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Hartnell, William Henryfree

  • Robert Sharp

William Henry Hartnell (1908–1975)

by Harry Todd, 1964 [with two extra-terrestrials during filming for Doctor Who]

Hartnell, William Henry (1908–1975), actor, was born at 24 Regent Square, St Pancras, London, on 8 January 1908, the son of Lucy Hartnell of that address, a commercial clerk, and an unnamed father. He was enrolled at the Italia Conti Stage School with the assistance of his unofficial guardian, Hugh Blaker. Conti herself had been a member of the repertory company of actor–manager Sir Frank Benson and Hartnell followed in her footsteps, joining in 1924. Billy Hartnell, as he was known at this time, could often appear in eight plays in a single week, especially those of Shakespeare, for the production of which the Benson company was well known. He was also keen to be offered comedy roles so he could try to emulate his hero, Charlie Chaplin.

In 1928 Hartnell appeared in a romantic comedy by R. N. Stephens and E. Lyall Swete, Miss Elizabeth's Prisoner, with an actress called Heather McIntyre (d. 1984) of Chelsea. She was born Amy Heather Miriam Armstrong McIntyre in 1906 or 1907, the daughter of Thomas McIntyre, a company director, and was later a playwright. They married on 9 May 1929 at the Chelsea register office; they had one daughter.

Hartnell made his first appearance on the London stage in 1932 but his first feature film, School for Scandal, was in 1930. Still appearing as Billy Hartnell (until the mid-1940s), he was the star of a handful of films in the 1930s (Follow the Lady and I'm an Explosive, 1933; Seeing is Believing and Swinging the Lead, 1934; Nothing Like Publicity, 1936). Such films, though, were often made very quickly and with cheap production values. After the outbreak of war Hartnell was drafted into the tank corps. He was invalided out after eighteen months after suffering a nervous breakdown. Returning to acting he had his first major success as Sergeant Fletcher in Carol Reed's film tribute to the British army, The Way Ahead (1944); the role made him a leading actor. In 1940 he had toured, and appeared in the West End, with Richard Attenborough in the play of Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock. In 1947 they were reunited in John Boulting's screen version, Hartnell playing Dallow. His theatrical appearances became much less frequent after the war, but he did star in the West End again in 1950 in Hugh Hastings's long-running comedy-drama, Seagulls over Sorrento.

In films Hartnell alternated starring roles in lesser films (Murder in Reverse, 1945; Appointment with Crime, 1946; Temptation Harbour, 1947; Date with Disaster, 1957; On the Run, 1958) with leading roles in better films (Odd Man Out, 1947; Now Barabbas was a Robber, 1949; The Dark Man, 1951; Yangtse Incident, 1957; The Mouse that Roared, 1959) and featured roles in major films (The Magic Box, 1951; The Pickwick Papers, 1952; Private's Progress, 1956; Hell Drivers, 1957; Shake Hands with the Devil, 1959; Heavens Above, 1963). In 1957–8 he appeared on television as Sergeant-Major Bullimore, an unpopular, aggressive character, in the series The Army Game. He left the series to make perhaps his best-known film, Carry on Sergeant, the first in the famed series of British comedies. In perhaps a third of his films Hartnell played figures of authority, often in the police force or the services, but here, as Sergeant Grimshawe, he was able also to display a softer side to his usual harsher character. Despite beginning to feel typecast in what he referred to as 'bastard roles', he returned to The Army Game for a further season in 1960–61.

One of Hartnell's best film roles was one of his last, as the old rugby league talent scout, Johnson, in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), written by David Storey. As a result of this role in the same year he was offered the lead in Doctor Who, a new BBC television series. His Doctor was a quirky, even irascible, time-traveller, with long white hair and eccentric clothes, who travelled the universe in a time machine which was not only bigger inside than out but took the form of an everyday blue police telephone box. Although the series included the head of drama at BBC television, Sydney Newman, as one of its devisers, some other BBC executives had little confidence in its future, but Hartnell was convinced it would be hugely successful and, thanks largely to him, it was. He played the part for three years (1963–6) in 134 episodes; at one point the viewing audience numbered over twelve million. Seeing the role as 'manna from heaven' after playing so many tough army types, he sought to bring out the element of magic in the Doctor. In so doing he became a national celebrity and a hero to thousands of children, and attracted a huge personal fan mail, not just from them but from adults too. It was a great disappointment for him to have to leave the series owing to a combination of poor health (he suffered from arteriosclerosis) and disputes with the new producer. That he went straight into touring with the pantomine Puss in Boots suggests that the latter reason was predominant.

Despite continuing ill health, occasional television appearances punctuated the next few years for Hartnell. He even returned to the stage in 1968 (in Brother and Sister); but the roles he could now manage were few and he made his last major television appearance in 1970. Since leaving Doctor Who he had become known for playing that one role, despite his theatre background and over sixty film appearances, so it was perhaps fitting that he reprised it in his final appearance when he managed to record a few scenes for a tenth anniversary episode featuring the other two Doctors to that date. He had retired to Marden in Kent but his health was now in serious decline and his wife became his full-time nurse. He was admitted to Linton Hospital, Coxheath, near Maidstone, for a short time in August 1974 and in December was admitted permanently. Following a series of strokes he died there on 23 April 1975. He was survived by his wife, who died in December 1984, and his daughter.


  • The Times (25 April 1975), 18g
  • J. Carney, ‘Who's there?’ (1996) [a biography by his granddaughter]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • Celestial Toyroom (Feb 1985)



  • BFINA, performance footage


  • photographs, 1944–64, Hult. Arch.
  • H. Todd, photograph, 1964, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]