Main content

A 1938 episode of Ann and Harold when Ann Todd was actually present.

Choosing the cast for any drama or comedy is one of the most important factors in its success.  Many things have to be taken into account, not just the suitability of a performer for a role, but how they balance against the other actors, whether they are available for the shooting dates, whether – if they are a star name – the production can afford their fee…  Sometimes, however, despite all these efforts, for one reason or another an actor has to be replaced even in the most successful programmes.

There are generally two options when an actor has to be replaced, to recast the role, or in some circumstances to ‘kill off’ the character and devise a replacement – as sometimes the problem is not with the performer, but with the character itself.

In an earlier Post I mentioned the situation with the 1930s comedy series Ann and Harold, where lead actress Ann Todd got a part in a West End play during its run and asked to be released early from the programme.  Television at that time was not in a position to argue it seems, as the series was shortened from 6 to 5 episodes to accommodate her. 

Examples of actors being replaced at the last minute include Dame May Whitty, a legendary figure in theatre and film, who had to withdraw from the second performance of the drama The Royal Family of Broadway on 14 February 1939 due to illness.  In this case as she was a major attraction of the production, the producer George More O’Ferrall made an on-screen apology for her non-appearance before the transmission.  Her role was taken by Betty Romaine, who had played another part in the first performance.

Less high-profile substitutions occurred in series such as Dixon of Dock Green, first broadcast in 1955.  For example in the series 2 episode The Rotten Apple (which had a young Paul Eddington among the cast), the regular character of Inspector Cherry was played by Stanley Beard instead of Robert Cawdron, and A.J. Brown played Alderman Mayhew in place of the billed Geoffrey Wincott. 

Z Cars and other products of the BBC drama department documentary unit in the 50s and early 60s did not make public any cast substitutions, as they did not publish cast lists in Radio Times.  But being live they were still susceptible to accidents of fate.  In the case of the episode The Share Out in 1965, an actress died just over a week before transmission and had to be replaced.  Even when Z Cars returned as a twice-weekly, videotaped  series in spring 1967, its relentless schedule occasionally meant that lead actors missed a week and replacement characters were hurriedly written in to cover the gap.

Not the Lad 'Imself

Another notable substitution in another genre occurred with the second series of the radio Hancock’s Half-Hour in 1955.  Tony Hancock was under a lot of pressure with stage commitments, and as the second series was about to start, producer Dennis Main Wilson was informed that Hancock had left the country…  It was the first major indication of the nerves that were to afflict the rest of Hancock’s career and contributed to his battle with alcoholism.  While attempting to locate his star and coax him back, Main Wilson still needed to produce a show, and turned to a friend and colleague, who he knew from the early years of The Goon Show – Harry Secombe.  While Secombe was a very different character to Hancock, he was willing and able to step in and replace him for three episodes. 

Cast substitutions happened with the Goon Show too, though the circumstances were different.  Over the long run of the show, from its early days under the title Crazy People in 1951, there were occasions when all of the main cast missed episodes.  In the case of Secombe and Peter Sellers it was minor illness that prevented them appearing, and various colleagues stepped in – more difficult in the case of the multi-voiced Sellers, who required more than one replacement, including the likes of Kenneth Connor, Dick Emery, and, resurrected from ITMA, Jack Train’s Colonel Chinstrap, who was anyway not too dissimilar from Sellers’ character Major Bloodnok. 

It was Spike Milligan who suffered the longest absence however, when he had a full blown nervous breakdown, caused by, among other things, the pressure of producing scripts every week, and the after-effects of post-traumatic stress, as it would now be termed, a result of his service in the Italy in World War Two.  The fourth original cast member was Michael Bentine, but he clashed with Milligan over the direction of the series and decided to leave after two series.

The first of the Last of the Summer Wine.

One series that had a large number of cast changes over the years was Last of the Summer Wine.  Originally a Comedy Playhouse transmitted in January 1973, with Michael Bates as Cyril Blamire, Bill Owen as Compo Simmonite and Peter Sallis as Norman Clegg, a series followed the same year.  After the second series Bates left due to ill-health, although he continued in his role in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, presumably as, being mostly studio-based, it was less arduous.  Blamire was replaced by Foggy Dewhurst, played by Brian Wilde, who stayed for nine years.  Foggy was then replaced by Michael Aldridge’s Seymour Utterthwaite, before returning briefly in 1990.  Illness forced his replacement by Frank Thornton as ex-policeman ‘Truly’ Truelove, and though Wilde had wanted to return, this never happened.  Bill Owen himself died in 1999, and was replaced by his son Tom Owen, playing Compo’s son.  As the programme continued, while some secondary characters were not replaced, the regular cast gradually increased, in part to lessen the burden on the central trio, and by the last series a completely new group of characters were roaming the Dales, with Peter Sallis’s Clegg making cameo appearances – though it was he who delivered the series’ last line when it finally ended in August 2010.

A similar thing occurred more recently with the popular police series New Tricks, which shed the original cast members in its last few years, until by the end the four leads were all different (but at least they kept Dennis Waterman singing the theme tune).  Waterman, the last of the originals to go, had been in the situation before when he left the ITV series Minder after many successful years, and back at the beginning of his career, when he had starred in the BBC William series in 1962.  He was replaced by Denis Gilmore in the 1963 series – well, the name was close enough...

It is clear that the replacement of a character is a far more common occurrence than the replacement of the actor playing a part.  Obviously there are reasons for that, not least the credibility problem of a character suddenly having a different face.  In ensemble dramas that can be got round in part by having the character disappear for a while, and when they return hopefully people will accept the new actor – although obviously their performance is likely to be different from the original.

One of the most obvious examples of the replacement of the actor playing a character is of course Doctor Who, where it has become part of the format that the lead role can be played by someone else.  By 1966, the original Doctor, William Hartnell, had difficulty learning lines and was generally ailing physically, but the BBC did not want to end the series – its instigator, Sydney Newman, was still head of drama and was reluctant to dispose of his brainchild.  The fact that it had been established from the start that the Doctor was from another planet, led to the brainwave that he could change his face.  When Hartnell was transformed into Patrick Troughton at the end of the story The Tenth Planet, it was rationalised that he had rejuvenated, as if Troughton was just a younger version of Hartnell.  Indeed, his costume was similar to his predecessor’s, and actually changed along with his body...  

The Doctor reads aloud from his 500-year diary, unaware that the Tardis is bugged.

A few months into the reign of the new Doctor, there was another kind of substitution when the character of Chicki was played by Sandra Bryant in episode one and by Karol Keyes in episode four of the adventure The Macra Terror – Bryant had been contracted for both episodes, but asked to be released after the first recording.  At the time the show was being recorded just a week in advance of transmission.  As the character was relatively minor, it’s likely the production team assumed no-one would notice the difference.

After the first recasting of the lead role, it was often uncertain whether the show would be cancelled when subsequent lead actors decided to leave.  This was certainly the case in 1969 when Patrick Troughton left, and the BBC actively looked for a replacement series.  On a personal note, I for one was not happy with the change at the time – aged 5 ½ I was assured by my (lovely) older sisters at the end of Troughton’s final story that he was dead;  when the Doctor returned to television some six months later in the guise of Jon Pertwee, instead of being reassured, the style of the programme had changed to a much scarier, violent, adult version, which put me off watching for the next two years…

By the time Tom Baker took over in 1974, Doctor Who had become a ratings-winner, but this was no longer the case when he left seven seasons later.  Through the 1980s the series did recover viewers at first, but after its ‘rest’ in 1985-6 audiences gradually reduced, partly due to erratic and unfavourable scheduling, with two more changes of lead from Peter Davison to Colin Baker, and then Sylvester McCoy.  An American co-produced TV movie with Paul McGann in 1996 failed to take off despite good ratings in the UK, and it was not until 2005 that a new series emerged, starring Christopher Eccleston.  Eccleston unexpectedly bowed out after only one season, replaced in turn by David Tennant, Matt Smith, and the current incumbent Peter Capaldi.

But Doctor Who is a unique case.  We find it hard to adjust to well-known characters seeming to become other people.  There are exceptions, though it helps if you get in early. 

Recasting occasionally happens in soap operas, most commonly with child actors who cannot or will not continue to appear as a particular character – and a child actor cannot be guaranteed to turn into a convincing performer when they get older.  Occasionally an adult part is recast, as in the case of Mark Fowler, following the suicide of original actor David Scarboro, replaced some time later by Todd Carty.  The redoubtable Peggy Mitchell too was originally played by Jo Warne, but she was only in the series briefly;  when the character returned in 1994 she had morphed into Barbara Windsor.  Another member of the Mitchell family, Sam, was first played by Daniella Westbrook, but following a troubled history with the programme due to her cocaine use, Kim Medcalf was brought in to replace her in 2002.  Yet when the character came back again briefly in 2009, Westbrook played the role again.

Typecasting can be the bane of an actor’s life, and being known for one part can prevent them getting more interesting and different work – it’s certainly one of the reasons for people leaving a role, they hope, not too late to escape it.  Rupert Davies, star of Maigret from 1960-63, certainly felt that the series blighted his career, though he still returned to the part in a 1969 Play of the Month.  Ironically he had not been in the 1959 edition of Sunday-Night Theatre which acted as a pilot for the series.  It’s a testament in a way to the strength of an actor’s performance if we cannot accept them as anyone else than the part that made them famous.  It is however much harder to accept someone else playing that role.

Replacement characters are another matter altogether – but viewers I’m sure are not always sorry to see the cast of long-running series refreshed from time to time.  With the accidents of mortality, or just the wishes of actors to spread their wings after a time, it is something that we all have to get used to.

Have you had a traumatic reaction to a new Doctor Who actor? Do you get confused by the changing faces of soap actors?  Have you missed or welcomed replacement actors in your favourite series, from Dixon and Z Cars to Casualty and New Tricks?  Let us know…

More Posts




Genome hits another important milestone