‘Doctor Who’: David Bradley discusses his time as the Doctor

David Bradley plays William Hartnell in "An Adventure in Space and Time."
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

David Bradley has had a long, distinguished career on the stage in England, but in the last few years, Hollywood has had him in its sights. He was the cantankerous watchman at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films and has appeared in the acclaimed British series “Broadchurch” and Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End,” as well as being part of one of the most shocking scenes on American TV ever with the infamous “Red Wedding” in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Although he appeared as a guest star in a recent episode of “Doctor Who,” he never could have dreamed he’d one day be playing the Doctor himself as William Hartnell in “An Adventure in Space and Time.” The film recounts the creation of the iconic BBC series that celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend.

Bradley sat down to discuss the film during a recent visit to L.A.

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Are people recognizing you more?

DB: Yeah. It’s really good because the things I get to be in are really good quality things. The last two years have been busy, but it’s all been film and TV. Before that, I was in a lot of theater. I did 16 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and stuff in the West End and the occasional TV. But gradually film work came in. I used to enjoy working to a live audience, that was the best thing. It was great, and I kind of miss it.

One of the nicest scenes in ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ shows a group of schoolchildren approaching William Hartnell, who is conflicted about his role playing the Doctor. But when they recognize him from the show, he pretends to actually be the Doctor and lead them on a series of adventures in the park. Have you ever acted the part, so to speak, when someone recognized you?
DB: Sometimes I get invited to schools to speak to the students. I’ve done it in Italy where my wife comes from. I don’t understand what they’re saying and they don’t understand what I’m saying, but they love Harry Potter. Occasionally, they will say, “We love the run up and down the school hall” from, I think it was the fourth Harry Potter film. They say “Do it! Do it!” So I do it. I run up and down the school hall, which is the most ridiculous run. It was something that got a huge laugh in the cinema. I didn’t think it was all that funny, but the way they shot it made me look absolutely ridiculous. People want you to say certain lines into their phone or something. I never say no. It means they appreciate it. If I ever got tired of all that I’d remind myself of this story. I did a series called “Reckless” playing the father of actor Robson Green, who was a big TV star. It was one of the biggest series I ever had been in on TV. We did a scene in a garden house in Manchester. As soon they heard Robson Green was in the area, people came out of their houses and brought their children and stood by the barrier. And when we finished filming they let the people through. Robson said “I’d be happy to meet them.” There were about a hundred of them and they brushed past me. The last straggler was a young boy of about 15. He got to me and said, “Hasn’t anyone asked for your autograph?” I said, “Actually no.” He said. “Go on then, I’ll have it.” He felt so sorry for the old geezer. He was doing me a favor, but the thing is, I was so grateful. I said to myself, just remember this.

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It was nice that Hartnell finally embraced the role.

DB: After initial reluctance, he realized what an opportunity it was to be whimsical and funny and have a bit of a twinkle and bit of fun. He realized the endless possibilities of doing a character like that. He could be outrageous and eccentric and a bit crazy. I think it released something in him. Also, he realized he was getting a younger audience, which he’d never had before. I feel a bit that way when I was doing Harry Potter. It was sad he had this condition that prevented him from carrying on and the problems he had. It’s in the script. [Writer Mark Gatiss] hasn’t pulled any punches with showing his unpleasant side. He’d blow up at someone for not reaching the professional standards he expected from people and for himself. And when he failed to meet his own standards, when he started to lose his memory and forget his lines, he wanted a bit more time free and a bit less to say. Instead he was told to step aside. Imagine going into a meeting where you think you call the shots and being told there will be Doctor Who, just not with you. At least he was able to say that Patrick Traughton was the best choice.

Do you get over to the U.S. much?

DB: Not that much. I’ve worked in New York a couple of times in the theater. Last time I was in L.A. was about seven years ago I was coming out to my goddaughter’s wedding, Kate Beckinsale, the actress. She called me up the night before and said we’ve been looking for someone to conduct the service and we can’t find anyone we like. Will you do it? So I said I’m not qualified. So she had me ordained over the Internet into the universal ministries. I got my certificate through the e-mail and I printed it. I just had time to get that before we left for the plane. I conducted the wedding service for my goddaughter. Particularly brilliant because her father was my best pal at drama school. Great actor who died at 31. I could say I did a gig out here.


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Did you share Hartnell’s goals to play bigger and more varied roles?
DB: Curiously enough I didn’t. I got a few roles in local theater and when I went to Royal Shakespeare Company I played one or two smaller parts. I knew I wasn’t ready for huge parts. I just wasn’t competent enough yet to play leading roles in the main house. And so a lot of chunky roles, like Titus Andronicus and King Lear, by the time they came around, I felt confident enough in that big theater to take them on. Where if they’d come earlier I might have blown it.

What’s your memory of your guest appearance on the “Doctor Who” episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”?

DB: I remember seeing the Tardis for the first time in the studio and getting a shiver in my back. That’s the real thing. Working with Matt [Smith] was great. It was a terrific sleazebag of a part. He was like an older rocker who’s had too much heroin or something. I loved the costume and all the leather. It was just a great part to relish. And at the end of it, I thought, “That was great. That’s my Doctor Who experience.” I had no idea I’d come back to do this!


Were you a fan?

DB: I stopped watching it when I was working in the theater. Saturday night is a working night but I kind of kept in touch with it. I remember seeing Hartnell, Patrick Traughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker. I saw little bits of the subsequent ones. But I lost touch with it. I did watch a couple of Matt’s before I worked with him. He’s got the right level of eccentricity. The thing about the Doctor is that he’s got an unquenchable curiosity about the universe and everything in it. To me, that’s more touching and more poignant when it’s an older person. It’s usually a character trait of someone younger, always looking out for the next thing. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are people my age who are just as curious about the world and inquisitive. But it’s a thing you associate with younger people. Always asking questions. The Doctor has a child-like quality. Not childish, child-like.


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