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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.

7 Comments
  • Simon Claridge
    October 22, 2013 at 07:28

    Hartnell’s Doctor was never a racist – that should be the point of a Doctor Who article posted on a Doctor Who website. The fact that Hartnell was racist (like the majority of his peers at that time) is undisputed and well documented so why ask? The question of judgement is equally irrelevant – I’m old enough to remember a time when most people held casually racist views, voted for racist politicians and read racist newspapers whilst sipping racist cups of tea.. The past, ironically, is a foreign country!




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    • cyberman12
      October 22, 2013 at 08:20

      Same today tho with europe and the eu altho there not raceist and where all saying this today so in light of that Hartnell was not a raceist altho the word is repugnant in itself.




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  • Charles Daniels
    October 22, 2013 at 07:40

    There’s no sensible debate on this to be had. We will never know how Hartnell’s illness impacted him and his capabilities. Actions speak much louder than words, especially the words of an ill-man under stress, and judging from his actions; his tenderness and caring for Carol Ann Ford, I think these accusations can take a hike quite frankly. The Doctor, a character he brought to life, who we are all celebrating 50 years of, is a character of universal understanding and respect for all life, everywhere, in all forms; whether you are black, white, or Silurian.




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  • Cyberman12
    October 22, 2013 at 08:18

    But you could say that that today tho what with eastern europeans etc I dont think its nither here or there AND not up for topic.




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  • Mark O'Driscoll
    October 22, 2013 at 14:59

    Sadly it’s quite probable that William Hartnell had some racist views. But we have to take it into the context of the time.
    I grew up in the early seventies and as a working class family we watched Love Thy Neighbour and later Mind Your Language. And sadly by today’s standards as a child I held some casual racist opinions, partly based on what I watched.
    Racism isn’t a rational intellectual thing and as I grew up and went off to University my experiences and my interactions with people from different ethnic origins and different sexual oriantations altered my perceptions and beliefs.
    I am ashamed now of what I thought as a child, who basically didn’t know any better.
    But I had time to alter my world view as most us have over the years and now I believe most of the people of Britain are not racist’ though of course, there are always a loud minority of bigots who will never change.




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  • KeirInOz
    October 22, 2013 at 15:45

    As a member of a minority still fighting for equal rights and often subject to violence inspired by bigotry, I find the “product of his time” excuse a bit of a cop out. The idea that because the whole of society was racist meant we can excuse it is nonsense.

    But as someone else said, is it relevant now to bring up Hartnell’s views on anything? I say no. He’s not famous for being himself. I admire him as an actor, that’s his legacy and that’s where focus should remain.




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  • November 22, 2013 at 17:51

    The problem is Anneke Wills. She came to the show very late in Hartnell’s time on the show but was very happy to make snap judgments and well publicize her opinions ever since. What does she really know? Did she know that John Wiles effectively fired Maureen O’Brien, someone that Hartnell, like Carole Ann Ford was close to? Does she know Wiles tried to change the show dramatically with heavy handed religious content or that he tried to get Hartnell fired but the BBC heads said “no”? Does she know that Hartnell was fighting to protect his team and his show from these forces post Verity Lambert? Does she know Hartnell had arteriosclerosis? Does she know what it is like to have a debilitating disease and to see your dreams and career fall out from under you? No. She probably didn’t know any of these things, but she is happy to keep bringing up her controversial comments in interviews. That shows no respect to Hartnell at all. The truth probably is that she showed up with Michael Craze as the new kids, got rubbed the wrong way by Hartnell, and rather be set straight by the creative team, allowed it to fester and was happy to be rid of Hartnell. I have little respect for her at all.




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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 and a comedy Marxist. He enjoys beards, retrogaming and classic TV. He is not a hipster.