The choice of the actor to play the Doctor is always a carefully considered one, and it’s surprising how often the fate of the show has depended on getting that critical casting decision right. In 1963, many actors were considered for the role, but William Hartnell, eager for a chance to break his ‘sergeants and crooks’ type-casting, made the character his own. In 1966, the casting of Patrick Troughton was even more crucial, ensuring the programme had a future beyond Hartnell. And in 1969, the casting of comic actor Jon Pertwee, who like Hartnell had his diversity to prove, gave the show a whole new lease of life and fundamentally changed what it was about.
Perhaps no actor since Pertwee though had such a weight of expectation on their shoulders as Christopher Eccleston in 2005. Hugh Grant has claimed he was offered the role of the Ninth Doctor, and there’s also the rumour that Jane Tranter considered Dame Judi Dench. While both are great actors, neither would have been right for that first new Doctor – Grant would have made the show appear foppish simply by association with his most famous film roles, and Dench would have been too old and too female for the 2005 audience to accept. Great actors, but both would have sunk the show right out of the gate.
The role needed to turn heads, to be filled by a serious actor, so the public and the press would be intrigued and tune in to a show both familiar and new. And actors didn’t come much more serious than Christopher Eccleston.
Eccleston trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and began his TV career on shows like Blood Rights (an overtly political drama), Casualty and Inspector Morse. It’s fair to say though that the role that first made audiences take notice of him was that of Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It, a film dramatization of the real life Craig and Bentley murder case. In a cast packed with British talent including Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins, Edward Hardwicke and Mark McGann, Eccleston was hypnotic, owning every scene and anchoring the story in the person of the confused Bentley, who was hanged for murder and posthumously pardoned. It was a big, gritty debut.
Most observers skip straight to Eccleston’s role in Cracker, but that would be to ignore two solid roles – on TV as Sean Maddox in the Gulf War widowhood drama Friday on My Mind, and as the lust-filled priest in the disturbing film Anchoress, about a woman walled up as a recluse in a 14th century church.
In between more workaday roles in some of TV’s staples, including Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Eccleston was making a name for himself in hard, conflicted, morally complex roles. When he starred alongside Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, the crime drama based around an alcoholic gambling-addicted criminal psychologist, Eccleston gave as good as he got as DCI David Bilborough in the gritty, Jimmy McGovern-written series, balancing out Coltrane’s barnstorming performance. Eccleston had begun choosing or being chosen for projects packed with talent, and to work specifically with writers and directors whose work he respected. In 1994, the year he left Cracker, Eccleston pulled the same trick again, starring alongside rising talents Ewan McGregor and Kerry Fox in dark social satire Shallow Grave, written by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle.
1995 saw him working again with Jimmy McGovern in Hearts and Minds, starring as Drew Mackenzie, a factory worker who educates himself to become a teacher in a Liverpool comprehensive. Eccleston had found a good thing in gritty northern realism, and he continued his streak of hits in 1996 with the landmark drama Our Friends In The North as Nicky Hutchinson, one of the four ‘friends’ whose interconnected stories are told over four decades. The other three friends were played by future Bond Daniel Craig, future Everyvillain Mark Strong, and Gina McKee, who has gone on to appear in a host of movies and TV shows. Eccleston, along with his co-stars, was marked as a name for the future, despite at the time having done the broadest and most high-profile work of the four.
Over the next few years, he would build on his reputation, starring as Jude in the movie based on Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure opposite Kate Winslet, and returning to McGovern for harrowing drama Hillsborough, recounting the events and the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. He stretched himself as a Jewish patriarch in A Price Above Rubies, another movie dealing with religious and social themes, where he worked alongside Renee Zellweger and Julianna Marguiles. He tore up the furniture as the scheming Duke of Norfolk opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, bringing his trademark grit to a more mainstream movie project, but again, one whose cast was a Who’s Who of acting talent – Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud. Of them all though, it’s chiefly Blanchett, Rush and Eccleston you remember, again proving he could hold his own in major movie-star company to anyone who doubted it.
ExistenZ in 1998 was Eccleston’s first brush with real sci-fi themes, but it allowed him to add more A-List names to his CV – Jude Law, Ian Holm, plus writer-director David Cronenberg.
Eccleston returned to McGovern – by now a clear favourite among writers – for 1999’s Heart, an off-beat story of transplant surgery and obsession, after which, Eccleston seemed to appear almost everywhere for a few years, with notable standouts including Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off, another drama with interconnecting character threads, and Gone In 60 Seconds, his first real dabbling with Hollywood popcorn, which also added Nicholas Cage, Angelina Jolie and Robert Duvall to the Six Degrees of Christopher Eccleston.
By now, Eccleston was becoming that unlikely thing, a quiet grandee of serious drama, and it’s possible that 60 Seconds was a conscious attempt to both broaden his audience and his employability. He built on his international appeal too by starring alongside Nicole Kidman in The Others in 2001, before returning to UK TV in another Paul Abbot show, Linda Green, and dabbling with Shakespearean themes as Ben Jago in a modern retelling of Othello. The following year, 2002, saw him return to McGovern again for Sunday, a dramatization of Bloody Sunday, a key moment in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles.’ That year, he also guest starred in creepy comedy series The League of Gentlemen (alongside Who-fan and writer Mark Gatiss), and returned to Danny Boyle for another mainstream film role in zombiefest 28 Days Later.
In 2003 though, Eccleston added Russell T Davies to his list of favourite writers, playing the reborn Son of God in Davies’ drama that brought the struggle between God and the Devil to life in the modern world. Eccleston’s take on Stephen Baxter, the unwitting Messiah, shone new light on the subject matter, and showed he could absolutely carry a lead role that was the prime focus of a drama. So when Davies in 2004 found himself looking to cast a similar role – alien, but showing the best in humanity, the centre of all eyes, and with enough gravitas to bring the performance right in to a single moment - Eccleston was reportedly first on his list. Like William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee, Eccleston came to the role of the Doctor with something to back him, and something to prove. He didn’t pretend to be a fan of Classic Who, but Eccleston had always backed writers he could trust, and with changes made – believable effects, more gender equality in the companion role, his own accent and an understated costume – he trusted Russell T Davies to deliver him a role in which he could achieve some personal goals while making remarkable television. He went on record saying he’d never worked in a show aimed at children, and he’d never been tasked with roles in which he had to be funny, so he came to Doctor Who with the explicit intention to surprise.
And surprise he did. He brought the comedy, absolutely, but more than any Doctor before him, he also brought that focus that allowed the Doctor to have real, long-term emotional consequences to his choices and his lifestyle. He and Davies between them set the template for 21st century Doctor Who, and 21st century Doctors – the realism, the anguish, the fun and the running. Though he left after just the one series, and did not get on with BBC executives, Eccleston has always said he’s immensely proud of the work he did on Who, and that the show itself has become so successful.
We the fans are grateful. Grateful for the seriousness with which he took the role and its responsibility, and grateful for the fun and running too. Grateful for a performance that re-established Doctor Who as something viable, something new and something – you knew it was coming, don’t wince – something fantastic in the 21st century world.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk