William Russell (1990)

Here’s William Russell telling DWM about his time as Ian Chesterton, one of the first companions, as well as his first ever convention experience. He also discusses the RSC production of ‘A Clockwork Orange.

“Acting was something I enjoyed doing as a young boy. I found myself drawn towards it. I kept it up when was in the Air Force and organised entertainments for other people. Then, after I left university, I went into rep and continued from there. I think I was rather typecast at first as the dashing young lieutenant or RAF officer, who always seemed to get killed.

“After ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’, I had a marvellous offer from the BBC to star in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in a great twenty-week series. Then I was offered ‘David Copperfield’, which was still live at Lime Grove, followed by ‘Doctor Who’. Verity Lambert got in touch with me and after various conversations, I went along to meet the rest of the cast.

“We formed a very happy little group. I was very impressed with Billy (Hartnell), he was a true professional. He had all the switches in the TARDIS marked out exactly in his mind. He had the idea of the Doctor always getting my name wrong. Billy wasn’t at all like the Doctor off set, he was just a very professional actor who did his job in his own way.

“We were pushed around a lot sometimes. One of the things we’d always argue about on the studio floor was that certain writers were making us say things that we felt our characters would not say. Eventually we got a script editor, Dennis Spooner, who co-ordinated with the writers and kept an eye on things. We liked to talk a lot about how our characters would develop.

“I remember ‘Marco Polo’ going on for quite a long while, and being under quite a lot of pressure. Despite that, we all enjoyed it tremendously – in fact, we rather enjoyed all the historical stories. Dressing up in the appropriate costumes was always great fun and it looked very splendid. The script was very good, and that contributed to the all-round enjoyment; it concentrated more on the characters, their development and the narrative and so, I think, the story was told in a believable way.

“We didn’t like Carole Ann Ford leaving at all, but we got used to it. In the theatre, people leave all the time and it’s not such a turmoil, you feel they are going on to another job, that’s all. Maureen O’Brien came in and she was a good actress, but she was very different to Carole. I didn’t find her as ‘unearthly’ as Carole was, as regards to looks. I think Maureen looked a more ordinary sort of girl. Out of all the assistants I’ve seen, I think Carole was the only one to have that strange, unearthly quality about her.

“After three years, I think I was getting into the nine to five mentality of it all, and I needed a change. Jacqueline Hill and I left together, and Billy was absolutely furious. We heard stories that he wasn’t really happy with the show after we left, and Verity left soon after that as well. Sadly, I never saw Billy again after leaving the show. We all kept in touch by letters and the occasional Christmas card, but we never actually saw each other again. I have seen Jackie from time to time but Verity became more of a close friend of mine. I hadn’t seen Carole until a ‘Doctor Who’ convention a few years ago.

“I thought the convention was all rather strange and I must admit I found it curious, to have such a passion for something I’d done so many years ago, but I soon discovered the fans are as sane as anyone else. It’s strange to me, because my life has moved on and I’m constantly doing other things. I often find myself at a loss of what to say to people, because they know more about the programme than I do. I’m astonished and very flattered. Even now, people still write to me saying they enjoyed the show very much, and asking for a signed photo. If you think about it, a lot of people are seeing it for the first time and so it has the same effect on them as it did all those years ago. It’s very wonderful to have played a part in that.

“Doing ‘Doctor Who’ didn’t really affect our lives that much at the time. We all got up early, drove into London and rehearsed and then went home; life went on, and we didn’t have much time to attend fetes, although I did do a few public appearances. I finished the show and then went on to do something else. At the time, we used to get requests for photos; nowadays, people send me great lists of questions which I can’t answer because I really can’t recall the show in that much detail. I do wonder what else there is to say about it all. I enjoyed attending the one convention I’ve been to, and I have been invited to others, but there’s very little I feel I can contribute.

“Doctor Who had a very positive effect for me, really, because it was a very successful programme and I enjoyed doing it very much. Anything that gets your name around can’t be too bad. I’m lucky in my work, because I flip between television, film and theatre, so I don’t, in a sense, capitalise on anything I’ve done on screen. I seem to do a few years of nothing but television, and then I go back to the theatre.

“I’m very proud to be a member of the RSC. It’s something in which I believe. It’s very easy for people to attack it, saying it doesn’t earn its keep, but the service it provides is wonderful and worth every penny. It has a huge turnover in plays and entertains a great many people. It bring the theatre to so many people who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in plays. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ sold out after only three days, and is appealing to a much younger audience. We’ve tried to be innovative with it, and keep faithful to the book while making it as exciting as possible. Most people remember the film but that’s a different medium. I can remember the shock and the controversy surrounding the violence in the film. Today, people don’t seem to be shocked by the violence in the play. I think that’s an indication of how society has become accustomed to violence on the screen.”

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