Hartnell, character and The Smugglers (1966)

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In Jessica Carney’s biography of her grandfather William Hartnell, Who’s There?, there’s a photo of the actor on location in Cornwall for The Smugglers, June 1966. Dressed in his Doctor Who costume, big black cloak flapping, one foot up on a boulder, he stands on a beach looking out to the ocean. Let’s go back in time, for a moment, to when that photo was taken.

It is the end of ten long months working on Doctor Who. Effectively a year’s work, Hartnell’s third on the series and a difficult one. They’ve made 44 episodes this year and Hartnell’s been in 42 of them.

At the start of this production block, there was a new producer and script editor; both lasted about six months and have been replaced. He lost a beloved Aunt, and recording on Doctor Who meant he couldn’t attend the memorial service. He clashed with producer John Wiles, a factor in Wiles leaving the show. Long time co-star and friend Peter Purves was let go from the show a couple of months back. In all he’s had 7 companions go and come this year.

But right now, things are not so bad. Doctor Who rarely goes on location and when it does, Hartnell’s not always required. This story though, The Smugglers, has the luxury of a five day shoot in Cornwall and Hartnell features heavily. There’s still time though to pause from the daily grind and enjoy the sights. He writes a note on the back of the photo which says, ‘Cornwall. I’m looking out at the beauty God made! The colour and sound brings only the feeling of happiness into my heart and soul. Dr Who. 1966.’

The next season is due to start production in three months. In just one month, Hartnell will be convinced to relinquish this role which has consumed his life for the last three years. Did he know, when making The Smugglers, that the end was nigh? Even if he didn’t know his hand was about to be forced, surely as he looked out over that beach he must have wondered if he had another 44 weeks of this in him. Not just because of his deteriorating health, but the continual parade of new faces in front of and behind the cameras must have reminded him that of the show’s original staff, he is the last one standing.

In the recent docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time, the moment when Hartnell is told that the show will continue without him is played out with Sydney Newman having to deliver the sad news. In truth this unenviable task would surely have fallen to producer Innes Lloyd. And I suspect, there was probably no one momentous meeting. There never are with these things. It’s a conversation here, a meeting there, “don’t make any decisions yet”, “nothing’s set in stone but…” Until one day the deed is done.

So what we have in The Smugglers is arguably Hartnell’s last story. Sure The Tenth Planet is officially the final stand, but it’s a muted affair for his acerbic Doctor; he’s a commenter on events, not a protagonist. He’s not even in Episode 3. In fact, I’ve even read somewhere that Hartnell is booked as a guest star for that story. That says it all; a guest star in one’s own show.

Not so in The Smugglers, where the Doctor is an active force. He’s given the secret of where Avery’s treasure is buried, and so is kidnapped by nefarious pirates Captain Pike and the brutish Cherub. He enters into a shortlived alliance with innkeeper and smuggler Kewper, and escapes the pirates’ ship only to find he and his companions are in the middle of a power struggle between the pirates, smugglers and the taxman.

In the middle of all this, a way out presents itself: a secret passage has been discovered which leads directly to the TARDIS. It’s an immediate escape route and companions Ben and Polly are only too willing to take it. But the Doctor refuses. He strongly suspects that Pike won’t be satisfied with finding the treasure; he and his men will also sack the nearby village. The Doctor thinks that he can use his knowledge about the treasure’s whereabouts to bargain with Pike, and allow revenue man Blake time to return with troops, thus saving the village. It is, the Doctor says, their moral obligation to stay. So they stay and the Doctor confronts Cherub, bargains with Pike, reveals the treasure’s location and basically plays everyone for time until Blake arrives. In short, the Doctor’s the story’s catalyst and its hero, not a bystander.

And Hartnell plays it with his usual vigour. He’s stumbling over his lines of course, that’s what we’ve come to expect. But he plays everything with energy and commitment. Compare this to the last story he recorded, The War Machines, where he looked a bit bewildered by the whole thing. I’d be willing to bet he liked doing the historical stories better, where he could act with real people, not featureless boxes.

In fact he said as much in that recently discovered interview footage (an extra on The Tenth Planet DVD) where he complained about the lack of reaction an actor gets from a Dalek. What a revelation that footage is; a glimpse at the formidable old grump so many people have said he was. But compare that brief snippet of real life Hartnell to his performance as the Doctor, and it’s instantly clear just how much work he put into his characterisation.  That footage – the only surviving video of Hartnell himself – is demonstrable proof that he and the Doctor were not one and the same.

It’s easy to see how that mistake could be made. The Smugglers’ director Julia Smith recalled how Hartnell refused to use a switch on the TARDIS console for what he believed was not its purpose. “It was obviously so real to him,” she said. And that makes me think of how he signed off his note the back of that photo: “Dr Who. 1966.” Was he merely noting the production he was working on, and the date the photo was taken? Or was he intentionally adopting his fictional persona, even down to the signature? Perhaps reflecting that when faced with having to give up a job you love, sometimes it’s safer just to stay in character.

Link to The Creature from the Pit. Oh just writing that looks so facile! But let’s be content with the fact that both are about various parties squabbling over precious metals.

NEXT TIME… Fire and brimstone! We visit The Visitation.

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