Peter Davison interview: Doctor Who, naked Germans, Campion

From Doctor Who and The FiveIsh Doctors to Campion and Button Moon: we chat to the fifth Doctor, Mr Peter Davison...

Ah, the mighty Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor, All Creatures Great And Small, Campion, and living in a house with Freddy from Rainbow are just some of the topics we chatted to him about, ahead of the publication of his terrific autobiography, Is There Life Outside The Box.

We’ve got a fair bit to get through, so without further ado….

I got a sense you thoroughly enjoyed writing this book, once you were over some initial research-y hurdles. Would that be fair?

Yeah, that’s fair. It was kind of a journey, really. A reassembling. I’ve had these memories, and it was really a chance to put them down on paper and order them. Everything fragments as you get older, and things come out, just not in the order they happened. I did have fun writing it.

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As I’m from Den Of Geek, there’s only one logical place to start when talking to you. So let’s do Campion! I was the teenager in Britain who was addicted to Campion when it was on, appreciating that it was skewed towards a slightly older demographic than I fitted at the time.

What’s interesting in the book is that you talk about why it was cancelled after two series. That the stories were difficult to adapt into episodes, and the show ended as a consequence of that. Whereas today, more writers I’d imagine would be hired to make it work, if it was a hit show.

I think they would. They were quite faithful to the books. They loved the books, but they were very complicated. I don’t think we had ‘previously on…’ Campion at the beginning of every episode, and I think people had difficulty catching up with what had happened in the previous weeks. It might have been better if they’d revamped them, made them a little more straightforward for television. Agatha Christie was not a patch on Margery Allingham, but her stories are much simpler to adapt!

ITV would break the formula by scheduling Inspector Morse in two hour instalments rather than one just a few years later. I wonder if that’s the format that would, ultimately, have suited Campion more?

I think it would have been, yes.

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When Big Finish want to do Campion episodes, do let us know.

I’ve already suggested it to them [laughs]. I think it’d be rather good. It’d be just tricky finding a Brian Glover replacement. A fantastic, slightly bizarre, Yorkshire Cockney.

I love through the book that characters such as Brian Glover make cameo appearances. You’ve an anecdote about him turning up the morning after a heavy night…

“I was with you last night” [Laughs]. He was fantastic, such a character.

The thing I really didn’t know from your past was that you used to live, in your student days, with Freddy from Rod, Jane and Freddy [of Rainbow fame, of course]. And that Freddy was seemingly in your student house when it was raided by the police!

[Editor’s note: there’s no implication of illegal behaviour on Freddy’s part. Nor Rod or Jane, just to be clear].

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He was certainly in the house! I can’t remember now if he was dragged down to the police station or not, I’ll be honest with you. That’s why I was a bit vague about it. We all lived in this house, and nothing was found on Fred. A couple of them ended up having a court case though, I think.

I hadn’t even seen any form of drugs in my life, but had I gone back to the house a day earlier, I suspect I would have been down the police station as well. But it was entirely innocent! I know nothing came of it all.

You were all framed. I’ll write that down.

The other finest pub trivia fact about you, of course, is that you co-wrote the theme tune to Button Moon. And you do make the point in the book that it’s readers of a certain vintage who seem to be bring that up. I’m happy to be of that vintage, so I’m bringing it up.

What I didn’t appreciate was that it started life as a very different song, called Dancing In The Dark. How different were the lyrics? Was there an edgy version of the Button Moon theme tune?

[Laughs] They were entirely different! Once I transferred the original idea to the Button Moon theme, I never finished Dancing In The Dark. I would have felt very weird singing different lyrics to theme tune to Button Moon!

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But I don’t think it’s unusual. At that time I was taking myself quite seriously as a songwriter. I don’t think it’s unusual for people who were writing songs to have an idea in their head, and then change it completely. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Adele’s theme tune to the Bond movie [Skyfall] had been entirely different two weeks before.

I think if you have a tune in your head, and someone rings up and says we need a song for this, you go I’ll use that. It’s a very practical approach to it.

Was there ever a temptation to do more TV theme music? Were you ever tempted to go all Dennis Waterman on us?

When you mention Dennis Waterman, that’s what made me not do it! He’s a bit too synonymous with ‘can I write the theme tune to this’. ‘I’ll do the show if I can write the theme tune’.

I did do the theme tune to Mixed Blessings, but I wasn’t in it. I’ll be honest: I’ve been tempted to say things like that, but I’ve never been quite able to suggest it to anyone, and nobody has asked me! If I was doing a series and somebody said ‘hey, would you like to write the theme tune to this?’, I probably would have jumped at it. But nobody did, and I wasn’t prepared to put myself in the same frame as Dennis Waterman. Not that he doesn’t write fine and lovely songs! I just think it’s a step too far!

In terms of other temptations, right throughout the book there are moments of you with a camera in your hand, a video camera, or still camera. As much as music has been a constant love in your life, filming, and being the other side of the camera, seems to be as well. You directed the quite brilliant The FiveIsh Doctors Reboot for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, but has there been a temptation to explore directing further?

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There was a huge temptation, yes.

The first few things I did, All Creatures, the sitcoms, even Doctor Who, I would find myself in a position quite often, because I was doing so much of it – I remember thinking quite arrogantly that this directing thing isn’t that hard. Maybe I should pursue that, if acting gave me up. That was the proviso, really.

At the time, the BBC did a very good director’s course, and I did explore the possibility of taking it. You needed two sponsors or something, I think I asked David Tucker who directed A Very Peculiar Practice if he’d sponsor me. But acting didn’t really give me up.

Even in my years in the wilderness, I was still doing too much to chance my arm and go and try the directing course. And by that time, once you work with better directors, David Tucker, people like that, I realised that there was a lot more to it.

Directors who used to direct Doctor Who were good, they were very competent. But I always seemed to know more about the storyline, for example, than the directors ever did. I’d always be saying things like, this doesn’t make sense, we have to do the scene like this.

When you work with the better directors, and they’re framing shots and finding angles, I realised there was a lot I don’t know. But I was tempted. The FiveIsh Doctors Reboot, it was such a brilliant time. It was almost like I was putting everything I hadn’t quite got around to into that short time.

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I remember when it appeared. It was brilliant, and it pretty much exploded our website.

Ah, thank you! I remember reading the night of the 50th… we went back after the terrible after show thing…

Terrible? It was legendary!

[Laughs] And we went back and read all these things coming through on websites about us. It was brilliant.

There’s also a tone of underpinning cultural change throughout the book. You write about coming to All Creatures Great And Small for the first time, and the generosity of Christopher Timothy as an actor. In the midst of that, you put across the sense that rehearsal time was important, and built in. That the BBC was a very different ship. Then you mention, after Campion, how the BBC moved from giving you three weeks to film an episode, down to two. With the likes of All Creatures, did it rely on that rehearsal time?

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I think it was very useful. But we had it because mainly, the studio time was very limited. The idea was that if you got the actors to rehearse for ten days, they would get through the scenes much more effectively. If we were filming All Creatures now, we’d almost certainly be doing it on single cameras, and we wouldn’t have any rehearsal at all. It was very useful, yeah, that period.

But if you ask me to choose between the old and the new way of doing it, I’d probably choose the new one. All those shows that were studio based were very definitely studio based. They had a certain charm about them, but it always amazes me the difference between rehearsing for ten days and going into the studio with five movable cameras, and the way of doing it later on.

The way we did At Home With The Braithwaites, which was a very script-concentrated show, we didn’t have rehearsals at all. We came in every day, blocked the scene, obviously you learned your words, but we did it. And the end result was just as good, if not better. I don’t know then how much you miss the old way. It was just a different system. If you look at it, it’s much better nowadays. Studio shows like Doctor Who or All Creatures were compromised all along.

Now, too, it’s more commonplace for a leading actor to be given the opportunity to direct an episode too.

Yes. Usually now, if you’re in a moderately successful show, you can say I’ll do another series if you let me direct one of the episodes. Oddly, I can usually tell the ones that have been directed by the actors, because they’re always a bit weird! [Laughs] Maybe, again, it was something that crossed my mind when I did certain shows. But in the end, I don’t quite know why I didn’t. Maybe I’m just not very brave!

Is directing something you’ve definitely ruled out now?

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No. When I did The FiveIsh Doctors Reboot, I so enjoyed it and seemed to be able to retain my thought process and storyboard… I was quite organised for me! I thought deep down, I thought that somebody might offer me a job. I have to say that nobody has! I’ve never had to turn down any directing jobs, because nobody’s offered me any!

It may be that I was a bit too stubborn. You have to be prepared to compromise, and that’s what I know directors of any show that has to fit a time slot have to do. I was quite stubborn over The FiveIsh Doctors Reboot, and I think I’d remain stubborn!

I’ll still put it in bold if you want? That should get you some directing work.

Would you mind doing that? [Laughs]

Before we get to Doctor Who, there’s a really haunting story in the book that I found very arresting, and wanted to touch on it.

It was of your grandfather in World War I. That he would walk out into No Man’s Land in the evening, looking for the injured, and calling out to his German equivalent who was doing the same thing. When we talk stories of World War I and comradery between opposing sides, it tends to be the famous story of the Christmas football match. But here you’ve found what to all intents is a small, but very human story. I know we touched on this a little earlier, but how conscious were you of these stories before starting the book?

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Really, most of that came from when I went to visit my Uncle John. I slipped a sound recorder under the sofa, and we talked for around three hours. These were the stories that came out, and he was very definite about that.

And you’re right: it’s the strangest idea that that was the way war was fought. One minute, you’d be mowing down masses of the enemy, and the next, there’d be a halt while you came onto the battlefield. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t be shot. It was just a little truce. After the slaughter, there was a chance for the medical teams from both sides to come onto the battlefield and see if anybody survived. It is an extraordinary thought that that’s what happened.

You’ve written the book yourself too, there’s no sign of a ghost writer.

Every word I’ve written. I’m proud of that.

Rightly so. But you also face a decision when faced with a story like that. How do you present it? How do you tell that story? Were you conscious tonally of how to present certain facets of this book?

I wasn’t a writer, I’m not a writer. It was a journey of… in the end it was writing it for me I suppose, and my children, maybe my grandchildren, as I say in the book.

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I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I know it sounds terrible. I wrote it as it sort of came out. I did find all my father and mother’s history fascinating, but I was concerned that nobody else would find it so. Actually, when I sent it off to the publishers, I was expecting them to say ‘can we cut all this bit’. But they didn’t say that, which was good. My grandfather was important to the fact that I’m here at all, that he was a medic, rather than sent to the front line, where he would have almost certainly been killed.

I interview a few people who have written books, and the number of people who claim not to be writers, yet they’ve just written a book, is fascinating…

[Laughs] [A lot] Yeah, but you know what I mean! If you asked me what you were doing if you were writing a book, I really wouldn’t be able to give you any advice. That’s what I mean! I just sat down and wrote it.

Doctor Who, then.

You talk in the book about producer John Nathan Turner, and his penchant for celebrity casting – there’s a delightful mention of Beryl Reid, for instance. You also talk about seemingly regret over killing Adric, that everyone blames you for, and further regret over Sarah Sutton leaving the show when she did.

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I’m curious if there’s a bit of you that also regrets not having quite as much influence then? You’ve talked about your stubbornness when you direct now. Was any of that stubbornness there when you were effectively an actor for hire in the show at that point in your life?

Even with my stubbornness as a director, I’m not confrontational. I think I can get my way, if it’s possible, by a process of wheedling. I felt very much that way with John.

We had arguments, John and I. We disagreed about several things as time went on. But we were always good friends. It was never refusing to do things, or anything like that. I just remember feeling that it wasn’t right that Sarah was leaving the show. She complemented it. Her role was underdeveloped too, and she was a good actress.

It was a problem for all the companions too: nobody had really figured out how to write companions. John’s idea of making a companion interesting was, in Turlough’s case, of making him want to kill the Doctor. In Janet’s case [Tegan], just not wanting to be there.

Maybe I should have been a bit more demanding. But I’m so obsessed with being part of a happy ship, I hate getting into confrontations. I’m not very good at it. I’m much better at the wheedling process.

You mention confrontation. You talk in the book about the previous Doctors’ relationships with Tom Baker, and the frostiness for instance between Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, that Baker didn’t seem to help at all. You were a much younger man when you took over from Tom Baker, and you do touch on the transition from his Doctor to yours in the book. How was that for you, then, and how have you found things with Tom Baker since?

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I don’t want to exaggerate. Tom and I have never got on badly. He’s always been perfectly polite and rather charming when I’ve met him. It’s just I’m a bit baffled by it, more than anything else.

The rest of us are so much part of a nice team – although Jon, you had to defer to Jon and I was happy to do so, only because he did quite clearly think he was the best Doctor ever!. But if I see Sylvester somewhere, or Colin, we get on. Tom seems to just not want to have much to do with us. He’s not caustic about us. If you asked him about me, even though I’ve not been that nice about him, he’d probably say ‘a charming fellow’ or whatever, and brush it aside. Which is fine.

I once did an advert with him. It was only a picture advert, but it was one where myself, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were advertising a Volvo car. The idea was that it was bigger on the inside. I was very aware at every instance that I was in the middle, to keep the two of them apart! Jon didn’t like Tom.

I get that impression.

I don’t know what Tom thought about Jon, he didn’t really talk about him. But there was certainly a frission between them, a tension there.

In terms of your own time on the show, one of the things that really hit home in the book was when you were making your final story, The Caves Of Androzani. You knew you were leaving, and Graeme Harper came in to direct for the first time. And you give a sense in the book that when he did that, you found Doctor Who for you more than at any other time in the role. You hint there that at a regret, a moment where you wonder if you were doing the right thing, which I’d imagine is natural when leaving a role of such stature.

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But how strong was the thought in your head? That on the last story, you found a new way to do the role. Had circumstances been different, would you have reversed your decision to leave at that point?

I was very tempted. I was tempted all the way to do a fourth season.

I had to make the decision [to leave] ridiculously early, even before I did the third season. By that time, it was irreversible. I can’t remember when it was announced I was leaving, but certainly as far as John Nathan Turner was concerned, I had to make the decision in the middle of doing an All Creatures Great And Small Christmas special.

If we’ve had more stories like The Caves Of Androzani, written by some of the classic writers, I would have been sorely tempted to stay on. But at the same time, I didn’t leave because I didn’t like Doctor Who. I left really because I was still quite young, and I was frankly envious of contemporaries of mine, who were leaving the rehearsal rooms and then coming back doing another part. And I was still there doing Doctor Who.

It was more a practical career decision, rather than something born out of not wanted to do it. Maybe I would have done another year, but I know that I might have regretted it. I was very fortunate, I got a job straight away, and another year might have made the difference between getting another job straight away and people going, he’s been doing Doctor Who for four years.

You went on to do a guest spot on Magnum P.I. So, can I ask the big question: did Tom Selleck let you touch his moustache?

I didn’t ask [laughs] [laughs a bit more].

I’d have asked.

I didn’t want to touch it! I’ve never been fond of moustaches.

But we’re not talking moustaches. We’re talking Tom Selleck’s moustache. You’d have been the first person ever to play the Doctor, write a theme tune to a childrens’ TV show, and touch Tom Selleck’s moustache.

[He’s still laughing] That’s true, that’s true.

You drop one line in the book also that I think we need to address: was Brian Blessed really behind the Brian Blessed should play Doctor Who rumours?

I’ve heard he is behind them, yes! [laughs] I’ve heard that on several occasions he’s rung up and said I’M AVAILABLE! That’s uncorroborated, but I’ve heard he has suggested himself as a fine Doctor Who proposition, which I find quite funny really!

If I had a favourite Doctor Who anecdote in the book, it’s when you were filming on a nudist beach in Lanzarote for Planet Of Fire. That there was a sequence where Nicola Bryant was to be rescued from the sea. But that whenever she jumped off the boat and shouted for help, as the script demanded, naked German men kept rushing into the frame to save her. Tell me: was it really that surreal?

[laughing, in part still because of Brian Blessed I think, but also: naked German men on Doctor Who] It was more surreal if anything! I’m not sure I’ve entirely captured just how surreal it was. They didn’t know what we were doing.

I don’t think I mentioned this in the book, but when we were filming the TARDIS dematerialising, these naked Germans – always men, I must say – would just stroll along the beach. These naked men would be the dematerialisation shot! We had to have people both sides to hold back the naked Germans from crossing the TARDIS! It was a weird day. John Nathan Turner had no idea, he said, that it was a nudist beach…!

We’re nearly out of time, so two quick things. You’re still involved with the Down’s Syndrome Association, I understand?

I am, yes. It’s in Teddington. [You can find it here]

Finally, in lieu of asking about Michael Winner, and there’s plenty on your experience working with him, I have to end in a more traditional Den Of Geek way and ask you what your favourite Jason Statham movie is? You have a son who’s in a Tim Burton film now, so I figure you’re going all Hollywood on us!

[Laughs] I’ve seen two or three of his films, but I can never remember what the hell they’re called! The one where he puts the girl in the boot in the car, and there are secret rooms on the beach or something? Is that all of them!

Funnily enough, I met Jason Statham many years ago when he was going out with Kelly Brook. My son, in fact, sat on Jason Statham’s lap as a baby. My son, who is now in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, sat on Jason Statham’s lap in Kelly Brook’s dressing room.

Okay, you win. Peter Davison, thank you very much.

Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs is out now, available in hardback and digitally, published by John Blake.

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