Doctor Who's Peter Capaldi won't be hanging up his coat anytime soon

Playing the nation’s favourite time-traveller has its challenges but Peter Capaldi isn’t hanging up his sonic sunglasses yet, he tells James Rampton

James Rampton
Friday 06 November 2015 10:08 GMT
Peter Capaldi, aka Doctor Who
Peter Capaldi, aka Doctor Who (BBC)

The Doctor will see you now. I am ushered into the cosy library of an upscale London West End hotel and take a seat alongside Peter Capaldi, the twelfth incarnation of Doctor Who, on a capacious sofa. We fall into small talk about past interviews, and I happen to mention that, when I interviewed the veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, he surprised me by taking a tape-recorder out of his bag and laying it down next to mine. Benn told me it was his way of ensuring that he was never misquoted.

“That’s quite a good idea, if you’ve got anything important to say. But I haven’t, I’m sorry,” says Capaldi, twinkling at me down the length of the sofa. It is a twinkle that has marked all of his best work.

Yes, he may play the rudest man in Britain (the kinetically sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) or the most evil man in Christendom (the malevolent Cardinal Richelieu in The Musketeers), but there is always a sparkle in Capaldi’s eyes that lets audiences know he is having the most tremendous fun. It makes him a hugely magnetic presence.

The actor brings the same quality to Doctor Who – and to our interview. Dressed in a blue suit and matching top, the 57-year-old exhibits a winning, mischievous sense of humour – which, likeably, is largely aimed at himself.

Here, for instance, is what Capaldi has to say about his prospects of making it in Hollywood: “I can’t imagine I’ll be the new George Clooney. That’s not really on the cards. Often British actors go out to LA and come back here to join the cast of Midsomer Murders with a huge sigh of relief. That’ll be me.”

Peter Capaldi, in Episode 6: The woman who lived (BBC)

In the same way, Capaldi is able to send himself up over his abiding passion for the Time Lord. “My wife [producer and actress Elaine Collins] laughs because occasionally some issue will arise over Doctor Who. It’s very rare, but sometimes there is some conflict over the production. She thinks it’s hilarious that there are grown men in Cardiff [where the show is made] throwing tables at each other because they disagree about some aspect of Doctor Who. Of course, I’m one of those men having the fight.”

So what sort of things will these grown men be throwing tables over? “It could be the interior of the Tardis or the colour of a Dalek. ‘That Dalek’s eye-stalk is the wrong length. It should be 18 inches – and that’s 17 and a half.’ I’d argue for 18 inches – although it does depend which mark Dalek it is. So what do I do when my wife laughs about all this? I simply leave the room.”

He and Collins met in a 1983 touring production for the Paines Plough Theatre Company. They went on to appear together in various projects, including the 1993 film Soft Top Hard Shoulder, and have a grown-up daughter.

Capaldi is equally amusing on the subject of Doctor Who’s legendarily dedicated fans – many of whom he will meet next weekend at the Doctor Who Festival at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London. “I think that people, and journalists in particular, like to suggest that Doctor Who fans are largely middle-aged men in anoraks with polythene bags full of cuttings, or slightly geeky, stalker-ish people. They always want me to tell stories about slightly uncomfortable experiences I’ve had when someone has stepped over the line. But, hand on heart, that’s never happened. The people I meet are smart, clever and funny – and not all of them are dressed up as [former Doctor] Sylvester McCoy.”

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Fame is not what attracted Capaldi to acting. “I’ve never wanted to play the fame game – anyway, I’m not very good at it,” he says. “The trouble for anyone coming into acting now is that it is difficult to know what route to take in order to get on. Unfortunately, at the moment, if you’re seen in that world of flashbulbs and red carpets, you’re regarded as successful. The measure of success is how much time you spend there. It’s very confusing for young actors to work out what to do.”

The young Capaldi was lured into the business by something far more tangible and rewarding than a lust for celebrity: Doctor Who. Leaning back on the sofa, his apparently electrified hair standing to attention, the Scottish actor takes up the story: “Growing up in the 1960s, there was the Beatles, milk bottles with silver tops, smog – before it was called smog – lots of bronchial diseases and the dark. On those dark winter nights, there would be a little flickering picture in the corner of the room, and it would be Doctor Who. It would be haunting and strange, and then after half an hour it would be gone. But those wonderful worlds that it took you to lived on in your imagination.”

Capaldi, who grew up among close-knit family in Glasgow, where his parents ran an ice-cream business, went on to become a self-confessed “Whovian” – even writing in to the Radio Times as a 15-year-old in praise of the show and building up a collection of Doctor Who memorabilia. He now bitterly regrets the fact that when he was 18-year-old he burnt the entire collection in a “bonfire of the vanities” as he was eager to “move on and discover sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll”.

Despite his youthful attempts to become cool – in his days as a student at the Glasgow School of Art, he was even lead singer of a punk band called Dreamboys, with Craig Ferguson (who in later life hosted a hit US chat show) on drums and Temple Clark (who went on to become the storyboard artist on movies such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Avengers Assemble) on bass – Capaldi never lost his love for all things Whovian.

And nearly five decades after first pretending to be The Doctor in the school playground, he proved that the geek shall inherit the Earth when he was given the keys to the Tardis.

“It’s an incredible privilege to play this character,” he beams, two years into the job. The downside of the role is that, especially with the ubiquity of social media these days, everyone’s a critic. But Capaldi is canny enough to understand that when you play Doctor Who, criticism comes with the intergalactic territory.

“It can be hard to deal with it,” acknowledges the actor. “I do my best in the role, but you can’t please everyone. However, if you got put off by that, you wouldn’t do anything. You’re on TV, so with anything you do, there will always be some people who love you and some people who hate you. What I do know is that, because it’s this show, there will some people who just love this Doctor and will always love this Doctor. So it doesn’t matter if a lot of other people don’t.”

Despite the critics, Doctor Who is still powering through the TV universe; the current series is averaging around six million viewers an episode, making it BBC1’s most popular current drama after EastEnders. It also enjoys stratospheric overseas sales, and has a host of celebrity fans – Steven Spielberg, no less, has said it is one of his favourite TV shows.

So just why has this strange and often unreadable alien from the planet Gallifrey remained so popular for the past 52 years? “What the producers have managed to do is create a character that exists in folklore now,” says Capaldi. “Doctor Who is almost more potent and alive in our imaginations than he is on the screen – that’s an astonishing thing to have achieved.”

Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died (BBC)

It helps that Capaldi gives such a compelling performance in the title role. He is gifted and versatile actor who has starred in work as diverse as In the Loop, The Hour, The Devil’s Whore, Skins, Local Hero, The Crow Road, Dangerous Liaisons and Paddington. His Doctor crackles with wiry intensity; he is cranky, even forbidding sometimes. Above all, he is not desperate to be liked.

“You automatically react to what’s gone before, and Matt [Smith] and David [Tennant] were both so wonderful and warm. It’s also to do with my age. It would not be very graceful for a man of 57 to be walking around trying to make people love him in a boyish way.

“I was very keen that The Doctor be spiky and distant. It emphasises his alien-ness. I wanted to get back to the idea that he’s not a human being and he doesn’t care whether human beings like him or not. This may sound wrong, but I didn’t want to make it easy for the audience – and clearly I haven’t.”

Doctor Who’s show-runner Steven Moffat said this week that the programme was “definitely going to last five more years”. Can Capaldi foresee a day when The Doctor finally hangs up his sonic screwdriver – or sunglasses? “If it stops, it’ll not really stop,” Capaldi reflects. “It’ll continue on in the imagination and mutate into another form. Already you see its influence on a lot of other programmes. The show may stop, but some kid now will have their imagination stimulated to do something creative in the future.”

And what of Capaldi’s own future in the Tardis? Moffat asserted this week, “Peter Capaldi is going nowhere.” For his part, the actor says that he will leave eventually, but, “that moment hasn’t arrived yet”. He is also a well-regarded director and picked up the 1995 Oscar for Best Short Film for Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as directing Cricklewood Greats, a terrific spoof documentary about a fictional British film studio, and several episodes of Getting On, the Bafta-winning sitcom set in a hospital ward.

He is aware of the dangers of being locked for too long in the Doctor Who world. “I’ll be running around with an anorak and a polythene bag full of my own cuttings signed by myself,” he laughs. “In a few years’ time, after I’ve left the show, I’ll build a Tardis set at my house for Halloween. I’ll answer the door to trick-or-treaters in full Doctor Who costume and say to them, ‘remember me?’”

Peter Capaldi will be appearing at the Doctor Who Festival at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London from 13 to 15 November. Tickets available from The current series of ‘Doctor Who’ continues tonight on BBC1 at 8pm

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