The 1963 Doctor Who diaries of Waris Hussein – part two
For the first time, the veteran director shares his personal journals from 1963. In part two, tempers flare during the earliest episodes into production – and JFK is assassinated.
In a Radio Times exclusive, Doctor Who’s original director, Waris Hussein, is sharing his diaries from 60 years ago for the very first time. This second instalment brings us to the autumn of 1963 – a frantic period for Waris and his BBC colleagues as they struggled to make the new sci-fi programme. They might not have been aware of it then, but they were forging magic – proper TV classics – with those early episodes.
The diaries reacquaint us with producer Verity Lambert, BBC drama boss Sydney Newman (who dreamt up Doctor Who), Head of Serials Donald Wilson and script editor David Whitaker. We’ll also hear of Douglas Camfield for the first time. For all of them, October 1963 was particularly busy. There were three days of filming at Ealing Studios (chase sequences and a fight to the death between cavemen), followed by a complete remount of the first episode (An Unearthly Child) at Lime Grove on Friday 18th October. Subsequent weeks saw the rehearsals and recording of episodes two and three, The Cave of Skulls and The Forest of Fear.
As explained last time, Waris didn’t have time to write a day-to-day diary. Instead, he kept a journal whenever time allowed. He wrote nothing during October 1963 itself, but this first entry in November found him drawing breath and summarising recent events and challenges. Again, the diaries highlight the pressures the team was working under and the frustrations and anxieties of a 24-year-old fledgling director.
[What follows is an edited account, with occasional RT notes and observations from Waris 60 years later.]
Saturday 2nd November
I’m not happy about the way Dr Who has been going. Perhaps it’s something in me but the first two episodes have proved to be dull as far as I’m concerned, even though we’ve had another chance to do the pilot again as Ep 1 [recorded 18th October]. Sydney saw to that in an amusing meeting up in his office, contradicting himself here and there about the exact method of presentation and finally fusing our minds with doubt so that there was no alternative but to accept revision and retaking. I was happier about the second time, but even then things fell off here and there and I'm not proud of the final results.
Episode two [recorded 25th October] was even worse – slow, with all the faults in the script glaring out through the cowhide atmosphere inflicted by the writing. The cavemen became caricatures, which was exactly what I've been trying to avoid right through the four-day rehearsal period and my shooting of the long campsite scene didn't help either. Last night’s take [episode three, recorded Friday 1st November] seemed to be better and the forest seemed to come over fairly well but I won't be able to tell until I have edited the thing on Tuesday [5th November]. Meanwhile the whole business has been very tiring and nerve-racking.
[Waris in 2023: “Well, that gives you some insight, doesn’t it, into how intense it all was.” In his diary the next day, Waris was still reflecting on the previous week of rehearsals for The Forest of Fear. A scene in the rehearsal script, where the Tardis travellers were hungry and sourcing food, needed to be rewritten.]
Sunday 3rd November 1963
Donald Wilson came to the Wednesday run-through [30th October] and insisted that the “food” passage in the forest be changed because it stuck out like a sore thumb. He had a heap of other minor criticisms of the piece and suggested that David alter them immediately. I saw his point about the “food” situation and although basically I agreed to the change, it was the late objection and the possibility of a major rewrite which made me adamant enough to object. Verity sat divided and sided with Donald, which only irritated me further. Donald lost his temper and I decided there and then that as far as I was concerned it wasn't just the alteration that was bothering me but the principle of Donald's argument and his complete lack of knowledge about the function of putting on a show in a four-day turnover. Although David was able to rewrite on the spot and it didn't take me too long to plot it, I was angry enough to go home and miss eating with [writer] John Lucarotti to talk about “Cathay”.
More like this
[Here, Waris is already looking ahead to his next Doctor Who assignment, the seven-part historical story now known as Marco Polo, referred to then as “Journey to Cathay” or simply “Cathay”.]
On Thursday [30th October] I spoke to Verity and told her that I wanted to go and see Donald. She said if it was just a question of leaving the serials department I should say so but not to talk to him on any other level, ie alternatives and timing. Looking back on the whole session I suppose I was getting het up irrationally but even now I can't honestly pretend that I'm happy at the prospect of staying with Who. One has to devote oneself to the project far too long with too little time in the execution of it. The one day in Studio D to line up anything worthwhile takes a long time and sometimes one cannot be happy with the result. I think the first storyline is extremely dicey anyway and I'm afraid that it will probably fail to get the audience we have been hoping for. Personally, as the director, I know that finally the blame for the programme’s inadequacy will be put on me, and this certainly isn’t going to help me in the future. The Future. It's already worrying me. Nothing positive after November. The time has gone by so very fast and I don't seem to have achieved much in spite of the outward trappings. One or two fruits and gatherings.
I’ve got on very well with Douglas who has been PA-ing till now and we think we can get down to writing a play together. He is surprisingly sensitive to send up which produces an antagonistic attitude in me and in a paradoxical way produces a kind of equanimity and tension which works well. After next week he goes over to [producer/director] Patrick Dromgoole and I'm not quite sure whether he will come back to the Who outfit after that.
[Waris in 2023: “Douglas Camfield, my PA, was desperate to become a drama director. He wanted to be in my shoes because he felt he was better qualified. Why is this little Indian being given all this stuff? What’s he done to deserve it? Douglas had fought to get where he was. He was from a working-class background. He felt this was all to do with me being someone from Cambridge. We were still very good friends. I supported Douglas, I liked him. He liked me a lot. He respected me because I knew what I was doing, but he resented me for doing that job. And I would tease him and flirt with him and try to get him to relax, but he would say, ‘Come on, Waris. We’re losing time. We’d better get on, otherwise I’ll put you on the next boat.’ We did all the filming at Ealing Studios and I must credit Douglas for overseeing the fight between the two cavemen, with the help of the stuntman. I was there watching, and it was decided how many shots we would take.” Camfield soon graduated from production assistant and became one of the most prolific and revered directors on Doctor Who, and at the BBC in general.]
Our office is being moved lock, stock and barrel to Threshold House in Shepherd’s Bush as soon as the fourth episode is in the can. First steps in extinction? What an extraordinary path I have travelled. Where will it all lead to?
[Waris in 2023: “That’s important because to me it symbolised downgrading. Television Centre at that time was sparkling new and Verity and I had lovely offices on the fifth floor. All my private things had to be moved. Threshold House was like going to the Outer Hebrides. It was awful. But that’s what the BBC thought of us.”]
Thursday 7th November 1963
Attended Donald’s Serials Department meeting. An incredible affair. Everyone, apart from Verity and myself, over 40 or am I imagining it? Certainly the atmosphere was loaded with good-humoured backslapping, pre-war stiff-upper-lipness and I could only react stupidly to the innumerable points and counterpoints put forward leading to nothing constructive except that we will all be moving to Threshold and there is no immediate prospect of moving from Lime Grove, though there is talk of transferring from Studio D to G, which is only a matter of the frying pan etc.
[On Friday 8th November The Firemaker, the concluding episode of the first four-part Doctor Who serial, would be recorded.]
After tomorrow I have a full two months out before “Cathay”. Prospect of a week's leave official, but because I am office-less I shall take more time away. God knows what I’ll do with it. Wish I could go away somewhere. Restless office stuff will probably not be the same when we all come together. I don't see any immediate release from Who but can only feed on the hope that things will improve in the new year – before next November when I don't know what lies in store for me. I met [director] Hugh Munro up in the Club at lunchtime and he is out of work, pointing to the future problems awaiting all of us in this incredible sausage machine profession.
[Waris in 2023: “I was worried, you see, about the following November, which was when my BBC contract ended.”]
[The first episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, was transmitted on Saturday 23rd November 1963. Waris wrote his next journal entry two days later as he was making a trek across Europe.]
Monday 25th November 1963
On train to Moscow via Frankfurt.
A couple of weeks suddenly loomed up, empty, before I can start doing anything with “Cathay” in the next Who epic. I decided I needed to go away and, on B’s suggestion [“That’s my mother. We called her B”], cabled Paul in Moscow to ask if I could come and stay with him. After that the next few days were bound up in rapid journeys to the Russian Consulate and Shepherd’s Bush.
Problems at the BBC. [Director] Chris Barry's first episode of The Dead Planet was completely ruined because of talkback right through. [Recorded on Friday 15th November, this was the start of the first Dalek serial.] The episode had to be done again and it set us back a week later. Verity sat at the phone and Mervyn smoked his pipe. We've been transferred to Threshold House and the traffic noise outside is ear-splitting. The atmosphere of the newly painted place is like entering a new school and the small-scale air of the trolley girls is provincial.
On Friday [22nd November] I dressed up in my Indian outfit and arrived at the Dorchester for the Guild of Television Directors and Producers Ball. Someone said in the foyer that Kennedy [the US President] had been shot. The cloakroom attendant took my coat and said, “Well, what d’you know!” The news was true. It was announced as we all sat down to dinner and the whole atmosphere was charged with disbelief. An extraordinary sensation passed through us sitting at the silver and wines. The full meaning of it didn't come yet. Instead the awards were given by Sybil Thorndike – Vivian Merchant, Harold Pinter (I met him – he is superficial now).
On Saturday everything was gloomy with the pall of Kennedy's assassination. All of us felt it as if he had been a personal friend. I think it is his youth and what he might have achieved that makes his death so horrifying. Special TV programmes were relayed about him throughout the day and ITV seemed to manage better in their programme content. The BBC just burbled on unsure and inconclusive with lengthy questions answered by all-knowing personages of one sort or another. No one really knows what Lyndon Johnson [JFK’s successor] will be like. Dr Who passed unnoticed. Presentation ran the tape too soon so that at least 10 seconds were lost in the opening titles. Bill rang to say the subject matter wasn't me. [“That’s my godfather, Bill.”] I prepared for the journey.
[Waris spent nearly two weeks in the USSR, including train journeys of two days and nights, while back in Britain Doctor Who was gradually captivating its first audiences.]
Monday 9th December 1963
On train from Moscow to London. My birthday today. I am 25 officially.
In the third and final instalment, there is détente between Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert as Marco Polo goes into production…