William Russell: Versatile actor and original Doctor Who cast member

William Russell played the lead in ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’  (Mirrorpix/Getty)
William Russell played the lead in ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’ (Mirrorpix/Getty)

The actor William Russell, who has died aged 99, enjoyed a long screen career memorable for three television characters he played in different decades.

First, as King Arthur’s bravest knight and champion of Queen Guinevere, he swashbuckled his way into viewers’ hearts in the title role of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57), an early ITV series.

Sir Lancelot du Lac was seen riding to the rescue of kidnapped princesses, queens and knights in a programme notable for its dramatic fight scenes and attention to seventh-century period detail.

When Doctor Who began, with the grandfatherly William Hartnell taking the part of the 720-year-old Time Lord, Russell played his assistant, Ian Chesterton (1963-65). Together, they travelled all over space and time in the Tardis, a faulty time-travel machine that looked like an old police phone box, and encountered enemies such as the Daleks.

The square-jawed Chesterton, as the science teacher of the Doctor’s granddaughter (played by Carole Ann Ford), provided scientific and historical information for young viewers and was at times in the early days more central to the story than the Time Lord. But it was Hartnell’s character that really caught the viewers’ imaginations.

A quarter of a century later, Russell metamorphosed in Coronation Street into Ted Sullivan (1991-92), who won newsagent Rita Fairclough’s heart.

Although his run in the serial was short, it was notable for his understated performance as the kindly, widowed confectionery sales rep who retired and married Rita, his former customer, keeping from everyone else the tragic secret that he had a terminal brain tumour.

Some Street residents questioned Ted’s intentions, believing he was out to fleece the Kabin boss. “Ted’s not after her money,” explained the actor. “He’s been going to The Kabin for years. For most of that time, he was married. Now, he’s out to enjoy himself. But what I really like about him is that he’s a bit of an adventurer and he’s full of enthusiasm.”

Just three months after his register-office wedding to Rita, everyone found out the truth when Ted died peacefully while watching Percy Sugden take part in a bowling match.

William Russell (second left) in the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Aztecs’, featuring John Ringham (left), Jacqueline Hill, William Hartnell and Keith Pyott (Moore/Fox Photos/Getty)
William Russell (second left) in the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Aztecs’, featuring John Ringham (left), Jacqueline Hill, William Hartnell and Keith Pyott (Moore/Fox Photos/Getty)

He had started the day of his marriage in pain, unable to use his fingers, but the ceremony went ahead as planned after he took a dose of painkillers. Although Rita had to witness his steady decline, she always looked back on her short, second marriage as one of the happiest periods of her life.

The actor’s own life began in 1924 in Sunderland, where he was born William Russell Enoch, the son of Eva (née Pile) and Alfred Enoch, a business executive.

He started acting at school, graduated in English from Trinity College, Oxford, where he performed in plays, then organised shows while serving with the RAF, before working professionally in repertory theatre.

For most of his career, he acted as both William Russell and Russell Enoch. In the West End, he was seen alongside Alec Guinness in Hamlet (New Theatre, 1951) and played Tom Lattimer in Doris Lessing’s Play with a Tiger (Comedy Theatre, 1962). He also toured Russia and Poland with the Old Vic Theatre company (1960-61).

During stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company (1969-71 and 1988-90), his roles included Provost in Measure for Measure, Salisbury in King John and Dr Brodsky in A Clockwork Orange.

Later, he played the King of France in Henry V during the New Globe Theatre’s opening season (1997).

In the cinema, for a while the actor seemed typecast in war films such as The Gift Horse (1952), They Who Dare (1953), The Malta Story (1953) and Above Us the Waves (1955), although he was also seen alongside Norman Wisdom in the comedy One Good Turn (1954). Then, in The Great Escape (1963), he played Sorren, the pipe-smoking flight lieutenant in charge of surveillance.

Russell’s TV break came with the title role in the children’s serial St Ives (1955), based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventures, which he reprised when the BBC remade it five years later.

He also took the title roles in Nicholas Nickleby (1957) and Hamlet (1961), and played Vicomte de Tournay in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955), The Prince in The Sleeping Beauty (1955) and the secret service agent Martin Kennedy in the thriller serial Breaking Point (1966).

In the afternoon soap Harriet’s Back in Town (1972-73), Russell starred as newly divorced Tom Preston for the entire run.

He returned to the role of Ian Chesterton, recalling his adventures with the Time Lord, for the DVDs Doctor Who: The Crusade (1999) and Doctor Who: Planet of Giants (2012), and seven episodes (2009-14) in a series of audio releases, Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles. Then, in 2022, Russell played the part on screen again – a one-line cameo – for The Power of the Doctor, a special for the BBC’s centenary celebrations, making him the actor with the longest gap between appearances in the programme.

In 2019, at the age of 94, he joined his actor son Alfred Enoch – who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films – in the Brazilian movie Medida Provisória (Provisional Measure, 2020).

Russell’s first marriage, in 1953, to French actor-turned-painter Balbina Gutierrez, ended in divorce. He is survived by their son Robert and daughters Vanessa and Laetitia, as well as his second wife, Brazilian-born doctor Etheline (nee Lewis), whom he married in 1984, and Alfred, their son.

William Russell, actor, born 19 November 1924, died 3 June 2024