Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A Classic Doctor Who companion at The Cinema Museum

How many long-running TV shows genuinely merit the iconic status they've attained over the years? One show that it would be hard to dispute when it comes to such a question has to be the BBC's evergreen science fiction drama Doctor Who, about an alien who is referred to as 'The Doctor', travelling through time and space in a time machine called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) and accompanied along the way by an ever-growing list of companions. 

The show ran from 1963 to 1989, returned for a one-off movie in 1996 and then was relaunched in 2005 and is now in the 9th year of its new existence and enjoying greater success than ever. Fans of the show are referred to as 'Whovians' and I guess I would consider myself amongst the many. One of the secrets of the shows longevity is in the fact that the main character, i.e. The Doctor, has the ability to 'regenerate' when he is mortally wounded, every cell in his body reconstructed in the process. However, this results in his entire appearance and personality changing, allowing new actors to take on the role and breathe new life into the character.

The first episode was famously broadcast on the same day as the assassination of President John.F.Kennedy; Saturday, November 23, 1963. Of the actors who played the first four TARDIS travellers from episode one (which included the Doctor himself), only two of that original cast survive to witness the 50th anniversary of the show this year, and so I was thrilled to attend a talk last Saturday (27 April) given by one of those two cast members; An Evening With William Russell at The Cinema Museum (a.k.a. The Ronald Grant Archive).

The Museum is situated in a quiet road off Kennington Lane, but was originally based in Brixton, being first established in 1986. It was founded by Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries from their own private collection of cinema history and memorabilia. It moved to its current location in 1998. Visiting is currently by guided tour only and must be booked in advance and of course the museum runs a programme of events, of which this was one! 

William Russell played the character of Ian Chesterton, a science teacher at Coal Hill School who, along with fellow (history) teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), the Doctor (William Hartnell), and Susan Foreman, the Doctor's Granddaughter (played by the remaining surviving cast member, Carole Ann Ford), set the standard for the show's format which continues to this day.

He was introduced to rousing applause in this, one of his most intimate public appearances. The audience numbered around 100. It's one of the things I like about the Cinema Museum; there's a cosy and informal atmosphere that really fits well with this type of talk and career overview. William Russell is of course used to appearing in front of thousands of Doctor Who fans at conventions, so I guess the contrast must have been kind of nice for him too.

Russell was interviewed by Mark Egerton, who gently guided the interview along, allowing the actor to carefully deliberate before replying to each question, which was nice. And Russell had many interesting and amusing anecdotes to relate over the many years he has appeared in films, plays and television, including the time he spilled a tall glass of lager down a beautifully dressed Merle Oberon at dinner and the laughable experience he had when playing a non-speaking role in Richard Donner's 1978 comic-book classic 'Superman', alongside Marlon Brando. According to Russell, Brando was a bit of an egomaniac who refused to learn his lines for the film, resulting in banks of television monitors (showing the various lines he was required to speak) being dotted around the outer perimeter of the set, so he could read them as the scene was being shot. Unfortunately, the monitors were too small for Brando to read from, so he insisted all the lines were written up on large cards and held up for him to see. He even insisted the director himself hold up one of the cards, and Donner duly complied, but then complained he was holding it too high, and asked for it to be lowered by degrees, until eventually Brando could read it, but Donner's face was completely obscured! The scene was then shot without Donner actually seeing what he was shooting!

Another interesting anecdote was about a role he had in a Norman Wisdom film called One Good Turn in 1955. Up to this point, Russell had used his last two names as his stage name - Russell Enoch. But this apparently upset Norman Wisdom, who had an aversion to the name 'Enoch' (something to do with another comedian at the time, although this was a bit vague) and insisted Russell change it! Initially, of course, he refused and the ensuing row lasted for around a year(!), before he was finally told that his name would be removed from the film credits unless it was changed! It was at this point his mother suggested he use his first two names - William Russell - and, aside from a very short period many years later, when he reverted (unsuccessfully) to Russell Enoch once more, that's how it remained!

The show finished with a question and answer session, followed by a signing/photo opportunity. I was one of the lucky people afterwards that got to meet him and have a photograph taken. A charming man. From start to finish the entire thing lasted three hours and forty-five minutes - pretty good going for an 88 year old! He must have been pretty tired by the end of the evening.

William Russell came across as a very warm, engaging personality and it was a pleasure to listen to him talking about his career. This was apparently the first time he'd ever done anything like this and I'm sure the entire audience were pleased that he did. One question that wasn't asked in the Q&A was whether or not he might make an appearance in the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, which is to be broadcast 50 years to the very day of its first transmission; Saturday, 23 November, 2013. Sadly, I suspect not, unless of course Steven Moffat has been particularly kind to us fans, but wouldn't it be a fitting tribute if he did? Only time will tell, if you'll pardon the pun!

No comments:

Post a Comment