Billy’s Birthday

A belated tribute to the first Doctor of Doctor Who, William Hartnell. Had he lived, this fine actor would would have been 100 on Tuesday, 8th January.

Born in London on 8th January 1908, Hartnell began acting professionally in 1924 in the theatre. Invalided out of the Tank Corps during the Second World War after 18 months suffering a nervous breakdown, he returned to acting, playing perhaps his first memorable role, Sergeant Ned Fletcher, in the film The Way Ahead in 1944. His move from comic to serious roles proved a success, with Hartnell playing mainly policemen, soldiers and thugs in his career (earning high praise for his role as the complex Dallow in Brighton Rock).

He topped the bill in the first Carry On film in 1958, Carry On Sergeant, playing Sergeant Grimshaw, also playing another army character, Sergeant Major Percy Bullimore, in his first TV role in The Army Game from 1957–1961 (replacing Bill Fraser, who played Sergeant Major Snudge in earlier episodes of the series).

But it is of course his work as the first Doctor Who for which he is best remembered, making the irascible grandfather figure his own between the show’s debut in 1963 in An Unearthly Child and his final regular appearance in The Tenth Planet, pitted against the Cybermen, in 1966.

(Sadly, the fourth episode of this first appearance by the cybernetic nasties remains missing believed wiped but is available in full on audio. Other victims of this short sighted practice by the BBC back then include live commentary by Patrick Moore and James Burke in the BBC studio on the historic day of the first Moon landing).

Hartnell, already ill when he reprised his First Doctor role for The Three Doctors in the 1970s, died 23 April 1975, just a couple of years before organised fandom began to pay tribute to the contributors to the Doctor Who show. It would be his wife and grandson who would represent him at the first Doctor Who fan convention at Imperial College London, delighted by tributes to the actor.

• There’s a “nexus” of William Hartnell links at

Categories: Doctor Who

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading