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Peter Capaldi: "I don't want to make it easy for fans of Doctor Who"

Playing the Time Lord has its challenges, but Peter Capaldi isn't hanging up his sonic sunglasses yet

By James Rampton

Published 21/11/2015

Captivating: Capaldi as Doctor Who
Captivating: Capaldi as Doctor Who

The Doctor will see you now. I take a seat alongside Peter Capaldi, the twelfth incarnation of Doctor Who, on a capacious sofa. We fall into small talk about past interviews, and I happen to mention that, when I interviewed the veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, he surprised me by taking a tape-recorder out of his bag and laying it down next to mine. Benn told me it was his way of ensuring that he was never misquoted.

"That's quite a good idea, if you've got anything important to say. But I haven't, I'm sorry," says Capaldi, twinkling at me.

Yes, he may play the rudest man in Britain (the kinetically sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) or the most evil man in Christendom (the malevolent Cardinal Richelieu in The Musketeers), but there is always a sparkle in Capaldi's eyes that lets audiences know he is having the most tremendous fun. It makes him a hugely magnetic presence.

The actor brings the same quality to Doctor Who - and to our interview. Dressed in a blue suit and matching top, the 57-year-old exhibits a winning, mischievous sense of humour, which is largely aimed at himself.

Here, for instance, is what Capaldi has to say about his prospects of making it in Hollywood: "I can't imagine I'll be the new George Clooney. That's not really on the cards. Often British actors go out to LA and come back here to join the cast of Midsomer Murders with a huge sigh of relief. That'll be me."

In the same way, Capaldi is able to send himself up over his abiding passion for the Time Lord.

"My wife [producer and actress Elaine Collins] laughs because occasionally some issue will arise over Doctor Who. It's very rare, but sometimes there is some conflict over the production. She thinks it's hilarious that there are grown men in Cardiff [where the show is made] throwing tables at each other because they disagree about some aspect of Doctor Who. Of course, I'm one of those men having the fight."

So what sort of things will these grown men be throwing tables over?

"It could be the interior of the Tardis or the colour of a Dalek. 'That Dalek's eye-stalk is the wrong length. It should be 18 inches and that's 17 and a half.' I'd argue for 18 inches, although it does depend which mark Dalek it is. So what do I do when my wife laughs about all this? I simply leave the room."

He and Collins met in a 1983 touring production for the Paines Plough Theatre Company. They went on to appear together in various projects, including the 1993 film Soft Top Hard Shoulder, and have a grown-up daughter.

The young Capaldi was lured into the business by something far more tangible and rewarding than a lust for celebrity: Doctor Who.

"Growing up in the 1960s, there was the Beatles, milk bottles with silver tops, smog, lots of bronchial diseases and the dark. On those dark winter nights, there would be a little flickering picture, and it would be Doctor Who. It would be haunting and strange, and then after half an hour it would be gone. But those wonderful worlds that it took you to lived on in your imagination."

Capaldi, who grew up in a close-knit family in Glasgow, where his parents ran an ice-cream business, wrote in to the Radio Times as a 15-year-old in praise of the show and had a collection of Doctor Who memorabilia. He now bitterly regrets burning the entire collection in a "bonfire of the vanities" when he was 18, as he wanted to "move on and discover sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll".

Despite his youthful attempts to become cool - as a student at the Glasgow School of Art, he was lead singer of a punk band called Dreamboys, with Craig Ferguson (who in later life hosted a hit US chat show) on drums - Capaldi never lost his love for all things Whovian.

"It's an incredible privilege to play this character," he beams.

The downside of the role is that, especially with the ubiquity of social media these days, everyone's a critic.

"It can be hard to deal with it," he acknowledges. "I do my best in the role, but you can't please everyone. However, if you got put off by that, you wouldn't do anything. You're on TV, so with anything you do, there will always be some people who love you and some people who hate you."

Despite the critics, the current series is averaging around six million viewers an episode, making it BBC1's most popular current drama after EastEnders. It also enjoys stratospheric overseas sales and has a host of celebrity fans, including Steven Spielberg.

So just why has it remained so popular for the past 52 years?

"What the producers have managed to do is create a character that exists in folklore now. Doctor Who is almost more potent and alive in our imaginations than he is on the screen - that's an astonishing thing to have achieved."

It helps that Capaldi gives such a compelling performance. His Doctor crackles with wiry intensity; he is cranky, even forbidding sometimes.

"You automatically react to what's gone before, and Matt [Smith] and David [Tennant] were both so wonderful and warm. It's also to do with my age. It would not be very graceful for a man of 57 to be walking around trying to make people love him in a boyish way.

"I was very keen that The Doctor be spiky and distant. It emphasises his alien-ness. I wanted to get back to the idea that he's not a human being and he doesn't care whether human beings like him or not. I didn't want to make it easy for the audience - and clearly I haven't."

Can Capaldi foresee a day when The Doctor finally hangs up his sonic sunglasses?

"If it stops, it'll not really stop," Capaldi reflects. "It'll continue on in the imagination and mutate into another form. Already you see its influence on a lot of other programmes. The show may stop, but some kid now will have their imagination stimulated to do something creative in the future."

And what of Capaldi's own future in the Tardis?

"In a few years, after I've left the show, I'll build a Tardis set at my house for Halloween. I'll answer the door to trick-or-treaters in full Doctor Who costume and say to them, 'remember me?'"

  • Doctor Who, tonight, BBC1 at 8.10pm

Belfast Telegraph

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