Off parade – at the Hartnell home

Once a comedian, William Hartnell is now typecast forever as an army sergeant major

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 28 July 1957

SAID William Hartnell: “You’d never believe it, judging by some of the parts I’ve played, but I used to be known as a comedian. I called myself Billy Hartnell in those days.”

Certainly, the hard-bitten petty officer of Seagulls over Sorrento, the sergeant of The Way Ahead and the Scotland Yard detective in several films had never struck me as being comedy roles.

“That’s why I like The Army Game,” he continued. “Even though I’m not supposed to be the comic.” Hartnell has only one protest: “I seem to be doomed to playing sergeants and petty officers.”

I took a careful look at Hartnell, the amateur company-sergeant-major. He was off duty at home. And I have to report he looked extremely like a professional company-sergeant-major off duty at home. Or maybe I’m like the rest – I can’t think of him in any other role.

William Hartnell

He was wearing a check sports jacket, a brown shirt open at the neck, grey flannels held up by a leather belt, brown slippers. He smoked his cigarette jerkily and kept throwing his chin out and half closing his eyes to look into the distance.

He might have been picking out that ‘orrible little man at the other end of the parade ground. In fact, he was watching a bird which is the part of Hartnell he would like you to know.

“Most people think of me as a tough, snarling character with not very much grey matter,” he said. “Those are the parts I always play. But nobody ever inquires whether I’m really like that.”

I report with pleasure that Mr. Hartnell is not like that. His wife, playwright Heather McIntyre, showed me round their Sussex garden and confided a few secrets about her husband. “He loves birds and animals. See that little wooden house up in that tree? Bill built that for two field mice. We call them Mr. and Mrs. Ashley and every evening about eight we take a meal out to them… Mind where you put your feet – a shrew lives under those two small holes in the lawn. We call it Baby…”

This didn’t sound like a sergeant-major’s life. Inside once more, Bill took me on a tour of the house.

I commented on his pictures, several by Augustus John. “Any money I have to spare in the future will go on buying up originals,” he told me.

Hartnell’s other major interest is fishing. He’s a member of the Hove Deep Sea Fishing Club. “Nearly all my best friends are outside the theatre business,” he said. “You’ve got to escape from the insanity of that world. That’s why we live here. We love the country and a quiet life.”

“Here” is a half-tiled cottage, non-vintage, in a remote lane in a remote part of Sussex 12 miles from Brighton. It’s not a sumptuous house, but it’s friendly. “People have got to accept us as we are,” said Heather Hartnell. “We’re no good at putting on a show.”

I remembered reading somewhere that Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker, is Bill’s cousin. Correct? “Second cousin, actually. But we don’t I see each other often. We live in different worlds.”

Heather smiled. “Somehow I can’t see him sitting on our kitchen table having a good old chat.” Then she said: “Let’s have some tea.” We sat down to, fruit cake, scones and strawberries, Hartnell ate three scones and declined the strawberries.

“I was born in Seaton, Devon,” he told me. “My parents separated when I was a child and I was brought up by a guardian. My ambition was to become an actor and a jockey. Somehow, I thought I could do both together. I hated school, ran away three times and finally, at fifteen, was allowed to go to work in a racing stable. But my weight was against me. One day the trainer called me into his office and told me I’d better try something else.”

William Hartnell in a sun hat, smoking a cigar
Hartnell on holiday

Sir Frank Benson, the famous Shakespearean actor-manager, took him on. “I did almost every job in the theatre before I began to make a name for myself.”

Hartnell – “Billy” Hartnell that is – understudied Bud Flanagan and Ralph Lynn and attracted a certain amount of attention in comedy roles in films. Then Carol Reed saw him in Brighton Rock and gave him the part of the sergeant in The Way Ahead.

For Hartnell the way ahead ever since has been through the doors of the costumiers who fit him out with sergeant-majors’ and petty officers’ uniforms and raincoats as worn – in films at any rate – by Scotland Yard detectives.

Bill put his foot up on a kitchen chair and brushed a parade ground shine into his shoes. “I wish they’d let me show that I can play other parts besides sergeants.” He moved to the hall and put on a beltless raincoat. “I’d like to play Polonius instead of policemen.”

Then we set off for Brighton, where Bill had an appointment to pick up a script. The role? A tough, tight-lipped gangster. Obviously someone had said “Just the part for Hartnell.”

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