Dr Who: films of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy
Alex's trek through the film roles of actors who've played the Doctor reaches Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy...
Read the previous part in this series, Doctor Who: the film careers of Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, here.
In March 1981, as he made his Doctor Who debut, Peter Davison was already one the best known faces on British television. Not only was he the star of both a BBC and an ITV sitcom – Sink Or Swim and Holding The Fort – but as the young and slightly reckless Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small, about the often humorous cases of Yorkshire vet James Herriot and his colleagues, he had cemented his stardom. The part led, indirectly, to his casting as the venerable Time Lord.
The recently installed Doctor Who producer, John Nathan-Turner, had been the Production Unit Manager on the first series of All Creatures… following a year doing the same job for Graham Williams on Doctor Who. Essentially an accountancy role – Nathan-Turner suggested Paris as a location for Tom Baker story City Of Death when he realised the production costs were actually lower to film in the French capital than in the UK. Nathan-Turner’s office, unlike any other room in Threshold House opposite BBC TV Centre, was covered in photographs, it was also a distinctive bright red and full of cigarette smoke and piles of memorabilia. It was while pondering the casting of the Fifth Doctor – Richard Griffiths having recently turned down the opportunity, being too busy to commit full time to a regular series – that Nathan-Turner glanced at a photo of a young man in a cricket jumper at a recent charity match. Peter Davison was the young man in question and the cricket jumper suggested the kind of very English eccentricity Nathan-Turner felt the new Doctor should embody…
Born Peter Moffett in Streatham, South London on April 13th 1951, Peter Davison won his first TV role in 1973, in an episode of the popular BBC naval drama Warship. He notoriously appeared in a rather dodgy Harpo Marx-style wig in an episode of The Tomorrow People in 1975 and with his then wife Sandra Dickinson, he composed and sang the theme tunes to sitcom Mixed Blessings and children’s favourite Button Moon. Just a few weeks before the transmission of Logopolis, Davison featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The cameo part as an overly-obliging creature known as “the dish of the day”, who famously urged Arthur Dent to consider his liver, was secured by Sandra Dickinson, who played Patricia MacMillan or “Trillion” to her two-headed lover, the wonderfully monikered Zaphod Beeblebrox. This TV version of erstwhile Who Script Editor Douglas Adams’ celebrated radio series and “trilogy” in five books – was a big hit.
Peter Davison was told at drama school he wouldn’t get any major character work until he was in his forties. Despite his continuing success on the small screen alongside (nearly-fourth Doctor) Graeme Crowden and (son of Patrick) David Troughton in the brilliant Andrew Davies campus satire A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-7) and as Margery Allingham’s gentleman slueth Campion (1989-90); it was ten years after his stint in Doctor Who that Peter Davison began his film career at the age of 43, with a part in Black Beauty (1994) which featured Alan Cumming, as the voice of the eponymous horse, narrating the film as if it was an equine autobiography. Black Beauty saw Davison play Squire Gordon. The film also starred Sean Bean, Elenor Bron and Alun Armstrong. On a sad note, Black Beauty marked the last big screen role of legendary comedian Peter Cook, seen here as Lord Wexmire. The film was known rather ominously in France as Prince Noir.
Parting Shots, a pretty ropey – to be generous – black “comedy”(a contender perhaps for Den of Geek’s Mystery DVD Club?) followed in 1999. Davison played John, the sensible childhood friend of the main protagonist, Harry, a photographer with six weeks to live, played – though no-one is quite sure why – by rock star Chris Rea, who also provided the inappropriately maudlin soundtrack (this is a comedy, remember?). Rea had also been responsible for the soundtrack to the 1993 film Softtop, Hard Shoulder, which featured one Peter Capaldi. The supporting roles were filled by a host of British stars including John Cleese – in unfunny “manic laughing eccentric” mode; Oliver Reed in one of his last screen roles; Bob Hoskins, Diana Rigg, Ben Kingsley and Felicity Kendall, who were surprisingly available and clearly needed to pay some bills, and two ex-New Avengers, no less – Joanna Lumley (not good as an ex-hippie barmaid and would-be gunslinger) and Gareth Hunt (equally bad as a broadly-drawn cockney copper). Who fans should look out for Nicola Bryant in a cameo role as a prostitute. It was the last film to be directed by the late Michael Winner. Davison, who provides a measure of sanity amongst a collection of “hilarious” cardboard stereotypes, has seemed reluctant to return to films since. However, in 2013 he featured in a minor role as a mad conductor in the independent urban film Artful Dodgers.
In the summer of 1982, Peter Davison and the rest of the Doctor Who cast went to Amsterdam for another of John Nathan-Turner’s cost-effective continental filming sessions. The story Arc Of Infinity also featured a visit to Gallifrey and on his arrival there, the Doctor is shot down by Maxil, the over-zealous Gallifreyan guard. Maxil was played by Colin Baker, who had come close to appearing in the Who story The Mutants as Cotton and had been considered for Jellicoe in Robot. It was a role Baker had accepted with mixed emotions. He believed there was an “unwritten rule” that if one appeared in a supporting role in Doctor Who, one could never play the Doctor himself. It was therefore, a surprised and delighted Colin Baker, having unintentionally impressed John Nathan-Turner with his entertaining exhuberence at the wedding of a mutual friend, who accepted like a shot when offered the lead in Doctor Who. Press reports that the role was already Brian Blessed’s proved unfounded. For Baker, it was a part he had long desired and now it was his, he declared he wanted to play the part longer than anyone else…
After his forced exit from Doctor Who in 1986, Colin Baker stayed in touch with the series playing alongside Nicola Bryant and many other former Who stars in several episodes of The Stranger, a video series made by Who fans. Baker replaced Jon Pertwee in the 1989 stage play: Doctor Who – The Ultimate Adventure. The fact he wore a “toned-down version” of his Doctor’s coat to go on stage – where visibility is very important – suggests just how much of an eyestrain the coat really was!
Colin Baker was born in Waterloo, London on 8th June 1943 and like Jon Pertwee before him, narrowly avoided death in World War II, when a flying piece of shrapnel just missed the infant Baker and embedded itself in his cot. Baker spent his formative years growing up in Rochdale and Manchester. Like Peter Davison, Colin Baker has a relatively short film CV:He appeared in the movies Zandorra and Clockwork in 1989, it’s probably fair to call both movies “forgotten”, not least as there is next to no information about either film on the internet, which in itself is something of a feat.
A decade later, Baker appeared in Spanish film The Harpist as Father Rupitsch, and in 2000 was cast in The Asylum alongside Chloe Annett from Red Dwarf, one-time Hammer starlet and former DoG contributor Ingrid Pitt, who had appeared with Peter Davison in the Who serial Warrior Of The Deep, Target and Emmerdale‘s Patrick Mower and Confessions star Robin Askwith. As the Doctor returned to TV in 2005, Baker was to be seen in D’Artagnan Et Les Trois Mousquetaires for Belgian cinema, playing Rutaford. He’s currently working on three new films, one as narrator – A Dozen Summers another called Shadows Of A Stranger, in which Baker plays William Fallon, an investigator of the paranormal, whilst a third film, a short for the Cannes Film Festival called Finding Richard, is about the archeology involved in recovering and exhuming the remains of King Richard III from a Leicester car park.
In January 1987 the press carried reports that everyone from comedian Alexei Sayle, who’d appeared as the DJ (a part initially offered to Kenny Everett!) in Revelation Of The Daleks, to Blackadder star Tony Robinson were set to replace Baker as the Doctor. Robinson was interviewed. John Nathan-Turner was after “a complete eccentric” akin to Tom Baker in an attempt to recapture the glory days of Who. BBC producer Clive Doig recommended an actor he had worked with on several shows including Vision On, Jigsaw and Eureka – Sylvester McCoy.
Born Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith in Dunoon, Scotland on August 20th 1943, Sylvester McCoy was given his stage name by his friend and mentor, the late Ken Campbell, who was also considered for the Seventh Doctor. After several years of theatre and television work, McCoy won a small role in Dracula, one of five 1979 versions of the horror classic. Frank Langella, later Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008) played Dracula with Lawrence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing, The film also featured Donald Pleasance as well as young up and coming actors Trevor Shoestring Eve, Jan Just Good Friends Francis as Mina, Tony Rosie Haygarth and Janine Abigail’s Party Duvitski. McCoy played Walter the footman.
McCoy’s next movie was Three Kinds Of Heat in 1987. McCoy played Harry Pimm in a tale of three friends who try to get the better of a London-based gang. An Anglo-American project, the nominal stars were Robert Ginty, later to star in Falcon Crest and Victoria Barrett, for whom – a minor role in an episode of Cheers aside – this was pretty much the pinnacle of her career and Shakti Chen, who’d been in The Golden Child and would go on to appear in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The British cast was a real mixture: Barry Foster, who was in Hitchcock’s Frenzy and TV’s Van Der Valk, Former “Page 3 girl” Samantha Fox, Doctor Who veterans Mary Tamm and Trevor Martin; Auf Weidersehen, Pet star Bridget Khan, Who Pays The Ferryman’s Jack Hedley and Terry And June’s Reginald Marsh.
Leapin’ Leprechauns!, a 1995 movie featured McCoy as Flynn. McCoy’s co-stars were John Bluthal, who had been in the Pink Panther films in the Sixties but by then was most famous for his role in The Vicar Of Dibley; the late, great James Ellis, with whom McCoy had worked on the Doctor Who adventure Battlefield. Ellis was a stalwart of Z Cars and One By One and at the time of filming had been seen most recently in the sublime security guard sitcom Nightingales; Godfrey James had worked with Who veteran Barry Letts on a number of Classic Serials, perhaps most memorably as Tom Canty’s father in 1976’s The Prince And The Pauper which had starred Nicholas Lyndhurst and began the same weekend as The Brain of Morbius“. The movie was successful enough for a 1996 sequel: Spellbreaker: Secret Of The Leprechauns.
In January 1996 McCoy was in Vancouver taking part in the Doctor Who TV Movie handing over the mantle of the Time Lord after nine years – albeit only three of them actually on televison – to Paul McGann. McCoy was given a smarter, more upmarket version of his costume and particularly enjoyed working on the impressive new look Jules Verne-esque TARDIS set. It was a nice nod to the traditions of the programme that McCoy was involved at all, though with hindsight, it may have worked more successfully had they simply started with McGann as the Doctor in the same way Christopher Eccleston was allowed to establish himself immediately in the part.
In 1997, McCoy played Mr Dowling in The History Of Tom Jones: A Foundling, a hugely entertaining bawdy romp starring Max Beesley, Samantha Morton, Frances de la Tour and Brian Blessed in perhaps his most bombastic role to date. A terrific cast of top thespians also featured John Sessions as Henry Fielding, the narrator, Ron Cook, June Whitfield, Benjamin Whitrow, Richard Ridings, Camille Coduri, Roger Lloyd Pack, Kathy Burke, Alexei Sayle, Lindsay Duncan, Norman Lovett, Tessa Peake-Jones and Tim Healy. Oh, and a young character actor called Peter Capaldi as Lord Fellamar. It comes thoroughly recommended.
Like Peter Capaldi and David Tennant, McCoy appeared in Dramarama (in the 1985 episode Frog) and Rab C. Nesbitt (a particularly moving 1996 episode of called Father). McCoy played blissfully ignorant ex-con Archie, catching up on over thirty years of history, in Oot a 2004 episode of the cult Scots sitcom Still Game. The same year McCoy had a part in a Spanish short film called Griffin. The charming fairytale of a mystical Griffin being instrumental in the age-old boy meets girl scenario. Starring Christopher Ellison, best known as the formidable Gene Hunt-alike, Frank Burnside in The Bill and Hugh Lloyd, the former foil to Tony Hancock who’d previously worked with McCoy on Doctor Who story Delta And The Bannermen.
In 2010, McCoy appeared in Punk Strut-The Movie. This homage to the Punk era was part fiction/part documentary and saw McCoy play a DJ. Among the cast was ‘Allo ‘Allo‘s Richard Gibson, Jim Carter from Downton Abbey and Phil Cool, the Eighties rubber-faced impressionist who more recently has turned to acting. 2012’s The Academy was the movie-length sequel to two shorts made about a drama school looking for a helping hand and featuring Ian McKellan’s brother. Sylvester played Felix in all three films. The movie version finally came about thanks to the support of the venerable actor himself.
Sir Ian McKellan also joined McCoy for the latter’s biggest film to date: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. McCoy’s co-stars this time included Martin Freeman, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Barry Humphries, Cate Blanchett and the star of Dracula himself – Sir Christopher Lee. Sylvester played Radagast after a personal request by Director Peter Jackson, who felt the actor would be perfect for the role and confessed to being a huge fan of Doctor Who. In 2013 McCoy featured as Edward Haddington in The Christmas Candle, which won some press attention at the time due to the inclusion of one Susan Boyle. Others involved included James Cosmo, Lesley Manville, Barbara Flynn and John Hannah. McCoy then reprised his Hobbit role for two further films: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013 and the current film There And Back Again. Sylvester McCoy is currently featured in two films in production: When The Devil Rides Out about a horror writer’s visions and The Seventeenth Kind, a satire on cable tv shopping channels, featuring Who veterans Brian “King Yrcanos” Blessed and Tony “Van Gogh” Curran. Most recently, as all Doctor Who fans know, McCoy reunited with Colin Baker and Peter Davison in the latter’s brilliant: The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
Next time: The film careers of Paul McGann and – as a special bonus – John Hurt.
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