The Den of Geek interview: Peter Davison

The fifth Doctor Who, Peter Davison, talks exclusively to Geek about wobbly sets, Time Crash, type-casting and his opinion on the crappiest Who monster ever

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Time Crash, and Davison as The Doctor in the 1980s.

Veteran of UK TV since his enormous success in All Creatures Great And Small in the late 70s, Peter Davison remains the youngest Doctor ever to have taken on the role of the itinerant time-lord. For Children In Need he was reunited with the Tardis – and David Tennant’s interpretation of the role – in Stephen Moffat’s short Who story Time Crash, and spoke to us recently at the launch of Big Finish’s new download service for their audio Who adventures…

When you were doing Time Crash, I thought David Tennant was a little unkind to you…

[laughs] Well, I’m glad you think that – yeah! That was just how Stephen Moffat wrote it.

How was the experience of going back on the set after all those years?

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I loved it. When I got into my costume, which they created – most of it was real, though they had to buy another hat – I felt a bit out of place, because I felt that my costume was designed to be overly ‘BBC Television Centre Studio’, and suddenly I was on this proper atmospheric set. David was dressed in this cool dark outfit, suit and tie, stuff like that, and I was in pyjamaed Victorian garb, hat…so it took me a bit of time to get used to that.

But once I got into it I had a great time doing it. He was a bit in awe of me because I was ‘his’ Doctor, I was in awe of him because he’s a terrific actor and I was on his territory. So in a way it kind of balanced out.

There was that wonderful moment you always kind of get at the read-through; people first of all brace time by showing off the set and saying ‘First of all we’ll start out here, and then this is the way up’ and so on, and then eventually they say ‘Okay, shall we just try a run-through of the lines?’ . And the moment you run through the lines, it’s great.

It was all very quick. The only thing I felt about it was that we are both so quick in terms of speed…I timed it at something like ten minutes and it ended up as just under eight minutes – we just zipped through it.So if you were Tennant’s Doctor, presumably yours was Patrick Troughton?Mine was Patrick Troughton, yes. I had a similar experience of being in awe when Pat was in The Five Doctors – he, more than Jon Pertwee, was my Doctor.

Did Troughton or Baker influence how you approached the part, or did you want to consciously reject those influences?

No no, particularly regarding Patrick. I don’t think anyone would have recognised it – I did quite well impersonating Patrick Troughton very very badly, and people would just think it was an original performance. I took bits of everybody in my head, and then whatever comes out…

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It is an unusual job doing Doctor Who, because you’re not based on anybody – you’re cast because of you.As a household name when you took the part, were you more or less at risk of typecasting than most actors in that role?No, I felt more anxious about time passing in terms of things I could be doing. I would see contemporaries of mine going into a rehearsal room and doing a play or a short series of some kind, and then a few months later they’d be back doing something else, and I’d be thinking ‘I’ve been here for three years, doing this’. Great, but…there’s a lot of running up and down corridors.You were ubiquitous in the 80s with shows like A Very Peculiar Practice, Sink or Swim and many others. Were you keen to be seen on TV as something other than the Doctor?

You can’t really control those things. I knew there’d be a problem after Doctor Who. I remember that I went up for something shortly after Doctor Who – which I did – which was a BBC classic series, and no-one mentioned anything, but I’d know there was a problem from a conversation with a producer and my agent where it was said ‘I’m just concerned about the fact that he’s been Doctor Who for three years – it’s set in the 1880s and we don’t want someone distracting from that’.

But they gave me a moustache and dyed my hair, curled it a bit, so I wouldn’t look anything like him. Which was fine by me. They gave me the part and it sort of broke the spell.So you never had a ‘Leonard Nimoy’ period of wanting to be totally disassociated from the role?

No, not once I’d broken the spell of it. Tom had quite a problem, but he’d done it for seven years – although he’d done stuff before, he wasn’t a recognisable face before [Doctor Who].I really enjoyed your contribution to the extras on Beneath The Surface – are you and Janet Fielding always such a double-act?

[laughs] Yes, we are actually.One of the most enjoyable extras on Beneath The Surface is you, Matt Irvine and Janet Fielding mocking the Murka [Warriors Of The Deep]. Is the Murka the lowest point of Doctor Who‘s production values in your time?

I think the Polystyrene monsters in Time Flight might be close to it. They were literally lumps of Polystyrene [laughs]. But the Murka – this creature that they put you up against that couldn’t possibly catch you in a million years. That’s the problem with it, that people have to literally fall over in order to be caught by these creatures. You could comfortably walk away from it, so why were all these soldiers confronted with it going ‘argghh’? It’s just the way things were done.

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That’s maybe missing from the new series – the fun of the cheap sets.[laughs] I love that.

Is that something you think the current series would benefit from?What, dodgy sets? [laughs] No, I’m quite happy with the series without the dodgy sets. It’s part of what you have to accept when you watch our seasons. It’s a point I make when we do the conventions, that there was no such thing as digital effects. It just was blue-screen and chromakey – that was the best technology that was available to us. So everything about it is kind of dodgy, but you accept it.

It’s weird, but I remember that in that time – the 80s – there was a longing for live TV performance, and John Nathan Turner was one of these people – I was having a conversation with him about live television, and how he wanted to go back to it. Not for Doctor Who, but…he thought live television was the be-all and end-all.

I did point out to him that when there was live television, we’d accept a whole different level of production values in which very often the boom microphones would dip into the set. Sometimes cameras would come into shot.

There was this great story someone told me of a live Dixon Of Dock Green, which Chris Baker [All Creatures Great And Small director] was involved in. In those days he was the floor manager, and back then, before radio contact, they were attached by headphones to the side of the set. A policeman was meant to come in and go ‘Oh Andy, you’re wanted down the station’. And he didn’t turn up.

So this was live television! Chris decided to go in an do the line himself, say ‘Oh Andy, you’re wanted down at the station’. So he went onto the set, forgetting that he had his headphones attached by a cable, and got as far as ‘Oh Andy – eurcchhh!’ [laughs]! And he just disappeared, and people just looked on, looked around.

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I didn’t see that particular one, but it didn’t matter. Those kind of cock-ups didn’t matter. They would have mattered in the 80s, but in the same way the dodgy sets, even though we knew they were a bit wobbly, if you were watching it in the 80s you’d still get quite excited. If you were to do that now, people would just laugh at you, they really would. So you can’t really go back – even though it would be fun.

Do you feel freer to explore the role in audio productions?It seems a contradiction, but working from a script does give you an extraordinary amount of freedom in the way that you play something. A lot of the difficulties in doing it on television is remembering the words, and where you are in the script, and what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to remember to hit your mark and not block someone else, and it’s very bittily done. If you’re filming something, it’s done in thirty-second chunks, rarely longer than that. When you’ve got the words in front of you, you can kind of fly with it, in a way. You’re not having to remember it, you can do things in a different way and play them differently.

How has your Doctor evolved in audio versions from the role you played on TV?I’m not sure. It’s very difficult for me to answer that. It’s mainly governed by the fact that I’m older, and as a person, I’m more experienced. I made a decision not to try and play it like I played it. I don’t see how I can, really, for two reasons: one, you’re inevitably older…and…there are many things I wasn’t happy with when I did the series. If someone said ‘Would you like to go back and remake the old stories?’ I’d say yes, great. If I could be that young again. But I’d do it in a slightly different way. But I didn’t put a lot of thought into how I might have progressed to here; you just take each script as it comes to the best of your ability at the time.

I remember thinking I’m gonna play it now as I would have played it at my age then – it may be slightly different, it’s hard to say. I kept having an argument with them; when I started they would take pictures of us ‘now’, to put on the front, and people don’t want to see me as that! [laughs] – they might have trouble listening to it, so they can just use the pictures from my period as Doctor Who.Would you be willing to return to Doctor Who for a longer story along the lines of Time Crash?

Oh, absolutely. I don’t think it would happen – I have to be straight on that, because it sounds as if I’m prophesying about it, which I’m not. I can’t think of a reason why I would say ‘Sorry, I don’t want to be in one of the most successful television series ever’. I think it’s unlikely. I loved doing Time Crash, but I don’t know it would go any further. Unless there’s a spin-off for old codgers roaming around the universe!

Thanks again to Leesa Daniels of Forbidden Planet, and David Richardson at Big Finish for helping to arrange these interviews.

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