Book - Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs

Peter Davison

Barnaby Eaton-Jones thinks outside the box as he reads the new autobiography by Peter Davison...

'What we all knew for certain was that it was absolutely the end of playing TV vets in All Creatures Great and Small. Until we did it again… three years later.’ (Chapter 7, Page 152)

Peter Davison was my first Doctor. I mean, he didn’t listen to my chest with a stethoscope and prescribe me some cream for a dubious-looking rash. He was the Doctor in Doctor Who, on television, when I first started watching it. He was energetic and did everything at speed, often finding it so difficult to stand still in a scene that my mother once remarked that he looked like he needed the toilet. But, to me, he was a lithesome streak of highlighted energy, in his Edwardian cricketing suit, and was followed around by a bunch of bickering companions. Perhaps that’s why he was always rushing around; trying his best to shake them off? In his penultimate story, he gained an American companion called Peri, who seemed to fit him best. I flatly refuse to say I liked her from the off because her first appearance was in a revealing bikini. But, rather than take Peri away on many adventures, he bravely saved her from a fate worse than Sharaz Jek in his final tale and, in doing so, regenerated into Colin Baker.

Away from the Doctor, he had a career that any actor would be envious of; working consistently in television and on stage in nothing short of excellent programmes and stage shows which garnered critical praise and awards.

So, reading his autobiography was a revelation because he’s self-deprecating to the point of indifference and he’s so witty and engaging in his prose that I found myself laughing out loud an awful lot and getting through the 300+ pages in one day; constantly returning back to it when time allowed and hoovering his memories up. The mark of a good autobiography is, I find, in the beginning. How it all starts often showcases how much interest you’ll have, because – inevitably – your favourite subject is talking about people you don’t know and they’re asking you to care about. Here, Mr Davison is on to a winner, as he clearly admits he doesn’t know how to write his life story and jumps back and forth in his own timeline (without the aid of a TARDIS), with up-to-date diary entries connecting with key moments and people in his existence. He starts the book with a very amusing recreation of the stubbornness he had with wanting to use ‘An Actor Despairs’ as his title for the book (a brilliant pastiche of the title of every actor’s nominated bible, Stanislavski’s ‘An Actor Prepares’; taught in all Drama/Theatre exams and courses everywhere) and how his original publishers weren’t so sure. It’s a conversation that sees him parting ways with them, over the usage of a pun. Now, that is dedication to the art of wanting to make people chuckle. Just what the Doctor prescribed. Then, his family are nothing short of remarkable, with a headstrong mother who married a resourceful and fiercely British citizen from the West Indies. As he says in the book, he was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and clearly inherited his mother’s strong Caucasian genes, with not a hint of his father’s skin colour that would’ve raised eyebrows in less liberal times. His parents, and surrounding family, seemed lively and interesting and their story makes for an interesting read even before the birth of the autobiography’s subject. If you are riveted by family history in such a book, then it usually stands to reason that the life of the subject (and the way they write about it) is going to be just as interesting.

Without giving away the ending, the book even ends on a laugh-out-loud joke at his own expense. So, from first to last, this is a life story not afraid to accent his supposed failings and implies the tough relationships he had with humour and without resorting to direct insults or name-calling – which is delicately honourable. He is determined to show how he accidentally fell into a career by talking nonsense and gesticulating wildly at a debating event which he won for his school and the seed was sown. His drive to be a songwriter outweighed his drive to be an actor, and he did gain success in his original pursuit, but his acceptance of jobs and his equally natural ability to be a good actor took him down the path he’s known for (but his early photographic offerings show a delightfully long-haired and hippy-like young man who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Manfred Mann or The Doors, hunched over a Hammond Organ and bashing out some swirling psychedelica).

He covers, in detail, the roles he’s most famous for and his unnerving lack of confidence in himself; even if he’s handed lead role after lead role instead of working his way up through walk-ons, crowd work and cameos. His role as Tristan Farnon, in All Creatures Great and Small seemed to hang on whether the controller of the BBC at the time liked him and then his promotion to third main lead came about because one of the other two leads, Robert Hardy (an old-school legend, with a personality that breaks out of your television and into your living room), clearly liked him and instructed the powers-that-be to give them more scenes together. The resurgence of music in his life, when he began appearing in musicals late into his career, has produced some of his best and most diverse work (from Legally Blonde to Gypsy, via Spamalot), which he recounts with the emphasis on self-deprecation again…

‘Judi Dench was watching tonight, and as she came backstage afterwards I was in the corridor waiting for my guests to come through. I lingered longer than I should have done, hoping that she might say something complimentary but she only said, ‘What a great show.’ This, in the language of actors, can mean anything from ‘What a great show’ to ‘You were shit, but at least I didn’t fall asleep.’ ‘ (Chapter 12, Page 279)

For a man who never seems to know where his next bit of work comes from, and was accused by Gareth Thomas (of Blake’s 7 fame) of not being ‘selective’, he’s managed to largely avoid appearing in dross or anything that was unsuccessful – aside from his role in a Michael Winner film called Parting Shots, which he talks about in a brilliantly honest way. For me, what comes across most, is the story of a man essentially finding himself and his personality – someone shy and introspective growing into someone comfortable and accepting of themselves. He points out his failings as a husband or his lack of compatibility as a friend by inadvertently showing how other more secure and long-term friendships and relationships have survived. It’s clear, with his third wife (actress Elizabeth Morton), he’s become the person he wants to be and that their equally bumbling lives dovetailed beautifully into making each other stronger. It seems a perfect partnership, producing two sons to his one daughter from his previous high-profile marriage to Sandra Dickinson. Of course, that daughter is Georgia Moffett, a rather brilliant actress now married to the equally brilliant David Tennant (who played the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who and who first met Mr Davison as a fanboy, excitedly chatting about the show many moons before he met and married his daughter).

I’m a great lover of autobiographies, especially as it showcases the subject in such raw detail often (rather than being a powderpuff piece), but they are difficult things to get right. It’s delightful to be able to say that someone who seems to act with such ease and relaxed charm has produced a book in the same vein. It’s an easy read, in a good way, and it has a relaxed charm all of its own. It’s clear that man himself has grown into the type of confident, smiling charmer of a character he’s portrayed the most, when – in the beginning – that character was as far removed from him as it could be. A broad retrospective, rather than just focusing on what many would consider his two most popular roles (Doctor Who and All Creatures Great and Small), this is an engaging and fascinating read which showcases the warmth and wit he brought to those most famous roles. Like his all-too-brief tenure as the fifth incarnation of the world-famous Time Lord, I was sad when the story ended and just wanted a few more stories to magically appear.

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