David Tennant, prince of early evening viewing, destroyer of Daleks, is often described as ‘puppyish’, and even sometimes as possessing an ‘undergraduate’ demeanour. In fact, the actor, who was roundly praised last week for his performance as Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon, has a manner that’s closer to a rakish member of the sixth form, all naughty smirks and school tie askew.
And this could well be the thing which suits the 37-year-old for a Shakespearean role in which communicating an adolescent mix of witty arrogance and pained innocence is crucial. Those who have already seen Tennant play the famous young Dane speak of his great skill at humanising the part and making those mad scenes, with their bewildering ‘antic disposition’, ring touchingly true.
Word of this welcome triumph for the Doctor with the Royal Shakespeare Company had reached one London taxi driver this weekend. A big fan of Doctor Who, he said he had first realised just how good a performer Tennant was when he discovered he was really a Scot - and not, that is, a Time Lord from Gallifrey with a cockney accent.
This weekend Stratford has been besieged by Tennant enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes. There are those who love his boyish looks, those who love the Doctor, and several who like Shakespeare too. Early on in negotiations over the role, Tennant gave the RSC’s Greg Doran a glimpse of what was to come. He told the director they could not go ‘anywhere normal’ to talk about the project. ‘It just turns into a sci-fi convention,’ the actor explained. But Doran had faith that RSC audiences would soon forget all about the Tardis.
‘There are points when he makes you realise that all the wit is a front - an attempt to prevent Hamlet from seeing the abyss into which he’s staring. At those moments, I think he has the potential to be truly great,’ he said during preview performances earlier this month.
Tennant is by now, after three years as Doctor Who, something like a pop star. As a result, he is the subject of endless trivia lists. We know, for instance, that he likes Honey Nut Shredded Wheat. We learn too that his real name is David McDonald, but that he changed it, for Equity reasons, to the surname of the singer in the Pet Shop Boys. We also know he likes the Proclaimers and farting before he goes on stage. That his late mother knitted him a long, multi-coloured Doctor Who scarf when he was a boy, that the first single he bought was Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ and that he used to drive a Skoda.
All this personal information is out there now, despite the fact that Tennant only came to wider public attention in 2004 when he appeared in the quirky musical television drama Blackpool, alongside David Morrissey and Sarah Parish.
It was in the singing and dancing role of the brooding DI Carlisle that he was spotted by the influential writer Russell T Davies and cast in the leading role of Casanova. Tennant claims he was chosen for this raunchy drama series because he was a ‘cheeky chappie’, rather than an obvious love god. He was there to show that ladies like entertainment better than good looks, he claims. But he has also admitted he was thrilled at the idea of portraying the young Casanova alongside veteran actor Peter O’Toole’s suave interpretation of the same character in old age. Long after filming, he kept a photograph of the two of them together stuck to his fridge door.
Tennant, in truth, had been winning plaudits before television made him a household name. Spotted as a stage star in the making, he won the Scottish Critics Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for his performance in Lobby Hero at the Donmar.
Directors and audiences both respond to his comic charm and mobile features. RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, who directed Tennant as Romeo eight years ago, said: ‘He has a tremendous ability to communicate with an audience - he’s like an open book. He has such an open face and an open spirit.’ While a critic once declared that the young actor ‘was blessed with the most eloquent left eyebrow since Roger Moore’s’.
This sardonic facility appears to have slightly troubled Tennant at times. Discussing his relationship with his then girlfriend, the actress Anne-Marie Duff, he said in 2000: ‘She comes to all my first nights, but I do get nervous when she’s in, because she has so much integrity and I always feel I don’t have as much as she does. That I’m kind of “whoring it up” a bit.’ If so, it is a kind of vamping that has carried Tennant a long way from his West Lothian home.
Born in Bathgate in 1971, he is a ‘son of the manse’ like another Labour man currently in the public eye. Tennant’s father, Sandy, is a former moderator of the Church of Scotland. His mother, Helen, died last summer. Tennant has said the couple were very moral throughout his upbringing, ‘but without any of the brimstone and thunder nonsense’.
When the actor took part in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? family history show he was seen visiting his relatives and learning that his late grandfather, Archie McLeod, is still a footballing legend in Derry, Northern Ireland.
After attending Paisley grammar school, Tennant trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and then joined the agitprop theatre company 7:84, a group taking its name from the 7 per cent of the population who controlled 84 per cent of Britain’s wealth.
Moving down to London in search of work, he lodged with his friend Arabella Weir, the writer and comic actress, who describes him as ‘trustworthy’ and ‘amazingly straightforward and honest’. To prove her conviction, she asked him to be godfather to her youngest child.
This summer, in tackling the heaviest role in Shakespeare, Tennant has invited us to hold his visage up next to those of Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale, all previously acclaimed Hamlets. But this is perhaps not so daunting for a man who has already set himself up for comparison with a roll call that enjoys an a even more obsessional following. Is he really a better Doctor than, say, Troughton, Baker, Pertwee or Ecclestone? Viewing figures say ‘yes’, very loudly. Since Tennant took over in 2005 the BBC show has out-performed pretty much everything else going.
He has brought what Davies, the former creative genius on the show, describes as ‘glitter’ to the part. ‘You can write anything for him,’ Davies has added. ‘You’re never bored, and you never want him to have bad lines of dialogue. You want to do your best for him.’
‘David’s doctor is a lot more emotional, whereas Chris’s was more intense,’ notes his former co-star Billie Piper, who played Who sidekick Rose Tyler opposite Ecclestone too.
Earlier this summer speculation grew that Tennant would be leaving Doctor Who for good. It reached an unbearable pitch prior to a heavily trailed series finale in which his character almost ‘regenerated’ - historically the cue for a new actor to appear. But it didn’t happen and Tennant has reportedly now been offered £1.3m by the BBC to stick around. ‘I’ve been asked when I’m quitting since the first day I took the part,’ Tennant has said. ‘I’ve not quit - I’ve just not been offered another deal yet.’
Speculation about Tennant’s love life has also been steaming hot this summer. After a serious relationship with actress Sophia Myles ended, he was spotted on the town with two members of the Doctor Who production team and then with his Christmas special co-star Kylie Minogue.
Now, however, he is thought to be seeing Georgia Moffett, the actress who played his daughter in the show, but who is, in actual fact - and stay with the time travel plot here - the daughter of another former Doctor Who, the actor Peter Davison.
Harry Potter addicts will have spotted Tennant’s evil cameo as Barty Crouch Jnr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film, but this autumn he will appear on small screens as the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington in the play Einstein and Eddington, written by Peter Moffat. It is another serious role which will allow him to reveal the depths that Doran detects behind his fancy showbusiness footwork - to prove again he does have ‘that within which passeth show’.
Moving away from the gadgetry and camp dialogue of sci-fi is no easy manoeuvre. On the other hand, Star Trek survivor Patrick Stewart, his co-star in Hamlet, is on hand to show Tennant how to effect a deft escape from an inter-planetary vehicle.
And, once the excitement about this inter-galactic Hamlet has finally died down, we can prepare ourselves for the judgment on the next. Film star Jude Law is to take up the challenge and pick up poor Yorick’s skull in the West End for the Donmar next summer.
The Tennant CV
Born David John McDonald in Bathgate, West Lothian, 18 April, 1971. Son of Reverend Alexander McDonald, a retired moderator of the Church of Scotland.
Education Paisley Grammar School and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Career Worked in agitprop theatre and then on to lead roles with Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, the Donmar and the RSC. Appeared in a Labour party political broadcast, as a singing policeman in Blackpool for BBC1 and as Casanova for BBC3. Became a Time Lord in 2005.
Emotional life Lengthy relationship with actresses Anne-Marie Duff and Sophia Myles, now dating on-screen daughter Georgia Moffett (actual daughter of a former Doctor, Peter Davison).
What he says on the Doctor ‘He can’t seem to hold on to anyone. He is entirely alone. Even with the ones who do stick with him. He is, to all intents and purposes, eternal. That’s his tragedy.’
On playing Shakespeare ‘You feel the weight of all those ghosts, those performances… And because it’s Shakespeare, you feel it’s hard to make it believable, because it is so beautiful.’
What others say ‘I’ve made 39 episodes with David now, and I’m still going, “My God, I’ve never seen him do that before”.’ Russell T Davies