David Tennant: The good doctor

The most powerful actor in television is also, by all accounts, the nicest bloke in showbiz

British drama boasts but a handful of truly timeless roles. Many attempt to play them, and many fall short of perfection. Few get the chance to take on two such characters, but this year David Tennant has just that opportunity.

In July, Tennant begins a season in Stratford, playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Though this versatile and popular actor may never find himself heading up the list of great Danes that includes Mark Rylance, David Warner and Laurence Olivier, his reputation as a British cultural icon is nonetheless secure. A poll conducted by the BBC in 2006 found that he was the nation's favourite Doctor Who – beating Jon Pertwee, Christopher Eccleston and even Tom Baker to the title. Last year Tennant, who is 36, came in at number 24 in a recent media power list, making him the most powerful actor in television. He's also, by all accounts, the nicest bloke in showbiz.

Doctor Who returns next week for its fourth series (and Tennant's third) since it was so successfully relaunched by writer-producer Russell T Davies in 2005. The Doctor's latest adventures are, as ever, under wraps, the plot twists and turns as shrouded in secrecy as a new Harry Potter novel. What is known, beyond the fact that Catherine Tate will be playing the Time Lord's assistant, is that Tennant's sparkling performances will carry the show again.

"In this series we've pushed the Doctor further than he's ever gone before," says Davies. "I've made 39 episodes with David now, and I'm still going, 'My God, I've never seen him do that before.' He's just limitless. Sometimes you find yourself writing for actors and allowing for their traits. There's nothing worse than sitting at your desk at two in the morning thinking, 'I can't have them cry in this scene, because they're no good at crying,' which you find with actors sometimes.

"But there's none of that with David. You can watch him in Doctor Who, and then in a serious drama like Recovery [in which he played a husband recovering from a serious head injury], and it's like you're watching a different man. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire he has a small part, but it's a perfect little distillation of evil. You can write anything for him. You're never bored, and you never want him to have bad lines of dialogue. You want to do your best for him."

Last year Tennant won the National Television Award for most popular actor. The BBC has such confidence in that popularity that it has given him time off to play Hamlet, a commitment that rules out a Doctor Who series for 2009. Instead, there will be three bank holiday specials spread through next year, with a fifth full series reaching our screens in 2010, to which Tennant is already informally committed.

"I think it's genuinely exciting that he's playing Hamlet," says Davies. "I keep asking him what he's going to do with it and he doesn't know yet. He hasn't had time to concentrate, but it's a brilliant bit of casting. You'll get people in that theatre who would never normally go and watch Hamlet at the RSC. There'll be kids there who, in 60 years' time, will remember when they saw their first Hamlet."

Tennant has a thoroughly congenial reputation, and not just among luvvies. Newspaper diarists, who often find themselves at the sharp end of a dressing down from a celebrity, say he's a perfect gentleman, always polite and ready to talk when cornered at a media event. He is one of the few public figures approved by celebrity gossip site Popbitch, which has posted more than one tale of Tennant's loveliness and largesse. And Davies positively gushes with praise for his star. "People can get tired and ratty on set, but David never does. There must be times when he feels low, but he feels the responsibility of leading the team. It's not his job to lead. As an actor, he could be miserable as fuck if he wanted to be. But he's a proper leader of men."

Tennant was born David John McDonald in West Lothian in 1971, the son of a local minister in Paisley, who later became a national figure as Moderator of the Church of Scotland. After taking part in the BBC's genealogy documentary strand Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006, Tennant learned that the Northern Irish branch of his family had been embroiled in the Troubles. He was unsettled to hear of his ancestors' involvement with the Orange Order, but glad to reveal that his grandfather, Archie McLeod, was a professional footballer with Derry City FC.

A fanatical Doctor Who fan even as a toddler, Tennant claims he told his parents he wanted to be an actor aged just three, so inspired was he by the Pertwee and Baker incarnations of his fictional hero. Thus he knows full well the enormous responsibility that comes with the role. "Playing the Doctor is a massive duty," says Davies. "David is brilliant with the kids and other fans who accost him in public. The glorious thing is that he was there as a child, loving Tom Baker and Peter Davison, so he knows how important it is to a kid when they meet him."

After leaving Paisley Grammar School, Tennant trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where he adopted his stage name after reading an article on Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant. Among the institution's many esteemed alumni are Robert Carlyle, Alan Cumming and James McAvoy. After graduating, Tennant found work with the Scottish agitprop theatre company 7:84, so named for the 7 per cent of the UK's population who supposedly control 84 per cent of its wealth. Like that other famous son of the manse, Gordon Brown, Tennant is a lifelong socialist, and even appeared in a party political broadcast for the Labour Party in 2005.

He moved to London in the early 1990s to lodge with his friend, the comic actress and writer Arabella Weir, whose success with The Fast Show soon rubbed off on her flatmate. During the 1990s, he worked often with the RSC, and switched between comedy and tragedy with ease, playing Touchstone in As You Like It in 1996, and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet in 2000. Though it's television that gave him the fame necessary to play Hamlet, Tennant has always said the theatre is his natural home. He will be joined in Stratford this summer by another sci-fi Shakespearean, Star Trek's Patrick Stewart, as Hamlet's treacherous uncle Claudius.

In 1996, Tennant appeared in Michael Winterbottom's film of Jude, which starred the ninth Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston. By then the young Scot was a BBC regular, taking larger and larger roles in the corporation's dramas, working for a decade to achieve his eventual, "overnight" success. In 2004, he landed one of the lead roles in the corporation's hit musical drama Blackpool. Doctor Who, and all that part entailed, followed, but Tennant has maintained a busy itinerary full of other projects, including the forthcoming biopic Einstein and Eddington, in which he plays Einstein's contemporary, Sir Arthur Eddington.

Tennant's private life has occasionally been the subject of decidedly non-fevered tabloid speculation. After splitting with his long-term girlfriend Sophia Myles last year, he was briefly rumoured to be dating Kylie Minogue, who appeared in a Christmas special episode of Doctor Who. Tennant has since confirmed that he's in a relationship with a low-profile BBC colleague, Bethan Britton. His co-stars have nothing but praise for his talents and his character, and there's never been a whiff of scandal about him.

The Pink Paper once granted Tennant the title of "sexiest man in the universe", but despite having played Casanova for a BBC3 miniseries, Tennant's good looks are not of the movie star variety. He is skinny and angular, with limbs that can flail with comic urgency as Doctor Who, or crazed hostility as they did when he played the deranged Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. His tall, lean physiognomy will set him apart from the other notable Hamlets of recent years – among them the chubby Simon Russell Beale, the slight Ben Whishaw and the testosteronic Toby Stephens.

He won the role of Doctor Who after impressing Davies on the set of Casanova in 2005, but even Davies himself has been shocked by the wild success of the show and its star. "The show's success is so mad that I don't think any of us will get our heads round it till it's all over and we look back on it in 10 years' time and say, 'Blimey, that was weird,'" says the writer.

"But I think what the public like about David is his energy. He glitters on screen; there's a vitality to him that is undeniably what has worked with the Doctor. On set we're surrounded by props and monsters and explosions and things often go wrong. When they do we say to each other, 'Well, at least we've got David.' We put the camera on him and it just comes to life."

A Life in Brief

BORN David John McDonald, 18 April 1971, Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland.

FAMILY One of three siblings to Reverend Alexander McDonald, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Tennant's grandfather, Archie McLeod, was a professional footballer for Derry City FC.

EDUCATION Paisley Grammar School, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

CAREER Tennant joined the Scottish Theatre Group 7:84 after graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy. His subsequent stage roles include the Black Prince in Edward III (1999) and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (2000). Television work includes roles in Rab C Nesbitt (1993), Takin' Over the Asylum (1996), Blackpool (2004), He Knew He Was Right (2004), Casanova (2005), Recovery (2007) and Doctor Who (2005-2008). Tennant has also appeared on film in Jude (1996), Bright Young Things (2003) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).

HE SAYS "The highlight should be wherever you are now. I certainly don't think the best is all behind me. I often stop when I'm doing something, in the middle of rehearsals or some other job, and I try to take a minute to think, 'OK, this might be as good as it gets, so drink it in, appreciate it now.' So far, I've been lucky because another job has always come along to equal the last."

THEY SAY "We are really good mates. I like everything about him, which makes it really easy to be in his company. He's a sweet, sweet guy. I call him to ask all my acting questions and he always supports what I do." - Former Doctor Who co-star Billie Piper.

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