The Sunday Times
You have to sign the equivalent of the Official Secrets Act to get into the BBC studios in Cardiff where they film Doctor Who. You will not photograph, record or discuss anything you see. You can go to the Doctor Who Experience down the road if you want to see models of Daleks, but the studio is top-security. This makes it hard to do an interview with Peter Capaldi, and I can’t understand why we’re not meeting in Crouch End, near our respective homes. But Doctor Who, I soon learn, is a cult and I am penetrating its Holy of Holies. Trouble is, it’s a cult I don’t belong to, so when the press officer says, in awed terms, that she might be able to let me touch the actual Tardis, I just stare.
Eventually Capaldi joins me in a characterless BBC meeting room, with a plate of biscuits by way of lunch. The first thing that strikes me is that he has aged an awful lot since he played Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (he is 58) and that he seems terribly tired, with bloodshot eyes. He explains that he was doing a night shoot until 11.30pm the night before. And they have been filming 12 hours a day for almost nine months, with only a short break at Christmas, so he is pretty exhausted. “I’ve never done a show like this before. For The Thick of It we did, like, 20 episodes over four years — it was not intense like this. This is a television factory — you have to deliver, and everyone works incredibly hard.” It meant that when he injured his knee while filming the last series he had to carry on filming and wait for surgery until the series was complete. Then he had a long layoff to recover. “I pretty much couldn’t walk. You might have seen me hobbling around Crouch End with a stick. But Matt [Smith], who is much younger than me, ended up with exactly the same injury because it’s all running down corridors, spinning on one leg, getting shot — they call it Doctor’s Knee.”
How Peter Capaldi put his stamp on Doctor Who
Another effect of working so hard is that “you become slightly institutionalised, because if you want a cup of coffee someone gets it for you. I’ve been here three years and I couldn’t take you from here to the studio — well, I could, vaguely — because normally someone comes to my trailer and collects me, and if I wander off there’s always someone following me.” (This is borne out later when I ask where the loo is and he doesn’t know.) He stays in Cardiff during the week, then goes home to his wife and daughter in Muswell Hill, north London, from Friday night to Sunday night. The transition, he says, can be difficult — he comes home still believing himself to be the Doctor and then his wife asks him to sort the recycling. “My family keep my feet on the ground,” he complains, “but I don’t want my feet on the ground!” Luckily his marriage is known to be one of the strongest in showbiz — he once described the moment he met his wife, Elaine Collins, as the moment in time he’d most like to travel back to.
He will soon be seeing more of the recycling and less of the gofers because this series of Doctor Who (which launches on April 15) will be his last. He will return to Cardiff in the summer to film the Christmas Special, but then he leaves the Tardis for good. No one yet knows who the next Doctor will be. There seems to be a general feeling, at least among women, that it should be a woman — Olivia Colman and Tilda Swinton have been mentioned and Capaldi says he’d love it to be Frances de la Tour, who starred in Rising Damp in the 1970s — but the bookies’ favourite at present is Ben Whishaw, since they have suspended betting on Kris Marshall, best known for his roles in Love Actually and the BBC sitcom My Family. Whatever — I believe him when he says he has no idea. The showrunner, chief writer and executive producer, Steven Moffat, is leaving at the same time as him and Chris Chibnall from Broadchurch is taking over, so the choice of the next Doctor will be up to the new regime.
I am hoping Capaldi will be like Malcolm Tucker and shout and swear at me a lot. But no, he talks very quietly and diffidently, and never loses his temper, though there is a rather steely glint when I ask whether he ever sees Chris Langham, who starred in the first series of The Thick of It, then went to prison for downloading child pornography. No, he doesn’t, he says. End of subject. There is also a rather tricky exchange when I ask why he hasn’t got an OBE. “Well, I’m not really that interested. I think it’s lovely that people get them, but it’s not really my thing.” So was he offered one and refused? “Well, I don’t know that that’s the proper …” I take that as a yes, I tell him, and he laughs.
A more baffling exchange comes when I say I’ve read that he’d like to play Jeremy Corbyn. He looks alarmed: “I didn’t say that. Honestly, I’ve never said that.” So I show him the Evening Standard, dated November 5, 2015: Jeremy Corbyn “would be an amazing character to play”. And he concedes: “I don’t remember saying that, but perhaps I did.” So even now a scriptwriter might be beavering away on a Corbynish script? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful transition — from Doctor Who to Jeremy Corbyn? “No. I don’t really want to do another political thing. I’ve done enough of that, being a man in a suit shouting at other men. I want to do something different, with a big wig. I want to get dressed up!”
By the time he finishes, Capaldi will have played the Doctor for three series, the same as his predecessors David Tennant and Matt Smith, so he feels he’s served his time. “I was not sure how long you could keep doing this and be doing your best. My fear was that if I went on, I’d end up phoning it in. Because there’s so little preparation time, you’re mostly flying by the seat of your pants — which is exciting, but I worried I might not be able to keep on doing it as well as I’d like to.”
And perhaps BBC top brass were keen on a change anyway? Ratings have been falling, from a peak of 11m when Doctor Who came back in 2005 after a break of 16 years, to an average of 6.5m now — including people who watch on catch-up. But also, as Capaldi complains, the start time kept changing to fit in with Strictly, so sometimes Doctor Who ran over the watershed. “If you want families to watch it together, you have to put it on at the same time every week so that people can gather. That’s what I used to do with my family. And why would you put it on at 8.50, when the week before it was on at 7.30? That battle for Saturday-night ratings is a challenge and I think Doctor Who gets fed into that. But I say that with the deepest affection for the BBC — they do a fabulous job, and this show is one that is beloved.”
Doctor Who has also fallen in the Audience Appreciation Index, with complaints that the plotlines were getting too convoluted and self-indulgent and that some scenes were too frightening for children to watch at all. There is also a feeling among some fans that Capaldi is too old (he was the oldest Doctor since the original one, William Hartnell) and that it was cheesy to pair a middle-aged Doctor with a young, nubile assistant. Capaldi insisted there would be no “chemistry” between them, but even so it looked wrong. The general feeling is that the next Doctor must be younger.
When he finishes a long job like this, does he put out feelers that he’s looking for new parts? “Not really. I wouldn’t know what was happening. You’d have to be in touch with all that, and out and about, and I’m not. I’m quite passive — I’ve tried to be active and that’s not worked out, I just get embarrassed. And I’m of an age where all the casting directors know me, so what am I meant to do — go to cocktail parties and hope they see me in a new light? The whole thing is so volatile, you can’t exercise any control. I always remember I had an absolutely terrible year, I think it was 2004, with no work at all. I was stoating around Crouch End, in Budgens all day long, miserable, and thinking it was so bad we might have to sell the house. And then suddenly it all changed: I was offered The Thick of It, and I was working all the time. But I have no idea why it changed and that was when it struck me: it is pure luck.” That must be frightening? “It is, but that’s what you have to accept as an actor. And the upside is you get to do this fabulous thing that you love.”
I’ve done enough of being a man in a suit. I want to get dressed up — with a big wig
He grew up in a Glasgow tenement (his grandfather was Italian by origin, his parents ran an ice-cream business) and went to a “very ordinary” comprehensive where there were no drama lessons. But he watched a lot of television and films and always knew acting was what he wanted to do. He applied to drama school, but was rejected, so a teacher suggested he go to Glasgow School of Art instead because he was good at drawing. And in fact he had plenty of acting opportunities at art school because everyone was making little videos and films. He was also the lead singer and guitarist in a punk band called — blush — the Dreamboys, with his friend Craig Ferguson, who became an American late-night TV show host. When Capaldi appeared on his show in 2013, Ferguson introduced him with the words: “I’ve actually taken acid with my next guest.”
Anyway, Capaldi thinks it was good he went to art school because he got into punk and film-making and later scripted and directed a short film starring Richard E Grant called Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which actually won an Oscar in 1995. “Whereas if I’d gone to drama school, I think I would have become a very dull actor. Their idea was to sort of blank out the person you were and make you a new person, and that would not have been good.”
Capaldi as the sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of ItBBC
So he was kicking around trying to be a punk singer when one day he found Bill Forsyth, the director of Gregory’s Girl, in his landlady’s kitchen and stopped to chat. “I’d had too much to drink, but I suppose I was reasonably entertaining. And he said to me, ‘Would you like to be in a film?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course’ — assuming it was just one of these little films, but it turned out to be Local Hero. So to go from sitting around drinking lager and eating curry at art school to acting with Burt Lancaster — that was wonderful!”
Lancaster, he says, gave him a useful tip: when you have to appear to be talking to someone while walking away from camera, but have no actual script, you can just recite numbers — and he grandly recites 25, 26, 27 in a perfect imitation of Lancaster.
But how do you learn to act if you never have any training? “I suppose you learn from the directors you work with, and by being in lots of things and keeping your eyes open and wanting to learn.” He thinks he learnt most from Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It. “Because he created a whole way of working that was radical. Film-making normally is quite a traditional process — you shoot a wide shot and then you come in and do a mixed shot and a close-up and everybody is used to doing that. You hear them saying, ‘I’m going to put on an 85mm lens,’ and you know they’re going to do a close-up and you modulate your performance to suit that lens. So it’s very radical if someone like Armando comes in and says, ‘We’re not going to do that — the cameraman is not going to know where he stands, so you just act and he decides how to shoot it. And the cameras were all zoom lenses, so you never knew if they were close or wide, so all you can do then is just be truthful. But you also have to be word-perfect, because it’s a beautifully written script. So he shows you this fiery new thing, and once you’ve worked with Armando — and I think most of the actors who have worked with him would say this — it’s difficult to go back.”
A wonderful wife: Capaldi in 1993 with Elaine Collins, his future wife, while making Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, for which he won an OscarREX
The Thick of It made Capaldi well known in Britain, but Doctor Who brought him a whole new level of global fame — it is licensed to 189 countries. When he went to the San Diego Comic-Con convention two years ago, he was assigned six security guards because, they said, he would get mobbed any time he left the hotel. (Eventually he snuck out without his minders and, he laughs, nobody recognised him at all!) But there is no question that he is now a global name. Does that translate into more money? “Well, I would hope so! But filming Doctor Who has been so all-consuming, I haven’t been out in the world to get a job. I’m about to face all that. And of course it pushes all your buttons, all your old anxieties come tearing back, but you hope that more fame affords you more choice. But actually I have no idea.”
The first thing he’ll do when he finishes filming is take his wife for a long holiday. “Because it’s been nine months of separation, so it will be great to get back together and have our life back.” His wife, Elaine, was an actress when they met in 1983, but became a television producer — she has worked on Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn, and the recent Shetland series. He says the offer to play the Doctor came just at the right time because Elaine was busy, and their daughter, Cecily, was just leaving for university, so it was OK for him to be in Cardiff. But seeing his wife only at weekends has been a strain.
In 2004, I had no work at all. I was in Budgens all day, thinking we might have to sell the house
His last day as the Doctor will be in July, when they make the Christmas Special. Will he cry? “Quite possibly. I’ve cried already — no, not really. But they’re such a nice group of people here, I’ll miss them terribly. And, you know, it’s the end of something. I’ve never done anything for three years before. Also, it’s a kind of magical thing, Doctor Who. It’s connected to my childhood and it brings this very warm response from people, children and fans of all different stripes. But then it’s over.”
Or maybe not. Maybe, he says, he’ll turn up at fan conventions. He hasn’t done it yet because he’s been too busy working, but “There might come a day … Have you seen the film Galaxy Quest? It’s about the cast of something like Star Trek, which they made years ago and they all hate each other, but the only way they can eke out a living is by going to these conventions — it’s very funny. So I think that’s the life that could be in store.” Wouldn’t he find it a bit shameful? “I don’t think it’s shameful! It’s a lucky position to be in because most actors go from job to job — and I’ve been extremely blessed — but you don’t have a pension or anything. Whereas doing something like conventions you can just go on and on. And everyone does them — Harry Potter, Game of Thrones. I don’t want to spend my life doing that, but all I’m saying is, I’m lucky that I have that option. But I’m not there yet, so I don’t know.”
Doctor Who begins on BBC1 on Saturday April 15