Scotsman Obituaries: William Russell, swashbuckling leading man who was an original companion of Doctor Who

William Russell, actor. Born: 19 November 1924 in Sunderland. Died: 3 June 2024, aged 99

It was the day after John F Kennedy was assassinated and William Russell, a Fettes-educated young actor, ventured into a junkyard in the first episode of a new teatime serial intended to educate a young audience about history and science while wrapping them in a coating of adventure and entertainment.

Russell played a schoolteacher who is anxious about one of his charges, Susan Foreman, who is very bright and knowledgeable, but socially awkward and somewhat mysterious.

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He and another teacher follow Susan home, which turns out to be Foreman’s junkyard, where they find an old police box and meet her grandfather and guardian, introduced as the Doctor. Despite the junkyard setting, they assume he is Doctor Foreman. “Doctor Who?” he snaps.

William Russell pictured at a Doctor Who convention in 1998 (Picture: Julian Makey/Shutterstock)William Russell pictured at a Doctor Who convention in 1998 (Picture: Julian Makey/Shutterstock)
William Russell pictured at a Doctor Who convention in 1998 (Picture: Julian Makey/Shutterstock)

It turns out Susan and the Doctor are from another planet and the police box is an advanced craft called the TARDIS that can travel through time and space. All four are whisked back to Paleolithic times where they get embroiled in some pretty nasty Stone Age politics and Russell’s character, Ian Chesterton, saves the day by discovering fire.

Between November 1963 and June 1965 Russell would appear in 77 episodes of Doctor Who, with the original Doctor – William Hartnell – meeting Marco Polo and the Crusaders, fighting Aztecs and ancient Romans and getting caught up in the French Revolution.

As the show developed, more emphasis was put on the entertainment and adventure elements and Russell met several alien races, including the Menoptra, who looked like men in stripey jumpers, the ant-like Zarbi and a curious bunch who resembled giant pepper pots with toilet plungers on their heads – the Daleks.

It was the Daleks who really captured the public’s imagination and had a whole generation taking refuge behind the family sofa.

Russell and fellow actors William Hartnell, Jaqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford were the original stars of Doctor Who, whose latest series in on BBC1 on Saturdays, as well as iPlayer on demand (Picture: BBC)Russell and fellow actors William Hartnell, Jaqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford were the original stars of Doctor Who, whose latest series in on BBC1 on Saturdays, as well as iPlayer on demand (Picture: BBC)
Russell and fellow actors William Hartnell, Jaqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford were the original stars of Doctor Who, whose latest series in on BBC1 on Saturdays, as well as iPlayer on demand (Picture: BBC)

The son of a travelling salesman, William Russell Enoch was born in Sunderland in 1924. The family moved around and he attended Wolverhampton Grammar School and Fettes College in Edinburgh. During the final years of the Second World War he served in the RAF and helped arrange entertainment for the troops.

He took an English degree at Oxford University, appeared in student revues and plays and pursued a career in theatre after graduating.

Tall and classically handsome, Russell seemed well suited to movies and began getting small parts in films in the early 1950s, initially acting under the name Russell Enoch – William Russell Enoch was his full name. Early movies include The Saint’s Return, the war films Above Us the Waves and The Man Who Never Was, and the intriguingly entitled The Gay Dog.

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Russell fitted the mould of traditional hero and in 1956 he landed the title role as the Arthurian knight in the hit series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which broke new ground with later episodes shot in colour and broadcast on network television in the United States.

In 1957 he played the title role in a BBC serial adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and in 1961 he was Hamlet in an ITV adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. So he was hardly an unknown when approached to play Ian Chesterton in Doctor Who.

William Hartnell was in his mid-fifties, but was in ill health and seemed older. In an interview with Radio Times in 2010 Russell recalled: “Verity [pioneering television producer Verity Lambert] invited me to the BBC for lunch and I said to her, ‘So I'm the action man?’ and she said, ‘That’s exactly right.’ She told me that Bill would play the leading role, but not be doing the fights. I was delighted.”

On the Daleks, he said: “At first we thought they were laughable. Mind you, we were introduced to them without their tops on. Just an actor sitting in this sort of bathtub base. But when we started working with them, you could see how they'd become convincing.”

After two series of Doctor Who, Russell wanted to return to theatre. He and Jacqueline Hill, who played fellow teacher and reluctant time traveller Barbara Wright, left at the same time to appear in a touring production of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables.

At the end of the Doctor Who story The Chase their characters return to Earth in a requisitioned Dalek spacecraft.

Russell went on to work regularly in theatre, he made only occasional films, with minor roles in Superman and Death Watch, but he had one-off appearances in dozens of television shows.

He did have an eight-month stint on Coronation Street in 1992, as salesman Ted Sullivan. He moves into the street and marries Rita Fairclough, though the marriage is short-lived because he was already terminally ill at the time. That’s Corrie.

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In 2022 Russell made a cameo appearance as Ian Chesterton in the Doctor Who story The Power of the Doctor, earning a place in Guinness World Records for the longest gap between appearances on the same television drama show, 57 years.

He was twice married. He is survived by his second wife Etheline, a doctor to whom he was married for 40 years, and by four children. His youngest son is also an actor. Acting under the name Alfred Enoch, he played Hogwarts student Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films and starred in last year’s Channel 4 thriller The Couple Next Door.

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