This ended up essay long (As it normally does when we get writing stuff) so it’s under a cut.
Acting on Doctor Who at this time was an entirely different job and required an entirely different set of skills and its own style that just is not the same as today. Today on Doctor Who the actors spend nine months filming in Cardiff. In the Hartnell era, the actors worked on Doctor Who about 48 weeks of the year and mainly in the studio creating a new episode every week which would make up a serial of normally 4-6 episodes. There were of course breaks, mainly at Christmas or during the summer. But too many breaks meant that the time between recording a serial and its own broadcast could fall as low as two weeks. We think it was during the Romans that episode four was only being rehearsed whilst episode one had already aired on TV. Think of the stress of that!
The actors would have got their script, and on Monday morning they’d have a read through (much as they do today). They would then rehearse the episode in a local hall (The transport assembly rooms etc) from Monday to Thursday. They were normally off the script for the 25 min episode by Tuesday and working out with the director, the blocking and movement. They would not be able to rehearse much with any set or people in costume. They often had no Daleks to work with until technical runs. Occasionally on Wednesday’s the actors were sometimes released (Not all at once because they needed that rehearsal time) to do publicity/press stuff or to do film studio stuff for future serials if required. On Friday they would go to the studios and rehearse with the sets for the first time. They would solve any problems relating to the pacing and technical stuff. Sometimes they realised that they were going to be under time on the episode and would have to arrange to pad out the last few minutes as there was no time to re-write scenes to add dialogue. This is evident at the end of the Daleks and the Web Planet in which the actors extend the goodbye scenes with lots of repeated farewell dialogue. They would have a technical run with the cameras, lighting, and such to make sure everything was ready for the evening recording. After supper the team would have ‘line-up’ which meant there was a sudden check of all the equipment and sound checks and camera checks. At 8.30 they would hear the theme music (It was played into the studio and recorded for the episode) and get ready for the show to start. From herein there would only be up to about five scheduled breaks and they knew they could not go wrong.
They did this for the whole year. They were there all week and were unable to do other work whilst dedicated to Doctor Who. The actors were used to this kind of work however as most actors of this time were theatre trained and worked in repertory theatre. That kind of theatre meant that actors worked in theatre companies that performed different shows every week, playing hundreds of characters over their time there. Each week, actors were used to new plays, sets, and characters. Most of the actors were also RP (Received pronunciation) and had learnt to speak in the required way for which was then the ‘norm’ for television or certain areas of theatre. For example William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are both from Birmingham and used to speak personally to each other in their ‘Brummie’ accents.
Working on TV at this time made actors wary. There was still a stigma attached to it and snobbery from the world of theatre, especially towards science fiction children’s shows! Being in Doctor Who in these days didn’t guarantee you success and fame as it does now. Sure they got fan-mail and people loved them but many of the actors ended up typecast or returning to theatre after their time on the programme. They were often only flooded with offers for similar roles rather than anything better and new. Some actors refused to star in Doctor Who or direct it for fear it was ‘beneath them’. But our fave actors luckily embraced the changing world of Television and mainly enjoyed their time on the programme.
What people forget when they insult these actors is that they had a lot to deal with. They had lines to learn quicker, the stress of all year round filming. The ‘as live’ environment could be a high pressure situation and really you had to be an excellent and hard-working actor to survive in that type of environment. In general, it’s easier to be a worse actor today because editing, flashy CGI and quick cuts can hide a poorer actor. Whereas in the 60’s, any flaws were there to see. If they weren’t on their game, it was noticeable. And if they went wrong they had to do whatever they could to keep going.
People also criticise things such as unrealistic dialogue that may sound like you’re explaining what something looks like or when Ian says ‘Look at that fantastic building!”. Dialogue like that was used because realistically people had far smaller television screens and less quality pictures, and the model or picture may not have been as grand as they would have liked. The director won’t get to see what it’d be like in advance so we need Ian’s enthusiastic cry that it is a fantastic building so we believe it is fantastic even if it looks really small. And the times where they suddenly repeat themselves about something that occurred earlier, this is often brought up. But it was essential to remind the viewers about something that happened three weeks ago. Serials were not marathoned in the 60’s and when an episode was viewed, the watcher was never going to see it again and may forget details three weeks later. So sometimes actors can seem over the top and enthusiastic, but this is the style, it is theatrical, it is natural and raw and full of hints and clues that constantly remind the audience and educate them.
We have heard actors of this era referred to as ‘abysmal’ and that makes us so angry. They were the finest actors because they worked so hard just for the love of it. They had established themselves as actors before Doctor Who in various areas of theatre, film, and television and they were suddenly thrown into this kind of environment with no idea how long this job would last. Sometimes we feel that in New Who the actors have a lot to work with in terms of character (meetings, read throughs, planning) whereas much of the character of a 1960’s companion was down to the actor to flesh out. Moffat creates his characters, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill created theirs in many ways (we’ll talk about this more when we talk about writing,) and the actors in the 60’s were phenomenal. They were subtle and emotional, deep and real. Every cough, splutter, and pause was there. Every expression seen in close up was real and the first take. Despite low budget they could convince anyone that they were in an alien world and running down different corridors. They always treated it seriously and never talked down to children. They believed in the programme and so in turn did the audience of millions who tuned into Doctor Who every Saturday. The first era was one of the eras with the highest ratings. British TV in the 60’s and 70’s was the golden age as Doctor Who led the way from the stuffy 50’s style into the changing culture of the 60’s. Doctor Who and its actors and crew were moving forward all the time. To call their wonderful acting ‘abysmal’ is insulting to these wonderful, brilliant people.