As he stars as the first Time Lord, York actor David Bradley talks to Chris Titley about his journey from Burton Stone Lane to Gallifrey
David Bradley didn’t see the first episode of Doctor Who. When it went out on Saturday, November 23, 1963, like so many others he was glued to another channel watching coverage of the aftermath of the John F Kennedy assassination.
Born 12 days before German bombers destroyed much of York in the April 1942 Baedeker raids, David was 21 when BBC Television’s new teatime sci-fi show was broadcast.
Back then he was still a factory worker in York, and the thought of becoming an actor – let alone playing the lead role in a drama celebrating that first Doctor Who episode on its 50th anniversary – never entered his mind.
Tonight, Thursday, November 21, David stars as William Hartnell, the first Doctor, in BBC Two’s An Adventure In Space And Time. Penned by Who scriptwriter Mark Gatiss it dramatises the moment when a young producer, Verity Lambert, and seasoned head of drama Sydney Newman, brought in a veteran actor to create an iconic TV character.
Lambert had seen Hartnell in the Richard Harris film This Sporting Life, David explains. “She thought he was a terrific character actor, as indeed he was.
“I’ve admired his work for years. I’ve seen him in one or two films. He was always one of those terrific supporting actors who never played the lead.
“When we first see him he’s frustrated at the lack of interesting parts being offered because he was fed up of just playing authority figures and army sergeant majors.
“When Doctor Who came along it just opened up a new world for him. He could be funny and curious and whimsical and unpleasant if he needed to be. It was such a release for him to play something with a bit of comedy in it, and he became a hero to millions of young people.”
Like Hartnell, David has played many an unsympathetic character over the years – think Filch in the Harry Potter movies, or Walder Frey in Game Of Thrones. Does he feel there are parallels between his career and Hartnell’s?
“Not all the characters I play are on the side of the angels, it has to be said,” David says. “I consider myself fortunate in having a lot of variety of work whether it’s on stage or on film, and the parts have been rich and varied.
“Thankfully I haven’t had his frustration at not getting the right parts and feeling under appreciated, or the fact that he initially felt he was taking a backward step by doing something for children in Doctor Who.
“I’ve had the experience of doing Harry Potter of course, which is for all ages really, but a lot of children write to me and stop me in the street with their parents and have a chat.
“In that sense, the fact that we, slightly later in life, got a younger audience… but there the resemblance ends. We’re two very different personalities. There were times when he was a glass half empty fella and I’ve always been the opposite.”
This isn’t David’s first encounter with the Doctor. “I played the lead baddie in one a couple of years ago called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.
“An absolute villain called Solomon who was blown up. I thought, well, that’s it, that’s my Doctor Who experience. Then this Mark Gatiss script turned up.”
Growing up in York
David isn’t one of those actors who caught the bug having appeared in school shows. He went to “a Catholic school, St George’s Secondary Modern. We never did plays. If I’d said to my careers officer I wanted to be an actor, I’d probably have had a kick up the backside.”
A member of the school choir, his first public performance at the annual St Patrick’s Concert was far from auspicious. “The first time I appeared on stage it was at the Rialto Cinema. I had to walk on stage and I fainted in the wings, probably with being in front of a big audience for the first time in my life, when I was about 14.
“I had to lie down in the wings until it was over – so I didn’t complete my first gig.”
The family home was on Burton Stone Lane, and after leaving school he joined the optical instruments maker Cooke, Troughton And Sims. He worked there for eight years, including a five-year apprenticeship.
So when did his acting talent emerge? “I didn’t get into it until I joined York Boys’ Club in Layerthorpe in York, and later Rowntree Youth Club. And Clive Hailstone there put on these musicals, South Pacific and West Side Story.
“That was great. He was quite inspiring and very good at getting young people fired up, dancing and singing.”
Later he joined the Settlement Players, playing roles in Shakespeare and Chekov for the first time, before a life-changing move to the York Co-operative Players, run by Edward Taylor “who did lots of interesting plays like Pinter and stuff I had never experienced before.
“He’s the one who encouraged me to go to drama school, and helped me with my audition speeches.”
Wasn’t it a risky decision, to jack in a secure job in York for the unstable world of showbusiness? “One or two of my mates said, ‘You’re taking a chance aren’t you, you’ve got a regular job here, you know when your holidays are going to be, a fortnight every August. And you can buy a house on a certain estate for so much’ – my future was mapped out.
“But I didn’t think that was for me. Because I used to get up at works dinner and dances and do a few comedy sketches occasionally, I had the itch – if you’ll pardon the expression – and by the time I’d got into drama school I’d already failed three auditions.
“If it hadn’t been for Edward Taylor at the Co-op I’d have probably packed up after the first couple of failures, but he said, ‘Come on, let’s have another go!’”
Star of stage and screen
David won a place at RADA, the pretigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “To go down to London in 1966, the year England won the World Cup and it was all rock’n’roll on the juke boxes – it was a great time to be in London.”
He enjoyed many notable theatrical successes with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the National Theatre and returning home to play Christ in the 1976 production of the York Mystery Plays.
Then in 1996 came his small screen big break, starring alongside a future Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, in hit drama Our Friends In The North.
“That was the biggest part I’d ever done on TV and it opened up a lot of opportunities for me on screen as well as a lot of other actors in it, like Daniel Craig, Mark Strong, Gina McKee – it was their first big TV and it was my first big one.”
Since then he’s hardly been off our screens, taking major roles in everything from Dickens to the Harry Potter movies to a show stealing performance in this year’s crime thriller hit Broadchurch.
But he regularly makes the trip from his Stratford-upon-Avon home to York. “I’ve got family in Acomb, my sister, her husband and their kids. The streets are all the same, a lot of the pubs are the same.
“Sometimes you feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, wandering around looking at faces of people you might have had a drink with, or someone you may have known from the factory.
“I feel privileged to have come from York. I used to think every town was like York, then you come down to London and see other cities and you think, actually it was a real treat to be brought up in a place like that, with all the history.
“Every time I come home I see the daffodils on the Bar Walls and it’s always been a very emotional place to come back to because there are so many memories.”
David was waiting to confirm another major role in an international production when we spoke. But it will need to go some to beat his part as William Hartnell in An Adventure In Space And Time.
“It’s a dream part. It’s my favourite thing on screen so far. Maybe it’s because it’s the most recent. But it’s certainly one I enjoy more than anything I can remember.”
- An Adventure In Space And Time is on BBC2 on Thursday, November 21 at 9pm
- See also Is this York’s biggest Doctor Who fan?
- Read more TV stories here