Doctor Who at 50: the old man and the BBC

On 23 November 1963, a new series made television seem bigger on the inside. Doctor Who had arrived – and teatime viewing would never be the same again

The BBC schedule for Saturday 23rd November was an eminently predictable one – Juke Box Jury would be followed by Dixon of Dock Green and The Telegoons before the big film, Santa Fe Passage and the latest edition of Comedy Playhouse, “The Chars”, starring Elsie and Doris Waters. The one new departure after Grandstand was “An Unearthly Child”, the first episode of Doctor Who, “A new adventure in time and space” according to the Radio Times. This slot in the schedules was previously occupied by Garry Halliday, the square-jawed pilot who battled with evil smugglers every teatime, but instead of Terence Longdon's manly hero there was an elderly, cankerous eccentric who sported hair of a length that even The Beatles would not adopt until 1966.

Much of the form of the new programme would have been eminently familiar to viewers at that time, a black-and-white drama taped as live in a three-walled studio, but 50 years later it is all too easy to overlook the aspects that made Doctor Who so different in content, both in its choice of protagonist and its music. One of the most startling elements of the new programme to a 1963 television audience would have been the casting of William Hartnell. The 1944 film The Way Ahead had established the actor as the British cinematic NCO par excellence for the next two decades: in Carry On Sergeant (the first in the series) and the ITV sitcom The Army Game, he stood ramrod straight and spoke with an incisive voice, designed to induce terror in anyone found idle on parade.

Hartnell was equally adept at playing commissioned officers, policemen and ruthless spivs, and in Doctor Who he brought the same sense of understated menace that he did to his henchman in Brighton Rock. In his brief appearance in the first episode – he is only on screen for the last few minutes of the programme – Hartnell effortlessly conveys mystery and a genuine sense of unpredictable danger.

These elements of the Doctor's character were perfectly encapsulated by the theme tune. The producer Verity Lambert asked Ron Grainer, composer of the opening music for Maigret and Steptoe and Son, for a tune with a beat that was “familiar yet different”. A single A4 sheet was despatched from Grainer's home in Portugal to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where Delia Derbyshire was placed in charge of fully realising Grainer's composition – and, at a time before synthesisers, had to create each new sound from scratch.

The swooping noises on the soundtrack were created by Derbyshire painstakingly adjusting the pitch of an oscillator to a carefully timed pattern, while the rhythmic hissing sounds were the product of filtering white noise. All of these musical effects had to be captured on individual tape recorders.

The result was a theme tune unlike any in the history of BBC Saturday evening television. Just take another look at the line-up of 23 November 1963, where the happening stringbeat sounds of the John Barry Seven's “Hit & Miss” heralded David Jacobs inviting you to join Juke Box Jury and Dixon of Dock Green's theme was “An Ordinary Copper” – music that respectively informs the accessible hipness of Juke Box Jury and the avuncular qualities of PC George Dixon.

Back to the future: the ‘Radio Times’ welcomes a classic-to-be Back to the future: the ‘Radio Times’ welcomes a classic-to-be But, from the outset, Doctor Who existed in a world apart from the familiar comforts of BBC Light Entertainment. Broadcast in 1953, the first BBC science-fiction series for grown-ups, The Quatermass Experiment, used Holst's “Mars, the Bringer of War” as its theme. But Derbyshire's music for Doctor Who establishes the idea of other worlds co-existing with our own, just as the new programme's eponymous figure has a very alien sense of morality. Unlike the heroes of post-war British science-fiction cinema, Doctor Who does not have a compassionate professor or crusading reporter fighting for the good of mankind, and supported by a be-medaled major commanding a fleet of Austin Champs, but a cantankerous and deeply selfish individual.

The original idea was that the Doctor, assisted by his granddaughter and two English school teachers, would roam through history in an educational way that would appeal to “intelligent 14-year-olds”. When Ian and Barbara become worried that Susan Foreman, their pupil at Coal Hill School, is approximately two centuries ahead of the curriculum – although she still enjoys listening to John Smith and the Common Men on her pocket transistor – they decide to pay a visit to her grandfather, who apparently resides in a junkyard. However, from the moment that Hartnell utters the deeply menacing line, “What is going to happen to you?” when the wonderfully tweedy Ian and Barbara stumble into his lair, it is clear that dependability and paternal wisdom will be in very short supply.

Even the limitations of BBC drama of that time work in the programme's favour. To mock Doctor Who's studio-bound nature is otiose. “An Unearthly Child” was never designed to be broadcast on a vast flat-screen but to be aired on a flickering GEC 14-inch set with the living-room light extinguished. The cramped sets in Ealing Studios establish an air of claustrophobia, which is contrasted with the brightly lit interior of the Tardis. The sense of darkness in the studio exacerbates the sense of encroaching unease and one of our first sights of the Doctor's craft is through the porthole-like windscreen of the teachers' second-hand Wolseley.

Given the programme's limited budget, an attempt at an elaborate spacecraft would have been an exercise in bathos, whereas the use of a familiar artifact was a masterstroke; in Doctor Who, even the most seemingly banal of sights may be inherently dangerous. The idea that a spaceship might be elderly and prone to breakdowns – the original outline for the programme suggested “a recurrent problem is how to find spares” – was a refreshing one to countless Britons who still drove 15-year-old cars and who lived in homes with pre-war furniture.

The ensuing adventure, in which the Tardis travels back to the prehistoric ages only to encounter some irate Equity Card holders clad in prop furs and dubious wigs on a quest for fire, does not date especially well but the tropes that would serve the programme over the next 50 years had already been established. After the closing credits the viewers could gratefully retreat to Sid James, Cilla Black, Don Moss and Anna Quayle giving their considered opinions on this week's discs, to be followed by Jack Warner's salutation of “Evening All”. But Hartnell's performance and Delia Derbyshire's music subverted the predictability of afternoon television by inferring a world outside of the British teatime that did not follow any familiar social codes or mores.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz