Peter Davison: 'People still ask me for advice on their pets because I played a vet'
Peter Davison found fame in the TV classic All Creatures Great And Small, and was the fifth Dr Who. He tells Gabrielle Fagan how he's coped with cows, the Tardis and domestic turmoil...
Peter Davison has looked death in the face and rather enjoyed the experience. Within hours of the apparent demise of the star of TV's Doctor Who and All Creatures Great And Small being announced online, a million people paid tribute to him on a Facebook memorial page.
"I can highly recommend the death hoax experience. It's like having a wake before you die. I mean, what's the point of people saying all those nice things about you if you're not around to hear them?" asks the 65-year-old actor, smiling as he recalls the experience in 2013.
It's not a surprise he was so feted; in the last four decades, he's predominantly played characters that have won the public's heart.
In person, talking about his autobiography, Is There Life Outside The Box?: An Actor Despairs, Davison is charming and self-deprecating with a dry wit.
His role as handsome, public school-educated Tristan Farnon, the younger vet in All Creatures Great And Small, rocketed him to fame in 1978. By 1981, aged only 29, he was chosen as the fifth Doctor Who, the most dashing and youngest ever at that time to hold the role, breaking the mould of his predecessors, who'd been middle-aged and portrayed the character in a far more serious, authoritative fashion.
"Tristan launched me, but I should never have got that role," he readily admits. "I couldn't have been more different from him. He was supposed to be a bit of a womanising posh reprobate, but I went to a comprehensive, was from a mixed-race family - my dad was from the West Indies and my mother was English - and was so acutely shy I blushed all the time, especially when around girls.
"I lied about being 'at ease' with animals to get the part, so I couldn't sleep for days before a shoot where I had to put my arm up a cow to help her give birth.
"The start of the first series was a blur as I was worrying I'd get found out. What's funny is that, even now, people will seriously ask my advice about their pets' medical problems, confident in the knowledge that I will know because I once played a vet!"
Ironically, Davison, whose early ambition was to be a musician and who wrote the theme tune for the popular children's TV show Button Moon, eventually assumed the confident posh identity of his character rather too well, found it difficult to abandon the accent and increasingly found himself playing a tricky role in his personal life.
By the time he turned 40, during the Nineties, the TV work had dried up, his second marriage to actress Sandra Dickinson - they were hailed as a glamorous showbiz couple - was disintegrating, and he also was massively in debt.
"Showbusiness is cyclical - you go in and out of fashion, and at that point, I was out. It added to the problems at home. The marriage split was difficult because we'd been a relatively high-profile TV couple and when that goes wrong, it's manna from heaven for the tabloid media," he says.
"The pressure of that somehow influenced us. It heightened everything, including the acrimony.
"Not only that, we'd been living in a rather grand style - four cars and an eight-bedroom riverside home - but I'd foolishly overlooked setting aside money for the taxman. I came a cropper and ended up living alone in a basement flat. It was quite a lifestyle change, but a turning point for me, and I think I found myself during that time."
These days his career's back on track. Last year, he received acclaim for his performance in West End musical Gypsy, with Imelda Staunton, and he's been happily married since 2003 to actor and writer Elizabeth Heery ("My soul mate"). Both their sons, Joel (15) and Louis (17) want to act, and Louis has already appeared in a movie, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, and has a role in TV's Holby City.
They are, he jokes, part of a "new Davison/Tennant acting dynasty" as his actress daughter Georgia Moffett (31), from his marriage to Dickinson, is married to another Dr Who, David Tennant. The couple have three children as well as Moffett's 14-year-old son, Ty, from a previous relationship.
"It's wonderful to see Georgia so happy because she's had tough times in her life," says Davison of his daughter, who met Tennant on the set of Doctor Who in 2008.
"Over the years, she's gone through her parents' marriage break-up and having a baby when she was in her teens, but she dealt with it brilliantly. What was weird was that I was playing a dad whose teenage daughter gets pregnant in At Home With The Braithwaites when I found out Georgie was pregnant, so it was life imitating art. She's proved to be a wonderful mother and David's a lovely bloke. I'm a very proud grandfather."
With characteristic modesty, he adds: "I'd like to think I've been an inspiration to my children and that's why they all seem set on following in my footsteps into showbusiness, but I think the truth is, they probably think, 'If he can do it, anyone can'. After all, they have a lot to live up to - I'm the bloke from the vet series, the Fifth Doctor - a role I absolutely loved, even when I was covered in stale cornflakes and green slime for dramatic effect, and am pictured in sci-fi magazines and immortalised in six-inch-high figures with articulated limbs! Quite a legacy..."
He confesses he's still bedevilled by shyness - "Acting's always been my escape from that. Even now, I hate it at parties if my wife wanders away because I'm hopeless at chit chat" - but he professes to have no regrets.
"Life pushes you in different directions and you just have to accept that and feel grateful for the changes, which are sometimes painful, but often turn out for the best," he says.
He does, however, retain an irrational fear that "despite the fact I've managed to do this job for more than 40 years, I will never get another job". "Most actors share that insecurity and, at the end of the day, I've always put down my good fortune to a generous portion of luck," he says. "For someone without a grand plan and very little ambition, I've managed to amble through and, on occasions, be in the right place at the right time."
Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs by Peter Davison, John Blake, £20 is available now