the Fifth Doctor’s Heroes & inspirations. there’s surprises!
Something of the Doctor clings to Peter Davison. Perhaps it’s the straw panama he’s wearing as he enters a Richmond pub to meet SFX. The hair is silver now, the jawline flecked with stubble, but you can still catch the boyish Time Lord who kept evil at bay with the combined power of cricket, decency and celery. When he wryly flashes his recently acquired bus pass it feels like a glitch in the space-time vortex.
At 65 he’s just written about his life – “Originally I was going to call it Peter Davison The Autobiography Vol 3: The Doctor Who Years,” he grins – and he’s clearly in a reflective mood. What better time to share his heroes and inspirations?
“As you get older, your life fragments,” he tells SFX. “You remember all these things but you can’t really remember the order they happened in…”
We’d expect nothing less from a Time Lord.
I grew up in the early days of BBC Two, and all day long they used to run black and white films. I used to love the old Hollywood stars, people like Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, because it seemed to me that they just made everything theirs. You never questioned that Spencer Tracy was short and a bit sort of square looking. He was just brilliant. I admired that ability he had: he didn’t appear to be doing anything but you had an eye into him. You always understood where he was coming from.
When I did All Creatures Great And Small I used to listen to Robert Hardy, talking so wonderfully about timing and working with all these amazing people like Olivier, and I just felt so hopelessly inadequate. He was fantastic to me. He really was one of my biggest supporters and wanted the part of Tristan to be bigger. So that in itself made me feel better. He used to drive himself nuts. He never did the same thing twice. It was almost pot luck what you got. You might get a brilliant take from him or you might get something that wasn’t as good as anything he’d done in rehearsal. And he knew that, so he’d get really cross with himself, if he felt he’d done too much. Whether it was big or small, whether he’d shout a line or whisper it to me, it was always brilliant. He was probably my biggest influence in terms of style, although I didn’t try to copy him. He’s totally unique.
Robert Hardy was probably my biggest influence in terms of style. He’s unique
My sister introduced me to pop music. But she was a bit tame – she was into Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and people like that. I really got into it, I suppose, with flower power. That’s when I really switched on to it. I was very much a weekend hippy. I had the airforce coat and the kaftan and the beads. And I had these awful, pathetic sideburns, like an M1 down my chin. And Procol Harum were my band. I remember listening to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” and thinking, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” I used to write songs – I’d learned to play the guitar, and so I would try to emulate Procol Harum and the San Francisco groups. I recorded a couple of things, but it was clear to me that I was not cut out to be a musician in the gigging sense. I was aware that there’s a huge problem – no one wants to hear an actor sing, really. It’s very dodgy mixing acting and singing. Dennis Waterman syndrome clicks in immediately. You just think, give me a break. No one’s going to go out and buy a single or a song because I’d written it, unless it was so damn good that it overcame that. It’s an impediment. You might get some kind of deal because you’re known but no one will buy the record because you’re known!
AMERICAN CRIME FICTION
I never read at all at school. I just didn’t read. Giving me a book to read was like giving me an excuse to put it down. But then when I became an actor for some reason I started reading everything I could get my hands on, whether it was English classic novels or American crime fiction. I got into Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and then Ross Macdonald and Ed McBain. I like people like Michael Connelly now. I don’t know what it is about American crime fiction – it started off with this love of the hardboiled detective, which is defined by Hammett and Chandler. I just like them. They’re easy to read but in their own way they’re quite literary. And also the fact they’re cool in the way I could never be [laughs]! These characters walk into these very dodgy situations and they’ve got all the smart remarks.
He wrote A Very Peculiar Practice. We didn’t need to change a single syllable or piece of punctuation. I realised when I read him that I’d
if there was an ego, it was Jon pertwee, but i was quite happy to defer to him
never really done a really good script. I mean a really good script. We were doing this scene – I think it was with Rose Marie [Barbara Flynn] – and it was one of those speeches that ended with three dots. So I did this line and David Tucker, the director, stopped me afterwards and said, “That sentence you did today. It’s got three dots at the end. I think you’re only playing two…” That was the level at which we approached the script.
He was fantastic. I still think Hunky Dory is one of the great albums of all time. He was in a different class. Whatever he was doing, whether it was the glam stuff or the stuff that came later, he was just brilliant. I saw Bowie on the bill with Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Royal Festival Hall [in 1968]. He didn’t sing – he was doing mime! It was the weirdest thing. It was about Vietnam or something. I don’t know what the hell it was. I just remember thinking, “Who is this guy?!”
If you listened to Tony Benn, if you read his diaries – and the diaries are amazing – he never puts a foot wrong. This is a man who came from a very privileged background. He gave it all up, because he believed absolutely in his principles. I don’t think I can be like him. I think I’m too self-interested. Some of the interviews he gave towards the end of his life were just so moving. He held on, he was principled, right to the end. I think you have to be.
I started watching Doctor Who with William Hartnell. And I loved him as the Doctor. I knew he was leaving, and rather than cancel the series they announced that this other actor was taking over, who I didn’t know at all. I remember sitting down to watch that first Patrick Troughton episode with such bias that I was going to hate him, that I was going to hate the programme – and by the end of it I just remember thinking, “This is fantastic, he’s just amazing.” He seemed to capture everything that was required. He had this vulnerability, which I tried to bring back into the programme, but he also had a slightly dangerous quality to him, which I don’t think I did manage to bring back. I think I was just too young or inadequate to do it. So the contrary elements I loved. He was slightly enigmatic – there was a dangerous quality to him. Not to put William Hartnell down at all, but Patrick Troughton created something that was greater than what was there before. I got to know him later – he was just so ordinary, in a way. The first conversation I had with him was about his vegetable patch, which seemed to be extraordinary even when I was having the conversation. It must have been when we were doing All Creatures Great And Small. I just remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m talking to Patrick Troughton about his vegetable patch…” Was it surreal for me to act alongside him in “The Five Doctors”? Not as much as I thought it would be. [Producer] John Nathan-Turner kept me apart from the others because he was afraid there would be too many egos flying around the set. What he probably meant was that I would be swamped by the combined forces of Troughton and Pertwee… I regret that we didn’t meet up until so late on in that story. It’s just that one scene. If there was an ego, it was Pertwee, but I was quite happy to defer to him – I didn’t have any problem with that at all. You really felt that he thought [Pertwee impression] “I’m the Doctor!” Patrick Troughton kind of stole the show by not being like that!
Is There Life Outside The Box?: An Actor Despairs by Peter Davison is out now from John Blake Publishing.
Spencer Tracy was nominated for a record nine Best Actor Oscars. A fine ensemble (including dog) in All Creatures Great And Small.
The celery under threat in Who story “Arc Of Infinity”.
Procol Harum were named after a Burmese cat.
One of the many, many faces of David Bowie. Patrick Troughton brought new dimensions to the Doctor’s character.
Labour politician Tony Benn on the campaign trail.