For some strange reason, there sections of Doctor Who fandom, and the general public too, who believe that Peter Davison – and therefore his Doctor – are a bit dull. His take on the Time Lord often unfairly derided as being the ‘wet vet’.
How ridiculous is that? He’s the classic Doctor with the most starring prime-time credits: sitcoms like Holding the Fort, Sink or Swim, Fiddler’s Three, plus dramas like All Creatures Great And Small, Very Peculiar Practice, Campion, At Home With The Braithwaites, The Last Detective, and Distant Shores. Only nuDocs Tennant and Eccleston are beginning to match Davison’s hit-rate.
You can’t be as successful as Davison without being a little bit brilliant…
His fellow classic Doctors are known for their eccentricities: Hartnell and his grumpy interviews, Troughton’s mischievous elusiveness, Pertwee the showman, Tom the nutcase, Colin the bombast, Sylvester with a ferret down his trousers… in amongst that balmy lot, it’s easy to overlook Davison’s subtle iconoclasm.
So, here’s 10 things that may make you think again about Doctor Five and the actor who sported the decorative vegetable…
1. He wrote songs for a ’60s pop legend and a kitchen utensil
After leaving school, young Davison was torn between being an actor and a songwriter. The two worlds collided in 1970 when in his year at the Central School of Speech and Drama included one Dave Clarke. Yes, the former frontman of the Dave Clark Five who was looking for a career change.
Nowadays, they are considered a bit of a blip in pop history but in the mid ’60s they were huge stars. Andrew Loog Oldham, former manager of the Rolling Stones, once said, “If the Beatles ever looked over their shoulders, it was not the Stones they saw. They saw the Dave Clark Five…”
When Dave heard Peter practicing his song Officer McKirk in the drama school changing room, he asked if he could put it on his comeback album, Dave Clark and Friends. It’s a catchy number, but I don’t think it caused Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell any sleepless nights in 1972. In his AllMusic review of the album, Richie Unterberger describes Davison’s ditty as ‘a little reminiscent of Mungo Jerry’. There’s damning with faint praise, and there’s being compared to Mungo Jerry…
The other major credit in Davison’s claim for induction in the songwriting hall-of-fame is his contribution of the theme music to Button Moon, the surprisingly long-running sci-fi saga about a family of kitchen utensils and their adventure on a circular-coat-fastener-shaped-planetoid.
Sadly, despite multiple emails, texts, and phone calls resulting in a court order, Richie Unterberger has singularly failed to respond to my requests for his comments on this, Davison’s other musical magnum opus. So, at the risk of litigation, I’m prepared to put words in Mr Unterberger’s mouth, saying the theme from Button Moon is ‘surprisingly better than the theme from Star Cops.’ There’s damning with faint praise, and there’s being compared to the theme from Star Cops…
2. Davison’s first TV appearance was in his pants (Blue pants. And a blonde curly wig.)
Back in the ’80s, when I was a tiny little Whovian, I was utterly baffled that Peter Davison was married to Sandra Dickinson. Surely it should have been Peter and Sandra Davinson? Or Sandra and Peter Dickison? I can’t stand the confusion in my mind…
Their professional careers seemed intertwined, as well as Sandra accompanying Peter on the Button Moon tune, the squeaky yank starred alongside him in The Tomorrow People story, A Man For Emily. It was a casting decision they should never have granted.
The Tomorrow People is often touted as ITV’s answer to Doctor Who. In which case, when it comes to this particular TP story, I think they interpreted the question as, ‘What would you call the most execrable 75-minutes of television ever committed to videotape?’ The answer: ‘A Man For Emily.’
3. Davison used ‘Darth Vader’s voice’ for the dish of the day
Tom Baker has gone on record wondering why Douglas Adams never wrote a part for him in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. No such questions dogs Peter Davison who – although not a part actually written for him – played a character in the 1981 BBC TV version.
Davison stars in the fifth episode as The Dish Of The Day, a Ameglian Major Cow – a species of animal bred to not only enjoy being eaten but capable of saying so clearly and distinctly.
In the same episode bodybuilder-cum-actor Dave Prowse plays a Bodyguard. Now Prowse seemed to spend much of the ’80s to the present day lamenting the fact that while he was the body of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, he wasn’t asked to provide the voice. For some inexplicable reason, George Lucas plumped for the Tony and Golden Globe Award-winning tones of James Earl Jones rather than Prowse’s Bristolian bumpkin burr.
While bemoaning this to Davison in the studio before recording, Peter decided to adopt Prowse’s earthy voice for maximum comedic effect as The Dish.
4. Cool Davison is a fan of legendary folk singer Nick Drake
‘There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.’
Many have taken this speech to be about Morris Dancing. But not me. You see, in another life I write folk music reviews. And one artist that has broken free from English folk music’s (unfair but) almost universal derision is Nick Drake.
Peter Davison’s hugely entertaining autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs is the source of many of these 10 insights into the great man and his career. In the book, Peter describes the decade from 1991 to 2001 as his ‘wilderness years’, which makes him six years less uncultivated than Doctor Who.
In 1992, Peter starred in a play, The Decorator at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. One of the performances was attended by a fresh-faced 18-year-old destined for mediocre things (this is where I take a bow…).
But, more significantly the show co-starred Gabrielle Drake who, as well as gaining legendary sci-fi status in her role co-starring alongside a shiny purple wig in Gerry Anderson’s UFO, and as well as being an object of desire during Davison’s burgeoning acting career when he saw Gabrielle – almost all of her in fact – in the 1972 British sex comedy, Au Pair Girls one afternoon, she is also the sister of the aforementioned Nick.
“I told [Gabrielle] that I was a fan of her brother, Nick Drake, who tragically killed himself before his musical genius was fully appreciated,” Peter writes. Which shows what discerning musical tastes our Cricket-loving incarnation of the Doctor has.
To prove it, here’s Nick…
C’mon, join in, everyone…
I never felt magic crazy as this I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree But now you’re here
We’re off to Button Moon, we’ve followed Mr Spoon
Button Moon (Button Moon)
Button Moon (Button Moon)
5. One of Davison’s proudest achievements is being on the cover of a knitting pattern
If I was ask you what ‘Sirdar DK 5967’ is, what would you think? Is it what’s inscribed on the back of Adric’s badge for mathematical excellence? Is it Kamelion’s two-step reactivation code? Or Is it the name of Monarch’s spaceship in Four To Doomsday? Actually we don’t know the name of Monarch’s spaceship in Four To Doomsday, so it might well be…
It’s actually the code of the knitting pattern which bares a pic of a young open-faced Davison. It’s the result of demands from an angry mob of torch-wielding All Creatures Great And Small fans who in 1978 all wanted to knit a lovely Fair Isle tank top for their Clash-loving grandsons.
As Davison wryly writes in his autobiography, “You know you’ve made it when you’re on a knitting pattern complete with your duplicated autograph and a job description… ‘Peter Davison: ACTOR'”
6. Davison once got paid £42,000 to announce a dog show winner
Actors are usually a little taciturn about how much they get paid. But in Davison’s autobiography, full of glee, he tells the tale of how a Eamonn Holmes’ inability to do a Pedigree Chum commercial resulted in our Doctor taking the lead. The resultant £42K throws a lifeline to Davison who was then-struggling with a huge mortgage, and a costly divorce from Sandra, whilst the leading TV parts dried up
Davison was tasked with announcing the winner of Crufts live on TV in 1985. Thanks Chum; no wonder top breeders recommend it.
And here he is, Davison’s windfall poodle: Montravia Tommy Gun (Tommy), Best in Show Crufts 1995.
7. Davison was in a seedy film with Nicola Bryant
Planet of Fire is renowned for those eye-popping scenes with Nicola Bryant as Peri in her bikini. But that was not Davison’s only brush with Bryant’s bosoms. Does anyone other than tabloid newspapers use the term ‘bosoms’ any more? You’re right. It seems I do. It’s me as well now, isn’t it? Me and the seedy hacks. Again. Sigh.
Despite his hugely successful TV and theatre career, Davison has only starred in two cinema films. And one of them was directed by Michael Winner. Let me start that again: Peter Davison has only starred in one cinema film. And Parting Shots, a straight-to-video atrocity directed by one of the most appalling men on earth. Who is now not on the earth, and it’s a much better planet as a result.
Davison is at great pains to point out how unpleasant the whole experience was for him in his book; he gives the explanation that he is not in the habit of turning down work. That was particularly true during the ‘wilderness years’ when every penny was needed to prevent financial ruin. Don’t worry, he’s fine now. Thanks Montravia Tommy Gun!
It’s fair to say that even by Winner’s appallingly low standards Parting Shots is a career low. In its entry on the director, the book Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors claims Parting Shots, “…makes a bold challenge for the hotly contested mantle of worst British film ever made.”
I’ve not watched the whole spectacle, but this vehicle for (non-actor) singer/guitarist Chris Rea looks dreadful enough in this minute-long excerpt. Curiously, Nicola’s character seems under the impression that Davison’s character’s ex-wife is a poodle (Montravia Tootsie Gun?).
And thankfully, for all our Perpugilliam fantasies, Rea stops Bryant from opening her Pandorica’s bra, and instead opts for a night-long backgammon session. We can only hope, for the young Botany student’s sake, that the Warlord of Thordon and a Krontep – warrior king Yrcanos – did the same every night over the course of their many happy years together…
8. Super Davison’s a real-life super crime fighter
Davison broke out of the wilderness in a surprising and rather newsworthy way… Still exhausted and drained immediately after the birth of his second son with Elizabeth Morton (who he hooked up with after his split with Dickinson – and, confusingly, I don’t find it hard to reconcile the fact that her name is nothing like Davison, but then neither is Peter’s; he’s actually called Peter Moffett as in ‘Moffett must go.’)
Where was I? Tired and confused, Davison – then aged 50 – leapt into action when he heard a thump and realised his car had been broken into. The fearless actor took to the streets and cornered the perpetrator – a man a good few years his junior (it is not reported whether the young criminal was wearing a home-knitted Fair Isle tank top, which might explain his motivation).
Davison used his superior weight to sit on the delinquent until the Bobbies arrived. Yes, the dashing hero of my youth had made a successful citizen’s arrest. And JN-T was right, he didn’t need a sonic screwdriver…
Here’s the Daily Telegraph’s contemporaneous account.
(The incident is far more amusingly recorded in Is There Life Outside the Box? in which Davison explains that there were no photos of his newborn: it was a video camera and he’d forgotten to charge the battery.)
9. He starred in a training video with Prince Charles (Oh, and John Cleese)
When his childhood Monty Python hero John Cleese’s production company, Video Arts sent Davison a script for a training video, Peter was happy to accept.
What he didn’t realise until later was that the script’s character described as a ‘Prince Charles lookalike’ turned out to be a cunning ruse to hide the fact that it was to co-star your actual Prince Charles, the future (possibly) King of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Considering the last time he’d encountered ‘Royalty’ in The King’s Demons, when the ‘monarch’ turned out to be a robot impersonator programmed by the Master to sabotage earth’s history, it’s a wonder Davison didn’t rip the Prince’s slacks off and attempt to enter ‘Sirdar DK 5967’ – the droid’s two-step reactivation code – into his rear control box.
The resulting film, Grime Goes Green is notable because it features the first member of the British Royal Family to speak on screen in a fictional film. Prince Edward, eat you heart out! (That’s precisely what shape-shifting giant lizards might do, eh Mr Icke?)
10. Peter Davison is the first mixed-race Doctor
Alongside the calls for a female Doctor (as if), there have been understandable questions asked about why a black or a non-white actor hasn’t been cast as the Time Lord. Well, in a way, there has been.
You see, Peter Davison’s dad, Claude Moffett was originally from British Guiana (now Guyana). Claude was also mixed race but his ancestry – as part-Afro-Guyanese – means that he, and his son Peter, can trace their ancestry back to Sub-Saharan African.
In his autobiography, Peter paints a moving portrait of his father, “a gleaming smile showing off his impressive gold tooth, his short but untamed and tightly curled black hair.” Davison surmises that when his mum Sheila first introduced Claude to her parents they would have found him “worryingly foreign”.
The irony, as Peter also points out, is that despite his father’s ethnicity, Peter is renowned for playing the most English of Englishmen. “…his only son,” writes Peter, “was born with blond hair and blue eyes, courtesy of inheriting my mother’s dominant Caucasian genes…”
It’s a source of some sadness for Peter that his father who loved and wanted nothing more than to be a British citizen, was not always treated well by his adopted homeland.
“Deep down he felt like an outsider,” Peter wrote in The Guardian in August this year. “Britain wasn’t as welcoming as it should have been for him with his dark skin and hair, West Indian accent, and gold tooth. After the war, he was technically an alien and had to go to London every few months to sign a form until he got his full citizenship back.”
So, there you have it: Peter Davison one of the best Doctors we could hope for, still concerned for justice as fiercely as when he was my Doctor back in the early 1980s. Wet vet? You’ve got to be kidding…
If you want to learn more about the fascinating, funny and deeply moving account of the man we call ‘Peter Davison’ then I highly recommend Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs.