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Who's There? The Life and Career of William Hartnell

By Jessica Carney

Book review by Paul Scoones

Of all the actors to have played the Doctor, William Hartnell's off-screen persona and background is without a doubt the one we know least about. Published more than two decades after Hartnell's death, Jessica Carney's biography is an outstanding and thorough study of the life and career of the man that to us was the original Doctor.

What emerges from this book is an understanding of the man behind the roles he played, including some of his less than savoury qualities. Hartnell had several affairs and drank a great deal, though claims that he was a rascist are addressed and dispelled. Revealed here for the first time is the truth that Hartnell always tried to hide about the exact nature of his origins and formative years. He had a long career in the theatre and acted in many films in the thirties through to the sixties (all of which are meticulously documented at the end of the book), and it was a revelation to me to discover just how extensive and distinguished 'Bill' Hartnell's acting career was.

The book is not just about his role in Doctor Who but his life as a whole, so this series is covered in the last two of twelve chapters. The book is very well researched, drawing information and anecdotes from a large number of sources, but there are still gaps. Carney openly identifies the points at which she has been unable to trace developments in Hartnell's life and much of her conclusions about his activities as a boy come from a surviving journal, extracts from appear in the text. Who's There? is a fascinating and very enlightening account of the man behind the original Doctor.

Most of what I read was wholly new to me, and even the Doctor Who section contained a few snippets that I have not seen elsewhere. This is an essential read for anyone with an interest in William Hartnell, and will also appeal to readers with an interest in the history of British cinema. I feel sure that this attractively presented hardback volume will be a great success and will therefore hopely lead to many more biographies of actors from Doctor Who.

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).