As pledged in today’s Q&A with Peter Davison, star of All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who and Law & Order: UK, which doubles as a preview of MystiCon, here is a longer (if still not entirely complete) transcript of the half-hour interview he granted me. —MikeA.
You have a long, still-active television career in the United Kingdom, but in the United States you’re primarily known as the Fifth Doctor from “Doctor Who” or as Tristan from “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Certainly other series have been out in America, but I guess they’ve been out on cable channels … the last time I was in America, I went to Barnes & Noble, and I saw all the series in the series I did called “The Last Detective” were for sale in there, and I know that a series I did called “At Home with the Braithwaites” also went out there and got a good reaction. You just don’t know the numbers you’re dealing with. Dealing with a cable channel, BBC America, obviously the numbers are very small, but I think there’ve been a few things that’ve gone out. There’s a series I did called “Campion.” Actually, that was quite popular in America. The box sets are available in America and I know that the “Campion” box sets also sell very well there.
When I do a convention, there’s always a few fans that come up and ask about “Campion” and how they liked it and also “Last Detective” as well. Obviously when you’re dealing with fans, you’ll deal with people who know your work because they go out and look for you because of their love for Doctor Who.
I think probably above Doctor Who, “All Creatures Great and Small” has the widest audience, because it went out on so many PBS stations way back. I would get recognized for being Tristan in America.
Tristan was a loveable troublemaker. Where do you find what you need to play a character like that? Did it affect perceptions of you as a person?
It didn’t really, it wasn’t like me at all, I have to say. My being cast had a lot to do with looking like I could be Robert Hardy’s brother rather than being blown away by my reading. I kind of grew into the part. A about a week of filming I met the real Tristan –Tristan, Siegfried and James, they were based on two brothers and a vet that came together in this practice – it helped a lot meeting him. I think he’s described on page two or three of the first book as being like a “debauched choirboy, “ and I think that really sums up my approach to him. He has a kind of innocence about him, but if he can get into any kind of mischief he will.
Do more people recognize you as Tristan or as The Doctor?
It would probably have to be Tristan, certainly as far as being most recognized in America, that would be true. Over here it’s not quite the same thing, because I’ve done I’ve done some major series, it’s changed over the years.
Which role has affected your acting more?
Probably again Tristan. When I took over the Doctor, obviously I was known for playing Tristan in “All Creatures Great and Small.” One bright TV program thought they would get a panel of children on to give me advice about how I should play the part of The Doctor … I always remember one boy said “I think you should be like Tristan, but brave.” (laughs) I think I used that as my blueprint. I think Tristan has informed a lot of parts. Really, you play them differently in the end, but as a starting point, I think probably Tristan has proved to be very useful.
Was Doctor Who viewed as a children’s show?
No. It’s never been viewed as a children’s show, really, except that it’s adored by children. … It has a huge adult fan base … They grow up with the program and then they have memories of watching the program when they were younger, and they stick with it.
You followed Tom Baker, who’s the actor who was in the part the longest and had that trademark long scarf, and was very popular. Was it a challenge following somebody who many perceived as having defined the role?
He defined for a lot of Americans the role because he was the first Doctor that a lot of Americans saw, but he didn’t define it in Britain. The series’ first two Doctors, who were William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, really defined the series. Certainly he stayed with it the longest.
It was slightly intimidating when I went to America to follow Tom Baker because quite often I was only the second Doctor they’d seen, therefore I was the first recast. Tom Baker was Doctor number four, so there really wasn’t a problem with that in Britain. They were quite used to different Doctors, different actors playing the role.
How did this play out with fans in America?
I think that the first ever convention that I attended was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it was before I’d appeared as The Doctor. So most of the questions I was asked [were] actually about Tristan, but also they would ask me about previous Doctors. A certain number of fans, and they’re not that many of them, there are a certain number that kind of believe that we are the same person, so at least one of the question I remember for that first convention related to a story that I was not in, and could not possibly have known anything about. But they said, “In this story, you did this. Why did you do that?” and I said, “I’m really sorry but that wasn’t actually me playing the Doctor.”
I was certainly intimidated, not so much by Tom’s time with the part, but by my age, which was at that time considerably younger than any of the previous Doctors. Now of course with the present Doctors I don’t feel at all out of place. … Matt Smith was younger than me, David [Tennant] was certainly young when he played the part, so I’m now not out of place at all, but certainly when I took over the part, I thought to myself, “Am I too young to play this?”
How did that affect how you played the Doctor?
I could move more quickly, I could run faster, so I was a bit more of an action person than maybe the previous Doctors had been.
Whose idea was it to have the celery in the lapel of your costume?
That was John Nathan-Turner’s, the producer’s idea. I had nothing to do with it at all. He came to me one day and said “I think we should have something quirky about your costume. How about a stick of celery?”
And I said, “Yeah, okay … why?”
He said, “I don’t know, just seemed like a good idea.”
So I said, “Well I don’t mind that, as long as you explain, before I leave, what the celery is there for.”
And I think we got to the last story, my last story and they hadn’t explained it, and so I think in a very hastily rewritten few scenes it was explained … and I’m going to leave you to watch the episode. (laughs) You’ve got to give these fans something to ask.
The great thing about the Doctor is, whichever Doctor you were, you are that Doctor. So I was Doctor number five. Of course everyone has their favorites. … There’s sort of equal interest, really, in all of us.
Do you have a favorite Doctor?
It would be Patrick Troughton in my case, the second Doctor. He had the hardest job. He was the first “regeneration” of the Doctor. So after three years of William Hartnell playing the part, and with no clue that there would be another actor playing the part, William Hartnell left and they recast the part. And I remember being very, very unsure about whether another Doctor could do it, another actor could do it, and then I think after the very first episode of Patrick Troughton doing the part, he just won me over completely, as he did so many of the fans.
Of the newer Doctors, I think it would be David Tennant, probably.
As of a couple years ago Tennant became your son-in-law.
Yes. (laughs) Well, I think I would have said that anyway.
Did he meet your daughter on the set of “Doctor Who”?
He did, yes. They didn’t start going out then, but they met then, yes.
Did you know him at all at the time you and he filmed the “Doctor Who” short “Time Crash” together?
I’d worked with him previously, although I don’t really remember him very well. He did a series that we were both in called “The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries,” so I knew him a tiny bit from that.
And there was an occasion, many years before, when apparently he’d come in and sat at our table – I think I was doing a play in London, and he was a “Doctor Who” fan and had just idled over and said “You mind if I join you?” I didn’t even find it out it was him until much later. … I had been, in the end, his Doctor because I was a younger Doctor. He wanted to play the Doctor, so that special we did, “Time Crash,” was really as much about the tenth Doctor remembering the fifth Doctor as it was about David Tennant remembering watching me play the Doctor.
What was it like stepping back into that role?
It was odd because obviously I was a good deal older. I only just squeezed into my costume, although I did get into it. (laughs) But the biggest difference was it wasn’t on my set it was on his set, so I felt very much as if it was sort of an alien territory … it didn’t feel like the old T.A.R.D.I.S. console that I’d known. By the end of it, it was enormous fun, but it took an hour or so to get used to the idea that I was reprising the part of the Doctor.
Do you get peppered with questions about your son-in-law?
I think everyone knows it now … but yes, I do, which is why I kind of referenced it in the program for the convention. … I see my daughter a lot, and David as well. Sometimes it seems like a mini “Doctor Who” convention in my front room.
Your daughter appeared in an episode called “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In that episode was she the fifth Doctor’s daughter?
No, no, she was kind of his [Tennant’s] daughter. It was a bit of a cheat … What happened was he arrives on this planet and they clone her from him. … So she’s sort of, I guess, a DNA-perfect copy of him, and they refer to her as his daughter, though strictly speaking she’s a female clone.
Is there a reason you’ve focused much more on television roles than film?
(sounds amused) Not being offered them is the main reason, I have to say. The thing about film is … there was a much bigger divide when I was starting off, when I was doing lots of television, there wasn’t that much of a crossover from film to television as there is today. … I worked so much in television, on the odd occasion when film offers would come up, I was usually tied up.
It also enables you as well, television, to life a far more normal life, I think. … As far as my family is concerned, it’s worked out much better doing television because you’re usually at home. It’s almost like a commuting job. In the end, I like that.
Do you have a favorite role?
I would say probably “At Home with the Braithwaites,” a series I did about four series of in the early Noughties, because it was so brilliantly well-written. It covered all boundaries. It was emotional but it was also very, very funny … When I used to get the scripts and read the stuff I had to do, I remember thinking you just couldn’t ask for more than this as an actor. … It was a joy to do.
The story itself is an interesting idea. It’s about a family that wins 38 million pounds in the lottery, and how they’re very dysfunctional anyway, and how winning that kind of money just turns a family from just plain dysfunctional into just plain mad. Really, their lives fall apart because of the money, in a comedic and also finally tragic way. I play an unfaithful husband who doesn’t really get on with his children who doesn’t really get on with his children. … It’s her [his on-screen wife] who wins the money, and I don’t find out about it until halfway through the first series, and so of course I’m appalled that she’s got all this money and she hasn’t told me, and then I want my fair share of it. It’s a roller coaster ride … He is a troubled and not a particularly pleasant man, but … I loved playing that part, because you have to make the character in one sense, in your own head. These people who are like him don’t think they’re terrible people. They think they’re perfectly fine people. So it’s finding a way of playing it where it’s almost reasonable, his behavior, to you.
Do you have a favorite “Doctor Who” episode?
My last one, called “Caves of Androzani” … It was just a great way to go out. Everything kind of pulled together. It has been voted the best “Doctor Who” story ever. So you can’t have much better a combination than that.
Were you prepared at all, playing that part, to have people asking you about it 30 years later, everywhere you went in America?
No, you’re not prepared for that. I mean, I kind of realized the fandom would endure to a certain extent, but not in the way that it has. When it was originally cancelled in Britain, before it returned in its newer form, I did always think it would come back….
I think if it had carried on, it would never have been reinvented in the way that it was, so from that point of view it was probably a good thing. … I wasn’t happy about it being canceled, it was a great shame, but I think it had lost a little bit of its shine. When it returned in its new minted form it was all the better for it
Have you followed it yourself as it’s come back?
I have two, 11 and 13, I have two boys who are devoted “Doctor Who” fans, so yes, I do watch it.
Your first grandchild will have two Doctors, father and grandfather… (Interviewer’s note: I learned afterward said grandchildren, Tyler and Olive, already exist. —MikeA)
It’s a very weird thing, isn’t it? (laughs)
You’re one of the stars of “Law & Order: UK.” Is that based on the American show?
It’s so definitely based on the American series, yes. In fact, I think the stories are largely adapted from the American stories, but they’re quite often changed so much because of the different legal system that they’re unrecognizable. I find a lot of Americans I’ve met who’ve seen it didn’t actually know that. … I’m the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, so I’m the one who’s in charge of the lawyers who bring the case. It’s up to me to decide what charges could be brought, what we think we can make stick. As in America, it’s divided into two halves. The first half is the detectives, the second half is the bringing to trial. I’m the head of the whole kit and caboodle, but I don’t actually appear in the courtroom.
You played King Arthur in the London production of “Spamalot.” Did you get any attention from Monty Python fans?
Monty Python is obviously a British t.v. program, and it was greatly loved over here as well as America. … It was a great thrill to play it because of that. It was the closest I’ll come to ever being in the Monty Python team.
How did you get into acting to begin with?
I suppose mainly because I failed at everything else. If my parents could have persuaded me to go to university they would have done, but I didn’t get the exams to warrant a good university. I was keen on acting, so I joined an amateur dramatic society, so they said, go ahead and try that, and I got into drama school and that was it.
You appeared in the original BBC adaptation of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Did you get to meet creator Douglas Adams?
Oh yes. He said probably the most profound thing about “Doctor Who.” He said the trick about “Doctor Who” is making it simple enough for the adults to understand and complicated enough to hold the children’s attention.
Have you ever been to Southwest Virginia before?
I have never been to Roanoke and don’t know much about it… except for some bizarre reason what sticks in my head is it was once called “Big Lick.” I don’t even know why I know that, but I do.