Doctor Who: the film careers of Paul McGann & John Hurt

In the latest part of his series, Alex explores the silver screen careers of Paul McGann and John Hurt...

Read the previous part in this series: the film careers of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, here.

On a crisp, wintry evening in January 1996, a tube journey home was enlivened by a picture of Paul McGann, sporting a freshly-shorn haircut and wearing a dark, checked scarf in the Evening Standard. Behind him a rather bloated-looking TARDIS, in reality the entrance to the famous Doctor Who exhibition at Longleat House – the Earls Court “police watch box” was still in the planning stages at this point! For those reading the paper, over their fellow commuters shoulders on the tube that night, the realisation dawned: after six long years, Doctor Who was finally coming back!

Doctor Who was cancelled by Peter Cregeen in 1989, and was subsequently seen as a “poisoned chalice” which failed to interest a number of potential producers: Tony Virgo, an obvious candidate, having directed The Kings Demons, moved on to EastEnders. Respected childrens drama producer and director, Paul Stone, responsible for supernatural dramas The Children Of Green Knowe (1987), The Moondial (1988) and Tom’s Midnight Garden (1989) was actually offered the role… but turned it down. Attempts to farm out Doctor Who to an independent production company had come to nothing. As had the idea of making it as a BBC2 property with the effects budget of Red Dwarf; arguably the BBC’s only homegrown success in the sci-fi genre of the era. After moderately successful BBC 2 repeat seasons in the early 90s, 1994 saw The Green Death and The Pyramids Of Mars, shown in a Sunday lunchtime “retro” slot, garner the lowest-ever ratings for the series. It seemed, even to the most dedicated Who fan, the series had no hope of revival, at least not in its current guise and certainly not by the BBC.

Philip Segal, British born and American raised, had previously worked for Amblin productions, Steven Spielberg’s company – hence BBC 1 Controller Alan Yentob’s comments, at the end of the 1993 documentary Thirty Years In The Tardis, about talks with Spielberg. Having moved to Universal television in 1995, Segal, who remained the main conduit in talks with the BBC, eventually managed to convince the Corporation to turn over the rights to him to make a pilot, aware this also meant the BBC couldn’t make their own series until the rights contract lapsed again. This was one of the many complexities which delayed the series which eventually began development under Russell T. Davies in late 2003. The TV movie was made in Vancouver, Canada in early 1996 and Sylvester McCoy was asked back to play the Doctor for a few short scenes before regenerating into Paul McGann.

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Paul John McGann was born in Liverpool on 14th November 1959, into a large acting family. He was the third of six children and the second of four surviving brothers: the eldest being Joe McGann, perhaps best known for comedy The Upper Hand and rookie cops show Rockliffe’s Babies. Paul was given the middle name John after Joe’s late twin. Paul’s younger siblings are Mark, perhaps best known for his theatre work; Stephen, who’s had a varied and successful acting career and yet is still remembered by many as Tex in Liverpudlian comedy Help! and their younger sister, Clare, who works in programme finance for television.

All four brothers, collectively known as “the McGann clan”, made a high budget film serial for the BBC called The Hanging Gale (1995). Philip Segal saw huge potential in two of the brothers’ performances. He initially approached Mark and six months later Paul, on the strength of his role in the 1989 film Dealers, to screen test as the Doctor. Several other British character actors Robert Lindsay, Anthony Stewart Head among them and comedians Tony Slattery, Rowan Atkinson and Harry Enfield were also approached and also considered (although it is unclear if he was actually approached ) was Peter Capaldi (then 37 and filming Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere for BBC 2). Paul McGann was chosen by Segal and approved by the BBC – on the proviso Universal could have casting approval on the Master. Eric Roberts won the role.

McGann has a fine acting pedigree. Coming to major public attention in the controversial 1986 BBC Screen One drama, The Monocled Mutineer, in which he played notorious deserter Percy Toplis. He made his TV acting debut four years before as Norman in the Play for Today: Whistling Wally. McGann’s first major role, however, was as Mo Morris, a cocky 25 year-old Liverpudian snooker whizzkid in the 1983 comedy drama Give Us A Break. Potentially the BBC’s answer to Minder, it starred (his rival Doctor Who casting choice) Robert Lindsay as Mickey Noades, a wheeler-dealer and promoter whose life changed on meeting Mo – his would-be brother in law, if he could ever set a date to marry his ever-patient girlfriend Shirna (Shirin Taylor) – and suddenly snooker becomes Noades’ promotion of choice and Mo, his greatest asset. Only one series and a special (transmitted on New Year’s Eve 1984) were made. Despite plans for a 10-part second series in 1984, the show ended because writer Geoff McQueen, suddenly found himself very busy when a one-off ITV Storyboard play called Woodentop went to series. It was renamed The Bill

McGann was cast as John Worthing in 1986’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, and the following year took on a role in a small British movie financed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films. McGann played Marwood, the “I” in the eminently quotable Withnail And I. A massive cult film amongst students, it brings together two other actors who would go on to have connections with Doctor Who. Richard E Grant, one of several actors who played a “ninth Doctor” and more recently The Great Intelligence opposite Matt Smith, played Witnail; the late, great Richard Griffiths, who was sought after for the role of the Fifth Doctor back in 1980, was the hilariously intimidating Uncle Monty.

At the fag-end of the Sixties, two London-based out of work actors go “on holiday” to the wilds of the Lake District and try to run the cottage of Withnail’s sexually ambigous Uncle Monty. To the evocative starins of Hendrix, we see the landscape of London changing as Withnail and Marwood try to overcome their deep-seated laziness and escape their squalid flat with its festering sink overflowing with dishes and dirt. Now, rightly considered a classic of British Cinema and a touchstone of filmaking in the 80s, Withnail And I is strongly recommended. McGann, used it as his calling card for more film work and later the same year, McGann worked with Steven Spielberg on the epic war film Empire Of The Sun.

In the summer of 1988, McGann was cast in The Rainbow, a faithful adaptation of the classic novel by D.H. Lawrence. McGann played Anton, the redcoat soldier love interest of the main protagonist, Ursula Brangwen (Sammi Davis) This being D.H. Lawrence, female Who fans may enjoy a sequence where McGann runs about a hillside naked in pursuit of Ursula. 1989 saw McGann play Daniel Pascoe in Dealers which in turn, was very significant in his casting as the Doctor. The movie, which was part financed by Euston Films, was reworked for television as Capital City.

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Paper Mask, made in 1990, is a chilling hospital-set drama. Paul McGann is Matthew Harris, a supremely confident medical student who lives on his wits. Convinced by the trust endowed upon the wearer of a white coat and paper mask, Harris becomes a very plausible fake Doctor. Harris enjoys the psycho/sexual power he has over the patients in his care. Keen to pursue his pretence as far as he can, Harris begins to take too many risks with dramatic consequences. In 1992 McGann played Golic in Alien3 which was to become one of his most significant film roles after Withnail And I. More about this in a moment. 1993 saw Paul McGann appear in yet another adaptation of The Three Musketeers, something he has in common with several other Doctors, notably Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi.

From the mid-Nineties, McGann began to concentrate on his TV work. Many of his films in this era were TV movies, Doctor Who included. Since 2000 he has appeared in a range of TV shows including Fish, Nice Town, Kidnapped, Hornblower, Jonathan Creek, New Tricks, Luther and most recently Ripper Street. He also won the title role in Sharpe back in 1993 – that is until a football injury lead to a £2 milion pound pay out as McGann couldn’t work and ultimately lost the role to Sean Bean.

McGann is on record as saying he didn’t expect to ever get a call to reprise his role as the Doctor on TV. Then, one day in 2013 he took a call from Steven Moffat and on the advice of his friend Nick Briggs agreed appear in the Who minisode The Night Of The Doctor. The Red Button audience is believed to have been around 3.5 million (with a further 3 million requests on BBC iplayer). The public at large may not have been aware McGann had already reprised his role in over seventy Big Finish audio dramas, beginning with Storm Warning in 2001. To them, India Fisher, McGann’s first audio companion Charley Pollard, is just the sotto voce narrator on Masterchef!

Alien 3, as previously mentioned, was one of Paul McGann most prominent film roles, although his character was somewhat compromised in the edit. The film is, arguably, the weakest of the trilogy, not enjoying the iconic status enjoyed by the original Alien film, which in 1979, caused a stir when the eponymous creature broke out of a crewman’s stomach. Crewman Kane was played, of course, by John Hurt.

Steven Moffat, when preparing the script for the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who, knew he wanted three Doctors in the mix. His original idea was to ask the three most recent actors to play the Doctor: The incumbent Matt Smith was a given, being already under contract. David Tennant, being a long-time fan of the series as well as a very successful Doctor, agreed with little persuasion, knowing what his appearance would mean to the fans.

Christopher Eccleston, however, was reluctant. He met with Moffat on a couple of occasions to discuss his potential involvement. He agreed to think about it. Eccleston was very proud of his involvement in helping to bring the series back and like Tom Baker, he enjoyed playing a children’s hero. Whilst he saw the show as iconic, unlike Tennant, he was never much of a fan. Eccleston hadn’t enjoyed the culture of the production of the series and had little time for the politics of the senior executives. Also he felt compromised by the huge attention the series brought him. Perhaps inevitably and despite the fact the production of the series had changed, Eccleston told Moffat he wasn’t interested, though he wished the show well.

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Steven Moffat had admired The Three Doctors which was successful in the face of adversity – ie. the necessary limited use of William Hartnell. Moffat was keen to make the special The Day Of The Doctor a three-hander, but was equally keen the Doctors should have better apportioned roles. He was aware of the conceit of the Time War – a huge (and therefore probably unfilmable) event which had damaged the Ninth Doctor. Moffat decided to cast a big name who would play the, as yet unknown “War Doctor”, an implied “black sheep” incarnation of the Doctor between McGann and Eccleston, but one that didn’t go by the mantle because he felt he didn’t deserve it and had blackened the Time Lord’s name.

In a real coup, Moffat was delighted to cast John Hurt as “The War Doctor”. So much so, the casting became a game-changing cliffhanger at the end of The Name Of The Doctor, which astounded and perplexed the viewers.

John Vincent Hurt, CBE was born on 22nd January 1940 near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Hurt’s long and distinguished film career is difficult to summarise but his signature roles have generally seen him cast as an innocent or a victim. Becoming an actor in the early 60s, Hurt won his first role in 1962’s The Wild And The Willing, however, his first major role was in the 1966 historical drama A Man For All Seasons, in which Hurt played Richard Rich.

Hurt began the 70s in a very well-mounted production based on the grisly real-life events at the infamous London address 10 Rillington Place. Hurt plays Timothy Evans, one of the last men hanged in England in 1950. Evans was an emotional victim of the notorious serial killer, John Christie, played with a mild menace by Richard Attenborough. The movie’s attention to detail is second to none, actually being filmed in the eponymous street, then still in existence, in the summer of 1970. However, just a short time later it was demolished to make way for the new Westway motorway, which cut a swathe through West London. Hurt is very watchable as Evans, a man whose wife and unborn child are killed by Christie, but who eventually ends up in trouble himself when he confesses to killing his infant daughter. Evans’ daughter’s death was later attributed to Christie and in 1966 Evans was posthumously pardoned. This film is highly recommended for its realism, claustrophobia and chilling atmosphere.

Hurt’s next notable role was in The Ghoul, a 1975 horror which also starred Peter Cushing. Meanwhile on television, the same year, Hurt starred in The Naked Civil Servant, a film biography of the eccentric wit and raconteur, Quentin Crisp, whose very open attitude to his homosexuality caused him years of verbal abuse and physical assault. The film was produced by Verity Lambert and recieved much critical praise, it remains one of Hurt’s best roles. Hurt also recieved praise and several awards for his role as Max in the classic film Midnight Express in 1978.

On the back of these plaudits, Hurt became a much in-demand actor and the following year was cast in arguably his most famous role: Kane in the seminal science fiction space-opera Alien. The movie was destined to become the first of three iconic films, with Aliens following in 1984 and Alien 3 in 1992, which (as previously mentioned) featured Paul McGann. Kane is famously the catalyst for the alien menace, which unbeknown to him has been incubating within his stomach. The scene in which the alien bursts out of Kane’s chest is the most familiar moment in the movie and Hurt was more than happy to parody it for Mel Brooks in Spaceballs eight years later.

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John Hurt began the Eighties in upcoming director David Lynch’s 1980 masterpiece The Elephant Man. The film starred Anthony Hopkins and saw Hurt play arguably his most challenging role to date – John Merrick. Its a delicate and emotionally-affecting performance, full of genuine humanity and sorrow for the condition of the eponymous title character. Hurt won much praise for his sympathetic portrayal.

1984 was a busy year for Hurt. He starred in Champions as Bob Champion, the jockey who overcame cancer to win a memorable Grand National on cancer-stricken horse, Aldernity; Hurt also featured in Success Is The Best Revenge, The Hit and Nineteen Eighty Four as main protagonist Winston Smith, the role made famous, thirty years earlier, by Peter Cushing in the 1954 television version. Voice roles in The Black Cauldron and Hunting Of The Snark followed and in 1987 he sent up his role as Kane from Alien for Mel Brooks’ Star Wars and general sci-fi parody Spaceballs: the in-joke sees Hurt exclaim:”…not again!”.

Hurt appeared in the controversial operatic anthology Aria, maybe best remembered for gratuitous nudity and the film debut of Elizabeth Hurley. Better was White Mischief about murder and drug taking amongst the hedonistic, aristocratic British of the so-called Happy Valley in Africa. Hurt played Gilbert Colville alongside Joss Ackland, Greta Scacchi, Charles Dance and Sarah Miles.

One of Hurt’s very best acting roles came in 1989’s Scandal, a very well-made portrait of the Profumo affair of 1963. Hurt played Stephen Ward, a very well-connected society osteopath who numbered Sir Winston Churchill amongst his clients. Ward was the lover and Pygmalion-like mentor of Christine Keeler, whom he introduced to John Profumo, the Minister for War. The two had an affair, which would have remained secret had there not been newspaper interest in a shooting incident at Ward’s mews flat. The media uncovered Keeler’s link to Profumo. The ensuing scandal engulfed the Conservative Goverment, Profumo resigned and the affair hastened Harold Macmillan’s departure. After the trial in which Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice Davies testified against Ward, he felt he had been made the scapegoat and now faced prison. Ward took matters into his own hands with tragic consequences.

The 90s saw Hurt take on a variety of roles, he was The Storyteller for Channel 4, and featured in the Irish drama The Field, which starred Richard Harris and earned Hurt a Bafta Nomination. The same year he was the narrator Dr Joe Buchanan in Frankenstein Unbound. 1991’s King Ralph, a somewhat below par movie, suggested he needed to pay the bills. It was his unusual appeareance as the Countess in the 1992 film Even Cowgirls Get The Blues that showed Hurt remained passionate about his craft and was prepared to consider the most unlikely of roles. In 1995, Hurt played two marquises. He was John Graham, the Marquis of Montrose in Rob Roy. He also played the Marquis de Prey in the highly controversial Two Nudes Bathing. In 1997, Hurt appeared in Contact which followed the work of scientists trying to prove the existence of extra-terrestial life.

John Hurt’s next major role was an award-winning part as Giles De’Ath in Life And Death On Long Island. The next few years saw Hurt gainfully employed on three adapted works of popular literature: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), in which Hurt played Dr Iannis was followed by an appearance in the first movie about the boy wizard – Harry Potter And The Philospher’s Stone, made in 2001. Hurt played the magic wand maker Mr Ollivander. (He also recorded scenes for Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire – however, these were cut from the finished film).

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Crime And Punishment (2001), featured Hurt as Porfiry – he had previously appeared in the 1979 television adaptation as Raskolnikov. Hellboy followed in 2004, in which Hurt played Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm and in 2006 he appeared as Adam Sutler in the cinematic version of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, now perhaps best remembered for the iconic masks worn by the antagonists which were later adopted by the “Occupy London” protest group during its sit-in near St Pauls Cathedral. 2008 saw the Indiana Jones franchise reborn and Hurt cast as Dr Harold Oxley in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. The film was well received although it’s not generally thought of as being on a par with the three films made in the 80s. Hellboy II -The Golden Army was released the same year although Hurt made only a cameo appearance.

2010 saw John Hurt appear in a new cinematic adaptation of Graeme Greene’s classic Brighton Rock; the 1947 version had featured William Hartnell. The following year, he returned to the Harry Potter movies for the two part finale Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, reprising his role as Mr Ollivander. The same year he was seen in the much praised movie version of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In 2013, Hurt filmed the much-anticipated Snowpiercer. He played a character called Gilliam. Hurt then received a call from Steven Moffat. The actor was about to become indelibly linked to Britain biggest sci-fi franchise: John Hurt was offered the role of the Doctor (revealed later as “The War Doctor”) in the landmark 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who called The Day Of The Doctor. John Hurt seemingly enjoyed his brush with Doctor Who and recently championed The Day Of The Doctor to win a BAFTA. He currently has a couple of movies in post production: Hercules and The Absinthe Drinkers.

Next time: the film careers of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

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