Doctor Who at 50: Blue Peter's Peter Purves on travelling in time and space with William Hartnell
PUBLISHED: 11:00 23 November 2013
Fifty years ago tonight, a quirky new programme made its bow − in black and white in those days, of course. It featured an enigmatic and sometimes crotchety time-traveller whose spaceship looked like a police box but was vastly bigger on the inside than the outside. We've since had nearly 800 episodes and Dr Who has gripped the imaginations of several generations. We're celebrating this British TV institution by focusing on some East Anglians whose lives it has touched.
For 12 months in the mid-60s Peter Purves was an intrepid adventurer accompanying the first Doctor on his travels through time and space. On the eve of Doctor Who’s 50th birthday, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him at his Suffolk home to discuss his memories of his time in the Tardis. To those of us of a certain generation Peter Purves will always be synonymous with the Golden Age of Blue Peter.
For more than ten years he shared the sofa with John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and then Lesley Judd. But, a previous generation knew him as space pilot and Dr Who companion Steven Taylor.
Speaking to Peter at his north Suffolk home, it is clear that he retains fond memories of his year on the programme. He says that William Hartnell will always be Doctor Who in his eyes no matter how the programme continues to reinvent itself.
“Bill created the template. He created the basic character which all the actors have added to.”
Peter joined the show in 1965 just as it was preparing to undergo its first major cast changes.
“Carole Ann Ford who played Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter had left a year earlier, but had been replaced by Vicki, another young companion, played by Maureen O’Brien, so that wasn’t such a culture shock but on my first story Ian and Barbara, the two school teachers who came aboard on that very first episode were leaving, were returning home, so it was a very big deal.”
Peter says that his first story was called The Chase and involved the Daleks trying to hunt down the Doctor and his companions.
He was originally cast just to appear in one episode playing a hillbilly called Morton Dill but so impressed producer Verity Lambert that he was invited to return in episode six as space pilot Steven Taylor and become the Doctor’s new companion.
“Originally I was just in small role and ended up playing two parts in the same story. In episode three of The Chase I am visiting the Empire State Building when the Tardis arrives which is pursued by the Daleks in another time machine.
“I had a short five minute scene with the Doctor and then the Daleks and I thought that was that. At the end of the recording the producer Verity Lambert and script editor Dennis Spooner came up to me and said: ‘Peter, that was very nice do you want to join us for a drink?
“I went over to the pub with them and they said: ‘I don’t know if you realise but the current companions William Russell and Jackie Hill are leaving in three weeks, would you be interested in taking over?
“I jumped at it. I was 25 years old and was being offered a leading role in a highly successful television series.
“So I came back in episode six, having grown a beard to disguise the fact that I was the same actor who played Morton Dill and I was thrilled to bits to be part of the series.”
He said that he was very grateful that he got on well with William Hartnell who could prove difficult with people he didn’t like and grew increasingly querulous as the years passed.
“The problem was that he wasn’t well – particularly towards the end of my time on the show. At that time Doctor Who was on practically all year round and it was like weekly rep and we were recording an episode a week.
“It was okay for me. I was young and it came easily but Bill was having problems remembering the lines and that made his cross. He was very much a perfectionist and he was the star and he didn’t like being shown up.
“The problem was that they didn’t do re-takes in those days. If you made a mistake it went out. There was a classic one in The Myth Makers which was about The Trojan War. At one point Bill turns to some people and says very grandly: ‘I am not a dog… a god..’ and that actually was transmitted.
“But, he was very clever and made that doddery nature part of his character to mask an underlying intelligence. It put people off their guard.”
One of Peter’s favourite aspects of the show during that era was the fact that science fiction stories were mixed up with historical tales.
“Originally, Doctor Who was supposed to be educational. It was supposed to teach kids about history and science without them really realising. Like Blue Peter it was supposed to educate through entertainment.”
The original executive producer Sidney Newman had originally laid down an edict stating that there were not to be any, what he described as, ‘bug-eyed monsters’. When the Daleks appeared in the second story he hauled Verity Lambert over the coals as this was a direct violation of his educational directive but when Dalekmania broke out and the ratings went through the roof, he did have the good grace to call her back in and apologise telling her that she obviously understood the show far better than he did.
“The Daleks had an amazing impact. They were a great idea and had really caught the imagination of the public. They were still big news when I joined. I later did a marathon Dalek story – 12 episodes called The Dalek Masterplan – which is sadly now mostly missing.”
But Peter said that he always preferred the historical stories – not only because the BBC did period pieces so well but because the writing was so good.
“All the writing was good on Doctor Who, people forget that, there were some very interesting ideas being knocked about but I always preferred the historical stories because they landed us in the middle of something that really happened.
“My favourite story, of the ones I did, was called The Massacre on St Batholomew’s Eve which was about the slaughter of the French Hugenots in Paris in August 1572.
“It was remarkable stuff because it shone a light on a little known part of history. It was an exceptional story and great for me because I had a very good role in it.
“It turned out that The Doctor was the double of the abbot and so Bill was playing him for a good portion of the story so Steven was at the centre of the action. It was the leading role of the piece.”
He said that one of the joys of being in the series – and one of the reasons for its longevity – was that no-one knew from week to week what was going to happen or where they were going to be.
“It was a wonderful concept. You had this mysterious old man, who had stolen a time machine which he couldn’t control and he would pop up at random places in space and time.
“It was never the same two stories running and that kept things interesting for both the actors and the audience. Every four weeks you started a completely new, highly imaginative story.”
He said that the quality of the writing was something that many people overlooked when talking about the series.
“Those early years were very dialogue-based because visually you didn’t have a lot of opportunity to show an awful lot, so you had to explain it and let the audience do the work – which is what made it good – the power of imagination.
“Although I remember bouncing around on a trampoline with Jean Marsh at Ealing Film Studios for five hours, trying to pretend to be weightless, location filming was rare then.
“I only did five days in all my time on the programme. By Jon Pertwee’s timeit was nearly all being done on location. Today it’s shot a feature film with a budget of millions per episode.
“Although Bill Hartnell was instrumental in the series success, I loved the fact that it was really script-led rather than personality led. I loved it for that. This, in turn, attracted some very high powered guest stars.
“The quality of the writing attracted the best supporting cast that anyone could wish for. That raised the standard of the programme. We had some of the best actors in the country on Doctor Who and they asked to be in it.
“Julian Glover played Richard the Lionheart in one story, Eric Thompson, Emma Thompson’s father was in The Massacre as was Andre Morrell. Francis De Wolfe was in The Myth Makers playing Agamemnon, which also starred Barrie Ingham as Paris and Max Adrian and the great Michael Gough was in The Celestial Toymaker. All tremendous actors.
“I think that it was at that time that actors started to stop frowning upon television. At that time there wasn’t an awful lot of work on television. The majority of work was in the theatre. Proper actors, serious actors tended to look down on television actors as low-life but I think in the mid-60s these film and theatre actors were starting to realise that television did indeed have something to offer.”
He said that with missing episodes continuing to pop up he would love to have the opportunity to revisit some of his old stories.
“I did 46 episodes and only 17 now exist. I would love for some of my old stories to re-emerge. I would love to see them. Remember we were recording them very close to transmission and very often I would be out on a Saturday night and I wouldn’t get to see them. So I have never seen the majority of my stories. If only one could be returned I would love to see The Massacre.”
Although, he’s delighted that Dr Who has reached its half century, he admits that, for him, the series has lost a little of its magic. They element of mystery has vanished as too much as been explained over the years. He misses the historical elements of the storytelling mix and the unpredictability of the stories themselves.
Peter left the series after a year to be followed a few stories later by Hartnell himself. “I had four weeks notice. I was sad because I had really enjoyed my time on the show. I would have happily done another year. Bill was livid because he regarded us as a team.”
Peter said that they had no idea that big changes were on the way for the series, changes, which in retrospect would ensure the series would celebrate its 50th anniversary this week.
“I had no idea he was going and neither did he. He thought that the show couldn’t show without him and I think a lot of people at the time agreed with him. He was the Doctor and then this regeneration idea came along. It was a very brave decision at the time because no-one knew if the audience would accept another actor as The Doctor.
“The situation was forced onto them because Bill wasn’t very well. He’d had time off sick. He was having trouble learning his lines and this made him bad tempered because he was a perfectionist and he wanted to get it right.”
Peter went on to present Blue Peter and William Hartnell’s Doctor collapsed on the floor of the TARDIS after his first encounter with the Cyberman and transformed into Patrick Troughton.
Doctor Who had just ensured its long term survival. The series now not only changed from story to story it could also be refreshed every three or four years with a brand new Doctor.
For Peter he has just recently returned to the part of Steven Taylor in a series of audio plays working opposite his old co-stars like Jean Marsh and Maureen O’Brien. “It’s like having your own time machine. These audio plays are very well done and they do capture that magic of the time. Our voices haven’t changed so we sound as we did then and again they have got some very imaginative, very good writers and that’s half the battle.”