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Who is best

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It's time to love Doctor Who as Sedgefield-born Mark Gatiss looks at the early days of a sci-fi TV series which changed our screens forever. Steve Pratt reports

AS the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who approaches, writer and actor Mark Gatiss has penned his love letter to the series. The one-off drama An Adventure In Space And Time travels back in time to 1963 to see how the beloved Time Lord was first brought to the screen.

"Principally, it's the story of how Doctor Who was created, so we concentrate on the very beginnings and the first few episodes, " says the County Durham-born actor and writer.

"There are lots of treats for the fans, but it's also the story of William Hartnell, the first Doctor and how the part transformed his life."

Hartnell - who is played by York-born actor David Bradley - felt trapped by a succession of hard-man roles while wannabe producer Verity Lambert was frustrated by the TV industry's glass ceiling. Both were to find unlikely hope and unexpected challenges in the form of a Saturday tea-time drama, time travel and monsters.

"I'm a life-long Doctor Who fan and the origins of this beloved show have always fascinated me.

But, above all, I wanted it to strike a chord on a human level, " says Gatiss.

"These were brilliant, complex, talented people making something revolutionary. And, in William Hartnell, we have the very affecting story of a man redeemed by the role of a lifetime who then, sadly, had to let it go. We can all relate to something like that in our lives."

Casting wasn't just a case of finding lookalikes.

He'd had David Bradley in mind for some years , but emphasises that it wasn't simply a question of a good likeness.

"David is such a fine and delicate actor, I knew he'd find something wonderful in the part, " he says.

"With everyone else, I stressed that we must first and foremost get the right people for the job. But it turned out the right people also bear the most amazing resemblances to the originals. Costume and make-up, of course, played a huge part in that."

The research process was helped in that the series is probably unique, in terms of TV shows, in that its history has been exhaustively researched for years.

"I'd wanted to tell the story for years - I sort of grew up with it. How no one wanted the Daleks.

About the first episode going out just after JFK was shot. I wanted to get deeper than just the details of production and find the human story. I conducted new interviews with a lot of the original cast and crew. They were all hugely enthusiastic and very helpful, " says Gatiss, who has written episodes for the Doctor Who series.

He didn't uncover much that he didn't previously know as a Doctor Who fan, but found it touching that people were often very happy to discuss others who were long gone.

His script focuses on four central characters - Hartnell, Sydney Newman (played by Brian Cox), producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan).

"I had to focus it down. Simple as that. This is a drama, not a documentary, and though it's extremely painful to have to leave out some people who played a huge part, it makes dramatic sense, " he explains.

"You simply can't do everyone justice in 90 minutes. For instance, the story of how Terry Nation and Ray Cusick created the Daleks is almost a film all on its own.

"Jeff Rawle plays Mervyn Pinfield, who was the associate producer, and his character sort of absorbs several others including Donald Wilson and the brilliant David Whitaker - the first script editor - whose contribution was immeasurable.

HE found it extraordinary being on set with the 1960s brought to life through the costumes, hair and make-up and the sets. Seeing the original Tardis recreated "took my breath away and everyone who came to the set had the same reaction'" he says.

"It was frequently quite uncanny. We used some of the original Marconi cameras and, on the black and white monitors, seeing David, Jemma, Jamie and Claudia was like looking back through time.

Spooky and very moving.

"In this 50th anniversary year, I hope fans will enjoy and be thrilled by it and all the kisses to the past it's laden with.

"But my greatest wish is that it appeals to people who know very little or nothing about Doctor Who and see the struggle of talented people (almost) accidentally creating a legend."

Illustration

Caption: David Bradley and Claudia Grant recreate the early days of Doctor Who, with inset, writer Mark Gatiss, top, and William Hartnell

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