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Opinion: Was William Hartnell a Racist?
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The world of fandom is one that has changed considerably in the years since it’s true development in the 1970s, both in Doctor Who and in general. In the case of Who it has become, alongside Star Trek, one of the most documented TV show’s in the world. And, like Trek, fans are no longer left satisfied with knowing which quarry was used on what day or simply having a newsletter posted to them every month. In this era of mass communication and imperfect heroes, in an age where John Nathan-Turner’s sexual habits are a matter for publication, where fans feel the need to know every little detail of stars personal lives, we feel we must know which Doctor made a habit of sleeping with his co-stars, what did Matthew Waterhouse think of everything, how many drugs did Anneke Wills take and what an epic, epic racist William Hartnell was.

It has developed into urban legend almost, it’s one of those “facts” about Doctor Who that everybody seems to know but nobody can quite explain, either the accuser has no examples to give or the defender brushes aside the claim as Bill being “of his time”. But is it true? And if so, is it of any importance and relevance to us as fans?

Anneke Wills is very open and forthright on The Tenth Planet DVD, claiming the leading man’s views on race came to a head between herself, Michael Craze and black actor Earl Cameron during the production, stating how she and Craze were “ashamed” for Hartnell at the time. Earl Cameron himself is more reserved on matters, proclaiming that if there was an issue with Hartnell during the filming of the serial he was unaware of it.

Indeed, it appears that the longer Hartnell stayed in the role, as illness and his powers began to fail him, the more outspoken his views became. Carole Ann Ford, who is Jewish herself, was very close to Hartnell during their time on the show and is particularly hurt when these accusations rear their head and Hartnell is equally said to have had a good relationship with both Indian and gay director Waris Hussein and Sydney Newman who was also Jewish. Yet conversely Peter Purves, who played Steven Taylor later in the First Doctor’s era, offers the opposing view on Bill’s attitude toward race and sexuality, more in line with the claims of Anneke Wills.

No doubt the age in which Hartnell was raised and was working is very different age to the one of today. It was the age of continuing colonial empire, when his status as a British-born citizen automatically made him “better” than most of the world at large and conservative views were very much what was both the norm and in vogue. Despite what may be the popular view, and a case of looking through rose tinted glasses, racism and anti-Semitism were not the sole domain of Europe and the growing fascist powers during Hartnell’s 20s and 30s, Britain was certainly not the bastion of freedom and tolerance we may like to think it was. Born a working class man without access to advanced education or people of differing backgrounds, it would not be surprising if he did indeed hold views we would no longer considered acceptable in polite society.

Can we criticise figures of the past for their views? We can say now that they were wrong and condemn those beliefs, but we can’t blame them for holding a view that they were socialised into believing from the day they were born. It was not a conscious decision and had William Hartnell lived and carried on working into the modern era then it is entirely possible his views would have changed through coming into contact with a wider array of people at a changing BBC and through the trends in society at large. Let us remember that this was the era of television where actors were regularly “blacked up” or made to look “oriental” (including on Doctor Who) and where the likes of The Black and White Minstral Show were still regular features of prime time television. 

We love to build-up our heroes and then tear them down, note the media’s glee at the troubles of Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, the late Amy Winehouse and the fervour of Operation YewTree that uncomfortably strayed from justice and support to an attack on celebrity by the media. The arrest of loathed marketing mogul Max Clifford in particular extracted a unified cheer from much of the public, it was a case of “got him” as opposed to holding any sympathy for his alleged victims or horror at the accusations levelled against him. As a nation we have developed a somewhat nasty attitude to success, one that cannot help but take delight when a celebrity faces hardship or a fall.

Do we want to know about Hartnell’s views because we feel it’s important and of relevance to the show, or do we want to subconsciously bring down our hero? to find another scandal to sink our teeth into, even if it means hurting the reputation of the great man himself? There is little doubt that William Hartnell at times held views that today would not be tolerated, they were not unusual however and he appears to have been willing to put aside his previous prejudices to have close relationships with Jewish and Asian members of the cast and crew. As sickness took him, his temper frayed and his deeper views may have come to the fore. He was however certainly not blindingly racist as some seem to believe. We can then understand our hero, we can forgive our hero, yet certainly not the views he occasionally espoused. Had Bill still been with us today, he would hopefully feel the same way, looking back on a different time and place from the better one we are now in.

About The Author
Michael East
Michael East is the founder of Doctor Who Worldwide. Best selling author, great statesmen, Ambassador to the Netherlands… Michael is none of these things. He was however named TIME Person of the Year in 2006 and 2011, is an award winning web designer, a comedy Marxist and according to some engineered the omnirumour with the aid of Benedict Cumberbatch. He enjoys beards, retrogaming and classic TV. He is not a hipster.