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How Dr Who was nearly exterminated at birth

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A cranky star. A cardboard Tardis. And a very messy monkey. As the cult show turns 50, its first ever director reveals ...

NEXT week, the global phenomenon that is Doctor Who will celebrate its 50th anniversary with events and tribute programmes. They include one about the making of the first series, called An Adventure In Space And Time.

The sci-fi show, which has captured the imagination of children and adults around the world, thoroughly deserves the accolade.

Yet half a century ago, when I directed the first grainy episode, it was a very different story. The idea of an eccentric old man who travels through time and space in a police box was viewed as too outlandish by many in the buttoned-up atmosphere of the BBC in 1963.

The brainchild of the Beeb's head of drama, Canadian Sydney Newman, Doctor Who was created to fill a problematic slot at 5.15pm on Saturdays between the sports programme Grandstand and the pop show Juke Box Jury.

None of the seasoned directors would touch it, so it fell to me as the most junior director under contract, aged 24. I was teamed with 27-year-old Verity Lambert, the first female producer in television and a hugely talented woman who went on to make The Naked Civil Servant, Rumpole Of The Bailey and Minder.

I was also the first Indian director at the BBC, having been born in Lucknow then educated at an English boarding school and Cambridge. Nobody expected a woman, an Indian and a Canadian to succeed — and I wasn't thrilled when I saw the scripts for the first four-part series, written by Anthony Coburn.

The first episode, An Unearthly Child, introduced the Doctor, played by acclaimed stage and film actor William Hartnell, his granddaughter-assistant Susan, her school teachers Barbara and Ian, and the Tardis.

Barbara and Ian are concerned about the strange behaviour of Susan and investigate her background. They find her living with her grandfather in the Tardis in a London junkyard. The group travel to the Stone Age, where a struggle ensues between warring factions who have lost the ability to make fire.

At Cambridge, I had directed contemporaries such as Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, and when I saw the Doctor Who scripts with cave dwellers talking in grunts, I thought my career had taken a wrong turning.

I went to see Verity and said: 'What am I going to do with these?' She replied: 'We're going to have to make it work.' The phrase became Verity's mantra and I took her advice to heart — though it wasn't always easy.

BACK then, studios at the gleaming new Television Centre in White City were the grand prize among programme makers. But we were sent off to the bogs of Shepherd's Bush and Lime Grove Studio D to work with the crudest of facilities and the oldest of cameras.

The tiny studio had been built for news — a replica of it was made for the BBC's period newsroom drama The Hour.

The budget for each episode was a measly £2,000, and most of that was spent on the Tardis's hexagonal control console. M one y was so tight I had to ask male actors at auditions if they had hairy chests, because we couldn't have stretched to prosthetics for the caveman scenes. '

For the first episode, we spent a week out at a spartan rehearsal room in Fulham. A cardboard ' cut-out surface of the Tardis's console was placed on a table with 'Lever' and 'Button A' and 'Button B' written on it to represent the controls.

The first time anyone saw the proper set was on the day of shooting in the studio. It was continuous filming, with four cameras and no breaks, so everything had to be meticulously thought out.

Once it started you didn't stop unless someone forgot their lines, swore or died. But Hartnell very cleverly played the Doctor as an absent-minded old man, so that allowed him a little leeway.

Even so, it was very difficult for him in the early days. He had been acting for almost 30 years and he had to be persuaded by Verity and me to take the role — over two very expensive lunches — because he already had a successful film career which included Brighton Rock and was wary of children's TV.

He could be irascible and liked to test us, as happened in the rehearsal hall once when I showed him where I'd like him to move. he looked at yellow taped markings on the floor and said: 'I think I'd like to move over there.' I said: 'Oh, interesting Bill, because there's no set there and I won't be able to see you.'

He was old guard and wasn't keen to move into children's television. Yet there he was, being 'told what to do by a woman, an Indian and a Canadian!

On the day of filming, we'd spend all day on camera rehearsal then record the show between 9.30pm and 10.45pm with just three breaks.

There were a lot of mistakes in the first recording and I was quite relieved when Sydney ordered it to be re-shot because he thought it wasn't child-friendly enough. For me, that showed Sydney's commitment and ensured we made Doctor Who into something special.

Of course, we couldn't realise what a phenomenon we had spawned. With dreadful timing the first episode aired the day after President Kennedy was shot, and our audience was a disappointing 4.4 million.

But we were part of an extraordinary cultural revolution — 1963 was also the year of the Profumo scandal and the real start of The Beatles legend.

And I remember meeting a modest young man at a showbiz party who told me he was an actor and had just made a film called Dr No. I said I hoped it didn't clash with Doctor Who — I had no idea I was speaking to Sean Connery.

For the final three episodes in the first series I even had some primitive special effects. In one episode we wanted fire to be pouring from the eyes of skulls, so we lit paper torches, then lowered the skulls onto them, praying they wouldn't melt. We needed a fire officer on standby.

I had more sophisticated special effects for the next series I directed, a seven-parter called Marco Polo set in China in the 13th century featuring an evil warlord, which aired in 1964.

While I had been shooting An Unearthly Child, the second Doctor Who story, The Daleks, was already under way with another director. Fortunately, The Daleks proved hugely popular and the knock-on effect was a doubling of our budget per episode, of which I took full advantage for Singing Sands, set in the Gobi Desert.

It needed to show the main characters engulfed in a sand storm and someone had the ingenious idea of interfering with the electronic tube of the camera for a speckled effect. The money went on state-of-the-art silent fans to blast the actors' hair and clothes.

OTHER bright ideas weren't so successful, and I still laugh at the memory of the spider monkey I introduced in another of the Marco Polo episodes. I suggested having the creature on the lead villain's shoulder.

The monkey did add an air of menace to actor Tutte Lemkow's performance until it suffered a bout of diarrhoea while sitting on his shoulder. We stopped for a couple of hours so Tutte and his clothes could be washed.

The show would be my launching pad. Once I'd proved I could work under those conditions I went on to direct The Wednesday Play, a version of A Passage To India and TV's first Aids drama, Intimate Contact.

We all moved on to other things and William Hartnell, who had overcome his initial reluctance and embraced the character, felt rather lonely.

A lifelong spirit drinker, he developed a condition called arteriosclerosis, one of the symptoms of which was muddling his lines, and he was finally forced out of the role.

Producers then came up with the idea of regenerating the Doctor — and the future of the series was secured.

It has endured because it has managed so brilliantly to combine entertainment with the thrill of being afraid. I am immensely proud of having been part of a remarkable — and continuing —story.

AN ADVENTURE In Space And Time is on BBC2 on Thursday at 9pm.

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