TV review: Our David made the perfect Doctor Who

David Bradley was perfect as the grumpy first doctor William Hartnell. Photograph: BBC
29 Nov 2013 @ 7.21 am
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David Bradley was perfect as the grumpy first doctor William Hartnell. Photograph: BBC
David Bradley was perfect as the grumpy first doctor William Hartnell. Photograph: BBC

Review: An Adventure In Space And Time (BBC2)

The BBC loves an anniversary. When the corporation celebrated its own 50th birthday in 1972, one wag suggested that it would be like a drunk inheriting a brewery.

Last week’s special landmark was the golden anniversary of the first Doctor Who programme, broadcast on November 23, 1963. As ever, the Beeb rose magnificently to the occasion, bringing out the bunting amid much merry-making at Broadcasting House.

The highlight was An Adventure In Space And Time, a feature-length drama about the show’s genesis and the role of William Hartnell, the original Doctor. Hartnell’s career had pretty much gone bung since his days as a villain in such films as Brighton Rock.

My father recalled, in the late 1950s, booking tickets to see a play in which Hartnell was appearing at the old ABC television studios in Didsbury, Manchester. It proved an unnecessary precaution as there were only a dozen people in the audience.

Not an easy man to like (Hartnell I mean, not my dad) he described himself in An Adventure In Space And Time as “a legitimate character actor of the stage and film.” “This is variety,” he added, dismissing the idea of joining a children’s science-fiction show.

The clever way in which Verity Lambert, played engagingly by Jessica Raine, won him round was just one of many delights in a sure-footed show with a witty script by Mark Gatiss. “Anyone know how to make it go?” says one studio man when the Tardis controls fail to light up and make the correct time-travel noises.

It took Lambert and her team a fair while, sifting through their files and photos of actors, to come up with the right man to play the doctor.

It’s safe to assume that less time was spent recently coming up with York actor David Bradley (read our interview with David here). He was simply perfect in Space And Time. Not many actors can do irascible and vulnerable at the same time.

Back in 1963, Verity Lambert had much to prove. This was her first big break, to the horror of all the middle-aged men in the studio. Failure to produce a winning show would have ended her career hopes and dealt her sex in general a blow. “A woman? We tried one of those once and it was a disaster,” being the way things worked back then.

Of course, pretty much the same thing applies to male non-Caucasians as Indian-born director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), who can’t get served at the bar, understands all too well.

Everything was spot-on (well, maybe the brief appearance of Matt Smith when Hartnell imagines the future was a trifle twee) from the period detail to the performances.

And we had two great stories – the difficulty getting the show up and running, alongside the rise and fall of its star as he becomes a big name again (while rediscovering some humanity and learning to love his granddaughter) before he is finally forced to quit as his mental faculties start to fail him.

I was wearing my scratchy Cub’s uniform but forgot all my troubles as I learned about the fourth-dimensional Tardis interior

The BBC does have good form for this kind of programme. A few years ago, the equally charming and poignant The Road To Coronation Street, about the conception and launch of the once-great soap opera (with Jessie Wallace from EastEnders showing that she would have made a far superior Elsie Tanner to Pat Phoenix) must have left programme commissioners at ITV sick that they’d missed a trick.

As I’ve said in this column, I am not a Doctor Who fan but I did love those early programmes. On the evening of November 23, 1963, I was glum because Manchester City had lost 3-1 at Newcastle.

I was wearing my scratchy Cub’s uniform but forgot all my troubles as I learned about the fourth-dimensional Tardis interior and saw the radiation thing going up to high.

As for the Daleks, turning the black and white screen to negative in subsequent episodes with their heartless “extermination and no questions asked” policy, that was as scary as it could get.

An Adventure In Space And Time brought it all back. It was wonderful TV nostalgia.