Doctor Who: the film careers of Eccleston and Tennant

The penultimate part of Alex's look-back at the films of the actors who've played the Doctor takes in Eccleston and Tennant...

Read the previous part in this series: the film careers of Paul McGann and John Hurt, here.

In September 2003, BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey announced the news some had suspected but few dared to believe. Nearly nine years after the Paul McGann TV Movie, Doctor Who would return to BBC1 as a full series of 13 x 45 minute episodes for a prime slot on Saturday nights in the Spring of 2005. The BBC had changed and was now run by a generation of executives for whom Doctor Who –  particularly the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker era – had been an integral part of their childhood. Mal Young, BBC Head of Drama and executive producer on the first revamped series, felt the time was right for a family series at the heart of the Saturday night schedule. By 2003 it seemed Saturday night -once the jewel in the TV crown – was perhaps the least watched night of all. Conventional wisdom dictated TV had fragmented and the idea of a family audience sitting and watching one show, let alone a whole evening’s programmes, was redundant in the 21st century.

BBC Executive Julie Gardner was assigned the project, a persuasive, business-like woman similar in character to Verity Lambert. Russell T. Davies, a writer with an exceptional pedigree in TV drama and – importantly – a  passionate life-long fan, well known within fandom, was appointed showrunner. He was just the man to gave the project energy and momentum. The recently upgraded BBC Wales, was to be the production base for the new series and the two would very soon become synonymous. The new series would embrace modern television production techniques and would have high production values. Unlike the classic series it was allocated a decent budget and could be far more technically adept. Sets were well-constructed, special effects – whilst perhaps not cutting edge – were a cut above most programming in 2005. The Editor of Blue Peter was Who fan and former contributor to Doctor Who Monthly, Richard Marson. He was only too happy to promote the new series to a new generation of children. The scene was set and the hunt was on for a new Time Lord.

An actor with just the right mix of eccentricity and charisma, who could lead the new series into the potentially huge Saturday night ratings war, was not an easy ask. The role was arguably the biggest on TV and inevitably would be life-changing. Alan Davies, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman were amongst the more sensible suggestions touted. After several months of searching, on April 2nd 2004, Russell T. Davies finally announced Christopher Eccleston would take charge of the TARDIS. Eccleston was 40 years old, the same age as Tom Baker on his debut. He had a crediblility which would underline where the series was headed and the calibre of acting talent it could attract. Known for his gritty integrity, exemplified by his roles in Cracker, Hillsborough and Our Friends In The North, Russell T. Davies admired Eccleston’s work and Eccleston had great respect for Davies’ writing, citing it as one of the biggest reasons for wanting to play the Time Lord. Eccleston’s performance in the recent ITV film The Second Coming, which Davies had written, together with an email request he be considered for the part, convinced Russell T. Davies the right man for the new Doctor was undoubtedly Christopher Eccleston.

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Christopher Eccleston was born on the 16th February 1964, in Langworthy, in the Pendleton district of Salford, Lancashire. Inspired to be an actor by gritty television drama such as The Boys From The Blackstuff, and films like Ken Loach’s Kes and Albert Finney’s bravura performance in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Eccleston eventually joined Bristol Old Vic. A few years of unemployment followed, when – like Tom Baker before him – Eccleston worked on a building site. In 1990 Eccleston won his first TV role in the BBC film Blood Rights, alongside Sam Kelly and Robert Glenister. The TV film was about a journalist attempting to track down the missing drug addict daughter of a Tory MP.


Then in 1991 Eccleston won his first film role – Let Him Have It. The film explored the desperately unfortunate case of Derek Bentley, whom Eccleston portrayed. A slow-witted, somewhat naive young man, Bentley was convicted of killing a police constable. Bentley, seemingly instructed his friend Christopher Craig, who was holding the gun, with the ambiguous words: “Let him have it, Chris!”. Bentley meant it literally, assuming Craig would surrender the weapon to the policeman. Tragically, perhaps influenced by the gangster movies of which they were both fond, Craig took it as slang meaning “kill him”. Craig fired the gun but being underage was spared the death penalty. Bentley, who was nineteen, was deemed culpable of “joint enterprise”, despite being unarmed and clearly very easily coerced. Bentley was hanged on 28th January 1953. Bentley’s family campaigned for an official pardon. A partial one was granted in 1993 and a full one in 1998.

Eccleston played Alonso Zunz in Alex Cox’s 1992 short Death And The Compass and the following year appeared as a priest alongside Toyah Willcox and Pete Postlethwaite in Anchoress. In late 1993, Eccleston was cast as David Stephens, a young charted accountant, by upcoming film director Danny Boyle in the first of several very successful films which shared Edinburgh as a backdrop, the city becoming almost a character in itself. Shallow Grave was a black comedy/thriller released in 1994. The story of an Edinburgh flatshare was Ewan MacGregor’s film debut (he would of course be the star of Boyle’s next venture – 1996’s Trainspotting). MacGregor and Kerry Fox played Eccleston’s flatmates Alex Law and Juliet Miller. Keith Allen was Hugo, a mysterious lodger who, having convinced the flatmates to let him share their home, promptly drops dead in possession of a suitcase temptingly full of money…

The mid 90s saw Eccleston making a name for himself in a trio of notable dramas which  marked him out as a watchable and intense actor who always delivered a credible performance. Cracker (1993-4) written by Jimmy McGovern, really established Eccleston on the small screen. He played DCI David Billborough for ten episodes. Cracker starred Robbie Coltrane as eccentric chain-smoking police profiler, Dr Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald. Barbara Flynn, Ricky Tomlinson and Geraldine Somerville as starred. Eccleston was written out in the first story of season two, as Billborough confronts serial killer Albie, played by Robert Carlisle.

Our Friends In The North was an epic drama written by Peter Flannery in the early eighties. It was finally put into production in 1994, when original director Danny Boyle cast Eccleston as Nicky Hutchinson, although initially he was to have played Geordie (a part eventually given to Daniel Craig). Hutchinson was a tenacious, politically-motivated photographer with strong ethics and a heavy social conscience – much like Eccleston himself. The drama followed the lives of four Newcastle friends across the political and social upheavals of a generation from the mid 60s to the mid 90s. The series was a huge hit when it was transmitted in early 1996 and remains to this day a real benchmark in long-form drama. One which, arguably, the BBC has yet to surpass.

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Eccleston was particularly proud of his role in drama-documentary Hillsborough about the tragedy that unfolded on the afternoon of 15th April 1989, when the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was suspended as 96 Liverpool supporters (many under the age of 18) were crushed to death, when the police on crowd control duty let too many spectators into the ground, too quickly. Eccleston, like many, felt the press coverage of the tragedy was horrendously inaccurate and Jimmy McGovern was determined to set about correcting the untruths. Eccleston knew he had to be involved.

Eccleston played Trevor Hicks, who lost both of his teenage daughters that day. He felt anything he could do as an actor to try and get some justice for the 96 tragic fans was very worthwhile and knew he had to meet Trevor Hicks to get his blessing. After what Eccleston described as a “vigourous interview” – an initially sceptical Hicks needed to be reassured of the actor’s motives – Eccleston accepted the role with Trevor Hicks’ blessing. Broadcast on ITV on 5th December 1996, the film ignited a nationwide debate and put fresh pressure on South Yorkshire Police. Six months later the new Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a “scrutiny of new evidence”. In 2009, by way of thanks, Hicks invited Eccleston to be his best man when he remarried. Twenty-five years on from the tragedy, an official investigation has yet to provide answers.

1996 also saw Eccleston play the title role in Jude – more about that film later. In 1998 he featured in Elizabeth – about the life and loves of Queen Elizabeth I – as The Duke of Norfolk (a role coincidentally portrayed by Patrick Troughton in Elizabeth R, directly after leaving Doctor Who). The following year Eccleston appeared in eXistenZ, the first of a number of science-fiction roles, which suggests he was offered such work well before his role as the Doctor. Eccleston appeared in the mainstream hit Gone In 60 Seconds in 2000 as Raymond Calitri, that role was followed by a part in 2001’s The Others. An outstanding film full of atmosphere and creepy moments, it starred Nicole Kidman and featured Eccleston as Charles Stewart.

Eccleston starred as Strayman in Strumpet, a short film made in 2001. Eccleston’s next film was an uncredited role in 24 Hour Party People (2002) Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant tribute to Tony Wilson and Factory records, which starred Steve Coogan as Wilson. 28 Days Later (2002) in which Eccleston played a tough army major Henry West was a brilliant slice of science-fiction akin to  John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids. Eccleston followed this with a return to Elizabethan England for Revengers Tragedies (2002). He took a break from films to concentrate on TV, Radio and theatre work then in 2007 he returned in the movie The Seeker: The Dark is Rising as The Rider. He appeared as McCullen and Destro in 2009’s GI Joe: Rise Of The Cobra and its 2011 sequel GI Joe 2: The Revenge of the Cobra. In between times he was Fred Noonan in Amelia (2009) and played the late Beatle, John Lennon in the biopic Lennon Naked in 2010.

Christopher Eccleston remains a popular movie actor, his recent film roles have included Pod Clock in 2011’s The Borrowers, James in 2012’s Unfinished Song and Malekith in 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. He played John Aspinnall in 2014’s Lucan about the circumstances surrounding the sudden disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974. Eccleston has most recently been cast as Matt Jamison in The Leftovers, an HBO series arriving on screens this summer.

Eccleston starred in period drama Jude (1996) based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude The Obscure. Also starring a young Kate Winslet, the film is also notable – from the perspective of this article – for the debut of a young actor playing a small role as a drunken undergraduate. The actor, who would go on to work with Russell T. Davies  was destined to become Eccleston successor in Doctor Who – his name? David Tennant…

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Christopher Eccleston, together with Billie Piper, cast as his companion Rose Tyler, hit the ground running when Doctor Who finally returned to BBC One on Easter Saturday 26th March 2005. The Daily Star front page on Easter Monday reported the show had attracted over 10.5 million viewers – 2 million more than ITV: “Sexy Billie Zaps Ant and Dec” as the paper in hamfisted hyperbole mode put it- Eccleston (for all his efforts) was mentioned a paragraph later! The BBC suddenly had a huge hit on their hands. Russell T. Davies was especially delighted having predicted maybe 4 to 6 million might tune in. He could put his long-cherished plans for a second series into action.

In the wake of the success of Rose, the opening episode of the new series, the press discovered Eccleston was about to leave. David Tennant had already been signed up as replacement. This news (which leaked during the week between the broadcast of Rose and The End Of The World – and may explain the sudden heavy loss of 3 million viewers) was confirmed by the BBC and caused dismay and disappointment amongst fandom and family audiences alike. Eccleston rarely committed himself too long in any part. Eccleston admired his Doctor Who predecessor Patrick Troughton, for not giving too many interviews, which he (Troughton) felt might “steal the magic” of his craft. As a consequence, Eccleston has remained relatively tight-lipped about his association with Doctor Who. He enjoyed the role and especially enjoyed being an integral part of bringing the show back. Whilst we may never know the real reason he left the show, as Eccleston himself put it “the important thing is I did it, not that I left… I’m very proud of it”

David Tennant was born David John MacDonald in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland on 18th April 1971. He was so inspired by Doctor Who aged just four, he decided to become an actor and would tell his young friends one day he would play the Doctor…  He took his stage name from Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys and an erstwhile writer for Smash Hits. He began his professional acting career the same year as Christopher Eccleston – 1988. Tennant’s TV acting debut was in the ITV Children’s drama anthology series Dramarama: The Secret of Croftmore, which has also seen performances from Sylvester McCoy and Peter Capaldi, during its long run. Tennant, also had a role in Rab C Nesbitt in 1993 – also common with the two aforementioned Doctors – Tennant’s part, however, as Davina, a transvestite barmaid, was definitely the most startling!

David Tennant’s first major role was in comic drama Taking Over The Asylum (1994), as Campbell, an excitable young patient in a psychiatric hospital who is keen to be a DJ after an encounter with a grumpy volunteer radio presenter – brilliantly played by Ken Stott –  who becomes a regular visitor to the institution. Tennant’s is one of the most memorable performances in the drama and he and Stott make a very watchable double-act.

Two years later Tennant began his film career in Jude as discussed above. He then appeared in a string of small films including Bite 1997. He played Richard the undertaker in the amusing LA Without A Map in 1998 and Captain Gerald Colhurst, potential love interest in 1999’s The Last September set in Ireland in the 1920s and featuring Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith, and a young Keeley Hawes. In 2000, he appeared in Charlie Higson’s much anticipated revival of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) alongside comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and former Doctor, Tom Baker – by now a legendary figure with whom younger actors and writers are only too keen to work. The same year, Tennant featured as Larry in the film Being Considered.

One Eyed Jacques followed in 2001. Tennant appeared as Charlie in Nine 1/2 Minutes in 2002 and worked alongside Fenella Woolgar (later to work with Tennant as Agatha Christie in the Doctor Who episode The Unicorn And The Wasp and again in 2013 drama Spies Of Warsaw) in Stephen Fry’s film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies. Tennant played Ginger Littlejohn. The film was retitled Bright Young Things on its release in 2003. Tennant provided the voice of the caretaker in an uncredited role in episode five of the animated online Doctor Who serial – The Scream Of Shalka. The following year Tennant appeared as DI Peter Carlisle in Blackpool working with David Morrissey (later to play Jackson Lake in the teasingly ambigously titled The Next Doctor). Tennant also found time to make two short films Old Street and The Traffic Warden.

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Tennant began 2005 – a momentous year in his life – as Barty Crouch Junior in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. He appeared with Jason Fleming and Mark Gatiss in a remake of the The Quatermass Experiment and starred as Casanova, scripted by Russell T. Davies for the fledgling digital channel BBC Three. Unbeknown to most, Tennant had already been cast as the tenth Doctor as the serial was broadcast… a couple of weeks before the TARDIS rematerialised on BBC One.

Breaking away from Who (whilst still the incumbant Time Lord) helped Tennant avoid typecasting. He appeared as Richard Hoggert in 2006’s The Chatterley Affair which centered on the obscenity trial which resulted from the outrage at Penguin books release of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in paperback in 1963. Tennant appeared as himself in Ricky Gervias’ Extras Christmas Special in 2007. Gervias’ take on nuWho was somewhat off kilter – suggesting (perhaps for comic effect) the show was still a cheap and cheerful production with wobbly sets! Tennant played Chris in Learners, a film about  a mixed bunch of people learning to drive, which co-starred Jessica Hynes, who guested as (The Doctor’s human alter-ego) John Smith’s lover in Human Nature/Family of Blood. 

In 2009, Tennant played Hector in the film Glorious 39. Set in the present day and 1939, the movie is about family secrets and their consequences. Revolving around the well-connected and influential Keyes family, the story concentrates on the elder sibling Anne, who betrays  the family when she discovers secret recordings made by a pro-Appeasement movement. The title of the film is derived from the “glorious summer” of 1939 just weeks before the onset of the Second World War. Tennant was part of a star-studded cast appearing alongside Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Julie Christie, Bill Nighy, Corin Redgrave and Christopher Lee.  The same year he featured as Lord Pomfrey in St Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold

More recently, Tennant  appeared as Peter Vincent in a remake of Fright Night and as football backroom coach, Jimmy Murphy in United about the loss of the Manchester United “Busby Babes” in the 1958 Munich Air Crash. Next came Christmas cash-in movie Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger. 2013’s The Politician’s Husband, Broadchurch and his return to Doctor Who for the 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor have kept Tennant’s face on the covers of the TV listings magazines, doing wonders for their circulation figures in the process. He is an incredibly popular and in-demand actor and has some major film work currently in post-production: He is soon to be seen as Doug in What We Did On Our Holiday and has a voice role in, wait for it… Postman Pat: The Movie.

Next time: this series concludes with a look at the movies of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

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