Peter Davison Interview
The ‘Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular’ star talks to Adam Sweeting about David Tennant and being happy to slag off ‘Doctor Who’
The actors who have played the title role in Doctor Who down the decades have learnt that, as the Eagles sang, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”. When Peter Davison signed on to play the fifth incarnation of the timeless Time Lord in 1981, he feared becoming typecast and opted to sign a contract for only three years. Yet, more than 30 years after he quit the role, the Doctor still looms large in his life.
He’s about to go out on a six-city UK tour as host of the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, where the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will play music composed for the programme by Murray Gold, much of it for Peter Capaldi’s current embodiment of the Doctor.
“On the TV you have images on the screen and then you have the music in the background,” Davison points out. “Here you have the symphony orchestra on stage and the video clips in the background, so the focus is reversed. The music is great and it’s very powerful. It’s mainly families and children who come to these events, and they would probably never listen to a symphony orchestra play otherwise.”
Davison was born Peter Moffett in Streatham in 1951, the son of Claude, an electrical engineer from British Guiana, and his wife, Sheila. Growing up in Surrey, he wasn’t academically inclined but shone in school plays and amateur theatricals before attending the Central School of Speech and Drama in north London. You can still see vestiges of the boyish, blond Doctor in Davison, even if he has acquired a little more weight and lost a little hair.
Despite the fact that, after our interview, he’s due onstage at the Savoy Theatre, where he’s playing Herbie in the hit musical Gypsy (which received a five-star rave from the Telegraph’s theatre critic), he seems to have all the time in the world to reel off actorly anecdotes. A couple involve David Tennant, who not only played the 10th Doctor from 2005-10 but is also Davison’s son-in-law, having met his daughter Georgia when she appeared (as the Doctor’s daughter) in an episode of the series in 2008. They married three years later.
“David didn’t ask me for any tips on the role, but I took my two sons to the filming of his first episode in London, and he was fantastic, very nice and very welcoming,” Davison says. “Later on things changed when he married my daughter, and that is rather weird. I don’t know if either of us have really come to terms with it. But I think he did a great job in the show, and I do like the fact that I was ‘his’ Doctor Who when he was growing up.”
Although fate has decreed that Davison and the Doctor must remain umbilically linked, his CV is still like a mystery tour of 40 years of British television. Even before Doctor Who, he’d become a national favourite as daft-as-a-brush Tristan Farnon in the BBC’s vets series All Creatures Great and Small, and his credits stretch from A Very Peculiar Practice to At Home with the Braithwaites and ITV’s Law & Order: UK.
“I moved on quite easily from Doctor Who, but I’ve always been happy to do anything that was to do with it,” he says. “But Tom Baker, who played the Doctor before me for seven years, had to close the door for a good number of years. He wouldn’t do any appearances or talk about Doctor Who, because he just wanted to get rid of it.”
Davison often attends fan conventions and has made Who-related documentaries, not least his self-directed The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, a comic account of several ex-Doctors trying to get roles in the 50th anniversary special, which was included in a “collector’s edition” box set. He particularly enjoys getting together with Janet Fielding, who played his on-screen companion Tegan, to record commentaries for DVD releases of vintage episodes. These have become celebrated for their satirical tone, with the pair happy to ridicule crude special effects or the overuse of the Doctor’s “sonic screwdriver”.
“We just sit there slagging the programme off, and the fans love it,” he says. “I kept saying to Janet, ‘We’d better tone it down a bit’, but you meet the fans and they go, ‘We loved that commentary because you’re so rude about the programme.'”
The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, with its video clips of the various Doctors and walk-on appearances by such fabled adversaries as the Cybermen and the Daleks, has grown out of the Doctor Who Prom, which made its debut at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008. It’s making its first UK appearance after sell-out tours in Australia and New Zealand.
“I introduced a segment of the 2013 Doctor Who Prom onstage,” Davison says, “and I think because it went down rather well they said, ‘Do you fancy doing a tour of Australia?’ Doctor Who has always had a very high profile in Australia, and the 50th anniversary of the first-ever episode was while we were out there.”
Davison reckons the fundamental essence of Doctor Who hasn’t changed since his day, but following its relaunch in 2005 under the guidance of writer Russell T Davies, the once-ramshackle show, famous for wobbly sets and absurd costumes, has been transformed by generous budgets, cutting-edge computer effects and far more ambitious writing, with fanatics Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss now adding their idiosyncratic expertise to the mix.
Back in the Eighties, Davison recalls, “we were sold to 39 countries and we earned the BBC a lot of money, but all we got was budget cuts.”
He makes a point of keeping up with the revolving door of Doctors.
“I interviewed Peter Capaldi for a documentary, and he said, ‘I just wanted to play it like I didn’t know if the human race was worth saving. Why has the Doctor been running around for the last 50 years trying to save the human race?’ I thought it was a very interesting take, but again he’s a huge Doctor Who fan.”
Unlike (11th Doctor) Matt Smith, it seems. “Matt had never seen the series in his life! I had lunch with him at Steven Moffat’s house and he said, ‘When the Doctor meets his enemies, why doesn’t he just kill them?’ Steven sent him away with a huge carton of Doctor Who videos and said, ‘Watch these.'”
Meanwhile, Davison is looking for fresh challenges, like his role in Gypsy, the classic Jule Styne/ Stephen Sondheim musical based on the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. He’s such a familiar TV face that his stage career is often overlooked – his first professional job was at the Nottingham Playhouse, and he’s done his fair share of Shakespeare and Stoppard – and in his mid-60s, he has suddenly found himself turning into a song-and-dance man. He played King Arthur in Spamalot and Prof Callahan in Legally Blonde, opposite Sheridan Smith.
Davison claims modestly that “I don’t think I have a particularly pleasant voice, rather gruff and husky”, but he can claim some authentic musical credentials. He plays guitar and piano and has even composed TV theme tunes, including the title music of the children’s classic Button Moon.
He is modest, too, about his career. He suggests he got the role in All Creatures Great and Small because he happened to look as if he could be co-star Robert Hardy’s brother, and suspects he was cast in At Home With the Braithwaites because “they had this rather unpleasant character so they thought, ‘Let’s get someone who plays nice blokes and whom the audience will like.'”
He did go a bit quiet in the Nineties, but, nevertheless, his career batting average is a thespian marvel. He came out of drama school with the motto “never do a soap opera”, and it has served him well. Does he share the widespread actor’s terror of not working?
“I suppose I don’t, because I think you get to a certain point and you can always work,” he says. “It’s a question of whether that work is a slow spiral into oblivion over a number of years. But I hit retirement age next April so I’m not really worried about much really, except how long I can keep going.”