Phil Davis interview: Being Human, Sherlock, Doctor Who & more…

On a visit to the set of Being Human, we enjoyed a spoiler-filled chat with Phil Davis, the man behind the show's biggest bad...

Warning: this interview contains major plot spoilers for Being Human series five.

“This is like Mastermind” says Phil Davis, settling into a black leather swivel chair in the tawdry Bridgend hotel which forms the backdrop for much of Being Human’s fifth series, “I hope I have some answers…”.

Davis, as he delights in telling the assembled visitors to the set, has played more than his share of bad guys over the years, “psychopaths, paedophiles, you name it”, but his role in Being Human series five takes the biscuit. Captain Hatch, the wheelchair-bound antagonist of the ‘Barry Hotel’ is a deeply evil man, a smiling villain who charms and disgusts in equal parts, and whom Davis found “irresistible”.

Until Davis occurred to him for the part, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse reportedly struggled with the character of Captain Hatch. Between them, the two have created a consummate villain against which to pit Hal, Tom and Alex, a man whose persuasive talents wreak no end of havoc, a big bad even older than the old ones…

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One final spoiler warning before we start: if you don’t want to know about Captain Hatch’s role in Being Human series five, come back after the finale.

What can you tell us about Captain Hatch that we can print?

Well he’s a really disgusting old man, that’s what he is, a bully, a deeply unpleasant character, but what you will be able to eventually print is that he’s the devil. At the climax of the show he reveals himself as the devil and he becomes stronger, and as he gets stronger of course, the physical deformities diminish. He gets out of his wheelchair and he can start manipulating people.

It’s quite something to be playing the actual devil, I’ve played a lot of bad guys in my time but playing the man himself, the boss, is something of a privilege really.

What’s it like when your agent comes to you and says ‘they want you for the devil’?

Well, you feel honoured [laughs]. As a pretty bad guy in lots of the shows that I’ve done it’s great to play the devil. In the kind of show this is, it’s kind of hip and funny. He’s quite an amusing fellow.

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What’s his situation when we first meet him?

Well, he’s been in this hotel for a hundred years. He’s a guest, and he’s locked into this place and he needs the werewolf and the vampire to start fighting each other and that gives him the strength and the chaos that he needs in order to start rising again. He will rise – that’s what he says – so he does.

So he’s deliberately trying to drive a wedge between Hal and Tom?

Yes, to set them against each other. The more set against each other they are, the stronger he gets, but he kind of goes up and down, like the needle gets into red and then goes back, then gets into red and then goes back, and then finally he is revealed.

But presumably we don’t know he’s the devil at the beginning?

You get clues. You realise that he’s up to something at the end I think of the second episode, it’s pretty clear that he’s the man himself.

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When do we find out for definite?

At the end of episode two I think it’s pretty clear, when he [SPOILER ALERT] persuades the manageress of the hotel to kill herself.

He’s quite decrepit isn’t he?

He’s disgusting, black teeth, can’t move, needs oxygen, he’s really in a pretty bad way, but when all the chaos starts to occur then he gets stronger.

So there’s a lot of physical transformation?

Yes. As you see me now [Phil is cutting quite the dash in a dapper suit and tie] this is the best he gets. This is it.

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Does it take a while to get you ready to play Hatch in the morning?

Yeah, I’m one of those few actors who comes out of make-up looking far worse than when he went in. They blacken my teeth and they paint veins on my forehead, put earwax dripping out of my ears, and food all down my front, it’s a pretty disgusting sight. 

Is this the worst of the bad characters you’ve played?

It’s certainly up there with them, although he’s so funny and amusing. He goes on television in the final episode and berates the human race because he’s been, as he said, on the substitute bench for some years and he thought that they would create utopia, but they didn’t.  So he is quite amusing. You know, I’ve played all manner of evil, you know, psychopaths and paedophiles and you name it, so he’s probably not the very worst.

Why is this the particular time he rises?

He needs the werewolf and the vampire under the same roof, and he needs them to be at war. They arrive by chance, he can’t believe his luck getting them under the same roof, and there’s a ghost too, and he can see the ghost but he pretends he can’t.

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Does he operate on his own, or does he have lackeys?

No he’s on his own. He doesn’t need lackeys; he’s the devil [laughs, devilishly].

Had you watched Being Human before?

No I hadn’t. My son is a big fan so he filled me in on it, he told me I’ve got to do it.

Are you in every episode of this series?

I am. I go all the way through. There’s more of me in the last episode than there is in the first.

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Toby Whithouse said he was having trouble with the character until he went ‘You know who’d be good for this? Phil Davis’…

That’s very flattering. I have worked with Toby before, I did a tiny bit in a pilot for a sitcom with Martin Freeman years ago [Other People, made in 2007 as part of the Channel 4 Comedy Showcase] so we knew each other from that and he knows a bit about my work, so it’s very nice.

Does it come across when you get a script like this, that it feels tailored to you?

I read an early draft of the last episode, which is the best one for Captain Hatch, and it was irresistible really, it was so funny and awful. The thing about this show is that it’s quite kind of gory and grown-up but it’s very funny and hip at the same time, it’s a lovely combination, and Captain Hatch chimed in with all that. It was irresistible because it was so well-written and funny.

He’s a very acerbic character then?

Yes, very clever and very funny. He kills people with a smile on his face, or persuades them to kill themselves.

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He’s able to influence people?

Yes he is, he’s able to persuade them to kill themselves very easily, that’s something he can do.

Is that his only power at that point?

At that point, yes. The words are his power. Once of the characters asks him, ‘What do you tell them when you get them to kill themselves’ and he just grins and says ‘Everything’.

His powers are very diminished for a lot of the episodes, so there’s a lot he can’t do, so he can’t get up, he can barely breathe. 

Do we know what’s got him in that state?

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Well as he says, he’s been put on the substitutes’ bench for some years, waiting for the chaos, waiting for the stars to be in the right place and then he will rise. But it’s great because in the sixth episode [SPOILER ALERT] he tempts all three of them in different ways, and they all find themselves at the crossroads of their lives when it all went wrong: the moment that Hal became a vampire and the moment that Tom became a werewolf, and he tempts them with an alternative path if they will allow him to take over the earth. Hal says “You’ll create chaos” and he says “Yeah but, that’ll be four hundred and fifty years after you’ve died of old age”, and of course it’s very tempting for these kids to reinvent their lives.

When you read it, was it immediately clear to you how you were going to play the role?

Yes it was. Sometimes it’s a struggle, you don’t quite know what tone to get, but it was pretty clear from the start. It’s like slipping into a pair of shoes, sometimes they fit immediately, sometimes you have to wiggle your toes a bit. But this was pretty easy to get the hang of I think.

What was your biggest challenge in terms of this role compared to others you’ve done?

Everything you do, you’re trying to mint it afresh, you’re not thinking, oh it’s a bit of this part and a bit of that part, you’re trying to find a new way of doing it. I mean really, once he turns into the devil, once he gets out of the wheelchair and gets his – not his youth back – he gets his strength back it needed a kind of laid-back confidence that was something of a challenge to get.

Did you base him on any cinematic devils?

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No, not on any other character. I don’t do that really. I don’t think, oh it should be a combination of Michael Caine and Tommy Steele… I just sort of try them out for myself. This is a man in a wheelchair, all hunched up. He was described as an “angry fist of a man” to start with but then as he gets more powerful he becomes more relaxed and urbane, and there’s something kind of knowing about him, the way he looks at people, as if he could devour them at any moment… and I gave him quite a posh voice. I thought the devil should be posh [laughs].

How do you want Being Human’s viewers to react to him?

I want them to enjoy his evil and be scared of him at the same time if we can bring that off. I want them to be laughing and then stop them dead.

Presumably, you’re going to be a fixture in this as you can’t really dispatch the devil?

I think you can temporarily put him to one side but he will re-emerge, but I don’t know if there’ll be any more after this series, I don’t know.

You’d be up for it would you?

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Who knows?

With the hotel and the devil in disguise, there’s a Stephen King feel to this series, is that something that attracts you? Is it something that you like to read and watch?

Horror stuff?

Not just blood and gore but actual psychological horror.

Yes. This is a curious show. I don’t  think I’ve ever seen a show like this, because it is very funny. The three of them, the ghost the vampire and the werewolf, are like flatmates and there’s a comic edge to their badinage if you like that’s quite like anything else I’ve ever read. But at the same time they are tearing people’s heads off and sinking their fangs into the necks of young ladies and all that going on at the same time, so it’s a curious creature, a sort of hybrid and that’s something that does appeal to me.

This seems like a happy set to work on?

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It is. I came in as a newcomer, as a guest and I’ve worked up there in Cardiff before because I did the pilot of the new Sherlock and also I’d done a Doctor Who so I knew some of the members of the crew, so it’s a lovely welcoming atmosphere, very relaxed, everyone’s delivered their best. Everybody says that but in this case it is actually true.

How did you experience on Being Human compare to Doctor Who and Merlin?

It’s a longer one here, because I only did the one Sherlock because they shot me, it was very mean I thought, they could have winged me, but they didn’t, right in the chest so it’s been a longer haul and the character develops in a way that I didn’t really get a chance to develop in those other ones.

With Sherlock, did you know early on that it was going to work, that it would be such a success?

I did, especially with Sherlock because you probably know that there were two pilots and after the first one, the sixty minute one that Coky Giedroyc directed, which was very very similar in the shape, except it wasn’t intercut it was all one long scene. I just thought this works, the updating of Sherlock Holmes really works and I thought Benedict and Martin Freeman were both perfect for it, and I couldn’t believe how long it took the BBC to commission it, and then they did and they asked for 90 minutes so we had to go and do it all again. It was obvious to me when I first read the script, it looked like a winner to me.

Was it weird to go back and do it again?

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 Slightly weird, but you know it was a different director and we went and rethought it, but there wasn’t a lot that changed in what I did. He was a friendly psychopath, a chirpy sort of psychopath.

What do you think about when you’re deciding on a job?

For me, it’s almost always the character, whether there’s something perhaps I haven’t done before, every actor likes to break the mould every so often and… I just fancied this, I really did, and I was delighted to be asked.

Phil Davis, thank you very much!

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