Doctor Who: the film careers of William Hartnell & Jon Pertwee

Feature Alex Westthorp 28 Mar 2014 - 07:00

In a new series, Alex talks us through the film roles of the actors who've played the Doctor. First up, William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee...

We know them best as the twelve very different incarnations of the Doctor. But all the actors who've been the star of Doctor Who, being such good all-rounders in the first place, have also had film careers. Admittedly, some CVs are more impressive than others, but this retrospective attempts to pick out a few of the many worthwhile films which have starred, featured or seen a fleeting cameo by the actors who would become (or had been) the Doctor.

William Hartnell was, above all else, a film star. He is by far the most prolific film actor of the main twelve to play the Time Lord. With over 70 films to his name, summarising Hartnell's film career is difficult at best. Hartnell worked almost predominately in British Cinema, much more so than his successors. For the sake of convenience, I've put Hartnell's film career together with that of Jon Pertwee. They appeared in similar film fare, early British dramas and comedies - notably the Carry On films and actually appeared together in the same film - about which, more in a moment.

Interestingly, Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker's film careers converge on horror movies and the fact both worked with the late cult director and model maker, Ray Harryhausen. Researching this series has thrown up many coincidences:  Most obviously Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant, the stars of Withnail And I, both have played the Doctor (McGann in the 1996 TV Movie and Grant voiced the role in Scream Of Shalka, the online animated story) Gold star to anyone who knew their Withnail co-star - the late, great Richard Griffiths - was an early potential contender for the fifth Doctor.

Jude, a film which starred Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, also marked the cinema debut of David Tennant. Local Hero marked Peter Capaldi's first foray into films and also starred Fulton Mackay who, when interviewed by Barry Letts in 1974, was waiting to hear if a pilot he had done with Ronnie Barker was going to go to a series. It did and had he not been cast in Porridge, Mackay would have been the fourth Doctor.

Let's start at the beginning and the film career of William Henry Hartnell. Born on January 8th 1908, Billy Hartnell as he was known in his early career, made his debut as a film actor aged 21 in the 1929 picture The Unwritten Law. This largely forgotten B-movie was the start of a 35-year career in films, which would see Hartnell star in many of the great British movies of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Following School For Scandal (1931) and Say It With Music (1932), Hartnell won his first starring role as Edward Whimperley in the comedy drama I'm An Explosive in 1933. However, this didn't turn around his career as he would have liked and several more minor or uncredited cameo roles followed.

In 1940 Hartnell was invalided out of the Royal Artillery Corps, the strain of training had become too much for him and he developed a stutter - not ideal for an actor. Hartnell followed his Colonel's advice: "you better get back to the theatre, you're no bloody good here." By 1941, having overcome his stutter, Hartnell went on to star in several classic war films. Most notable amongst these were They Flew Alone (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944), the latter was particularly well made given the restrictions imposed on the film industry during World War II. Hartnell gives his first major perfomance as a Sergeant, in this case Sgt Ned Fletcher, in what was to be a turning point in his career. The director of The Way Ahead, Carol Reed, saw Hartnell as Dallow in a theatre production of Brighton Rock in 1943, a role that would lead to a part in the cinematic version of the same story.

Undoubtedly the most notable film of Hartnell's long career, Brighton Rock (1947) was based on the novel by Graeme Greene,  Hartnell reprised his character Dallow and had some powerful scenes with the star of the picture, a young Richard Attenborough. This Boulting brothers movie sealed Hartnell's reputation for his portrayal of villianous, cantankerous characters, prone to irascibility, some of the chracter traits displayed by the first Doctor.

By the Fifties, Hartnell was very much in demand, though somewhat typecast in tough guy or military roles. It seemed he was no longer getting asked to play comedy. The Dark Man (1951) saw him play the first of many policemen, cast as a Superintendant. An excellent British thriller The Dark Man is much underrated. The Magic Box (1952) which starred Denis Price as the pioneering photographer and film-maker Friese Green, featured Hartnell as a Recruiting Sergeant.

William Hartnell's next major role of note came in 1957's Hell Drivers. Viewed from today's standpoint, the film has a truly incredible cast. It is a veritable "who's who" of Fifties cinema: Stanley Baker, Sid James, Sean Connery, Patick McGoohan (giving a rare outing to his real Irish accent) and Herbert Lom to name but five. Hartnell plays Mr Cartley, the abrasive and single-mindedly unscrupulous boss of a haulage firm, who seemingly will stop at nothing to get as many "runs" done per day, regardless of the (often great) cost to his drivers. Hartnell only appears in the first few and last few scenes and yet is memorable despite the array of soon-to-be-big stars on show. To assemble the same cast ten years later would no doubt have cost a fortune: A pre-Bond Connery, pre-Danger Man and Prisoner McGoohan, pre-Doctor Who Hartnell, pre-Carry On James, pre-Man From UNCLE McCallum, not to mention Gordon Jackson, six years from his role in The Great Escape with McCallum. Herbert Lom, seen here as one of the unfortunate drivers, had been in Ealing's acclaimed comedy The Ladykillers two years before but was yet to play, arguably, his most famous role as the harangued boss of Peter Sellers' idiotic Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther film series.

Hartnell was equally adept at comedy as his by now stock-in-trade dramatic roles, and was keen to be given more. Eventually his patience paid off when Director Gerald Thomas and Producer Peter Rogers asked him to be one of the stars of the inaugral Carry On film, 1958's Carry On Sergeant, although they didn't know then that the film would spawn a series of thirty movies. Admittedly, Bob Monkhouse got most of the funny lines. Hartnell's role wasn't knowingly funny but drew on  his established talent for playing gruff but fair drill sergeants, arguably portayed best in ITV's The Army Game, which also featured soon-to-be Carry On... regulars, Charles Hawtrey and Bernard Bresslaw. Like Hartnell, Hawtrey pretty much transferred his character to the big screen, although it's worth noting The Army Game itself became 1959's I Only Arsked? which, incidently, was Bresslaw's catchphrase both in the TV show and in his Carry On... performances between 1965 and 1974. Of course, as any true Who fan will know, in 1967 Bresslaw was cast as Varga, the leader of the Ice Warriors, in the eponymous Patrick Troughton serial.

The following year Hartnell appeared in The Mouse That Roared, a comedy vehicle for Peter Sellers, who also worked with Hartnell on Heavens Above! in 1963. Later the same year, the Lindsay Anderson movie This Sporting Life, in which Hartnell played an elderly Rugby mentor called "Dad" Johnson, was to prove pivotal to his career. Viewing the film, in a London cinema,  was a young BBC producer called Verity Lambert, who was immediately captivated by the veteran actor's performance and shortly afterwards offered him the lead role in a new television series she was working on... Doctor Who.

1964's Tomorrow At Ten, was Hartnell's final film. He continued to appear in the theatre until 1968 when he played in Brothers And Sisters. William Hartnell gave his final television performance, a cameo in The Three Doctors - for the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who, the series he helped establish, which by 1973 was a British institution.

William Hartnell died aged 67 on April 24th 1975, arguably he is best remembered today for two main roles, both of them firsts: Sgt Grimshawe in the very first Carry On... film, Carry On Sergeant and as the original Doctor in Doctor Who from 1963 to 1966. The Way Ahead, Brighton Rock, Hell Drivers and This Sporting Life are well worth watching to fully appreciate Hartnell's range as an actor and to some extent see the seeds of his portrayal of the Doctor.

A real curio, worthy of attention by hardcore Who fans is 1953's Will Any Gentleman? Hartnell plays Detective Inspector Martin alongside George Cole, later of course, the legendary spiv Arthur Daley in Leon Griffiths' Minder. If the film is notable at all, it is for Hartnell's other main co-star, one Jon Pertwee (!), a whole 17 years away from playing his  successor-but-one in the TARDIS.

It was Jon Pertwee's radio career that landed him the role of the Time Lord. His co-star on The Navy Lark, Tenniel Evans, suggested Pertwee go up for the part and upon contacting his agent, Pertwee found himself second to Ron Moody (recently seen as Fagin in Oliver, the 1968 Lionel Bart musical directed by Carol Reed) on the BBC's very own wish list. When Moody turned it down, Pertwee was installed as the new owner of the TARDIS....

Born John Devon Roland Pertwee on the 7th of July 1919. Pertwee's film career echoes that of Hartnell in many ways. Pertwee was also quite prolific and made nearly fifty movies between 1937 and 1992. Both he and Hartnell were involved in the British comedy film institution, the Carry Ons.

Pertwee's film career began with a small part in 1936's Dinner At The Ritz and in 1938 he appeared in a minor uncredited role in A Yank At Oxford (not to be confused with the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film A Chump At Oxford which, incidentally, featured a young Peter Cushing). The same year saw Pertwee appear in Four Just Men with his father, Roland. A movie about war veterans becoming spies, it was known in the US as The Secret Four. After serving in the Navy in the Second World War, during which he was nearly killed when HMS Hood was sunk by The Bismark, Pertwee resumed his film career in 1948 with a quartet of  B-movies: Penny And The Pawnall Case, Trouble In The Air, The Cyril Fletcher vehicle A Piece Of Cake and William Comes To Town based on the Just William stories.

1949 saw Pertwee cast in a starring role as a Detective Sergeant in Murder At The Windmill by Director Val Guest, with whom he'd worked on William Comes To Town. A taut, watchable British thriller, Murder At The Windmill was known in the US as Murder Burlesque. His Constable was played by a young Peter Butterworth, later the Meddling Monk in Doctor Who. Whilst Jimmy Edwards, with whom Pertwee had worked on Trouble In The Air, was its the main star, the police investigation is the focus of the film and Pertwee, credited here as "Jon Pertwer" gets plenty to do.

In the Fifties, Pertwee appeared as a Postman in Val Guest's Miss Pilgrim's Progress (1950) which also featured Valentine Dyall, known to Who fans as the malevolent Black Guardian, before teaming up with William Hartnell and George Cole in 1953's Will Any Gentleman? This was the first colour film Pertwee made and, during its production he met his first wife Jean Marsh, herself destined to appear in Doctor Who. She played short-lived companion, Sara Kingdom in 1965's The Dalek Masterplan and was adversary Morgaine in 1989's Battlefield. Pertwee doubled for the great American comedian Danny Kaye in 1954's Knock On Wood. Ironically, he had been told he would struggle for work as an actor because of his resemblance to Kaye! 1955 saw Pertwee appear in A Yank In Ermine. Among the cast were British stalwarts, Richard Wattis and Edward Chapman and two years before working with William Hartnell on Hell Drivers: Sid James. 1959's The Ugly Duckling saw Pertwee work with Danny Kaye once more. 

The Sixties began with Pertwee cast in two very different films, Just Joe and Not A Hope In Hell. Between 1964 and 1966, whilst William Hartnell was playing the Doctor on TV, Pertwee made cameos in various Carry On films: In Carry On Cleo (1964) Pertwee is heavily disguised as a wizened old soothsayer; Carry On Cowboy (1965) sees him as the local blind and deaf Sheriff Albert Earp; best of all is his performance in 1966's Carry On Screaming. Pertwee gave a virtual audition for his subsequent appearance as the Doctor, playing a Scottish police surgeon Dr. Fettle, who is mainly conducting experiments upon a finger belonging to a creature called "Odd Bod". Carry On... regular, Kenneth Williams played Doctor Watt in the film and is given the following exchange with Sgt Bung (Harry H Corbett) and PC Slowbotham (Peter Butterworth:

Bung: "Firstly sir, your name?"

Watt: "Doctor Watt..."

Slobotham: "Doctor who, sir?"

Watt: "Watt!"

Watt: "Who is my uncle...or was, I haven't seen him for ages."

Given Carry On Screaming is set in Victorian England, could this be a thinly-veiled reference to Evil Of The Daleks? Probably not. The scripts would have been written a year or two apart and the film was released a year before Evil of the Daleks appeared on television.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum followed in 1966 and Up In the Air and Under The Table You Must Go in 1969. The seventies saw Pertwee's film career on hold whilst he played Gallifrey's most famous son although he did manage to take part in 1970's The House That Dripped Blood and There's A Girl In My Soup. 1975 saw Pertwee play a cameo in One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a Disney caper movie starring Derek Nimmo. In 1977 he was Detective Judd Blake in the decidedly adult The Adventure Of A Private Eye.

Pertwee scaled back his film work in the Eighties, returning to Doctor Who for The Five Doctors and 1989's Ultimate Adventure stage play and working the cabaret circuit instead. He appeared as a Coastguard in the 1983 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue and he was Dr Neuross in Have You Ever Heard Of The Milky Way? in 1985.

His last film saw him return to the Carry On... fold, playing the Duke of Costa Brava alongside Bernard Cribbins, Jim Dale and June Whitfield in 1992's Carry On Columbus. With typical humour, Pertwee told of how he discovered he had the part. He was given a message by his wife. She merely told him a script for "the Columbus movie" had arrived.  Suddenly excited by the prospect of working with the likes of Gerard Depardieu on the film 1492, Pertwee face sank when he read the script cover sheet: Carry On Columbus!

Jon Pertwee died of a heart attack aged 76 on 20th May 1996, whilst staying with friends in America, just a week before the BBC One debut of Paul McGann's Doctor Who TV Movie. The film was dedicated to him: "To the memory of Jon Pertwee, 1919-1996, now with the Time Lords".

Pertwee is probably best remembered for Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge (his favourite character part) on TV and to an older generation for his radio comedies - Waterlogged Spa and The Navy Lark. Generally speaking, Pertwee's film work is series of very fine cameos. He was rarely the leading man, preferring a character study. The three Sixties Carry Ons: Cleo, Cowboy and especially Screaming stand out. Carry On Columbus is only for those who really should know better. Of his earlier work, his starring role in Murder At The Windmill and the films he made with Danny Kaye: Knock On Wood and The Ugly Duckling are well worth watching, the latter two being delightful family entertainment for a Sunday afternoon. Will Any Gentleman? is recommended for the sheer giddy joy of seeing two Doctors on the big screen together - a full ten and seventeen years respectively, before their take on the venerable Time Lord.

Next Time: Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker's horror film careers.

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