Moonstrike. The serial "Dr Who" would follow later. I am in the same office I had for [The Shadow of] Mart with Shirley Coward as my secretary.
[Waris in 2023: “I wonder who Mavis was. No idea now. But this was at Television Centre. I had a fabulous office on the fifth floor.”]
Thursday 30th May 1963
The more I think of "Dr Who", the more it depresses me and I can’t bear the thought of it. I hope it never happens.
[Waris in 2023: “You see, nobody knew exactly what the format was. The scripts were non-existent apart from the first one by Anthony Coburn. There was nothing more to go on. The sci-fi element didn’t bother me particularly; it was more that we’d be dealing with Stone Age characters. I mean, the discovery of fire was not my idea of directing something after my Cambridge days where I studied Shakespeare. And I didn’t want to be laughed at – directing actors in skins."]
Sunday 23rd June 1963
I am sitting waiting to join the Doctor Who set up at the Centre. 52 weeks of it! I met Verity Lambert. She is glamorous and young. Mervyn Pinfield [the associate producer and a senior BBC figure] is optimistically cresting one gigantic wave. So far we have one writer and no scripts. I put forward Marghanita Laski’s name as a possible.
[Waris in 2023: "I’ve no idea now why I suggested her. Anything to divert attention!" Laski was a writer and panellist on What’s My Line? "And that was my first meeting with Verity – wow!"]
Friday 5th July 1963
Now I’m faced with almost three months of non-activity because Dr Who has been put back till late September and Rex Tucker [the series’ original, caretaker producer], who was launching me on it, has handed over his preliminary plans to me, with, I suspect, a sigh of relief because the whole thing is so outrageously optimistic that I’m sure it will not carry through for a whole year.
More like this
We are having great casting problems and have not yet seen one suitable girl to play Susan after a conveyor belt of articulating drama school products with toffees in their mouths. Two people, Cyril Cusack and Penelope Lee, have already declined our offers and I shan’t be surprised if Leslie French does the same – meanwhile the scripts are going to be rewritten by Anthony Coburn and I am wondering what my future will be after all this has blown up in our faces.
Verity is charmingly optimistic without any real knowledge of what she actually wants from the serial. All idea of possible fantasy has been thrown to the four winds and we are discussing the portrayal of the Gum tribe quite seriously in terms of accurate palaeolithic terms. Sydney Newman’s brainchild is quite impossibly monster-like. The whole business is like a nightmare. I saw him briefly in the bar [with] Tony Page who is going to direct Stephen D with Sydney producing. It’s more than I can bear. [Stephen D was a BBC play, aired in October 1963.] Prompted me to call Helene to make an appointment for next Wednesday.
[Waris in 2023: "Helene Hoskins was the celebrity astrologer who wrote for Harpers and Queen under the name 'Celeste'. She was very expensive but volunteered to do my chart without being paid because I was in such a state."]
Saturday 13th July 1963
Moonstrike came out on Thursday and I was so upset by its slowness and bad camera work that I would hardly go into the Centre the next day [Friday 12th July] and only did so because Verity and I had to interview William Hartnell for Dr Who. We had a full three hours, lunched by his agent Terry Carney, having already decided among ourselves that Hartnell would do. Now there is nothing much to do till mid August as we have found Susan – Carole Ann Ford – who, we learned later, is married to [her agent] Walter Jokel and couldn't possibly be 21 as she said. [She was 23, playing 15.] But never mind, we said to ourselves, she looks it, but we still had doubts, especially after seeing a rather good little actress playing in The Knack at Rada.
I went to see Helene. She was very interesting about my horoscope and said it was extremely favourable which bucked me up considerably, though I don’t mind admitting that I still have my doubts about my future and what will happen to all of us.
Thursday 18th July 1963
[At] Lime Grove where Verity, Mervyn and I watched film shapes for Dr Who.
[Waris in 2023: "That would have been elements of the title sequence."]
I have asked to do a set of episodes for Compact between now and September 28th or whatever because weeks stretch out unattended otherwise and I need to be kept occupied all the time.
Verity and I went to lunch with William Russell and Terry Plunket-Greene his agent at the Eau de France and the whole session lasted way into the late afternoon … I shouldn’t have had to resort to any Compacts as there were earlier possibilities of doing another Moonstrike but as it goes everything has a habit of closing up on itself like a quicksand and no traces of rust left apparent when the machinery runs smoothly as a whole. I am tacking up all my faith in opening Dr Who as well as possible and hope that things will happen after that.
[Waris in 2023: "I’m trying to be optimistic. Here I am, having directed the play The Shadow of Mart, and I’ve done a Moonstrike – you would have thought I was a catch as a director but I’m wandering around frustrated because I’m dealing with a show called Doctor Who which no one has a focus on."]
August [no date specified]
Aeons. Mart was received fairly well. A mixture in the press. Sydney strolled over to me up on the roof outside the bar [the BBC Club at TV Centre] and said he had liked the way I had shot the play and he also liked the acting. He introduced me to Peter Luke who is coming in as Friday Night Play producer. "Be nice to him," said Sydney to me. "He may be useful to you in the future."
[Waris in 2023: "I was extremely fond of Sydney. He was very helpful to me – and he was right. Peter Luke was instrumental in my career. He asked me to do A Passage to India for Play of the Month in 1965."]
Almost a month has rolled by and all sorts of people have been away on holidays and returned tanned with foreign sunshine. The immediate future looks depressingly gloomy with nothing positive happening with Dr Who except long talks with Verity and a growing uneasiness in myself that this is my Thermopylae.
[Waris in 2023: "I mean a battlefield on which I’ve fallen." At this stage, Waris and Verity Lambert had chosen their leading actors: William Hartnell as the Doctor, William Russell as Ian, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara and Carole Ann Ford as Susan. By September, the first episode, An Unearthly Child, was ready to be taped at Lime Grove Studios.]
Wednesday 4th September 1963
Verity has gone off for a week to Ibiza and [Head of Serials] Donald Wilson is away. [Script editor] David Whitaker handed me the fourth and concluding episode of the first Dr Who serial and it was depressingly cosy with none of the raw qualities in it, which will be the only saving quality in it as a storyline. I tried to argue my feelings with him because I respect his judgement as a script editor but he baulked off, and I was left slow-motioning against Mervyn’s nebulous arguments. There seems to be no way out of the mess unless I have it out with Donald and he is more like a naval commander than a creator’s mentor.
Sunday 29th September 1963
We recorded the pilot episode of Dr Who last Friday [27th September] after a traumatic week of rehearsal with uncertain timing, rewrites, arguments about scripts, complaints about rehearsal rooms and in spite of all a latent optimism, hoping for the best under the circumstances. Come Friday and we were delayed by set problems because of [designer] Peter Brachacki’s vagueness throughout the session.
I had not made things any easier by demanding a great deal of camera movement from the crew and had to make do with two heavy pedestals and two circular, Centre-type ones. Whatever the cause, my slowness or Peter’s inefficiency, we managed only one run-through, two runs in the spaceship sequence before the take. Somehow the technicalities clicked, as they always seem to do in the devious world of television.
We ran well on time and had a chance to reshoot the ship [Tardis] because the doors didn’t close properly and Bill Hartnell fluffed. Sydney Newman sat up in the box and I added a few choice words to keep up with his transatlantic mentality! Even Donald Wilson seemed to approve through his avuncular, bland, pipe-screened exterior.
After the whole business, Sydney asked Verity and me to have dinner with him to discuss the result. Verity dropped Bill Hartnell at Charing Cross so under Sydney’s edict and patronage I sat in his Jaguar and he criticised my profile shots and pushing into close-ups from long shots. Eventually a meal at the Fui Tong [a Chinese restaurant] and then Sydney’s extraordinarily contradictory observations. The cast in his opinion was not entirely successful. He was disappointed because they showed no sense of humour in their performances, especially Bill who was not quaint and mischievous enough. "He should be like the upper-class Steptoe." Barbara should be a prissy woman who got on Susan’s nerves, and Susan wasn’t at all what Carole Ann made her. Carole Ann was too like a stunted woman and should in fact be a gangly gamine. (Hayley Mills type.)
Verity said the Steptoe image was a bit far-fetched as he was only successful as a pauper and there couldn’t be such a thing as an upper-class Steptoe. I defended Bill and Carole by saying I was responsible for the way I had portrayed them. Altogether the evening was negative except that although Sydney liked my handling of the thing he might ask us to do the thing again after we have seen the edited pilot on Tuesday [1st October]. I don’t think I’d mind doing it again but I don’t want to change the cast. Meanwhile I’m looking at the second episode and my heart sinks at the thought of it.
[Waris in 2023: (laughing uproariously) "Oh my God! This is gold. Interesting, isn’t it? I’d forgotten I’d written all this."]
In the second instalment coming soon, tempers flare during the cavemen episodes, the first episode airs and JFK is assassinated…
Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.
Check out more of our Sci-Fi coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what’s on.
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.