In hindsight, the imminent end of Peter Capaldi’s “cosmic” ride as the 12th Doctor Who was as inevitable as a Dalek maniacally croaking “exterminate”. I spoke to Capaldi just before the show’s recent Christmas Special about the pressures – and privileges – of playing the famous Time Lord, and he immediately recalled a recent Dr Who convention where the sheer mayhem and excitement had clearly affected him.
“Often people asked for hugs, but I could feel them shaking,” he said, struggling with the enormity of his role. “Others literally couldn’t speak. So I then got into such a panic – I didn’t want to disappoint them by being myself.
“It’s Dr Who that’s exciting, not me.”
Which is fascinating, because deprecating, unselfish and distinctly unassuming is a long way from the public perception of Capaldi gleaned from the roles the 58-year-old Scot plays. His Doctor Who is cynical, smart, funny and generally completely sure of himself. And in Capaldi’s breakthrough role as foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, his character was breathtakingly, brilliantly arrogant.
But then, Capaldi genuinely does seem grounded by a varied career in television and film about which he has been painfully honest in the past. “I did many terrible things, but stumbled occasionally into things that were good,” he once said.
“Many terrible things” is taking the deprecation a bit too far, but it is true that it took a long time for Capaldi’s star to be in the ascendant. Growing up in a Glasgow working-class tenement – of which he has fond memories – he didn’t make it to drama school, opting instead for art college (he still paints to this day) where he formed a punk band called The Dreamboys.
A chance encounter with director Bill Forsyth led to a role opposite Burt Lancaster in 1983’s Local Hero, but it took a further 11 years of minor parts and theatre rep until he played a lead, in a BBC adaptation of Bernice Rubens’s quirky spoof murder mystery, Mr Wakefield’s Crusade.
Capaldi won plenty of plaudits for his nuanced portrayal of the vulnerable, yet crazy, Luke Wakefield, and there’s certainly an inkling here of the mania and tenderness he could bring to later characters. His nascent directing and writing career displayed a similar playfulness: short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1995) sees the German playwright – played by Richard E Grant – miserably and somewhat ridiculously battling writer’s block before he finally finds happiness in the Christmas snow.
It went on to win Capaldi an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. And typically, even plonking the statuette on the check-in desk as he flew back home from Los Angeles didn’t get him an upgrade. But he had more fun passing it around in economy in any case, which just about sums up his attitude towards the Hollywood game he’s never really wanted to play.
Looking back, he recognises that. “I got to Hollywood and I didn’t know what to do once I got there,” he says. Instead, he reverted to quite a lot of UK-based “boyish, easy-going and charming” roles.
Nothing wrong with that, but there was the distinct possibility he would be one of those perfectly able supporting actors cropping up on decent shows, but never quite the star.
As television critic Stuart Jeffries once amusingly wrote: “Who is Peter Capaldi? More likely than not, you’re thinking, ‘Wasn’t he the bloke who was in that thing?’”
Ironically, the defining role finally arrived at the very moment Capaldi was realising his career was stagnating – to the point where he almost couldn’t be bothered to audition for Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It in 2005. In fact, such exasperation fed into the screen test, and the lacerating political sitcom, which defined how many saw the British government in the early 21st century – had its anti-hero in the venomously foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker.
For years, Capaldi refused to be drawn about whether Tucker was just an amplified take on Tony Blair’s famously no-nonsense press secretary, Alastair Campbell – and with good reason. Pure caricature wouldn’t have been as funny or close to the bone. Capaldi was guided more by the idea that he was “antagonistic and powerful – an evil clown”.
The awards, prizes and plaudits finally arrived. There was a film – In the Loop – and roles in TV newsroom drama The Hour and The Three Musketeers seemed, to critic Mark Lawson at least, to completely redefine what Capaldi now stood for. “His primary quality as an actor is danger,” he wrote when, in 2013, Capaldi got the Doctor Who gig at 55 years of age.
Which isn’t to say his Time Lord isn’t hugely likeable. Indeed, it’s been fascinating watching Capaldi juggle the edgier side of his character with more prime-time, family fare. As a former Doctor, Tom Baker, said: “He’s a wonderful choice [as Doctor]. Instantly one felt: this fellow comes from far, far away, he’s strange. An instant frisson. And, what’s the word? Yes, got it. Alien, he’s an alien.”
So, like Tom Baker, it’s how Capaldi copes with the next phase of his career, post Doctor Who, which will be so interesting. Now so much a part of the firmament – his next project is the Paddington movie sequel – he still remains proudly aloof from stardom.
Which was made all the more obvious when he told me of a recent visit to a London restaurant where he saw Ray Davies, of ground-breaking 1960s band The Kinks. Everyone else was probably whispering that Doctor Who was out having dinner, but Capaldi was fixed on, in his view, the only hero in the room.
“I realised that I’d have to say hello to him, because he is a genius,” he said. “But I was so nervous, I worked out what I was going to say in advance: ‘Hello Mr Davies, you’re one of the greatest artists Britain has ever produced, thank you, goodbye.’”
It wasn’t lost on Capaldi that this is exactly what Doctor Who fans go through when they meet him.
“I said all this quickly, and Ray Davies took my hand … and talked to me. And, well, that was astonishing.”
Capaldi will have plenty of similar encounters with fans in the years to come. As Baker, David Tennant, Matt Smith and the rest can testify, you might regenerate, but you never really stop being Doctor Who.