Peter Capaldi begins with an apology. He is sorry that the last time we met – on the Prague set of The Musketeers, BBC1’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas stories – he was obliged to be, as the late MP Alan Clark once famously put it, “Economical with the actualité”.
In spite of repeated Paxman-esque quizzing by me about what he was doing next, Capaldi had made like Michael Howard in consistently refusing to answer my questions.
The reason he was so resolute in rebuffing me was, of course, that he was sworn to secrecy about his next role. Only a handful of people in the whole universe knew that Capaldi was about to take on possibly the most sought-after part in British TV drama: Doctor Who. He was not even able to tell his own daughter the good news. So the actor would undoubtedly have been lined up in front of a firing squad of exterminating Daleks if he had spilt the beans to me.
Fortunately, we can both laugh about it now. “Yes, well, the last time we were talking I knew I couldn’t say anything!” Capaldi grins wryly by way of apology. “You were asking me all these questions about what I was doing next, and I had to just sit there and say nothing!”
He carries on that, “It was a fantastic piece of knowledge to have, but it was getting tiring lying to people all the time!” The fact that the information acquired the aura of a state secret only serves to underline the sheer magnitude of the show.
We are meeting at “DWHQ”, the nerve centre of the “Whoniverse,” the BBC’s Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff, where they film the show. You are greeted at reception by a Dalek, perhaps a chilling reminder of what the fate that awaits you if you reveal any spoilers.
Capaldi is just as you would hope. He is much warmer, but just as sharp as the character for which he was previously best-known, the exhilaratingly foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Today he is sporting “electric shock” greying hair, grey trousers and a white T-shirt with an arty design that could have been lifted straight from an indie band’s album cover. The Scottish actor gives off a force field of charisma that may well be visible on the furthest edge of the galaxy. He twinkles like Regent Street during Christmas week.
At 56, Capaldi is the joint-oldest (with the first Doctor, William Hartnell) of the 12 main actors to be handed the Tardis keys, but he exudes a youthful exuberance that would shame performers half his age. The fact that Capaldi is of a certain age meant that many people were taken by surprise when he was announced last summer as the new Time Lord. But having watched his opening episode, “Deep Breath”, which goes out on BBC1 next Saturday, I can see exactly why the show-runner Steven Moffat went for his fellow Scot.
In this feature-length story, the Doctor and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) battle a dastardly foe in Victorian London. But, more than that, the episode is about Clara’s attempts to come to terms with a very different manifestation of the Doctor. His relationship with her has changed, but it is still at the heart of the piece and continues to be what makes this alien so human.
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Capaldi’s Time Lord is angrier, edgier and spikier than more recent versions. At one point, he is at the helm of the Tardis, and Clara asks, “Where are we going?” “Into darkness,” he replies.
The actor himself describes his Doctor as, “More mysterious and not as user-friendly” as some of the recent incarnations. He may be darker, stranger and more alien, but my diagnosis of Capaldi’s Doctor is that he’s immensely compelling and will be a big hit with viewers of all ages.
Over the subsequent 31 years, the actor has shown tremendous versatility. He has played everything from the nicest man on the planet in Local Hero, to the nastiest man on the planet in The Thick of It and its movie version, In the Loop.
The actor sums up his career thus: “I was recently doing a voiceover for butter and they said, ‘Can you be a little less sinister?’ So that’s how far it’s gone. I’ve gone from an amiable geek in Bill Forsyth films to a ‘sinister’ butter salesman.”
Relatively late in his career, Capaldi now has a seriously high profile. Despite that, he laughs off the idea that he might decamp to LA: “Hollywood producers aren’t going to say, ‘Get me that swearing, grey-haired, headless chicken. We need him for our new High School Musical movie!’”
For all his memorable past roles, Doctor Who is special to Capaldi. He is happy to admit that he has been a “Whovian” his entire life. He jokes that the last time he got to play the Time Lord was as a nine-year-old in the playground. As an eager 15-year-old in February 1974, he wrote to the Radio Times praising the magazine for its coverage of Doctor Who. Now, 40 years later, the fan boy has fulfilled his childhood dreams.
Capaldi, who is married to the actress and TV producer Elaine Collins and has a grown-up daughter, confesses that, “I was totally geeky. But when you reach the age of 17 or 18, you move on and discover sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. I’m ashamed to say I had a kind of bonfire of the vanities. I had a huge collection of Doctor Who books, autographs and pictures, but I threw them all away to go and drink lager and eat curries. That was silly, wasn’t it?” He adds that, “I wish I’d known that one day the geek would inherit the Earth.”
But he did not abandon his first love forever. Capaldi, also a notable director who won an Oscar in 1995 for making the short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, says that, “I grew up with Doctor Who, The Beatles, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, school milk, bronchitis, smog, S buckle belts and all that stuff, so Doctor Who is part of my DNA. Although one goes away, now the Prodigal Son returns!”
There is no doubting the authenticity of his passion for all things Whovian. “It’s a very unusual story that somebody who was so into it would end up playing this role. It was such an unlikely event that I never considered it happening to myself. There are things I get excited about that only a fan boy could get excited about. I don’t need any help with the backstory.
“Even if I’d never played Doctor Who, as a kid, that’s what formed me as an actor rather than going to the Royal Shakespeare Company or doing Chekhov. It taught me to be an actor. I hope it’s all inside me, and it comes up.”
One other characteristic that Capaldi’s Doctor exhibits is a childish glee – which mirrors the emotions he experienced when he first heard he had won the role he had been coveting. The actor, who lives in North London, recalls that, “I was in Prague doing The Musketeers, and I read in the paper that Matt [Smith] was leaving. I just thought I wasn’t in that race at all. I thought the role was going to keep going in a younger direction.”
When the producers were making the final decision about the new Doctor, Capaldi remembers, “I was shooting as Cardinal Richelieu, so my phone had to be off. But I checked it, and I had nine messages. My agent finally got through and said, ‘Hello, Doctor.’ I went into the corner, I couldn’t tell anyone. I had to be very quiet.” He does admit, though, that, “When I was walking around Prague on my own, I was singing the Doctor Who theme tune to myself.”
If you take on the role of Doctor, you are also taking on some of the most dedicated fans this side of Planet Gallifrey. But Capaldi, who appeared as a Roman sculptor in a 2008 episode of Doctor Who entitled “The Fires of Pompeii”, says he is not bothered by the aficionados’ intense devotion to the show. “Doctor Who is so big, from the start I thought, ‘Don’t get involved in what people say.’ You simply do your best. Then it goes out into the world and you know that whether most people like it or not, somewhere someone loves you, and will always love you. The more everyone else hates you, the more they’ll love you! ‘He was my Doctor’, they’ll say.”
Capaldi goes on to ponder just why the show, first broadcast on BBC1 the night after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, has lasted so long. “It’s got monsters in it. And they can change the leading actor. As Steven [Moffat] says, ‘If every show could do that, they’d all last a lot longer.’ Also, although it’s a sci-fi show, to me there’s an aspect of Grimm’s fairytale about it. The Doctor takes you deep into the forest where there are monsters, but he will return you to safety in the end. I think that colour in it is very potent, and it appeals to a family audience.
“Doctor Who has within it some of the cornerstones of the human psyche. He dies and is reborn. That’s a potent idea. It’s a show that young people can watch in which they are confronted with death, but in a way which is not grief-stricken.”
Finally, Capaldi pauses to reflect on his continuing sense of wonderment about Doctor Who, which has stretched from his earliest childhood to the present day. “I’m constantly amazed that it is me playing this role. I think, ‘I’m Doctor Who – how did that happen?’
“It’s a huge privilege and hugely exciting. I remember when I first came into the Tardis, I had to be very patient as the very nice props guys showed me how to work the Tardis. I was thinking, ‘I know how to work the Tardis. I’ve known for a long time, probably longer than you, so you don’t need to tell me!’ Every day is amazing.”
So how does the actor feel about still having so much fun at the age of 56? Capaldi ends – as he began – with an apology. “I feel guilty. My wife says to me, ‘You still enjoying it?’ ‘Yeah, sorry!’”
Series 8 of ‘Doctor Who’ starts next Saturday on BBC1
The five best Time Lords
Tom Baker (1974-1981)
The longest-serving Doctor, the actor occupied the Tardis between 1974 and 1981. His is fondly remembered as the most gloriously eccentric interpretation of the character. Draped in his trademark, multi-coloured long woolly scarf, the Fourth Doctor boasted a marvellously distinctive, booming voice, recently voted the fourth most recognisable in Britain. He handed out jelly babies willy-nilly and won over friend and foe right across the universe with his wonderfully charismatic personality.
David Tennant (2005-2010)
The Scottish actor, who wielded the sonic screwdriver from 2005 to 2010, was voted the fans’ favourite in a Doctor Who 50th anniversary poll last year. The 10th Doctor won a stonking 37 per cent of the vote, more than double the amount garnered by second-placed Matt Smith. Tennant, who had a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company, brought a real presence to the role. Sporting a battered brown or blue pinstripe suit, permanently loosened tie and red or white trainers, he could do hilarious as well as heart-breaking. His relationship with his first companion, Rose (Billie Piper), was both passionate and poignant.
Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
This suave actor played the Doctor between 1970 and 1974. A very dapper dresser, known for his flamboyant bowtie and red-lined cape, the Third Doctor was also something of a James Bond-esque action man. A very self-confident, sophisticated Time Lord, he combatted baddies with Venusian Aikido. Exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, he motored around in a string of eye-catching vehicles, and there was a certain frisson to his relationship with his second companion, Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning.
Matt Smith (2010-2013)
Many feared that Smith – at just 26, the youngest ever actor ever to be invited to pilot the Tardis – would struggle to follow in the footsteps of the hugely popular Tennant, but he did a great job in the role from 2010 to last year. An actor who previously had ambitions to become a professional footballer, until injury put paid to that, Smith invested the role with a terrific physicality. Combining a rare gift for clowning with angular good looks, as the 11th Doctor Smith absolutely made the part his own.
William Hartnell (1963-1966)
This venerable actor sneaks in just ahead of the man who replaced him, Patrick Troughton, by virtue of creating the character that has become one of the most widely loved in TV history. Initially reluctant to tackle the role, the then 55-year-old had to be persuaded to become the First Doctor by the show’s first producer, Verity Lambert. But Hartnell, who played the Doctor from the show’s inception in 1963 till ill health forced him to quit in 1966, soon owned the part with his gruff charm.
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