The problem with a book about Doctor Who, even one written by a former Doctor, even one whose son-in-law is also a former Doctor, even one whose daughter is a Time Lord, and who herself is the daughter of her own husband, is that there are just too many of them (books – not Doctors.)
Apparently, it used to be the case that when people really wanted to praise Jimmy Carter, they would say that he was a great ex-President: by which they meant that he did all the post-Presidential memoir-writing and library-opening, and so on, really terribly well, with a much greater level of success, certainly, than most of the things he actually attempted while resident in the White House.
Being the President of the USA is in some respects a job for life – even after your four or eight years, you get to keep the title, not to mention the security detail, and apparently you keep the right to look at CIA intelligence reports too, not that many people exercise it – and the same is arguably true of being Doctor Who (although ex-Doctors don’t have any access to CIA files, as far as I know anyway).
If I were to describe anyone as being a great ex-Doctor Who (the implication being that their stories may have been a bit iffy, but their deportment since leaving the show to be exemplary) it would probably be Peter Davison. I’m not entirely sure why I would choose him over any of the others, and I’m aware that the implication – that his stories were not quite up to scratch – will be met by the usual frothing at the mouth and snarling from people who genuinely love his Doctor and those episodes.
Hey, it’s not as if I dislike the fifth Doctor’s stories – or perhaps it’s better to say that I like them more than I used to, simply because as I get older I find it easier to appreciate the intelligence and subtlety of Davison’s performances. As I think I’ve said before, he doesn’t always go for the most flashy or theatrical line reading, opting instead for more surprising choices.
The question with any actor is one of which of the traditions of Doctor-portrayals they belong to: giving a genuine acting performance, or simply producing a slightly larger-than-life version of their own personality. (It may be something to do with the nature of the modern series, but it strikes me there’s been a definite shift towards the former.) With Peter Davison there was never any real doubt that he was playing the Doctor, rather than being the Doctor, but that hasn’t changed the fact that as a person he has remained curiously anonymous and nondescript compared to some of the others.
William Hartnell was in the first Carry On film and apparently a bit racist, Patrick Troughton was a naval officer and storied character actor, Jon Pertwee hung out with Churchill and Hailie Selassie, Tom Baker escaped from a monastery and married his assistant, Colin Baker shouts a lot and doesn’t like polls, Sylvester McCoy used to put ferrets down his trousers, but Peter Davison… umm… didn’t he go to public school? Oh, I know: he wrote the theme tune to Button Moon.
To be fair, in recent years evidence that Peter Davison is actually a much more engaging character than his public image might suggest has been piling up: years ago, he was perfectly willing to let himself be kidnapped and vilely misused by Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, turned up on the Harry Hill show at least once, and the no-holds-barred irreverence of his DVD commentaries is quite often more entertaining than the stories themselves.
Davison’s transformation into the ex-Doctor I would feel most comfortable going on a medium-length touring holiday with is complete with the release of his autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs. As the actor himself notes near the start, any Doctor Who-related memoir is entering a rather crowded marketplace these days, and there’s always the drawback that the people reading the book will most likely have a firmer grasp on the actual facts of the series’ production than the writer.
Peter Davison manages to circumvent both these problems simply by being a hugely engaging writer. The fact that so many details of his life are relatively obscure also helps: for me at least, the book scored highly on the ‘cripes, I never would have guessed that’ front, as he regales the reader with the facts of his unexpected ethnic heritage, less-than-glittering academic career, occasional career downturns, and so on. (On the whole he opts for a roughly chronological approach to his memoir, running up to about the late 2000s, followed by a couple of chapters dealing solely with convention experiences and his work in West End musicals.)
Much of the entertainment value is derived from Davison refusing to pass up any opportunity to deprecate himself, although a few faintly scurrilous anecdotes about co-stars sneak in and details of his encounters with Dave Clark, Dave Prowse, John Cleese and the cast of Magnum, P.I. are usually both fascinating and funny. He’s usually very generous, however – that said, the story about Matthew Waterhouse giving Richard Todd advice on camera technique is wheeled out again, while he is evisceratingly harsh about Michael Winner. (The Dark Dimension debacle gets both barrels, too.)
Overall, the book is a disarming read: Davison spends most of it being disarmingly self-deprecating, but doesn’t shy away from moments of disarming honesty when dealing with more personal issues and his various relationships. (Caveat emptor: while David Tennant provides a typically charming introduction, he’s much more prominent in the photo section than he is in the rest of the book.) It’s more than enough to make me excuse the various small factual errors (which year some things happened in, which story came first, some oddly misspelt names) which have crept in. The absence of any mention of Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters is harder to forgive, of course.
I’m almost tempted to say this is a book capable of breaking out of the Who/vet niche and appealing to a wider audience, as Peter Davison remains a well-known face and the book is so much fun – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I. In the end all I can add is that this book has reminded me of all the things I like about Davison, his Doctor and his stories, and made me want to watch some of them again. And that must surely be a good sign.