Time for a chat: An evening with William Russell

William Russell at the Cinema Museum, Kennington, 27 April 2013It’s 27 April. Saturday evening. Dusk. Normally at this time I’d be at home in front of the telly watching Doctor Who. But tonight I have other plans – plans that I can’t record to my V+ box and watch tomorrow. It’s hard to believe, I know, but sometimes real life is worth venturing out for.

So I’ve straddled the train and ridden the Tube to Kennington, south London, for An Evening With William Russell (all caps, you’ll note, for the phrase is a title as well as a descriptor). The much-loved actor is at the Cinema Museum to be interviewed, by Mark Egerton, in front of around 100 fans and admirers about his 60-year career in stage and screen.

Though he’s most famous for his part in Doctor Who between 1963 and 1965 – when he was Ian Chesterton, one of the original three companions to the original Doctor, played by William Hartnell – Russell’s CV is both broad and long, and includes roles in many other highly successful works, including The Great Escape, Superman, The Black Adder and Coronation Street.

Fittingly for a man who’s travelled in space in time (c’mon, he definitely has – don’t ruin it), it’s a three-hour trip to decades and places past. Russell is a thoughtful, careful speaker, often pausing to collect his memories before placing his words down. Rather than seeming guarded, though, his anecdotes possess a candour that’s typical of older generations of actors. And he’s often very funny. When he talks of witnessing Marlon Brando ‘phoning in’ his lines for Superman with the help of teleprompters and a giant idiot board, he paints the absurdity of the situation with gentle ease, and the clip that follows, with Brando as Jor-El, suddenly has a live laughter track.

Mark Egerton and William Russell at the Cinema Museum, Kennington, 27 April 2013Russell spends around 40 minutes talking about Doctor Who, and though most of his recollections are no doubt familiar to anyone with an interest in the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the 1960s series – Doctor Who is, after all, one of the best-documented productions in the history of television – it’s a pleasure to hear them first-hand, especially in the 50th anniversary year.

“It wasn’t ‘another job’ for me,” he says of his time on the show. “I really enjoyed it. And we were actually very serious about it. Bill Hartnell was, I think, a remarkable film actor. And he loved Doctor Who; he really did. He was passionate about it. And so he really set an example for us.

“We all were very, very serious. We might fool around when we were fighting cavemen, or whatever it was that was happening, but we were deadly in earnest when we did Doctor Who, as a group, the four of us. And I enjoyed it enormously.”

His appreciation for the character that Hartnell created is clear when he says: “I thought that Bill had something that no other Doctor Who has had. He was a sort of unexpected character. He could be very angry; he could be suddenly humorous. It’s a quality I like very much in the performance. And certainly for children I think they loved it, and loved him.”

When it came time to leave the series, Russell says that the hardest part was breaking the news to Hartnell.

William Russell at the Cinema Museum, Kennington, 27 April 2013“[It was] about 18 months that I did,” he recalls. “And then you had to extricate yourself from Bill, because he couldn’t understand why you were going to leave. I said I wanted to do a play. And he said: ‘When you’ve got your arse in butter, you don’t want to go away.’”

Unsurprisingly, this unusual turn of phrase has the audience in fits.

“Bill, he couldn’t understand [why I wanted to leave]. He couldn’t understand that at all. But he did love doing it, you see. He really did. Obviously when he got ill it was more difficult, at the end. But he was a remarkable actor.”

Doctor Who was clearly a job that Russell loved – and, through his audio work with Big Finish, still does.

They did take Doctor Who off, the BBC, for quite a while,” he says. “And then it was the demand from all the fans that it should come back, which was in itself extraordinary. Then I was asked to start reading these stories, and I really enjoyed them. I would meet the other actors who’d been involved, and it was to me, more privately in a sense, a very touching thing, because I had always wanted to do sort of BBC plays and things like this, and I never made it.

“In the early days, I used to go and do auditions, and they would sort of test my voice and I’d do the audition. And then they’d write, very politely, and say: ‘You did very well in so-and-so section one, section two, section three, section four…’ But never a job. And now, [Big Finish producer] David Richardson popped up and said: ‘I’d like you to read the stories.’ And I do enjoy that very much indeed.

William Russell at the Cinema Museum, Kennington, 27 April 2013“As you get older, you have less use of your body, in a sense. You can do quite a lot of things, but there are lots of things you can’t do. It’s marvellous for an actor to discover that you can still entertain people with your voice.”

Russell recently returned to TV work, filming a cameo in An Adventure In Space and Time, the BBC drama that Mark Gatiss has written about the origins of the Doctor Who TV series, that’s set to screen this November.

“They brought Carole [Anne Ford] and me into it, to play small parts,” he says. “I was supposed to be Harry. Harry used to stand at the gate as you drove into Television Centre and say: ‘Good morning. Can I see your pass, sir?’

“And you would say something like: ‘Harry, you know it’s me. I’ve been coming into this bloody building for years.’ And I had a little conversation just like that in this film. And it was probably the last time they would use, I was told, the actual circular TV Centre as a BBC thing. They were losing the right to do it. I think they joked about it. You know: ‘If there are any retakes on this, we’ll cost the BBC a fortune.’ (laughs) And there weren’t any retakes, anyway.”

So, five decades after he first stepped into the TARDIS, the 88-year-old actor has come full circle, from an adventure in space and time to An Adventure In Space And Time. Sure, there’s a younger man playing him now – a regeneration, if you will – but, really, everyone knows that there’ll only ever be one William Russell.

As a very wise man once said, you can’t rewrite history. Not one line.

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