Utopia 2018: Waris Hussein and The original Unearthly Chat

Waris Hussein

Image Credit: James Ashworth – All Rights Reserved

Image Description: Waris Hussein

Fantom Events have run the Utopia Doctor Who convention in Oxfordshire for several years now. James Ashworth went to Eynsham Hall this June and found himself on Traken, at Coal Hill School, under the sea and at the dawn of Doctor Who itself. Here is the last of his articles from Tides #42:

One of the guests I was delighted to meet at Utopia 2018 was Waris Hussein. The director of An Unearthly Child and Marco Polo is one of the few remaining people connected with the birth of Doctor Who. In his talk, Waris discussed everything from putting the show together, missed opportunities, and the future of the show itself.

Waris started at the beginning, discussing how he initially got into directing at all. He was cast by director John Jacobs as a revolutionary in an episode of a BBC television series called Corrigan Blake, where by his own admission he found that acting was not his forte. Because of this, he tried to get onto an internal BBC director training course, from which he was initially fobbed off for being too young. He managed to get onto the waiting list, and the Friday before the course began, received word that he had made it! Completing the course, he remembers attending his first meeting of BBC directors, where a shocked John Jacobs saw and remembered him. 

Cutting his teeth in other BBC productions such as Compact, he eventually met one Verity Lambert, who was working on her new science-fiction show. As An Adventure in Space and Time suggests, it was not the most auspicious of productions, especially in the Lime Grove studios that he hated. Casting in particular proved quite a challenge. The character of Barbara was passed on by many actors, and eventually Verity convinced Jacqueline Hill, whom she knew socially, to take on the part. William Hartnell, as is known, could also be tetchy at times. In rehearsals, Hartnell tested the young director by trying to alter his stage directions, before Waris pointed out he’d walk off set. It seems that having passed his tests, the ‘WHs’ came to like each other, with Hartnell sad when Waris left after Marco Polo. By comparison, casting Susan was a walk in the park. In the old Television Centre, Waris sat in the observation room for Studio One, watching the actors preparing for the plays of the day. Noticing Carole Ann Ford, he got Verity to come and look, with both agreeing that she seemed suitable. After a successful audition, the rest, as they say, is history.

Waris also recalled some of the incidents on set. For An Unearthly Child, he vividly recalls a demanding female extra, who walked off set after realising that this version of 100,000BC did not include Raquel Welch style costumes! The attack in An Unearthly Child was originally going to be much more vivid,with Waris wanting to use the old foley trick of smacking a pumpkin with a hammer to replicate the sound of the stone cracking the skull. Verity, aware of Doctor Who‘s positioning as teatime entertainment, disagreed, and she emerged victorious from the resulting argument. Marco Polo too was not without incident, with a monkey hired for the production “crapping all over the set”, forcing a temporary hiatus in the production due to the overpowering smell. The actor holding the monkey, Tutte Lemkow, was apparently unfazed by the incident, later appearing in the serials The Crusade and The Myth Makers, as well as arranging the choreography for The Celestial Toymaker. He wasn’t put off monkeys either, playing an Imam in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a particularly villainous simian tries to poison Indiana Jones via the Imam’s apprentice.

He awaits the return of Marco Polo one day, firmly believing that it exists within a collector’s vault, and the chance for fans to see just how far the show had come in the short space of time, now it was better funded and supported by the BBC.

Having been unable to return to direct The Five Doctors as had been proposed by John Nathan-Turner, Waris was delighted to consult on An Adventure in Space and Time. Of course, one of the key parts involved helping Sacha Dhawan, who played him, get his accent right for the part. He also advised Mark Gatiss on various other aspects of the production. For example, Verity was originally to have been introduced in a basement flat, before catching the bus to work, which was quickly changed after Waris pointed out that her father was a wealthy solicitor, so it didn’t ring true. Another was much more technical, noting that cameras one and four would not be used simultaneously in the studio. 

As for the future of the show, Waris is looking forward to the arrival of Jodie Whittaker. He finds the concept fascinating, and hopes that this will lead to the phasing out of the Doctor as a romantic lead, with the “will they, won’t they” tension that accompanies it. He also hopes that this change will give the show an added unpredictability, enabling the exploration of hitherto unthought of directions.

After all this time, Waris Hussein is still a font of information about the formative days of Doctor Who. We can but hope that his beliefs about Marco Polo hold true, and this work can be rediscovered by a generation who have never had the opportunity to watch it. Furthermore, as we approach a new era, it is good to see the support of those who have been with the show since the start, and will be enjoying the show together with us.

Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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