Tony Fyler pays tribute to the man who first brought a young face to the old Time Lord.
Every actor who has played the role of the Doctor has faced particular challenges, and a surprising number have had the weight of the show’s continued future on their shoulders when they’ve taken on the role. Peter Davison in 1981 was not one of them. The show itself was not in danger when Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor inexplicably fell off a radio tower and lay on the floor for his final moments as the Doctor. But there was still a lot of disbelief that someone so fundamentally different could actually pull off the role. Davison was just 29 when he stepped into the Tardis, at the time the youngest Doctor in the show’s history. But allied to his youth was a sense of public confusion over the fact that ‘that nice young vet from All Creatures Great And Small’ was going to become the ageless, benevolent alien. Because as well as being the youngest Doctor to date when he took over the keys of the blue box, Davison at 29 was the Doctor who had had the most public recognition from his prior TV work, at least since Hartnell’s Army Game days.
Davison had begun his theatre career nine years earlier in 1972 in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Nottingham Playhouse. 1973 saw him get some more solid Shakespeare under his belt with The Taming of the Shrew at Open Space, and both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. But the year also marked his TV breakthrough in a bit part on the BBC’s Warship series. In the absence of any TV follow-up though, the following year he tackled yet more Shakespeare in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and stretched himself in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, both at the Royal Lyceum.
Both TV and TV sci-fi properly welcomed Peter Davison in 1975, when the 24 year-old starred in three episodes of the wonderful oddity that was The Tomorrow People. Just two years later, at the age of 26, Davison landed what might be considered his first plum TV role – as Tom Holland in eight episodes of the dramatization of HE ‘Darling Buds of May’ Bates’ semi-autobiographical novel, Love For Lydia for ITV (made by the then-prolific London Weekend Television). It’s worth noting that the young actor’s third TV job saw him in two more episodes than the likes of theatrical stalwart David Ryall and fellow up-and-coming actor Jeremy Irons. What’s more, it was the first time Davison was seen by a wide audience in the rural period setting (the story was set in the late 20s and early 30s) that would make him so very familiar to British audiences a little later in his career.
A very little later, in fact – in 1978, the year after Lydia, Davison was cast as Tristan Farnon, the younger of two brother vets and something of an irresponsible rake, in the second episode of a BBC production of James Herriot’s ‘vet’ memoirs, broadcast under the title All Creatures Great and Small. The show became a national treasure almost instantly, and Tristan Farnon would be a role to which Davison would be wedded for 65 episodes over the course of the twelve years (off and on) of the show’s production, running with gaps from 1978-90.
It was certainly the role for which he was best known in 1981 when he was offered the role of the Doctor, but that is more indicative of the show’s prominence of place in the BBC schedules than it is of Davison’s type-casting. Indeed, having worked the first three years on All Creatures, the very early eighties were spectacularly good to Davison – between 1980-82, he held down lead roles in not one but two primetime sit-coms. In Holding The Fort for London Weekend, Davison starred as house-husband Russell Milburn in an early outing from now legendary writing duo Marks and Gran (Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, Birds Of A Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart). Meanwhile for the BBC over the same period, he was starring as Brian Webber in Sink or Swim, a man with a messy life further complicated by the arrival of his layabout brother Steve, played by Robert ‘Major Salateen, Caves of Androzani’ Glenister.
You might think that was enough, but Davison also went back to the theatre in 1980 to play male lead Paul Bratter in Neil Simon’s hilarious play, Barefoot in the Park (the movie version was played by Robert Redford, which is no bad comparison for a 29 year-old actor), and chalked up a landmark appearance in the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, alongside his then-wife Sandra Dickinson.
So it’s fair to say that when John Nathan-Turner was looking for someone to replace Tom Baker as the Doctor, Davison’s star could hardly have been in a higher UK ascendancy – with a regular role in a national favourite as Tristan Farnon, plus some sci-fi cool with Hitch-Hiker’s, plus the lead in two successful sit-coms, one on each of the two main channels (for US readers, it’s important to understand that at the time, the UK had three terrestrial TV channels, and no cable. Just three).
Nathan-Turner had a passion for casting that would get him headlines, and in casting the comparatively slight, fair-haired Davison as the replacement for the curly-headed force of nature that was Tom Baker, Nathan-Turner certainly achieved his goal – while no-one doubted Davison’s acting pedigree by 1981, following Tom Baker was a very tall order, particularly as it became clear that Davison’s Fifth Doctor would be deliberately nothing even remotely like his previous incarnation. Nevertheless, Davison brought a sense of self-possession to the job belied by the character of his Doctor – to play such a big role without overacting or performing to the crowds is both one of the big challenges inherent in the character, and a thing it takes real mastery of your art to convincingly do. While Davison is on record saying he would do a better job of playing the Doctor today (an argument to some extent backed up by his Big Finish performances), his early 80s skill reminded fans and dilettante viewers of Doctor Who alike that actually, there was an alternative to Tom Baker’s performance in the unique, changing role of the Doctor. Davison helped a fandom which had known nothing else, certainly for two generations of the key audience demographic, let go of Tom Baker and move on. He became ‘the Doctor’ of a generation of fans, just as Baker, Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell had been before him.
Davison has also gone on to have perhaps the most varied post-Who career of any of the Classic Doctors since Troughton, with roles in Just About Everything, from British staples like Miss Marple and Jonathan Creek, to his own series, including A Very Peculiar Practice, Campion, At Home With The Braithwaites and The Last Detective. He continues to work regularly on TV, as well as delivering new adventures as the Fifth Doctor for Big Finish.
While in 1981, no-one was talking about cancelling the show, as they had done in 1966 when Patrick Troughton was cast, and again in 1970 when John Pertwee took over the role, it’s important to remember that following so big and so legendary a performance as Tom Baker’s would not have been easy for any actor. For the youngest actor ever cast in the role at the time, it showed incredible confidence and a great deal of skill to not only take on the challenge, but to make the role his own over the course of three years.
Davison did both, while freeing fans to move on from Baker’s legacy, bringing a new sense of youthful fun to the character, and re-interpreting Troughton’s contained style of playing the role for an 80s audience who had quite forgotten it could be done that way. And all, let’s not forget, while wearing a stick of celery in his lapel and ignoring the fact almost completely for three years.
Peter Davison, for all you brought and all you continue to bring to the character of the Fifth Doctor, we salute you.
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
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