Putting Doctor Who on the big screen: the Peter Cushing films

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The story of the planned Doctor Who trilogy of movies of the 1960s – and why we ultimately only got two of them.

In 1962 Milton Subotsky, an American writer and film producer, established Amicus Films. He founded it with fellow producer Max J Rosenberg, and the company would specialise in low-budget British horrors, . The two had a mutual appreciation of the music scene of the late 1950s. Subotsky was twice a guest on the influential Juke Box Jury during its nascent series in 1959.

Amicus (Latin for ‘friend’) began by producing musicals: It’s Trad Dad! (1962), dated desperately quickly when The Beatles arrived in the charts just a few months later. Just for Fun (1963) embraced a veritable cornucopia of early 60s music and comedy talent. That film was directed by Gordon Flemyng (father of actor, Jason), who had given a young Michael Caine an early speaking role in the 1962 feature Solo for Sparrow. Flemyng too would become a key member of the creative team at Amicus.

Looking for their next major project, Subotsky became aware of ‘Dalekmania’, a phenomenon surrounding the favourite adversaries in BBC TV’s Doctor Who. The first appearance of the Daleks, just before Christmas 1963, ensured not only the long-term future of the series but kickstarted a huge craze which saw no signs of abating.

Keen to harness this, Subotsky spoke to the scriptwriter and Dalek creator, Terry Nation, with a view to adapting the original Dalek serial as a big screen feature. The film would be made in colour, which in an era of monochrome television was a significant USP. Nation agreed on the proviso (TV series script editor) David Whittaker would be commissioned to adapt the screenplay.

Amicus bought an option to make three films from Nation and the BBC – Dr Who And The Daleks and two sequels, for the princely sum of £500. The budget allotted to make the first film was £180,000.

Milton Subotsky had recently completed an anthology feature called Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). He was particularly impressed by the working chemistry between two of its stars: Peter Cushing and a young actor and musician, Roy Castle, who was just making his way into movies and about to tour America. Castle was keen to raise his profile. Subotsky felt Peter Cushing would be ideal for his main protagonist.

Renamed ‘Dr Who’, the Doctor was a brilliant human inventor (rather than the alien scientist of television) who had created a time machine – TARDIS (no definite article). The popularity of Hammer films meant Cushing was seen as a bigger name to the intended US market than the-then incumbent TV Doctor, William Hartnell. Harnell on the big screen was best known at this stage for more parochial fare such as Carry On Sergeant (1958) and This Sporting Life (1962). Subotsky also saw it as something of a coup to get Cushing, the star name from his company’s huge rival, to headline the project.

Subotsky felt the male companion should be the comic relief. Harnessing Roy Castle’s clowning skills, Ian Chesterton is a somewhat accident-prone buffoon, his backstory changed to become the boyfriend of Dr Who’s elder granddaughter, Barbara, played by Jennie Linden in only her second big screen role. Ann Bell, nowadays best known for Tenko, was originally approached to play Barbara.

Several of the TV Dalek operators and voice artists were employed on the feature. Some of the extras who played the peace-loving Thals were actually burly porters from Covent Garden market, many of whom baulked at having their chests and arms shaved: some even demanded extra pay! In an effort to engage a juvenile audience, akin to the popular Saturday morning Children’s Film Foundation series of features, Roberta Tovey was cast as Dr Who’s younger granddaughter, Susan. Tovey was just 11 years old – half the age of her TV counterpart, Carole Ann Ford – yet  already a veteran of six films.

Dr Who And The Daleks, opened in the UK on 23rd August 1965, the same week as Disney’s Mary Poppins. The resultant film was a luridly colourful, well-mounted adventure with some impressive sets and rather more humour than the TV series. It became the UK’s twentieth highest-grossing film of 1965, ensuring a second film. It performed less well in the US, where it was seen on occasion as a double bill with Night Of The Living Dead. 

The subsequent movie, based on the 1964 TV serial The Daleks Invasion Of Earth, began shooting in early 1966. Having controversially decided the Daleks were a bigger draw than the Doctor, Subotsky rather clumsily retitled it  Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD. With Castle and Linden both unavailable, Carry On favourite Bernard Cribbins (later a contender to play the Doctor and ultimately the Doctor’s companion Wilfred Mott) and Jill Curzon replaced them as PC Tom Campbell and Louise, the Doctor’s plucky twenty-something niece. The second film had an increased budget of £286.000, around £50,000 of which was spent on promotion.

In an early example of product placement, the makers of breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs, who helped promote the film, were rewarded with a bold advertisement in a tunnel next to the landing site of the TARDIS. Sugar Puffs gave away a number of Dalek toys and as a top prize a full size Dalek prop in a competition which appeared on its cereal boxes. Sugar Puffs no doubt enjoyed the implication we would still be eating its product nearly 200 years in the future. The lucky Sugar Puffs/Dalek competition winner later sold the Dalek prop at auction for a remarkable £38,000. Other real-life brands seen in the film included Lyons Maid ice cream, Heinz soup, Castrol oil and the (now defunct) newspapers The Daily Sketch and Evening News.

To get more from the budget, Subotsky utilised an impressive street set built on the backlot at Shepperton, which had been used for several recent films including The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, which featured Carole Ann Ford, and Promise Her Anything starring Warren Beatty. For the latter it had been dressed to look like a New York side street, complete with neon signs and fire hydrants, one or two of these survived the redressing for the Dalek film and even made the final cut in what is supposed to be ‘a future London’.

Aside from the Daleks themselves, some of which had appeared in the TV serial The Chase (ironically the potentially third Dalek movie) which was transmitted before the first film was even released, other props from the movies were recycled in various films and TV serials.  A piece of hardware used by the Daleks as a countdown reappeared in the 1966 TV serial The War Machines and again in the following year’s The Underwater Menace. The ‘Shepperton Police Box’ was built for the first Dr Who film in 1965 and was seen again in the film Deep End (1971). To debunk a myth, it wasn’t the box blown up in The New Avengers 1976 episode ‘Target’ – that one belonged to Pinewood. The Dalek Saucer model would reappear in the film The Body Stealers in 1969.

In an unusual crossover, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD was partly adapted for radio. Clips from the soundtrack with explanations by Gordon Gow were broadcast on the Light Programme’s Movietime on 11th November 1966.

Following disappointing box office for the second movie, plans for a third were shelved (although a script for it recently appeared). Had it gone into production, would Peter Cushing have continued as Dr Who, given the role had changed hands on TV to Patrick Troughton? Might Roberta Tovey be considered too old (at fourteen) to play young Susan? Could Roy Castle and Jennie Linden have reprised their roles?

This setback would prove to be the first of many false dawns in the continuing story of resurrecting the Doctor’s big screen career. Several other Who movie projects would be doomed to failure for various reasons…


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