We all have our earliest memories of Dr Who. Mine is watching Jo Grant menaced by maggots in The Green Death; the four year old me berating her for going back into a cave when any logical person would have run a mile.
I’ve spend most of my working life reviewing and dissecting TV shows and films, and obviously watching every episode of Who like many of you.
At one point I even made my own fan film involving the gallivanting Gallifreyan and Barnes Wallis called Dam and Blast.
(The actor playing said genius inventor is now supporting The Sisters of Mercy on tour while the unfinished film is doing a good job of collecting dust).
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 44 years since I first saw Jo’s maggot-related peril, it’s this: life is time travel. A one-way journey, which speeds by like a trip in a certain police phone box.
Okay, not the freshest analogy in the world, but truth is we’re all hurtling through space, and occasionally some of our timelines overlap with greatness, such as one autumnal 2016 night near York when I met Peter Davison.
For the sake of this time travelling tale, my journey begins in 1978: a 10 year old building a Battlestar Galactica Viper model one Saturday night while watching All Creatures Great and Small on the BBC.
Those were the days when the sight of Christopher Timothy performing a ventriloquist act with the rear end of a cow was as interesting as British TV got.
In the pre-internet era of three TV channels, a young Davison won the hearts of millions as mischievous vet Tristan Farnon.
The show was a huge hit and he got snapped up for countless projects, from sitcoms to period dramas.
I watched just about all of them, and though some got lost in space (Holding the Fort, and Sink or Swim among them), A Very Peculiar Practice and BAFTA/Emmy nominated At Home With the Braithwaites became favourites.
In case you’ve never seen them, the former is a glorious campus comedy with David Troughton (son of Patrick and later to feature in a favourite Tennant episode, Midnight); the latter sees PD on top form as an adulterous spouse usually one step away from a nervous breakdown.
Fast forward to the noughties, and Davison is grinning. I’ve just seen him for the first time in the flesh at a Birmingham (UK) memorabilia fair, signing autographs and taking his own money (unlike many other celebs who need an assistant to do that sort of thing).
When I see him again an hour later he’s striding around the hall, still beaming.
(Another Who star is at the same venue and looks like a wet weekend on Skaro).
Skip to now-ish.
End of Term. Photo: Tim Hall
It’s the tail end of 2016, and a year after Davison helped me plug one of those touring Murray Gold Who gigs via email, I’m on the set of End of Term, the new film from award-winning director Mark Murphy.
It’s my third visit in a couple of weeks, and as much as I love chatting to rising stars Ben Lamb (Divergent) and Josh Taylor (Netflix drama The Crown), as you might imagine, Davison is the actor I’ve most looked forward to meeting.
To me he is still the fresh-faced Doctor from 1982, getting used to his new skin after the legendary Tom Baker years.
It was a weird era for Whovians. For some Davison’s incarnation was just a bit too vanilla, and not eccentric enough, despite that stick of celery in his lapel. In a ’crowded’ Tardis with three assistants, at times the Time Lord looked like a co-star in his own show.
In my ’82 diary I wrote the title of every episode as it aired. (Odd having the eps on a weekday instead of the traditional Saturday night, I thought, but it was still appointment TV in those pre-VCR/on demand days).
Back to the autumn of 2016, and cast and crew are in Yorkshire, 10 miles from my front door. They’re shooting scenes at an ’art college’, racing from one set-up to the next as a blood red Alfa Romeo speeds off one minute or Davison and Lamb race into the premises the next. (I could tell you what the college really is, but why spoil the magic?).
Having read the page-turner of a script by Hear My Song veteran John Paul Chapple and Murphy, I’m not surprised Peter signed up to play the enigmatic Leigh. It’s a compelling tale filled with classic tropes that should pump new blood into the often anaemic genre.
The fact Davison was signing autographs at a US convention a week or so earlier is proof that he’s still much in demand around the world. It should sell in Birmingham UK or Birmingham, Alabama.
Eventually there’s a break between scenes and as the crew pause for sandwiches, they gather around my article on the film’s production.
Peter finishes reading the piece and strides over to say hello. He looks serious, very much in business mode. ’This could be hard work,’ I think as we make our way to his character’s office. It feels like being summoned to the boss’s.
Minutes later we’re having the one-to-one chat I’d waited 34 years for, and the serious facade melts away. That personable guy I’d spent decades watching was every bit as amiable as I’d hoped.
He doesn’t make many movies these days, let alone blood-soaked chillers, so I was keen to see if I had missed any big screen frightfests tucked away in his CV.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done a horror so this is a departure for me,” he explains.
The tale of lethal goings on at an art college begs the obvious question: is Leigh a good guy or bad?
Okay, I know the answer but won’t tell. (I’m still wary about revealing the key spoiler in The Force Awakens, so I’m not about to spill the beans on a movie that won’t open for another year).
“I’ve found with this you have to be completely innocent until you’re proven guilty… I don’t want to give anything away,” he smiles.
“I remember having to do that once in a Miss Marple where I did play the murderer and I thought I’m going to go along to the rehearsals and play him as a slightly dark character, and the director said ’No no no, none of that. Just play him as nice.’”
Earlier that day I’d read part of Davison’s recently released memoirs, featuring a witty intro from son-in-law David Tennant. (He didn’t like All Creatures because it clashed with The Muppet Show on the other side).
It begs the question: was it cathartic to write his autobiography?
“In the end I think it was, because I’m glad I did it, Peter explains. “I didn’t think I had any great story to impart but there are two things. One was just putting my memories in order.
“Actors take themselves a bit seriously sometimes. There is a notion that we are great people are doing a serious job but virtually everyone on a film set works harder than the actors. But we are ’entertaining’ people.” He stresses the word, giving it the gravitas of someone who may be a master of their craft but clearly doesn’t go to absurd lengths to get into character.
“That’s all we’re doing really,” he continues. “And that’s a good thing to be doing.
“Don’t get me wrong. That’s very important in a cultural way, but it always makes me laugh when actors take themselves too seriously. They think they’ve achieved something amazing.”
He deliberately repeats himself.
“We are ’entertaining’ people.”
Obviously the 50th Who anniversary celebrations a few years ago attracted a lot of interest from fans, and it was a treat to see David Tennant, John Hurt and Matt Smith vying for most screen time in Day of the Doctor. Even Peter Capaldi’s eyes became one of the most talked scenes, next to Tom Baker’s cameo.
While I happily watched DOTD on TV (and at the cinema a day later), Davison’s far less official or serious pet project The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot proved just as rewarding for a fraction of the budget. He wrote, directed and starred in it. Rumour has it he may have also made the tea.
I was curious how it came about.
“I had an idea for a five minute piece, and it grew to a 10 minute piece,” he explains. “And the more people we approached to be in it and said ’yes’, and it grew longer and longer.
“It was fantastic, and there were moments when I thought ’Am I ever going to get this done?’ And then it all came together and all worked very well, and I think the fans seem to like it.”
Obviously it helps when you’re the director/star and your son-in-law is one of the most popular to ever wield a sonic screwdriver, not to mention the fact that even your daughter, Georgia, played a Time Lord. Of sorts.
(I’m probably not the only one confused by the fact the early Eighties Doctor’s real daughter got together with the Noughties Doctor in an episode called… Well, you know the rest).
With so much good feedback, it would be nice to see more.
“Yes, yes, I know. People keep asking me when I go to these events and am ’I going to do another one?’ If I can think of a another good idea I would like to do it, but I’m not going to do it if it’s not so good.”
And what of his tenure in the Tardis – does he have happy memories of working on Doctor Who?
“Yeah, we were always up against the clock, which was frustrating,“ he explains, before dropping a bombshell that might leave some readers doing a double take.
“Of my all time favourite series that I’ve done, I don’t think Doctor Who would come in the top three really. It was a great honour to do it, and it’s an iconic series, but if you compare it to All Creatures, At Home with the Braithwaites and the series I did called A Very Peculiar Practice, I thought they were the pinnacle of what you call ’great scripts’ to put in front of you.”
However, before you rush to bin that shelf full of Davison Who DVDs, the sixty something thespian is quick to diffuse his incendiary remark.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing Doctor Who. It was a great honour to be involved and a great privilege to be asked to do it.”
Sadly, as is often the way with film shoots, the star is needed back on set sooner than expected.
Manoeuvring through the army of technicians, I set up camp at the video village as Davison and Ben Lamb enact a scene in a corridor. Each hit their mark perfectly, while avoiding the usual pitfalls facing every thesp. A boom in the frame, or the tricky door handle that won’t co-operate.
Having shot the scene a few times, Peter is keen to see how it looks on film. It’s partly the director side of him kicking in, but more likely he wants to ensure he gave a good performance.
It’s the last week of filming and thanks to a back that feels like I’ve been trampled by a couple of Judoon, I decide to call it a night. Before I go, I grab a photo op with the man himself and head off into the night.
For the selfie generation who have never seen Peter Davison in anything, End of Term should be a compelling watch. There’s little actor baggage to get in the way of the bloodshed, though Who purists will spot Ronald Pickup, who as you may know made his debut in 1964 ep The Tyrant of France.
When End of Term opens at the end of 2017 it may even remind many who’d forgotten what national treasures they both are.
I just wish I could skip to that point now, but all good things to those who wait.
:: With thanks to the cast and crew of End of Term for their help with this article, and of course Peter Davison.
His autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs, is out now. End of Term will be released in 2017.