Peter Davison’s ‘Is There Life Outside the Box?’ reviewed

❉ Think you know the man who was the Fifth Doctor? Peter Davison’s witty and candid autobiography may surprise you.

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A refreshingly candid, slyly subversive twist on the standard showbiz memoir that’s laced throughout with Davison’s dry, laconic, self-deprecating wit.

For someone who’s been a fixture of British public life for almost 40 years, it’s taken us a surprisingly long time to get to know Peter Davison. For decades, we watched this apparently diffident, unassuming actor perform an endless roll call of solid, dependable, foursquare chaps, from the boyishly charming Tristan Farnon in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ to ‘A Very Peculiar Practice’’s sweet, flustered Stephen Daker, not to mention one of the less mercurial iterations of Doctor Who. But did any of those characters really give us the measure of the man?

For many, the first inkling there might be more to Davison than met the eye came courtesy of his fabulously salty and indiscreet commentaries for the Doctor Who DVD range. Later, he created a needy, egoist version of himself in a series of videos recorded for sci-fi conventions – an idea he later expanded into the delightful 50th anniversary Doctor Who Easter egg, ‘The Five(ish) Doctors’. And now we have ‘Is There Life Outside the Box? An Actor Despairs’ – a refreshingly candid, slyly subversive twist on the standard showbiz memoir that’s laced throughout with Davison’s dry, laconic, self-deprecating wit.

The first big surprise of the book is that this fellow who specialised in playing “typical Englishmen” is actually mixed race, his father having come to England from British Guiana.

The first big surprise of the book is that this fellow who, by his own admission, specialised in playing “typical Englishmen” – even when he was from Gallifrey, he wore cricketing duds and peered out shyly from beneath a floppy Brideshead fringe – is actually mixed race, his father having come to England from British Guiana. Yes, I know.

The second revelation is that he fell into that preppy, public school persona entirely by accident. In reality, the boy born Peter Moffett was a cheeky, mildy rebellious South London dreamer who failed to distinguish himself during a comprehensive education – if that’s not too strong a word for someone who couldn’t even pass CSE woodwork – in Woking. For some reason he can’t quite fathom, he even ended up adopting this Oxbridge persona off-screen, including at home during his often turbulent marriage to Sandra Dickinson. (On this matter, he’s fairly circumspect, though it’s not hard to read between the lines.)

Davison makes no secret of his irritation with Tom Baker’s studied aloofness and insistence on being top dog in the ex-Time Lords club, even while Jon Pertwee was alive.

Davison writes with great humour and economy. His physics teacher was “as old as Scottish granite in his soul, too absorbed with reading aloud from a succession of atrophied notebooks to notice where one child ended, and another began”. Later, he recalls: “I bought a Renault 4 van, complete with a lift-up flap above the rear door that, I was informed, allowed goats to stick out their heads on the way to market. This was a deal clincher for me.” (It’s all his own work, too – no crumbs from the table for ghost writers here.)

There’s an impressive parade of celebrity cameos, entering and exiting the story stage left at various points, but Davison refrains from too much luvvie-daaahling gushing. Indeed, cult TV fans may be a little saddened by a slightly chilly encounter with Gareth Thomas, of ‘Blake’s 7’ fame, in the mid-noughties, while the clubbable, easy-going Davison makes no secret of his irritation with Tom Baker’s studied aloofness and insistence on being top dog in the ex-Time Lords club, even while Jon Pertwee was alive. That’s not to say it’s in any way a pinched or mealy-mouthed book: Davison is warm and personable – he just doesn’t lay it on with a showbiz trowel.

Though he did once beat Larry David to a comedy acting prize, Davison is at pains to point out he is the incumbent holder of the ‘Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ Top Man award.

It’s also a story with a built-in narrative arc – a journey, if we must – complete with third act reversal and final reel redemption. Having found himself with leading man status barely five years out of drama school – by the age of 29, he was starring in two sitcoms and being Doctor Who at the same time, sometimes on the same day – Davison experienced something of a fallow period in the 1990s. He calls it his Wilderness Years, which may be a bit strong – plenty of actors would kill for such a wilderness – but, newly divorced, massively in debt and living alone for the first time in his life, he was reduced from first on the call sheet to auditioning for TV guest slots or touring provincial theatres in an Agatha Christie.

Shilling for Michael Winner in ‘Parting Shots’ – described by several critics as “the worst film ever made” (and they were being overly generous) – was a low point, which Davison dissects in painfully forensic detail, not least the director’s repeated attempts to humiliate him for being a mere television actor.

The new century brought a change in fortune, with the success of Sally Wainwright’s ‘At Home With the Braithwaites’ giving him a second career wind. Since then, he’s juggled ITV fare like ‘The Last Detective’ and ‘Law & Order: UK’ with a surprisingly (to him, as much as anyone) fertile career in musical theatre, resulting in a recent Oliver nomination for ‘Gypsy’ and praise for his role as King Arthur in ‘Spamalot’. (Elsewhere, he writes with good grace about his lack of awards and industry recognition – though he did once beat Larry David to a comedy acting prize, and is at pains to point out he is still technically the incumbent holder of the ‘Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ Top Man award. Not too shabby, actually, for a man who claims to have “ambled” through his career, “without a grand plan and with very little ambition”.)

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A timey-wimey relationship: It’s complicated. (Photo: BBC/Radio Times)

Alongside his professional rehabilitation, Davison met and married the love of his life, Elizabeth, with whom he has two sons, while Georgia, his daughter by Dickinson, is now Mrs David Tennant, cementing Davison as the head of a genuine Doctor Who dynasty. (To add to the timey wimey confusion of being his own father-in-law, his sons Louis and Josh Moffett are also good friends with Louis and Joel Moffat, scions of the current Doctor Who showrunner.)

His son-in-law – pictured, rather adorably, in full Fifth Doctor regalia – provides the introduction to the book, in which he states: “I feel very lucky that Peter has been such a constant presence in my life.” I suspect many of us feel the same way – even if, until now, we didn’t entirely know who Peter Davison was. Now that we do, I find I like him even more.


* ‘Is There Life Outside the Box? An Actor Despairs’ is published by John Blake, RRP £20.00.

* Paul Kirkley is a regular contributor to publications including Doctor Who Magazine, SFX and RadioTimes.com. He writes celebrity interviews and TV reviews for Waitrose Weekend, and the second volume of his book ‘Space Helmet for a Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who’ is published later this month by Mad Norwegian Press. Say hello at www.interestingmedia.co.uk

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