TV Reviews

The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years – Behind The Scenes – DVD Review

As television programmes go, Doctor Who probably has to be one of the most well documented. Reams of books and magazine articles have been produced over the years, with deep dives into all aspects of the show’s production, from its genesis and inception, all the way through to its cancellation and eventual rebirth.

Although new facts still turn up periodically, it would seem the original era of the show – running from 1963 to 1989 – has been extensively researched by fans and writers. With the advent of DVD and then Blu-ray, the opportunity came for documentaries, featurettes and commentary tracks to be put together, shedding yet more light on the initial 26-year run; however, with a show which started nearly six decades ago, there are fewer cast and crew members remaining with each passing year.

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Thank goodness, then, for Reeltime Pictures, so diligently capturing contributions from key players on both sides of the camera across Doctor Who’s history, through the Myth Makers series of interviews since the 1980s. As there are so many important figures from the programme who are now regrettably no longer with us, it really is a blessing Reeltime managed to capture so much unique and valuable material we would otherwise not have, covering all periods from the very beginning, right up to date.

In the latest entry in the The Doctors interview compilation series of DVDs, Reeltime brings together a selection of Myth Makers titles, going all the way back to the very start of it all, when William Hartnell graced our screens between 1963 and 1966, first bringing the character to life in the nation’s living rooms on Saturday evenings, and giving rise to what is now a British institution.

Mark Gatiss’ 2013 docudrama, An Adventure In Space And Time, gave us a glimpse at some of the troubles which had beset Doctor Who in its first three years, from its creation through to the departure of its leading man due to ill health. In 90 minutes, only so much ground could be covered, but it hinted at a much bigger story, one for which sadly so many people who had been involved are now no longer around to be able to tell us about their parts in it, leaving some rather conspicuous gaps in extras on the official releases.

The Doctors series manages to fill in so many of the blanks, with The William Hartnell Years serving up a cornucopia of delights, delivering a mixture of actors and production team members, many of whom have now since departed. As such, this release in particular is an invaluable resource, offering a glimpse at some truly remarkable footage, some of which is apparently the only known on-camera interview material of some of the subjects talking about their time spent working on Doctor Who.

The joint focus of An Adventure In Space And Time’s story were the original producer, Verity Lambert, and director of the first story, Waris Hussein; it seems fitting both of them are featured here, giving us in their own words a look at just what it was like back in the very earliest days of Doctor Who. Lambert – who passed away in November 2007, just a day before the show’s 44th anniversary – was always such good value in all her interviews, and this one is no exception; the only real shame is that with such a stellar career, most of the chat – understandably – centres around Who.

Hussein’s interview offers a fascinating insight into a time when most TV cast and crew fell firmly into WASP territory, so as an immigrant who hailed from India, his appearance in the industry came to challenge the status quo. Like Lambert, Hussein went on to forge a path for himself outside the strict confines of Auntie Beeb’s apron (and, not to mention, purse) strings, and he makes for such a warm and engaging subject that even an hour spent in his company feels like not nearly enough.

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Script Editor Donald Tosh – who had long since left working in TV by the time of his 1999 interview – happened to be the last surviving holder of that post from the Hartnell era, and is not someone whose contributions to the series are talked of to any great degree. Tosh comes across as mischievous, with a very dry sense of humour, and one or two of his hilariously scurrilous anecdotes are worth the price of the DVD on their own. In fact, one cannot help but be left feeling that it is such a genuine shame Tosh left us quite recently, as he would be a real boon to the official BBC Blu-rays.

The second disc brings us something quite remarkable, with an interview panel from a 1986 Doctor Who convention that featured Lambert’s successor as producer, John Wiles; script editor and writer Dennis Spooner; and one-time writer Paul Erickson. Such is their true rarity value, to have any of them on camera would be quite exceptional, but all three of them together is phenomenal. Theirs was a difficult transitional period for the show, and their behind-the-scenes tales are indispensable. This is a standout gem on a DVD set which is already filled with so many other highlights.

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Composer Tristram Cary – whose work on Who dates back to the very first Dalek story – was a pioneer in electronic music and musique concrète, and his interview does provide a very balanced career overview, placing Doctor Who into context in his overall catalogue of musical output. Rounding things out rather nicely is a collection of shorter interviews with a number of supporting artistes, whose efforts tend to largely go unsung; each of them brings something extra to this set, and you can tell they adore their association with the show, even if some seem bemused anyone would be interested in a bit part job they did decades earlier.

With The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years – Behind The Scenes, Reeltime Pictures have excelled themselves, and the two-disc set is a real triumph. Fans of the programme will be missing out on an absolute must-have if they should fail to snap this up, and the bar has been set exceptionally high for the rest of The Doctors range after this.

The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years – Behind The Scenes is out now from Reeltime Pictures.

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