The Origin of Doctor Who Part 3

William Hartnell as Doctor Who

The beginning of June 1963, apart from the continuing progressing of the series' format, also saw Rex Tucker turning his attention to other important aspects of the production. These included his approaching composer Tristram Cary with a view to provide the show with both its theme and incidental music. Tucker also took the first tentative steps towards the area of casting by asking his long time actor friend Hugh David, if he would be interested in filling the role of the Doctor. David declined the offer on the grounds of his dislike of the high public profile, which he had gained during a period as a regular cast member of the Granada Television series, Knight Errant. Meanwhile Anthony Coburn had started work on what was expected at the time to be the series' second serial. Coburn's story was to be another four-part adventure which would see the Doctor's ship travelling far back in time to an age of danger, ignorance and savagery. The era would be the Stone Age. The time frame...100,000 BC.

On Tuesday 4th June Donald Wilson sent Newman a detailed synopsis for Bunny Webber's proposed first story, The Giants, with the promise that draft scripts for the first two episodes were expected to be ready by the week's end. By Friday 7th Newman had read the outline and made handwritten annotations, before returning the synopsis to Wilson. His comments in the attached memo were in certain respects less than encouraging, "the four episodes," he noted, "seem extremely thin on incident and character" he then noted that in his considered opinion Webber had: "forgotten that his human beings, even though miniscule (referring to the fact that Webber's storyline called for the central characters to shrink to tiny size) have normal sized emotions."

The memo then went on to note that Webber had employed certain story elements which directly went against the grain of Sydney Newman's philosophy towards science-fiction: "Items involving spiders etc. get us into the B.E.M. (Bug Eyed Monster) school of science-fiction, which, while thrilling, is hardly practicable for live television." Newman then went on to note another facet of the synopsis which displeased him: "In fact what I am afraid irritated me about the synopsis was the fact that it seemed to be conceived without much regard for the fact that this was a live television drama serial. The notion of the police box dwindling before the policeman's eyes until it's one-eighth of an inch in size is patently impossible without spending a tremendous amount of money."

But despite his misgivings about certain elements of Webber's proposed story, in the final analysis Newman still believed the concept had genuine potential, as the following remarks demonstrate: "There are also some very good things in the synopsis, like the invention of the use of the microscope to enable our central characters to communicate with the normal sized people." Newman closed the memo with a strong reminder of everyday practicalities: "I implore you please keep the entire conception within the realms of practical live television." It's interesting to note Newman's constant use of the term 'live television' since from the outset Dr. Who had been planned as a recorded programme. It therefore seems safe to assume that Newman's use of the term was meant in a figurative rather than a literal sense.

Ultimately, however, on the basis of the draft scripts written by Webber for the first two episodes of The Giants, Donald Wilson and Rex Tucker decided to reject the story on the ground that the technically ambitious 'giant' effects would now be impossible to realise. With a clear shortage of time remaining before recording was due to begin, Wilson concluded that Anthony Coburn's prehistoric tale should be promoted from second story to the lead slot in the running order. With this decided Wilson then asked Coburn to adapt his story's opening episode to reflect its new status, while also drawing on Bunny Webber's draft ideas.

Apart from this Wilson also assigned Coburn the added task of creating -in due course- a new four-part second story to replace his now elevated original tale. (This Coburn did. His second story was titled 'The Masters of Luxor' but it was finally dropped in favour of Terry Nation's first Dalek serial -however, that's an entirely different story).

Tuesday 11th saw Donald Wilson going away on leave. Rex Tucker sent Ayton Whitaker a 'blocked-out schedule' for production of the opening serial, beginning with the pre-filming for the pilot episode which was slated to take place in the week commencing July 6th, and continuing until the recording of the final fourth episode either in the week of the 10th August or the week beginning the 17th August, depending on whether or not the pilot episode had been deemed acceptable by Newman for broadcast transmission. Tucker's covering memo noted that he had calculated July 19th as the optimum date for recording the pilot, but if the entire schedule was to be moved "a day or two earlier or (preferably) later" it would not matter.

It was around this time that Head of Drama Design, Richard Levin, sent a memo to Joanna Spicer for the attention of John Mair strongly protesting at the demands that would be placed on his department by the new series. Amongst his grievances were the following:

"So far there are no accepted scripts for the series - at least if there are we have not seen any. The designer for the series - and I have no substitute - does not return from leave until Monday of Week 26 and I am not prepared to let him start designing until there are four accepted scripts in his hands. The first filming cannot take place within four weeks of this." Levin continued for the remainder of the memo in the same harshly critical vein: "I also understand that the series requires extensive model-making and other visual effects. This cannot be undertaken under four week's notice and, unless demands are withdrawn, I estimate the need would be for an additional four effects assistants and 400sq. ft. of additional space."

Levin then closed the memo with the following ominous pronouncement: "To my mind, to embark on a series of this kind and length in these circumstances will undoubtedly put this department in an untenable situation and, as a natural corollary, will throw Scenic Servicing Department for a complete 'burton'. This is the kind of crazy enterprise which both Departments can well do without."

Acting on Levin's concerns, Ayton Whitaker in turn swiftly dispatched a memo to the Assistant Head of Drama Group, Norman Rutherford, -Newman's deputy- due to the fact that by this point both Newman and Donald Wilson were away on leave. In the memo Whitaker recommended that if the fledgling series' previously planned production requirements were unfeasible, as Levin indicated, the Drama Group should consider no further compromise in its efforts to meet the agreed date of 24th August for the first transmission, but should instead "ask for postponement...until such time as we are ready."

But apart from these unforeseen problems, the end of this particular week in the on-going evolution of the new series also saw the timely arrival of yet another member to the growing roster of key creative personnel. Television Centre had become the new home of Dr. Who's newly appointed permanent producer. Newman himself, following the rejection of the job by his original choice, Don Taylor, had appointed the new arrival. As Sydney Newman would later recall the new arrival was exactly the kind of young, go-ahead person he wanted in charge of the series: "When Donald Wilson and I discussed who might take over the responsibility for producing the show I rejected the traditional drama types who did children's serials, and said that I wanted somebody who'd be prepared to break rules in doing the show. Somebody young with a sense of 'today' - the early 'Swinging London' days."

That somebody was a person who had earlier worked with the Canadian as part of his Armchair Theatre staff at ABC. Her name was Verity Lambert. "She had never directed, produced, acted or written drama but, by God, she was a bright, highly intelligent, outspoken production secretary who took no nonsense and never gave any." Newman stated. "I introduced her to Donald Wilson and I don't think he quite liked her at first -She was too good looking, too smart alecky and too commercial television minded. I knew they would hit it off when they got to know one another better. They did." Taking up residence in her new fifth floor office, Room 5014 at Television Centre, Lambert busied herself with becoming acquainted with the progress so far made on her newly inherited series. However, she wasn't thrilled with what she saw. "Had I been there at the point of commissioning I would probably not have chosen that story. I thought it was a very difficult and dangerous one to start with. It's hard to invest reality into people running around with clubs making funny noises." Lambert even, for a time, tried to find a replacement script.

On Monday 24th June the last key member of the production team was appointed in the form of David Whitaker. Having spent six years on the staff of the Script Department, Whitaker had most recently been responsible for Sunday plays, and was already familiar with the background to Dr. Who. As script editor he would now have a major input towards the development of the story and the characters. Whitakers actress wife, June Barry, would remember the work her husband did on the series. "David crafted and shaped Dr. Who." She would claim. "Sydney and Donald evolved the frame, but the myth came from him. He worked harder on the show than anyone else, steering many of the writers he brought into Dr. Who. And he created far more than he is ever given credit for."

By this time Coburn had begun re-crafting the central companion characters for the series. Sue became Suzanne and Cliff was renamed Ian Chesterton. In a memo to Lambert, David Whitaker referred to a rewrite that Coburn had been asked to carry out. "Tony has improved episode one very much -particularly regarding Chesterton. I have discussed the whole business with him and we have agreed he shall push on and finish all four scripts. Tony has inserted some details about Suzanne regarding her own existence. Dr. Who, as you will read, tells that (or hints that) Suzanne has some sort of Royal Blood. This gives Dr. Who and Suzanne good reason to leave their own environment. Of course I think we must discuss this carefully with Tony when we go through the scripts with him." Regarding the character of The Doctor, Whitaker notes "I feel that he should be more like the old professor that Frank Morgan played in The Wizard of Oz, only a little more authentic. Then we can strike some of the charm and humour as well as the mystery, the suspicion and the cunning. Do you agree?"

Around this time Verity Lambert met with Richard Levin and got him to back down from his previous stand and agree that design work could go ahead on the two scripts available, given that no new sets would be required for episodes three and four. However, they were unable to agree the planned production dates and as a result of this the pilot episode would now be shot on Friday 22nd September. Rex Tucker had already begun auditions for the main characters of Susan (as she was now to be called) and Miss McGovern, but given the delay, Tucker would no longer be able to direct The Tribe of the Gum. (Which was Coburn's working title for the story). One of Tucker's last acts was to inform composer Tristram Cary that he would no longer be required to provide the programme's music. Actresses who auditioned for the part of Susan at this time were Maureen Crombie, Anna Palk, Waveney Lee, Heather Fleming, Camilla Hasse and Ann Casteldini. Also considered, but not seen were Anneke Wills and Christa Bergman. For Miss McGovern - Phillida Law, Penelope Lee and Sally Holme were seen. "The only part I advised on," said Rex Tucker "was for the role of Susan. I saw an unknown young Australian actress, whose name I forget, who had only just arrived in the country who I believed would be ideal for the part. I then went on holiday and on my return discovered that both Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert had replaced my initial choice which I thought rather strange."

In an attempt to avoid further confusion over the series characters a writers guide was prepared by Wilson, Webber and Newman, and during the course of this Miss McGovern was renamed Barbara Wright and Susan was now given the name of Susan Foreman. At Coburn's suggestion she was to be The Doctor's granddaughter. Unhappy with Tucker's choices of actors, Lambert then undertook this job herself. Actors considered for the role of The Doctor were Cyril Cusack (Whitaker's suggestion) and Leslie French. Eventually, Lambert decided to approach 55 year-old character actor William Hartnell.

Although he was initially reluctant to take it his agent, (his son-in-law Terry Carney), suggested to Hartnell it might be just the type of role to break him out of the type-casting he (Hartnell) had now come to believe he'd fallen foul to (see William Hartnell's biography elsewhere on this site). He took a copy of the first draft script to Hartnell's home near Mayfield in Sussex and after reading it Hartnell agreed to meet up with Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein who convinced him to take the part.

" son-in-law approached me about playing the part. I hadn't worked for the BBC since steam radio twenty-five years ago and I didn't fancy the idea of returning to state control so late in life. ...The part required some thought, unlike 'The Army Game' and most of the other rubbish I've been associated with in the past. I've not been offered the sort of work I've wanted due to past disagreements I've had with producers and directors over how parts should be played."

The role of Ian Chesterton went to William Russell who was well known for his portrayal of Sir Lancelot in the Sapphire Film series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (the first British series to be made in colour). Jacqueline Hill, an old friend of Lambert's was cast as Barbara Wright and Carole Ann Ford was cast as Susan.

David Whitaker then refined further the writer's guide, taking into account a number of changes. The most significant of these is his description of The Doctors ship. "The ship, when first seen, has the outward appearance of a police box, but the inside reveals an extensive electronic contrivance and comfortable living quarters with occasional bric-a-brac acquired by the Doctor on his travels." By the end of the month Verity Lambert had commissioned Ron Grainer, a top BBC composer who had written the themes for Maigret and Steptoe and Son, to write the theme music for Dr. Who. The next significant step in the programme's development was on August 20th when the first filming for the series opening title sequence commenced. The sequence had been designed by Bernard Lodge of the BBC Graphics Unit and made use of a technique known as howl-around, which involved pointing the camera at a screen displaying its own output and filming the resulting patterns. In September the series regular cast got together for a photo-call at television centre, and the following day (21st), rehearsals began in earnest. On Friday 27th the opening episode, An Unearthly Child, was recorded in Lime Grove Studio D. The total cost was £2,143 3s 3d.

Three days later Sidney Newman viewed the tape of the first recording. As a result of this Newman told Verity Lambert and director Warris Hussein that the pilot was unacceptable for transmission and would therefore have to be remounted. This took place on Friday 18th October. The total cost of the remount was £2, 746.

With the unprecedented remount of the pilot deemed to be a success by the exacting Newman, Dr. Who's first legitimate televised adventure finally became a reality. A reality which not only justified the faith and commitment of all concerned in its creation, but also stands even today as a worthy monument to the skill, creativity and determination of the dedicated group of people who had lovingly nurtured the fledgling series from initial concept to eventual broadcast.

In the slow and not always smooth progression from vague concept to its ultimate status as an immensely important televisual icon, Dr. Who stands as a proud and eminently worthy monument to the too often forgotten and unsung individuals who ushered in the birth of that legend.

Through their combined efforts magic was woven, wonder brought forth and imagination allowed free flight. Through their combined efforts, and the stewardship of those that followed in their footsteps down the decades, a simple Saturday evening serial for all the family grew into a national institution whose motifs have intertwined themselves into the very core of the national consciousness.


Sources of reference:
BBC Archives online at
The Doctor Who Handbook - The First Doctor by Howe-Stammers-Walker published 1994
DWB interview with Sydney Newman by Tim Collins and Gary Leigh - August 1986
Interview with Rex Tucker by Paul R Jackson - Doctor Who Magazine Issue 221 1995
Wikipedia online at
Various Internet sources