Another interview about the early years of the show, this time it’s Peter Purves talking to Mark Ayres about William Hartnell, who was apparently a fan of curries! Purves obviously got on well with Hartnell and sheds some light on his ‘irascibility’; it’s also notable that Purves is very knowledgeable about not only ‘Doctor Who’ but British TV and acting in general. This is another transcript, from an interview conducted by Mark Ayres that you can find here.
Q: ‘The Savages’ was your swansong as Steven, and also the last of your missing stories, coincidentally. How do you look back on your time as Steven?
A: More fondly as time has gone by. When I left… I was unhappy to leave it, actually, I didn’t particularly want it to stop there, but the policy of the programme had changed and they’d decided that they were not going to keep the companions onboard for longer than a year, or so I understand. In fact I think they did the same with Jackie as they did with me, they didn’t keep her much longer, I think she only did one more serial after I left, and I think Michael Craze who took over from me only did a year, but then Frazer came and I think he stayed much longer, I think he stayed about three years, something like that.
But now I remember it quite fondly. The things that I didn’t like about it, when I’ve more recently gone to the occasional convention – as you well know, I don’t like them, I don’t go to very many, in fact I’m not going to go to any more, I’ve finally determined that I can’t be bothered to be honest, it sounds awful but I just don’t like looking backwards all that much. But I have seen a number of clips that I hadn’t like when I made them, and I’ve seen them since and thought “Oh, that wasn’t so bad”. In particular ‘The Gunfighters’, which I always hated, deep down I had this sort of passionate dislike for it. I really hated it when we made it, I don’t know why, because now when I’ve seen it, it really is quite good, it has some things, it’s got a certain charm, it’s very quirky, it’s very odd.
But in general I have some very fond memories of the show, I mean I loved the people that I worked with, some very nice people, nice directors. Bill, I got on with like a dream, I was one of the few people who seemed… I loved Jackie, I thought she was splended, I loved Maureen O’Brien, directors like Dougie Camfield, I mean really nice people, so yes, I think “fondly” is probably the fairest way of describing it. And the historical stories were the ones I liked best, we did ‘The Massacre’, which was a wonderful story written by John Lucarotti, we did ‘The Myth Makers’ which was based on Troy, these were wonderful historical, or mythical stories. We did the invasion of the Vikings coming in to Northern England, but that was sci-fi as well because that was ‘The Time Meddler’. But the historical ones I liked, the mechanical ones I didn’t, I wasn’t fussed about the gadgets and I wasn’t fussed about the Daleks and the Mechanoids and so on, they didn’t interest me a great deal.
Q: That’s heresy!
A: Oh, I’m sure! It is heresy, and I’m a heretic.
Q: Talking earlier, you said you were trained in rep, which is just the best training an actor can get.
A: I think it probably was. I didn’t go to drama school, but I was lucky enough to be asked to join a repertory company in the north of England, in Barrow-in-Furness.
Q: And it stood you in good stead, I’d imagine, for ‘Doctor Who’, which was pretty much round the year, wasn’t it?
A: It was. I can’t remember how many weeks off we had, maybe ten, but it was a weekly thing, I did 44 episodes, so that’s eight weeks off in the year.
Q: A bit like a weekly rep in itself.
A: In itself it was, but only half an hour long. Plays could be as long as two hours. Then you really could struggle, it depended how big the part was. It was comparatively easy for me in that respect, but it was a new medium for me, I’d done a few television plays, I’d played bit parts in all the series that people got involved with back in the 60’s, you know ‘Z Cars’, ‘Red Cap’, ‘Court Martial’, ‘Gideon’s Way’, ‘The Saint’, you played in all those here and there, ‘Z Cars’ was the big one. I even did an episode of ‘World of Wooster’ with Ian Carmichael, that was about 1964, something frightening like that.
Q: I’d have thought that stood you in good stead for ‘Blue Peter’.
A: Certainly. ‘Blue Peter’ we did live, without an autocue, half an hour a week, ten past five, full rehearsed, vision mixer cutting on words, it was scary stuff, we had to be very precise.
Q: So as a work experience you look back on it with a great deal of affection, obviously.
A: Oh yeah, and when you consider, there were only three channels, and BBC2 hadn’t been going that long, and if you got a job in a regular series you were a very lucky person. I’ve always considered myself to be a lucky person in that respect. I’m not saying I don’t feel I deserved the part, and again following on with ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘Kickstart’ and ‘Crufts’ and all these things that have been part of my life, but again I’ve always felt that I was lucky and it wasn’t a god-given right. Maybe I was good enough, I like to believe I was, but no it’s a tough old business to succeed in so if you get your head above the parapet you’ve not done too badly.
Q: Looking back on ‘The Savages’ a little bit, did you think that was a fitting leaving for Steven?
A: Oh, I loved it. Chris Barry directed it, and Christopher was an absolutely lovely man – is a lovely man – and I thoroughly enjoyed working on that one. I always thought it gave the opportunity for Steven to come back, I always thought it would be rather nice if they did a follow-up serial at some point where the TARDIS comes back to the planet where Steven was left in charge and he’d really screwed it up. Gone egomaniac, whatever, just gone way over the top and, you know, been a very bad Emperor, King, I can’t remember what they left me there as, I was definitely the boss man. Anyway, I thought it could be really funny if he’d screwed up the lives of the people there and the Doctor had to come and put it all right, that could have been a good thing.
I haven’t done any proper acting in years. I’d love to.
Q: I was going to say, have you been tempted?
A: I’ve been tempted, but no-one offers. It’s just one of those things, and if someone offered me a part, I’d take it. But it just doesn’t happen. I’m known as myself, and I’ve had a very nice and successful career. I’ve presented all these different shows, and I’m proud to have done that. I presented all the BBC’s darts coverage for about seven years, and odd little bits. We did a show called ‘Driver of the Year’ for three years, very interesting series, it’s never really varied. But the acting career hasn’t really been there, but of course going away and doing a short tour of something tends not to be as lucrative as doing a bit of telly, so one tends to do the telly. But as I say, if I was offered some acting, I’d seriously consider it.
Q: Tell me about William Hartnell. You got on with him very well.
A: Oh, I got on with him extremely well. He liked me immensely, I don’t know why, but he was very generous to me, always gave me little acting tips. He’d been around a long time, had Bill, and he’d had some successes and some failures, very honest about things that had worked for him and things that hadn’t and invariably he, you know, I think he just enjoyed the company, and at lunchtime when we broke and he’d take me over to Bertorelli’s for lunch, invariably he would pay. My wife and I repaid him at the time, you know, we used to invite him round for a curry or something, he liked his Indian food as well. But he was just very friendly and nice with me, he confided in me, he told me the things he was happy with, the things he wasn’t happy with. I watched him being truly irascible with so many people, and think “Oh Bill, please no”. It wasn’t my place to say “I don’t think you should do that, Bill”, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly, if he felt that people were not up to the level required, or not doing the job seriously or properly then he would get at them.
The problem was at this time he was not terribly well. He was reaching a point where his memory was going as well, so he was making mistakes and that made him even more angry, he hated the fact, he knew he was making mistakes and he didn’t like it. So there were reasons behind the cussedness and the awkwardness. There were one or two directors he got on with so well, I mean he always loved Dougie Camfield, he thought Dougie was one of the greatest directors and he may well have been. And he got on extremely well with Paddy Russell, who directed ‘The Massacre’, but he could be awkward, I watched him being awkward. He stepped out of line many times but he stepped in line a lot of times.
Q: He’d done some terrific work, I mean ‘Brighton Rock’…
A: He was a great actor, no question. I mean he created definitive characters. His sergeant in ‘Carry On Sergeant’, those sort of comedy roles. And funnily enough he didn’t have the greatest sense of humour in that respect, he wasn’t a comedy actor, but he was an actor who played comedy with truth, and so it was funny, it worked. I had a lot of time for Bill. He did ‘This Sporting Life’, wonderful part, which he claimed got him the part in ‘Doctor Who’, Sydney Newman suggested… I think he auditioned several times for it, or was seen several times for it before he got the part. But it was actually his performance in ‘This Sporting Life’ that won them over.
Q: You were saying about his irascibility, that he wasn’t very well and he was making mistakes. It’s interesting, I think, that he turns that into part of his character, the irascibility, you can actually see it sometimes.
A: I think that’s true. I think more than anything, though, the quirkiness, the sort of “Hmm hmm”, all these little bits that no-one would have ever scripted, were him thinking, trying to work out where to go next. But it was all part of a character, it was consistent, I just think it got a little bit more, a little bit less controlled, as he became less able to remember his lines properly.
Q: But he did define that character.
A: For me he’s the only Doctor. Isn’t that awful? I mean, far better actors than he have played it, but for me that was the character, the original character was the Doctor and it’ll never be anyone else for me. Patrick Troughton I think is probably a far finer actor than Bill ever was, but because he followed Bill directly, for me he could never really be the Doctor. And Jon was just a totally different character, Jon Pertwee, whom I knew very well, I was a friend of his, and I enjoyed some of what he did as the Doctor, but he was never the Doctor. And the same with Colin Baker, I directed him, very nice, we got on extremely well, but again that’s not the Doctor. The nearest, for me, is Sylvester, Sylvester McCoy, he has that total quirky oddness about him.
Q: A slight dangerousness to the performance as well.
A: Yes. Yeah, well that’s true, I mean Sylvester came through the Ken Campbell school of acting and that way, if it’s not dangerous it’s not worth doing, which I suppose is a very interesting way of looking at things. That’s possibly why I see him in a similar sort of vein.
Q: You have to remember William Hartnell, he laid the foundations for a character that, 43 years later, is still going stronger than ever.
A: I just find that remarkable, I mean none of us had any idea. Although when I joined it had done 80 episodes, I did 44, so 120-odd episodes it had done by the time I left the serial, and that was in 1966. Scary.