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William Henry "Bill" Hartnell (born 8 January 1908 in St Pancras, London[1], died 23 April 1975 in Marden, Kent[2]) played the First Doctor from 1963 to 1966, beginning from An Unearthly Child to The Tenth Planet. He returned to the role in The Three Doctors, although a minimal involvement due to ill-health.


Early life[]

Despite claiming through his life that he was born in Devon, Hartnell was in fact born in St Pancras, London, England on 8 January 1908, the only child of an unmarried mother, Lucy Hartnell, the daughter of a Devon farmer.[1]

Hartnell never discovered the identity of his father, whose particulars were left blank on the existing birth certificate. Despite efforts made by him in later years, his absent parent was never traced. Hartnell concealed his illegitimate background, making up various stories about his father. He spent holidays on his grandparents' farm in Devon, where he learned to ride.[1]

He was fostered out by his mother while she worked, most likely as a nurse in Belgium during the First World War. He was brought up by the wife of a bootmaker in Camden for several years (Carney).

Often known as Billy, he left school at 14 with no prospects. He was mentored by a well-known artist and art collector, Hugh Blaker, who had seen him boxing in boys' clubs, where he went to sketch the young fighters. He became Bill's unofficial guardian (his mother becoming Hugh Blaker's housekeeper) and he arranged for him to train as a jockey. When Bill grew too tall, he paid for him to attend Italia Conti drama school. He then sent him to the Imperial Service College, for some polish and discipline. After running away from the strict regime, Hugh managed to secure a place for him in Frank Benson's Theatre company in 1924, where he worked his way up from prompter and assistant stage manager to small acting roles working under Frank Benson. One of the first of his more than sixty film appearances was in Say It With Music in 1932. He was invalided out of the Royal Armoured Corps of the British Army during the Second World War after suffering a nervous breakdown.

He was helped back into the film industry with a few small roles, but according to one member of the company, Noel Coward gave him a dressing-down on the set of In Which We Serve for turning up late — keeping the cast and crew waiting. He was summarily dismissed from the role of "a Royal Marine". During this time, Bill was still suffering from nerves and with a terrible skin rash as an allergic reaction to the khaki dye from the uniforms; and being so run-down he also caught scarlet fever, so this uncharacteristic lateness could have been caused by his general ill-health.

Until 1944, Hartnell usually played comic characters, in both theatre and film. Then he was cast in the robust role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead. From then on, his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs — although he was noted for his ability to bring complexity to such roles; for example, in his widely praised performance as Dallow in Brighton Rock. In 1958, he topped the bill in the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, playing Sergeant Grimshaw, and in 1963 he appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers. Hartnell also appeared as Will Buckley in the film The Mouse That Roared in 1959 (again with Peter Sellers).

Hartnell's first regular role on television was in The Army Game from 1957–1961. His other television credits included a circus owner forced into a life of crime in an episode of ITC action series Ghost Squad (1961) and guest roles in police dramas No Hiding Place (1967) and Softly, Softly (1968). In 1963, he appeared in a supporting role in the film version of This Sporting Life, giving a sensitive performance as Johnson, an ageing Rugby League talent scout known as "Dad".

Doctor Who[]

His performance as a tough yet sympathetic character in This Sporting Life was noted by Verity Lambert, a young producer who was setting up her first television series for the BBC, named Doctor Who. On 12 July 1963, he travelled up to London to meet with her and director Waris Hussein. Hartnell was uncertain if he wanted to take on the part, but they both convinced him to play the character of the Doctor, for which he is now most widely remembered.[1]

Hartnell relished particularly the attention and affection from children that playing the Doctor brought him. He became very fond of the role. By 1966, when his final season aired, the role also earned Hartnell a regular salary of £315 per episode. (In comparison, his co-stars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze earned £68 and £52 respectively per episode.)

Hartnell opens hospital

William Hartnell opens a hospital fete in Pembury, in full Doctor Who regalia.

It should be remembered that the series was shot all the year round so it was a very tiring regime, shooting approximately forty-eight weeks of the year, with Hartnell being in virtually every episode. Because of the technology of the time, the episodes were shot almost as live with virtually no edits in the programme, so Hartnell was working week in and week out, rehearsing and learning lines before the recording day. According to some of his colleagues on Doctor Who, he could be a difficult person to work with. Others, though, such as the actors William Russell and Peter Purves, and the producer Verity Lambert, spoke glowingly of him after more than 40 years. In his Desert Island Discs interview, Hartnell stated that Paul Robeson was his hero and described him as having a voice like crushed velvet, Robeson being a black singer. Hartnell described Robeson in his own words, "this man's voice is so rich", saying "to me, he is completely in harmony with the whole of nature and it sounds just liquid poetry".

His bad health (arteriosclerosis) and poor relations with the new production team following the departure of Lambert mid-way during the first half of Season 3 ultimately led him to leave Doctor Who in 1966 when his contract expired.[3]

Some commentators contend reports of Hartnell's illness were exaggerated by succeeding producers John Wiles and Innes Lloyd to justify their effort (ultimately successful) to remove him from the series because of the expense of his salary. Wiles had considered this as early as the pre-production plans for The Celestial Toymaker. Others suggest it was a mutual decision of Hartnell and the production team that he should leave the programme. Lloyd has stated Hartnell even approved of the choice of actor saying (according to Lloyd), "There's only one man in England who can take over, and that's Patrick Troughton."[3] However Hartnell claimed in later life that he did not want to leave the series, writing, in an oft-quoted letter, "I didn't willingly give up the part". Suggestions that Hartnell's health was failing him are contradicted by his return to demanding theatre work almost immediately upon leaving Doctor Who. He also made television guest appearances during the late 1960s, which included No Hiding Place.

Hartnell was fifty-five when he made his first appearance as the Doctor. From November 1963 to May 2013, an outstanding 49 years and 5 months, he was the oldest actor to be cast as the Doctor on television, until John Hurt appeared in the role aged 73 years old; 15 years older than Hartnell in 1966, and 9 years older than Hartnell when he appeared in The Three Doctors in 1972. He suffered injuries while in the role, most notably during filming for The Dalek Invasion of Earth when the ramp of the Dalek spaceship, which he was being carried down by actor Richard McNeff, collapsed and he was thrown to the floor and temporarily paralysed after landing awkwardly on a camera steering circle. He returned to work after just a week's bed-rest. During the recording of The Myth Makers, Hartnell not only suffered another injury, a bruised shoulder from being struck from behind by a camera, but also a bereavement: his Aunt Bessie — who had looked after him during his troubled childhood — passed away. Hartnell found himself unable to take time off to attend her funeral due to the tight production schedules.

Life after the Doctor[]

Hartnell reprised the role in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors (made in 1972, broadcast 1972-1973) with the help of cue cards, but appeared only in pre-filmed inserts seen on video screens. Hartnell's health had deteriorated in the early 1970s, and in December 1974 he was admitted to hospital permanently. In early 1975 he suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died in his sleep of heart failure on 23 April 1975 at the age of sixty-seven. His death was reported on the BBC News, and a clip of the Doctor and his companions Steven and Dodo in the TARDIS control room from the end of "The O.K. Corral", the final episode of The Gunfighters, was shown. He was the first regular cast member of the series to pass away.


A clip of his scene from the end of the serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was used as a pre-credits sequence for the twentieth-anniversary story The Five Doctors (1983), although another actor, Richard Hurndall, played the role of the First Doctor for the remainder of the story. Hartnell and Hurndall were both included in the story's on-screen credits for the role of the Doctor.

The 50th anniversary docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time (2013) retells the story of Hartnell's time as the Doctor from the inception of the series to the filming of The Tenth Planet with David Bradley as William Hartnell. The drama depicts the challenges Hartnell faced due to his failing health and the constantly-shifting cast and crew of the series. Hartnell himself appears via archival footage, using the same clip as was used in The Five Doctors.

Footage of Hartnell from The Tenth Planet was used in the 2017 Christmas special Twice Upon a Time. As a result, Hartnell received screen credit in a section of the episode's closing credits dedicated to the use of the The Tenth Planet footage.

Biographical information about William Hartnell is hard to substantiate because of conflicting information from different sources. Hartnell himself gave accounts of his birth and upbringing which differ from verifiable facts. The only published biography is by his granddaughter, Jessica Carney. Although criticised by some as a hagiography, Carney's Who's There? does refer to these difficulties and makes it clear that a great deal of research has been done, drawing from primary sources, as well as Hartnell's family's own extensive archive.

Hartnell exists within the Doctor Who universe. AUDIO: Pier Pressure contains the character Billy, a young actor in 1936 Brighton who had appeared in the films I'm an Explosive and While Parents Sleep. Both titles are real-world films in which young Hartnell appeared, credited as "Billy Hartnell." In COMIC: Whodunnit?, a grave marked "W. Hartnell" is seen in a flashback to Alice Obiefune visiting her father's grave as a child.



Special DVD Feature - Forgetting the lines - Doctor Who The Sensorites - BBC

Clive Doig discusses Hartnell's "Billy-fluffs".

Hartnell's occasional mistakes in his lines while in Doctor Who have been named "Hartnellisms" (or "Billy-fluffs") by Doctor Who fans. It should be noted that the methods of television production at the time — effectively recording long takes "as live" with retakes only being undertaken in extreme circumstances — led to the inclusion of far more of these small errors than would have been apparent in any more modern production. It is also worth noting that sudden, short-term memory loss or a momentary loss of concentration are recognised symptoms of arteriosclerosis, which Hartnell was suffering from, undiagnosed. In light of this, overt mocking of this small tendency has increasingly been considered to be in poor taste, especially when it draws attention away from Hartnell's other achievements with a consequent effect on his reputation.

Additionally, some so-called Hartnellisms can be viewed in the context of the character and were scripted (other characters draw attention to this tendency in dialogue). For example, the Doctor frequently misspoke companion Ian Chesterton's name (calling him "Chesterfield" in one episode, "Chatterton" in another). In the fifth episode of The Keys of Marinus, "Sentence of Death", Hartnell appears to repeat a line of dialogue when he mixes up the words 'improve' and 'prove', but according to the DVD text commentary for the episode this error was actually scripted.


  • The TARDIS crew was looking over some anti-radiation "drugs". The Doctor told the group that they were anti-radiation "gloves", then quickly corrected himself by saying "drugs". (TV: The Daleks) In Flip-Flop, the Seventh Doctor states that his first incarnation invented anti-radiation gloves.
  • A Hartnellism occurred during rehearsals of The Edge of Destruction, but not in the finished programme, when the Doctor was to tell Susan to "check the fault-locator". Instead, he told her to "check the fornicator". All indications are, however, that this was done as a joke. This moment was recreated in the docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time.
  • Barbara worried about the sea surrounding the island of Marinus being frozen. In a presumably scripted joke, the Doctor told her it would be impossible to be frozen in this temperature: "Besides, it's too warm". (TV: The Keys of Marinus)
  • The Doctor scolded Ian for not wearing his shoes because he could have lent Susan "hers" (not "yours"). This, too, appears to have been intended as a humorous add-in. (TV: The Keys of Marinus)
  • The Doctor intends to tell a space captain named Maitland to stabilise his ship, but instead says "Stabilise us, Matron!" (TV: The Sensorites)
  • Perhaps the most famous of Hartnell's fluffs was when the Doctor warned Ian and Barbara that they could wind up as two "cinders floating around in 'Spain'", rather than "space". (TV: The Chase)
  • When asked to help the Drahvins, the Doctor replied that he did not have "much 'chance'", rather than the scripted "choice". (TV: Galaxy 4)
  • After being called a god by Katarina, the Doctor corrected her by telling her to call him "Doctor", and told her he wasn't a "god". However, Hartnell fluffed the line, saying "I am not a 'Doc-'" before quickly correcting himself with "I am not a god!" (TV: The Myth Makers)
  • Hartnell said that he had to hand the real taranium core to Magic Chen, but he quickly corrected himself, saying Mavic. (TV: The Daleks' Master Plan)
  • Hartnell also stumbled upon certain words as he struggled to remember his lines, often saying something strange. (TV: The Daleks, Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Romans, The Space Museum, Galaxy 4, The Daleks' Master Plan, The War Machines)

It has been said that as time went on and Hartnell's health ostensibly failed, the number of Hartnellisms increased, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. However, listening to surviving audio copies of his later serials – such as The Savages and The Smugglers – shows this assertion to be demonstrably false.

Additionally, when Hartnell played the Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre (identical to the Doctor physically, the Abbot has more screen time than the Doctor himself), he managed to say all his lines without a hitch.

In Hartnell's final full story, The Tenth Planet, the Doctor is given far fewer lines than normal. It has been speculated that this was done deliberately to prevent such problems, but there is no evidence from either production office records or surviving members of the production team to suggest that this was the case.

Hartnell always claimed he was born in Seaton, Devon, England, but was actually born in St. Pancras, London, England.

At one time he shared the same agent as Nicholas Courtney, who later played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Courtney appeared alongside Hartnell as Bret Vyon in The Daleks' Master Plan. (Masterplan director Douglas Camfield also directed the Brigadier's premiere story, The Web of Fear.)

Hartnell had a habit of questioning plot inconsistencies and character anomalies. His attention to detail allowed him to provide continuity, even to the extent where he knew what button on the TARDIS console did what — as well as devising a set method of operating the controls from which he never deviated, knowing eagle-eyed viewers would spot any mistakes. Indeed, in the show's early days, Hartnell had predicted that it would run for years. (REF: About Time 1)

In the DWU[]

Main article: William Hartnell (in-universe)

In Lady Penelope Investigates the stars of the Sensational new film Dr. Who and the Daleks! (a short story in TV Century 21), Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward mentions that William was too busy to reprise his role as the Doctor in Dr. Who and the Daleks, so Peter Cushing took on the role instead.

In AUDIO: Pier Pressure, a character called Billy (played by Martin Parsons) was implied to be a young William Hartnell. The same character's grave was later seen in a flashback set in the 1980s in COMIC: Whodunnit?.


As the First Doctor


Doctor Who[]

Other Roles


Doctor Who[]

External links[]

Footnotes and bibliography[]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Who's There: The Life & Career of William Hartnell, Jessica Carney
  2. Famous Birthdays
  3. 3.0 3.1 Howe, David; Stammers, Mark; Walker, Stephen James (1992) Doctor Who: The Sixties, Doctor Who Books, London, pp 67-68