Ex-Doctor Who star Peter Davison enters global political battle in The Vertical Hour
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
Peter Davison cannot escape the prefix Dr in his acting roles – unless of course he’s playing a vet. On the advice of Patrick Troughton, the well-known actor famously quit the role of Doctor Who after three years to avoid being typecast.
Luckily his career hasn’t been overshadowed by the Time Lord – although his personal life became forever entwined with the series when ex-doctor David Tennant married his daughter Georgia.
Now he’s on stage at the Park Theatre playing a medical doctor in David Hare’s The Vertical Hour – the title inspired by the window of time after a combat catastrophe when a medic can still be of use.
As the 63-year-old rehearses the role of Oliver Lucas, a British doctor ideologically opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he points out it’s his first straight theatre role in 15 years.
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“It’s quite scary, I’ve done a lot of musicals recently (Spamalot, Chicago, Legally Blonde) and earlier in my career I tried every four years to go off and do some theatre. But as you get older, time slips and you realise it has in fact been 15 years. I am doing my best to get these lines in but the problem with doing a David Hare play is you want to do it absolutely as it’s written. You embark on a personal, political speech, there’s no-one to help you, you’re on your own then someone says, ‘You’ve just cut out four pages!’” says the affable Davison who has a ready, self-deprecating humour.
But as Isis make headway in Iraq, and America once more debates its role in the country, it’s a deadly serious and timely revival of Hare’s 2006 play which originally starred Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy.
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The classic Hare examination of the intersection between public and private lives - personal philosophy and global politics - sees Davison’s charming womaniser visited by his son and American girlfriend Nadia – an ex-war correspondent – whose experience covering the Balkans and Gulf War prompts her to agree with America’s intervention in Iraq.
“He’s an interesting flawed character,” says Davison,
“He’s lived in a certain way that has brought enormous damage and death. He does kind of take responsibility for it and realise what he did within the marriage and to his son, while also defending himself. He bares his soul in the end.”
The play is couched as an argument between opposing ideas about whether countries should intervene in the affairs of others.
“Nadia is not a hawk but she epitomises that Americans have a completely different approach to their country. We are generally very cynical about our politicians, while in America, there is honour in the office of President. There is also this evangelical approach to intervene and bring democracy to countries regardless of whether they want it or are ready for it, regardless that it is a deeply flawed way of governing that means governments get elected by less than 50 per cent of the electorate. There is no ideal system but we’ve somehow got ourselves to a point where it’s the answer to everything in every country.”
Recalling the atmosphere in the UK as millions marched against Tony Blair’s decision to go to war, the actor adds: “It was just an extraordinary folly. It seemed that ordinary people could see what the politicians couldn’t, as if the closer you got to it the less you could see the big picture. One of the great lies was that we could be attacked in 45 minutes by Iraq.
“As my character points out, the evidence for going to war came from corrupt and dishonest elements within the country who were opposed to Saddam Hussein.”
After training at Central School of Speech and Drama, Davison’s big break came in Sunday night family favourite All Creatures Great and Small, playing a hapless young vet in Yorkshire alongside Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy.
The fame it brought led to other screen parts including the fifth incarnation of The Doctor, and popular series such as The Last Detective, At Home with the Braithwaites and Law and Order UK.
“Theatre is traditionally where actors spread their wings but I’ve been very lucky to be in several things on TV I haven’t wanted to change a word of. In theatre you never have to pin down the way you play something, it changes from night to night, it’s exciting. With TV you think, ‘This is the take, I have to do the definitive thing’ and these days you don’t even get a rehearsal.
“That isn’t so bad because I like working quickly and have never liked an enormous amount of talking beforehand.”
Although he wondered at the time whether he should have gone on longer as The Doctor, he was in his early 30s and “younger actors don’t want to hang around that long in case a great opportunity might appear.”
“I remember in the rehearsal rooms seeing contemporaries of mine coming in doing different parts while I was still doing Dr Who.
“If I had done it later in life I might have stayed in it until I was dead.”
He is happy to continue his association, attending fan conventions, narrating audio CDs of episodes from his era, and taking part in the 50th anniversary celebrations.
“I don’t regret doing it although I regret we didn’t have the special effects – that was one of the great things about the return. I never needed to turn my back on it like Tom Baker who did it for seven years and found it necessary to close the door for a while. But you know the return wouldn’t have happened without the original series, the people who grew up watching it like Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat who raised the bar in the whole quality of it.”
As for that odd coincidence of having an ex-Doctor Who son-in-law, he admits: “It’s kind of a weird thing, when we take the dog for a walk in the park together, it kind of freaks Doctor Who fans out.”
The Vertical Hour is at the Park Theatre from September 23 until October 26.