The William Hartnell screening room, part 1

An occasional series reviewing the screen appearances of William Hartnell, best known as the First Doctor in the long-running BBC series Doctor Who.

Ghost Squad episode “High Wire” (1961)

Ghost Squad contains no ghosts, and the episode (either number 4 or 5 of the first season, depending on the source) features no high wire, but William Hartnell is the primary guest star in this installment of the ITC series. Ghost Squad ran for 3 seasons in the early 60s for a total of 52 episodes, of which the first 39 survive (the last season was shot on video and was apparently easier to lose). They’ve been released on DVD but only in the UK at a hefty £50 on 10 disks. YouTube and BitTorrent come up short, you have to go to French alternative Dailymotion, now owned by Vivendi, to find the episode online (in two parts but broken up by commercials every 5 minutes in the second part).

There’s no supernatural element here, the “ghost” part of the title apparently refers to a little-known wing of the British police that does undercover detective work. In this episode most of the story takes place in France and Belgium at a traveling circus. The lead character Nick Craig is an American, which they did fairly often in those days to broaden the market for overseas.

Hartnell plays a World War II vet Fred Rice, who is wanted 20 years after the war for unspecified war crimes but has disappeared. He’s traced fairly easily to the circus in France, and Craig goes undercover to get a job there to keep an eye on him but soon realizes Rice is being blackmailed into using his lock-picking skills to assist in a series of burglaries. This was a couple of years before Doctor Who and Hartnell looks exactly the same as he did in his signature role, although affecting a different accent and playing a much more savvy street-wise type of character. There are a couple of scenes where he’s doing his circus act of escaping from a bunch of locked chains while underwater, and it looks like it’s really him and not a stunt double. Considering his health took a precipitous decline during his time as the Doctor, this couldn’t have been ideal for him, but it is a welcome change from his usual role as an army sergeant.

One thing you notice in this episode is that Hartnell wasn’t very tall, the American star towers over him (making him an odd choice for undercover work in Europe). Hartnell doesn’t have any super-dramatic scenes given the conflict placed on his character, but gives a good dramatic performance, although even in the ’60’s were there really 50-something escape artists working in the circus? The hero signs up to learn enough motorcycle technique to ride the “Wall of Death”, but we only ever see him practicing riding the bike on rollers, which seemingly only exists so it can be sabotaged by the bad guys when they realize he’s on to them. But otherwise it’s a fairly compelling 50 minutes of TV, fairly dense in content and with several supporting characters. Guest stars in other episodes include Roger Delgado and Olaf Pooley, amongst other Doctor Who alumni; it would be worth checking out those too someday.

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