Thursday, 2 January 2014

Death, Back Stage Stories and New Year Resolutions

Richard Briers, Mel Smith, Bill Pertwee and Richard Griffiths were just a few of the actors who died in 2013. It's strange how people like that become familiar faces, people we think we know well, when of course we do not really know them at all.
In fact, we often know them through the characters they play. The real person sometimes emerges later. John Thaw, for instance, both in his wife Sheila Hancock's book about their relationship, and in a documentary which had home movies, giving another side to Thaw that we didn't see when we saw him acting.
And David Niven constantly embellished and invented stories about his life, creating his own personal mythology, which only recently have biographers begun to disentangle.
William Hartnell, the subject of a book by his granddaughter Jessica Carney ("Who's There?: The Life and Career of William Hartnell"), and also Mark Gatiss drama "An Adventure in Space and Time" was also different from the character he played, although playing Doctor Who evidently changed how his attitude towards children, moved by the affection he had from being "Uncle Who" to so many. As Carney's book tells:
"..He arrived at the fete, wearing his Doctor Who costume, in an open-topped vintage car. It wasn't quite the TARDIS (after all you could never guarantee where the TARDIS was going to land), but it was spectacular enough for Pembury, the village in Kent where my parents lived..."
But it is the recently discovered interview from 1966, just after he stood down as Doctor Who, and appeared in pantomime, that shows a different facet to Hartnell:
Interviewer: Is pantomime something you'd like to continue doing in the future?
Hartnell: Ooh, no, no, no, no, no.
Interviewer: Oh, why not?
Hartnell: Well, I'm a legitimate actor. Pantomime is for the sort of person who is used to variety and going on the front of the stage, but I'm a legitimate actor. I do legitimate things.
There is a real feeling behind his retort in that interview, and as some people have suggested, it may be because Hartnell was in fact illegitimate that he had such a need for confirmation of his identity as an actor. In 1908, being a child of an unwed mother was a huge stigma, and he was bullied at school, as well as being beaten with a broom at home. As Carney notes:
"It was a big insecurity for him not knowing his father. He was ashamed and didn't talk about his childhood. It hugely affected his confidence"
Jessica Carney notes that Hartnell's past life was also very different from the character he portrayed on television for Doctor Who:
"His marriage was complicated. Heather admired his talent and enjoyed his success but was driven to distraction by his heavy drinking and womanising. He admired and needed her so much yet still chased after other women."
"It went on until late in life. I found a letter he had written to my gran saying, 'I know I haven't been a very good husband'. It was heartfelt."
Even after his retirement from Doctor Who, when he was doing pantomime, he was in fact sleeping with an actress starring in the same production.
Jessica says: "Heather found out but was by now so fed up she apparently let it be known that the girl could have him if she wanted. That decided it. Bill didn't want to leave Heather.
"That was what was so ridiculous - he was outwardly very proud of her. But that didn't stop him causing her unhappiness."
The fragments that emerge of actors after their deaths, that help to fill in the kind of people they really were are sometimes not wholly attractive, but it is I think better to know and understand how the tapestry of a life is woven than a false idol.
In Hartnell's case, he could have become a delinquent, except for the intervention of Hugh Blaker.
"Hugh Blaker (1873-1936) was an English artist, collector, connoisseur, dealer in Old Masters, museum curator, writer on art and a staunch supporter and promoter of modern British and French painters. From 1924, Blaker became guardian to the sixteen year old William Hartnell. He had found him flyweight boxing near King's Cross, London. Blaker gave him a home and sent him to the Italia Conti Academy of the Theatre Arts."
That was a turning point in Hartnell's life, and it shows how acts of kindness can make a difference, and turn someone's life around. The earlier, and more sanitised story of William Hartnell's background found in "The Making of Doctor Who" doesn't mention his rough upbringing, or his womanising, but it also loses out on the way in which his life was changed by Hugh Blaker, and he was taken away from what would have probably been a life of crime.
The backstage story shows that the celebrity idols have feet of clay, but it also humanises them, and makes us understand them better as people, and sympathise with a real person, with all their flaws. That is quite different from the tabloid denigration of celebrities, which is more akin to blood sports.
The back stage story of William Hartnell also shows how an act of kindness can change the course of history. Rather like Doctor Who, a helping hand can ripple through time, and improve lives. That is surely a good New Year's resolution, to try and help others with small or large acts of kindness, as we are able, as we journey through 2014.

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