Doctor Who 50th Anniversary: David Bradley on A Journey Through Space And Time

Tonight, as part of the “Doctor Who” 50th Anniversay, BBC America will broadcast A Journey Through Space and Time, a TV movie about the making of “Doctor Who” back in the ’60s.

David Bradley plays William Hartnell, the first actor to play the Doctor. Some “Doctor Who” fans may know that Hartnell was not thrilled with the show that would go on for some 50 years. At the BBC’s party for the Television Critics Association, we got to sit down with Bradley to talk about his experience with “Doctor Who” in the new film. 

CraveOnline: Over the years, have you had opportunities to be on “Doctor Who?”
David Bradley: Not until a couple years ago. Chris Chibnall who wrote “Broadchurch” as well, he wrote an episode called “Dinosaur from a Spaceship” with Matt Smith. I played Solomon. So that was my first actual “Doctor Who.”
But never in the early eras?
No, no, but I remember the First Doctor. That was when I started watching it. I remember William Hartnell a lot and here we are. 
Were you making two movies in one, really? You’re filming the first episode of “Doctor Who,” but also the story behind the scenes.
Yes, yes, I suppose when we recreated it as accurately as we could, the first episode. We had the benefit of using the old original cabinet, and in between every take, Terry [McDonough] the director would look at the computer and say, “Oh, on that line he moves towards the console, and the camera swings around to the left” or whatever. So all our moves and the camera moves were exactly as they were in the original. Then of course you get his life outside, which is the wonderful duality of the thing. We get to know him hopefully. It was that kind of behind the scenes and in front of the camera thing about it which is magic.
Was working with the 50-year-old cameras very different than what you’re used to on a set now?
Oh, yes, yes. Mind you, I remember working with those cameras when I first started and how clunky they were. When you realize the conditions they were working in, I was even more admiring of not only Hartnell, but the rest of the cast because they were only allowed four tape stocks within one episode, and that was usually used for a change of scene, so all those long scenes in the TARDIS that seemed to go on for ages, that all had to be one take. 
There are occasions, particularly later on in the “Doctor Who” career where Hartnell flubbed his lines a lot and they’d keep the tape running and it ends up in the episode because they can’t stop the tape. I think eventually, he incorporated it into his character to make him more bumbling and forgetful, but he hated it because it meant he couldn’t keep to the professional standards that he demanded of himself and others. He was always very strict and critical of others if they weren’t totally professional about it. I suppose when that started to happen to him, it must’ve hurt him quite a lot. It meant he was losing it or something, so it was quite a sad end to his career because he didn’t do very much after that. 
Ill health overtook him eventually so that was his last great swan song in a sense because up ‘til then he had a very good career in theater and film and he got great reviews for at least three of his films, The Way Ahead, This Sporting Life and Brighton Rock. I think he thought his career was going to take an upward trajectory after that because he had so much good feedback in those films. Then when this thing “Doctor Who” comes along, he saw a couple of young kids, Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein and thought, “Well, it’s a project by kids, for kids. What am I doing here? I’m a serious actor in stage and film.” 
He became so well known in the role, was he very different in the beginning of it than we came to know him in the years he was in the series?
Yes, yes. I think he grew incompetent with it and I think he started to realize the limitless possibilities for having a bit of fun and being that wacky, eccentric character with a lot of comedy that he found in it. I think that’s why it appealed. If he’d carried on doing it as a grumpy old Doctor, as he was in the very first pilot, the one they scrapped – and I’ve seen that. It’s quite different than his performance in the final first episode – I don’t think it would have captured people’s imagination so much if he’d been just a grumpy old man. 
Did you recreate any of those 10 minute long takes, and did you have to do it with all the mistakes he actually made?
Yes, yes, we put the mistakes in and we had him more than once just losing it and forgetting the lines and getting irritable. I think the writer was very brave. He didn’t try to sentimentalize it or try to make him a flawless human being or anything. He had his problems and his flaws. He was quite unpleasant if he got angry about something, but I think a lot of that was caused by his upbringing and his childhood. You could see he was working out quite a lot from a difficult childhood.
Would you break up those takes into one minute segments, or do the straight 10 minutes like he did back in the day?
There might’ve been one point where we did one long take. I can’t remember if it was 10 minutes or what it was. I think we probably broke it up a lot.
How did you like playing Basil in The World’s End?
Oh, it was great. I loved him. When Edgar Wright asked me to play it, they sent the script and they said, “The character’s called Basil.” I said, “I don’t need to read it. I know it’s funny” because I just love the name Basil. So I just said yes and then I read it.