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Once in a lifetime

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Mark Gatiss's new drama details the birth of Doctor Who'. Here, he reflects on difficult beginnings and William Hartnell, its original star

One of Mark Gatiss's earliest childhood memories is of watching Jon Pertwee, as Doctor Who, fighting the Autons in the 1970 adventure Spearhead from Space. The series became an obsession for the young Gatiss and much of his work as a writer - from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock -has been shaped by his love for the show. Now, in An Adventure in Space and Time, Gatiss goes back to Doctor Who's rather hesitant start on the BBC in 1963 and tells the story of the original Doctor ,William Hartnell, (played by Broadchurch actor David Bradley) and the young, inexperienced team who made TV history.

William Hartnell once said: "If I live to be 90, a little of the magic of Doctor Who will still cling to me." I don't know what it is, but there is something in the fibre of the programme that is rather magical. Although Sherlock Holmes is in its DNA, and H G Wells is a source, what's fantastic about the show is that it is a TV original, not an adaptation. It is one of the greatest single ideas that television has produced.

There's something rather wonderful about the creation of Doctor Who, something very smoky and Novemberish. I imagine people on buses with wet raincoats, that kind of Britain. And going through it like a typhoon are two young people, Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, with fantastic ideas, and an older man, William Hartnell, who sort of becomes young by association.

There was a New World spirit to it. Sydney Newman, the BBC's head of drama, was a Canadian who had been brought in from ITV where he had created The Avengers. One of his many ideas, because he was a lifelong science-fiction fan, was this teatime serial called Doctor Who. Newman was very much an ideas man. He was very active in shaping a programme, but once he'd got his team together, he just let them get on with it.

Although Newman really wanted the show to work, I don't think he would have taken a punt on Lambert, an untried 27-year-old female producer, if Doctor Who had been some kind of great flagship programme. And it'll come as a huge surprise for most people that Hussein, the first director, was a 25-year-old Indian. Hussein says himself that he got on to the director's course by the skin of his teeth, by playing up his Englishness.

I put a little line in the script where a cameraman leans over and says "Freaks!" because I think to everyone else at the BBC, Hussein and Lambert kind of were.

I was very privileged to know Lambert a little. I wish I'd known her better. She was a force of nature, a legend really. I think until the end of her life she remained slightly bemused that despite all the incredible things she'd worked on (Lambert went on to produce several important TV dramas, including The Naked Civil Servant and GBH), it was the "little show" that people always talked about.

Hartnell was out of work when the call for Doctor Who came, and he wasn't sure about doing it because it was a kids' programme. But once he got it, he grabbed it with both hands. It totally changed his life. It made him a hero to children. He was adored, everywhere he went. Inevitably that does something to you. If you're not careful, it can give you a messiah complex. If you are careful, there couldn't be anything nicer.

Hartnell was known as a screen actor. His heyday had been in the Forties, with films like The Way Ahead and Brighton Rock. He was 55 when he got the part, the same age as new Doctor Peter Capaldi is now, but he looked 70 and rather played up to it. He was a very difficult man, but I don't think he was a monster. There are some hair-raising stories about his prejudices, but they feel of a piece with his generation. I think my granddad was probably just as racist as Hartnell, and just as homophobic, but my granddad wasn't Doctor Who. I've always been conscious, in a way, that he was slightly unfairly singled out because of who he was.

He was also immensely lovable, charming and a very good actor. The tragedy is that he was used to film.

The incredible treadmill of television production, working day in and day out, and the fact he was ill wore him out. In fact, I don't know if he ever realised how ill he was. He didn't live a healthy life; he drank and smoked too much.

The thing I've really tried to use in An Adventure in Space and Time is the idea that the Doctor makes Hartnell better. That's what doctors do. There's something rather lovely about that.

All sorts of things went wrong during the pilot episode and they had to reshoot it. I've slightly exaggerated some for dramatic purposes, but the sprinklers in the studio did go off when it got too hot, the Tardis doors did keep opening, and there were lots of terrifying, Acorn Antiques-like moments of camera-blocking. The main thing was that Newman thought Hartnell's interpretation of the Doctor was too nasty - off-puttingly irascible, as opposed to grumpy. But he had the faith to tell Lambert and Hussein to do it again.

The first episode did OK, but it was broadcast on November 23, the day after the Kennedy assassination, so the world was totally traumatised.

They had to repeat the first episode before screening the second. But then the Daleks came, in week five.

And it went boom, just like that.

There's an entire separate film to be made about the creation of the Daleks, really - how Terry Nation, the scriptwriter, became a millionaire, and Ray Cusick, the BBC staff designer, got a Blue Peter badge and a hundred pounds. That's fascinating, but the biggest challenge for me was paring it down and finding the essence of the drama.

Doctor Who ran until 1989, originally, which is quite incredible. Over the years you could feel when the people involved were excited and when they weren't. But everything falls out of favour. Its time came again - when Russell T Davies fronted the 2005 revival - because it needed someone who loved it once to love it again.

I've had to conflate a few people here and there while writing this.

As a fan, that's difficult. But I had to obey the principles of the drama, and to make it what I wanted it to be, which is a human-interest story.

I hope that you can watch it without knowing anything about Doctor Who.

It's just the story of how something comes together - and how a man who got everything he ever wanted had to give it all away.

An Adventure in Space and Time is on BBC Two on November 21 at 9pm

GRAPHIC: Monster hit: William Hartnell (now played by David Bradley) was the Doctor from 1963 to 1966. Among the weird and wonderful creatures he encountered were the Cybermen, the Menoptera and the Daleks

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  • APA 6th ed.: Martin, Tim (2013-11-09). Once in a lifetime. The Daily Telegraph p. 24.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Martin, Tim. "Once in a lifetime." The Daily Telegraph [add city] 2013-11-09, 24. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Martin, Tim. "Once in a lifetime." The Daily Telegraph, edition, sec., 2013-11-09
  • Turabian: Martin, Tim. "Once in a lifetime." The Daily Telegraph, 2013-11-09, section, 24 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Once in a lifetime | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Once_in_a_lifetime | work=The Daily Telegraph | pages=24 | date=2013-11-09 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=12 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Once in a lifetime | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Once_in_a_lifetime | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=12 December 2019}}</ref>