Peter Davison is one of Britain’s leading actors of the stage and screen.
He is perhaps best-known for his role as the Fifth Doctor in the classic Doctor Who series from 1981 to 1984. Over his career Davison has played a variety of TV roles including Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small, and Dr Stephen Daker in A Very Peculiar Practice. He’s also an established theatre actor having starred in shows such as Legally Blonde The Musical and Spamalot.
For his latest role Davison will be presenting the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular when it arrives in the UK in May. We caught up with the actor to find out more about the show, talk about his career and discuss the enduring success of Doctor Who.
You must have enjoyed presenting the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in the Antipodes since you’re reprising the mantle. What can you tell us about your role in the shows, and will the UK versions follow the same format?
My role in the show really is just to introduce, link the various pieces of music. I don’t do the hard work. The orchestra does the hard work, and Ben Foster the conductor. But I just come on and act a bit like a rock star, and it’s great. It’s a fabulous show and it’s very nice to be involved in it in any way.
How have audiences responded to these musical spectaculars?
They’re hugely enthusiastic. From my point of view what I love about it is that it’s bringing a different kind of music to the ears of maybe younger people who wouldn’t normally go to an orchestral concert. But because it’s Doctor Who music they love it, and it’s quality music. It’s very special stuff and it stands alone. But you also have clips of the show running in the background and various aliens and strange creatures wandering around the auditorium to add to the fun.
You’re a musical man yourself, and you’ve worked a lot in musical theatre (we loved you in Spamalot, Chicago and Legally Blonde). Do you enjoy hanging out with musicians?
I wish I’d been a musician. I started to learn the piano when I was about five years old, and about two years later I told my mother I wanted to stop, and she let me stop: and it’s something I never really forgave her for! Which is why I torment my children and insist that they learn a musical instrument. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, and I wish I could do it better. I play a lot of things a little bit, and I write songs, I always have done. Not to the same calibre as Murray Gold, but nevertheless I enjoy it immensely. So yes, I am musical, and I enjoy the whole idea of it and I’m very keen on spreading the word.
You’ve played hundreds of parts since leaving Doctor Who three decades ago. What are your feelings as an actor about the fact that the show is still a part of your life and career?
It’s never been a problem for me having Doctor Who as part of my life. I’ve not really known my life, after Doctor Who, without it. I never felt the need to distance myself from it because it didn’t prevent me getting work, so I was always very happy to go back and do little bits here and there and whatever was asked of me. It’s a job you never leave, and a job that keeps giving and giving and giving. You may as well decide, once you’re Doctor Who, that you’re Doctor Who for life. You’ll always be your Doctor.
Will you be presenting the shows in character?
Essentially no. I do still have parts of my costume but for the most part I can’t fit into them very well. So we’d have to have a bit of re-tailoring and added material. So no, I’m introducing it as myself and as a fan of the series, really. I would hope I’m fairly enthusiastic in my approach to it, and I think that communicates to the audience.
Music has always been important to the success and effect of Doctor Who. What are your thoughts on the new style of orchestrated score, as opposed to the work of the Radiophonic Workshop during your tenure?
Well, they’re two very obviously different sorts of music. The Radiophonic Workshop music was tremendously effective and very, very identifiable with Doctor Who: but I have to admit I’m slightly envious of the new music, in terms of its scope. I know from talking to a couple of the composers of the electronic music that they are too. It was very much a less important part of the show from the producer’s point of view. It added greatly to the overall effect, but it was more ‘incidental’ music than the music of today. Murray’s music is very much pieces of music that he’s written for characters or sections of the show, so it’s a heavier slant, and there’s much more focus on the music. So I think both are important. I love the Radiophonic Workshop music and the original Ron Grainer theme is iconic. But they have to be seen as two very different forms of music, both of which add to the series.
How do you account for the extraordinary success and appeal of Doctor Who?
Two things really. One of course is that it’s a brilliant notion to come up with the idea of regenerating the Doctor, because you can get a multitude of actors to play him, which enables the series to go on and on and on. The more important factor I’ve always believed, is that the people who watch the series are inspired by it, and it’s no surprise that the people who are now running the show, from the top right the way down, especially Russell T Davies and Steven Moffatt, are huge fans of the series. You couldn’t get a bigger fan of the series than Steven Moffatt, the present producer. He knows everything there is to know about the classic series. So it’s almost regenerated itself through the years.
What do you think the late John Nathan-Turner, the producer who cast you as the Doctor, would have made of the new series?
(Laughs) John Nathan-Turner would have loved the new series! He was passionate, not so much about the science-fiction side of it: he was passionate about the series. He would have loved the fact that when it came back, the series achieved its rightful status as a premiere BBC show. When we did it, it was watched by near enough the same number of people, in numbers probably more, since in those days mainstream television had higher viewing figures, but what it wasn’t was a prestige show. What it wasn’t the product they had on the front cover of Radio Times every time there was a new season. I think he would have felt that it had gone in the right direction, absolutely. He was amazingly keen to get the series to its rightful position. He never really managed to do that because it just wasn’t seen as that sort of programme and we didn’t have the budget for it, or indeed, not even the budget. What’s changed over the intervening years is the technology. You can now do on a home computer more than we could ever do during my time. We didn’t even have digital writing – we had to do it with Electroset when I was the Doctor! So what you can achieve now in terms of special effects is remarkable.
You’ll be sharing the stage with some favourite monsters from the show. Do you prefer working with Daleks or Cybermen?
Oddly, my passion has always been Cybermen, because I just remember them being terrifying, and I liked the way they were a sort of human or humanoid figure inside a life-support system suit. I always found them very scary. Of course the Daleks are iconic, and during my time I was very, very keen that I would get to do a Dalek story – for some time it seemed like I wouldn’t because there was a problem I think with copyright. But in the end we were allowed to do one, and I’m very pleased to have done it. But I suppose… I’ve always had a little thing for Cybermen (laughs).
We adored The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot – the best thing about the 50th anniversary for us! What gave you the idea, and did anyone involved offer any resistance to being so deliciously sent up?
(Laughs) Oh, I could talk for hours about this. OK, the Five(ish) Doctors came about because I never thought that the classic Doctors would be involved in the 50th Anniversary special, and I was asked this question at various events and conventions. I eventually said if we weren’t going to be in the 50th Anniversary special I would damned well make one myself. This was picked up on by the fans and given back to me at the next convention I did, when I was asked, “Is it true you’re making your own 50th Anniversary special?” So I thought, “Well, I’ve got to now!” I had an idea in my head and I wrote down a little script which at the time I think was about ten minutes long. It was just one of those things that grew organically. I’d wake up one morning and I’d think, “I could do a scene about this.” The ultimate thing was that I’d asked Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann if they would help me. They weren’t quite sure about it, but they said ‘yes’. And then Sylvester said, “I don’t know if I’m going to be available for filming because I have to go to New Zealand to film The Hobbit”. So I thought, “Well, I’ll write a scene for Peter Jackson, the director of the Hobbit.” I sent him an email, and Peter Jackson very kindly said yes! He said he’d love to do it, and he’d get Ian McKellen involved too. So it just grew exponentially.
Everything just fell into place. It was one of those magical things. I ended up directing it because there wasn’t originally meant to be a director, I was originally just going to film it on my home video camera. But the BBC liked the script, because we had to send it to them, and they gave me a little camera crew. In the end, it sounds really corny, but it’s absolutely true: it was a labour of love. We wanted to be involved, but we also wanted the fans of the classic series to have something to remember the 50th anniversary by. We had no idea about Tom Baker being involved in the actual 50th anniversary special. Indeed the only person who did not accept our invitation to be in the Five(ish) Doctors was in fact Tom Baker! But I thought he didn’t like me actually, because he didn’t want to be in The Five Doctors, which was a special I did many years ago . I’d written him a nice little scene, but in the end he chose not to be involved, so, I thought we’d just use the same clip we used in The Five Doctors and make it into a joke. I think it probably worked better, actually! So that’s how it came about. End of story!
Do you have any plans to write or direct more in the future?
I’ve actually been asked recently to write a graphic novel, so I’m going to give that a go. There’s no plans at the moment for a sequel to the Five(ish) Doctors, only because it would have to be a better idea than the Five(ish) Doctors to make it worthwhile doing. I don’t want to do something just for the sake of it and have it not be as good, and I don’t know if I could get that number of actors to work for nothing again. Ever! So maybe it’s best to go out at the top. But if I had a good enough idea that occurred to me I would try to do more. But I’m concentrating on other stuff. I’m writing this graphic novel, and also I’ve been asked to write my autobiography (laughs). A daunting prospect because I can’t really remember very much, but you never know!
What’s the graphic novel about?
It’s a Doctor Who Fifth Doctor story. They just came to me and said, “Would you be interested in writing this?” I said, “Why not, I’ll give it a go.” I may be rubbish, but you never know until you try, do you?
We look forward to reading it. Thank you very much, Peter Davison!
For more information about the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular head over to www.doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-symphonic-spectacular/. Watch the trailer for the show below: