p12-13: interview with Peter
Davison, entitled 'In the Swim' by Graham Ford, about both Sink or Swim
and Doctor Who. The episode screened the week of this issue was The
Visitation Part Two (TV1, Monday 13.06.83)
IN THE SWIM
These days Peter Davison's career is buoyant, but as
staff writer Graham Ford discovered it is only a few years since he was in
danger of sinking without trace.
IN THE MID 70s a rather shy young man took a job, as a
filing clerk. He was absolutely broke and had no foreseeable future in his
chosen profession. Hardly a likely proposition for smash success. No one could
have guessed that he was to become a Time Lord, a randy vet, and one of the
busiest actors around: Peter Davison. The star of Dr Who, All
Creatures Great and Small and a new series Sink or Swim.
New Zealand viewers will be getting a double dose of
Davison on their screens from now on, in Dr Who, on Mondays and Sink
or Swim, on Sundays. In Sink or Swim he plays a bashful northern
lad, Brian. Brian is a gloomy, gauche fellow making his way at a snail's pace
in London. Unfortunately he has his sex-obsessed younger brother, Steve,
foisted on him. Both brothers are penniless, utterly disorganised and bicker
endlessly. Out of their rather tragic quarrels come the laughs.
"I've got right inside Brian's skin," says Davison, "I'm
very comfortable in the part. Brian is convinced he missed out on a lot not
having been brought up in London where it all happens. He wants to experience
things and to improve himself, but he's hopelessly naive."
"Sink or Swim was a great relief because a lot of
viewers didn't recognise me. After All Creatures Great and Small, I had
this anxiety that I would be inundated with similar roles keen, public school
The British public did not take to Sink or Swim as
they have to other productions Davison has been in. For such a modest,
self-effacing person he has enjoyed a remarkable popular response. He has a
kind of squeaky-clean vulnerability many viewers seem to relish.
In fact, Davison has been able to survive all the
publicity very well. He constantly stresses his ordinariness. But there is a
theme of insecurity that keeps running through his conversation. His marriage
to actress Sandra Dickinson has obviously played an important part in his life,
providing a confidence and drive that was previously lacking.
FEW characters have generated the same popularity as the
lazy, layabout, ladykilling vet, Tristan Farnon.
"I began getting more fan mail than Christopher Timothy
and Robert Hardy. There were lots of teenagers writing in and asking for
photographs and respectable housewives were among the greatest fans."
However it is his popularity as the fifth and latest
Doctor Who that is the most surprising. Past Dr Whos have had to get used to
signing hundreds of autographs an hour and addressing the well-informed members
of university Dr Who societies. Even so, the response to Davison has been
He and his wife Sandra, have been forced to move house
four times in the last three years. Davison says he has to disguise himself in
dark glasses and woolly hats to escape overzealous fans. Just going out for
dinner can be more hazardous than trying to disarm a malevolent Dalek.
Rapid costume changes are fairly common for such a busy
actor. When Sink or Swim was being recorded, he had to play bespectacled
Brian in the mornings and the flamboyant Doctor in the afternoons. Lunchtimes
required a schizophrenic jump for Davison as he rushed between studios. Didn't
he find the leap from London to light years confusing?
"No not really, they're so very different," he says. "But
I'm still feeling my way as Dr Who - it takes time to get into a part like
that. And I like to begin by playing any character very straight, and letting
the identity emerge almost by itself. There's a lot of me in him but also blend
in other aspects."
The best advice on how to play Dr Who came from a little
boy, says Davison, who said he ought to be like "Tristan but brave". "That's
more or less where I've pitched it."
He is not intellectual in his approach to acting. Out of
a somewhat colourless man comes the flare of Tristan and the eccentricity of Dr
I had no real idea what Tristan Farnon was going to be
like at first. I started him off quite bland but he very quickly came to life.
I wasn't so used to the ways of television in those days and I remember waiting
for someone to comment on my performance. Tristan was first seen waking up in a
car with a terrible hangover. I played the scene then waited for the director
to make encouraging noises but there was total silence. Finally he said
quietly, 'All right everyone we'll go on,' and I assumed I had been appalling.
The same thing happened after my very first Dr Who scene but these days
I know the silence means, 'You're doing OK, carry on'.
Davison attended the Central School for Speech and Drama
before three years in repertory. After a brief taste of television with a part
in The Tomorrow People Davison fell on hard times. He spent 18 months
sorting out files for the Inland Revenue.
"It was dull but I admit I enjoyed knowing I'd get a wage
packet each week. And they let me out for auditions." One of these auditions
was for a programme called Love for Lydia.
"The producer couldn't believe that anyone working in a
tax office would go along. Out he did say he was looking for an unknown and
there weren't many actors more unknown than me!"
The role in Love for Lydia lasted for two years.
He then landed a job in All Creatures Great and Small for three years.
"By playing a sum total of two parts in five years I
managed to miss out on building up a career slowly ... I'm particularly
grateful to Tristan because a lot of his confidence rubbed off on me. A few
years ago I was very shy, I still am really, but being known makes life easier.
People accept you and you don't have to keep breaking the ice. When you've been
on the box everyone is your friend. But otherwise acting is an ordinary job
like any other - I wouldn't want to make too much of it."
To recuperate from the stress of the stage and the camera
Davison retreats to his home in Woking. He describes it as "a nice, ordinary,
modern house" quite close .to his parents. He and Sandra are very keen on cats
and they have four of them.
"Three of them are quite ordinary like me; the fourth is
a Persian chinchilla which I married with my wife. We're both very keen on cats
they're so independent."
His American-born wife also acts. She played the
glamorous Trillian in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which
her husband makes an incognito appearance as an intergalactic space animal. The
fact that both husband and wife are actors doesn't seem to cause them much
"No there's no spirit of competition between us," he says
grinning, "but I don't know if my male pride could stand it if she was getting
more work than me!"
SINK OR SWIM, Sundays on TWO, 9pm.
DOCTOR WHO, Mondays on ONE, 5.30pm.
Davison with series co-star Robert Glenister as
brother Steve: penniless, utterly disorganised and endlessly bickering.