William Russell (1985)

Yesterday we had Jacqueline Hill (Barbara), and today it’s William Russell, who played Ian in the first couple of seasons of the original series. He talks about the cast getting together for the first time, about working with William Hartnell, and about Carole Ann Ford being the first to leave.

“I think Verity Lambert wanted someone who could not only play the part as she envisaged it, but who was also used to the pressures of live television and long production schedules. I had both on my side, because although most live serials didn’t last longer than three months, I’d been in filmed series with production going on for nearly a year. There was a certain type of stamina needed in those days – a lot of nerves to deal with that rush of adrenalin before a live or semi-live performance. It was much more rewarding, and much more like being in the theatre, and it gave a show an edge which recorded drama lacks.

“Getting back to ‘Doctor Who’, I was contacted by Verity who said she wanted to meet to discuss a part in a new serial she was doing. I went along to talk to her about it and got myself into a lengthy discussion about the series, what it was about, what my character was supposed to be doing in the whole set-up and roughly what the other details about it were – how long the engagement would be, etc. Eventually, all was agreed and I signed my contract, which was interesting as the BBC had an escape clause whereby had the series been a flop they could have dropped us at any time, whereas we were bound to keep to our side of the bargain. I have to admit that none of us thought that ‘Doctor Who’ would be around for a very long time, except Billy Hartnell, who had the kind of confidence in the project that the star needs to have.

“I remember meeting Bill, Jackie and Carole Ann for the first time and being very impressed with Billy. I was well aware of his track record in British films, as I had been a part of that industry myself, making about a dozen up to the time I did ‘Doctor Who’. But Billy was a super actor, adept at playing tough parts and famous for his marvellous performance in a film called ‘The Way Ahead’, directed by Carol Reed. I hadn’t met the two girls b efore, but after the first nerves we got on famously. The BBC couldn’t afford to have large casts, so most of the dialogue and action fell on our shoulders. It made us a close bunch.

“We would have a week’s rehearsing for each episode and on the Friday before the next day’s studio recording, Verity and Mervyn Pinfield, and David Whitaker, would all come along to see what was going before the cameras the next day. There was a lot of collusion in the first weeks and a fair amount of committee-writing. Certainly, Verity and David were on hand more often than was later the case.

“Billy was especially thorough in working out his character and the way he would relate to the rest of us. He worked as a great professional, ironing out the smallest of details and embellishing where possible. He tried to understand the TARDIS as far as he could and he devised a way of operating all the switches to keep continuity. He thought of little touches, like always getting my name wrong, and he was keen to develop a kind of protective friendship with Barbara, coupled with a rivalry between the Doctor and Ian.

“(An Unearthly Child) was a very weird set-up – they took us right the way back to the Bronze Age, or somewhere around then, and the script was all about these cave people. They had to talk virtually in grunts, which made the whole thing almost impossible to rehearse. Once in the studio – that was one thing – but out in rehearsal, with all the actors and actresses in their ordinary clothes, it just fell apart because it sounded too funny for words. We collapsed all through the week, which is perhaps the reason why we played it extra serious in the recording.

“We actually filmed the first episode twice, because Sydney Newman looked at our first efforts and simply said ‘Do it again’. Sydney was the boss and the series was his baby. We all knew that, and we all knew we were on the line. Verity and her team were working themselves into the ground and we, the actors, liked to think we weren’t letting the side down. In those days it certainly wasn’t glamourous – we rehearased anywhere and everywhere, so long as it was near the BBC’s Shepherd Bush premises, and that often meant we’d be freezing to death in a church hall somewhere. I remember one place where the roof was leaking and we had to put buckets out to catch all the rainwater.

“I don’t think we ever meant to convey anything more than a close friendship (between Ian and Barbara). That was there in the first story, but it was more guarded. The situation which the teachers found themselves in naturally drew them closer together. I don’t think there was ever any idea that they might be in love or falling in love or anything like that. Jackie and I made it our business at the beginning to work out very carefully how we would fit into it and how long it would take before we got used to the life on offer. I’d hate to just get the script and have to do it without that process of developing the interpretation – that’s what being an actor is all about. I was lucky with our second script editor, Dennis Spooner, who was very sympathetic to actors and would instruct his writers well, telling them what was out of character.

“I have to confess that the Daleks took time to grow on us, and we weren’t especially taken with them when they were first unveiled. But they were very effective on screen – my daughter was absolutely terrified by them. You needed a lot of ingenuity to work with the Daleks and it helped if you got on with the men who pushed them around from inside. It all came back to the business of taking the fantasy situation with the utmost seriousness, so that the right mood would be conveyed to the audience. The Daleks provided me with the first indication that our programme was going to be really successful. I bought a copy of the Evening Standard one day and inside there was a cartoon showing General de Gaulle as a Dalek. And that was that.

“I liked ‘Marco Polo’ and I think that was extremely well-written, exciting and diverting as well as having a bit of history on the educational side. I was actually behind one of the stories, as we had a lot of contact with Verity and David and we knew they were always on teh look out for stories and ideas, so I suggested the idea of doing a serial set in the French Revolution, which, lo and behold, became a reality. The historical stories were always fun, because it gave us the opportunity to dress up and really enter the period. I remember doing ‘The Romans’, which was fun, and another about Richard the Lionheart (The Crusade), in which the director wanted me to let my arm get covered in ants – I said ‘Under no circumstances’, and that was that, they had to get a stand-in.

“With ‘Planet of the Giants’, they got very ambitious and literally filled the studio with as many of these outsize props as they could fit in, including a giant telephone and a box of matches. The matches themselves were rather dangerous as they were bulky and could bump you on the head if you dislodged them. We used a process called back projection, where we were placed against a giant screen onto which was projected film of this cat trying to turn us into his lunch. That was another fun one which we enjoyed doing.

“I think we were all aware that once the series had established itself, it would run for some time, but I don’t think we were ever intending to see it through to the end regardless. Carole (Ann Ford) was a young actress who, understandably, wanted to do other things, and so we were sad but not especially surprised when she left us. I think Billy felt it the most – he was certainly very annoyed with Jackie and me for throwing the towel in, and I heard that he didn’t like being without the original line-up at all, especially as Verity left too.

“Maureen O’Brien joined us, and I have to say we didn’t like Carole having left, so Maureen was faced with a very difficult job at first. But she was and is a most accomplished actress, so she managed the change-over very well. She was a lot more down-to-earth than Carole was, but they were trying to ring the changes, which was a good thing for the series, a necesary one.

“(Jacqueline Hill) and I both came to the same decision (to leave) at about the same time, and we gave Verity plenty of notice. I think it twas her plan to write us out together, although that was obviously the most logical, neat way to do it. My memory is a little blurry as to how they actually disposed of us, although I do remember being taken all around London’s sights for the closing shots. Actually, Verity and Billy between them tried very hard to keep us on but that was it, we’d done two years. I had to go, because the whole ‘Doctor Who’ job was turning into a grind, the spark had gone out of it for us, and I wasn’t inspired enough to put all I felt I should do into it. What we started in ‘Doctor Who’ is not so very surprising when you consider the talent of someone like Verity Lambert, or the impact that Billy made with audiences everywhere.”

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