Heather Hartnell (1983)

Here’s a very touching interview with William Hartnell’s widow Heather, talking to DWM back in 1983 about her husband’s time on the show, including his public appearances and, sadly, the illness that forced him to retire. At the end, there’s a very nice little story about a solid gold TARDIS…

“I will always remember that first telephone call. Terry (William Hartnell’s son-in-law and agent) phoned me up from London saying that he was coming down to the cottage because he had this most incredible script that he wanted Bill to read and tell him about. ‘I don’t know what he’s going to say, but it’s for a children’s serial’. I was a little taken aback and asked if it was a tough guy part. ‘No, it’s an old man with long white hair, an old professor who’s a bit round the bend’. Well, I said ‘Bill will love it’, but Terry still remained a little apprehensive. Anyway, he turned up that evening with the script. Bill took it and sat in absolute silence, reading it through from beginning to end, and eventually said ‘My goodness, I want this part!’. He saw immediately that there was something so different about the whole idea, and once he had got the part he loved it from the very beginning.

“The only thing that I was sorry about when he started was that they made him a rather grumpy old man. He was furious that the school master and mistress had discovered the TARDIS and got into it, he was absolutely livid and the fact that he took them off on that first trip was really noting but spite! Bill would have liked to put more comedy into it, and to some extent tried with his coughs and splutterings. But even so, he loved it from the very beginning and had absolute faith in that show and was completely hooked on it from reading that very first script.

“I was so pleased that more or less the last thing that he was able to do should be something that has lasted and lasted throughout the years. He put a lot of himself into it, because Bill has always been the sort of person that didn’t suffer fools gladly and that came out very strongly in the character of the Doctor. Bill, of course, always adored children. I think he should have had a family of about six, instead of one daughter.

“One of Bill’s favourite stories was ‘Marco Polo’. In fact, it was one of his ideas. At one time they were walking around asking everybody for ideas, and that was one of them. Mind you, he enjoyed doing so many of them. His one regret was that the programme was in black and white, because of the costumes, they were so colourful. Like all actors, he loved dressing up and it seemed such a shame that the viewers couldn’t see all those wonderful sets and costumes in all their glory.

“The first Dalek story I remember there was a bit of trouble over. It was in the script that when the Dalek was incapacitated or exterimnated, they were to have some oozy blood coming out of the base of the machines and a lot of them, Bill included, said ‘No, that’s too nasty for children’, so they cut it out. After that, Bill used to really enjoy the Daleks, because they were something for him to hate. In a way, they were the real black monsters of the time because, then, we hadn’t had bad Time Lords brought in. So the worst enemy that he ever came across were the Daleks and he really enjoyed fighting them and he knew the kids loved the Dalek series.

“One of the two films was made while he was still playing the part on TV, and although he would have dearly loved to have had the role of the Doctor in it, he just didn’t have the time. The programme was on for forty-eight weeks of the year, and when his four weeks holiday came, I can tell you, he jolly well needed it. By the time the second film came along, his ill health prevented him from working anywhere.

“I’ll always remember he opened a big annual fete at Pembury Hospital in about ’64, ’65, and a great friend of his had a lovely pre-1914 war car, a real veteran. Anyway, this friend drove the car into Tunbridge Wells where he met Bill, who had changed into his Doctor’s costume complete with wig, stick and cape that the BBC had lent him. Bob pulled up in this open tourer and Bill got in front and I in the back, and off we set for the hospital. By the time we had gone three odd miles to the fete, there was a stream of kids and cars and bicycles behind us. It was fantastic. We went into the grounds of the hospital and everybody went absolutely mad. They made more money that day than they had ever donebefore or since on their open days.

“When the time came for Bill to leave the show, purely because of his ill health, it broke his heart. Having told the press that it was going to run for  five years, he was determined to play it for five years. But he coldn’t remember his lines, plus his legs were beginning to give way at times. Between the end of 1966 and when he made ‘The Three Doctors’ in 1972, he got progressively weaker mentally and physically. That’s the awful thing about arteriosclerosis, as the arteries close up the flow of blood is not only weakened to the limbs but to the brain as well. When he did ‘The Three Doctors’, he couldn’t remember a single line, but he was still able to read it. The BBC were ever so good over that.

“With Patrick Troughton taking over the show, we were delighted, because Bill had suggested him for the part and he was number one choice of the namese that came up. We’d known Pat for years, he’s a darling person. But after a time, Bill stopped watching it, because it upset him emotionally. Even so, he was very pleased with Jon Pertwee’s interpretation. He hardly saw any of Jon Pertwee’s stories, but was tickled pink to think that the show had gone on and when he did ‘The Three Doctors’ he glowed again as if it had taken ten years off his illness.

“My most precious possession is a tiny little solid gold TARDIS that Bill had made. He designed it himself and went to a top London jeweller, and had it made on a gold chain complete with a tiny, green emerald for the light. It’s my most precious possession because I know it is the only one in the world.”

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