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Television: My Life In TV – Peter Capaldi on Getting On, The Thick Of It and Doctor Who


(Music: Please Listen Carefully (Jahzzar) / CC BY-SA 4.0)

We met in a fancy hotel on Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour. I was the short, big boned chap with creased and crinkly clothes; he was the tall Scot wearing an immaculately pressed suit, sans tie, shirt buttoned to the top. “I’ll sit anywhere that works for you,” he said. “This’ll be fine,” I replied indicating to a plastic chair on a deserted balcony overlooking the water (the publicist told me he didn’t like to be interviewed where there was people around. Fair enough, I said, being interviewed is weird enough without having other meatbags staring).

The previous interviews in that morning’s media queue had gone over time. I was last of the pack. He looked tired. His previous engagement at the Doctor Who convention had been a busy time. According to reports he’d been somewhat uncommunicative, offering monosyllabic answer while sitting on a panel. I was worried he’d be just as sullen. Fortunately he was in good cheer despite his wariness. He was charming, charismatic. He seemed to enjoy not being required to talk solely about Doctor Who.

The publicist leaned in to say our time was up. “Let’s have five more minutes” he said. It turned into 10. I took some pictures with the work DSLR for the website. He pointed at my phone on the table.

“Do you want a picture with that?”

“I’d tossed up asking for a selfie on the way here,” I said, “but decided against it.”

“Oh, you’ve got to do it” he grinned. I fell in love.

“Pretend like you’re giving me an oversized cheque” I said with the phone out, referencing my favourite genre of novelty photography.

“Giving you a chick?” he sounded confused. I froze. Unable to work out how to describe what cheques were. Do they even exist these days? The publicist performed another lean in, “he means CHEQUE.”

“Oh” said Capaldi “I thought you wanted a chicken.”

He thanked me for the interview, confided that it got really boring responding to the same questions over and over, so he’d enjoyed our chat. Then we said our goodbyes.

All afternoon I was glowing like a pregnant woman. The man crush had developed into a late afternoon daydream of a request to meet in a hotel bar where we’d chat for hours before a three course meal accompanied by fine wine. I’d offer him the benefit of my observations on Doctor Who as a cultural phenomenon. He’d listen, nodding in agreement before leaning back, those bulgy eyes growing even wider and he’d exclaim, “I’d never even thought of that.”

It’s Wednesday. Peter hasn’t called. I don’t mind. I hope he’s happy wherever he is, and thinking of me.

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From the outside it seems almost from the start you were a constantly employed working actor; would that be a fair thing to say?

Yeah, pretty much so. There are a few gaps in there; there were a few lean years, which are always character building. But yes, I was very lucky, been very blessed. I always wanted to be an actor. Funnily enough, I applied to Drama College and didn’t get in so I went to art school. It was actually the best thing for me because I’ve always been able to doodle and draw, and the whole ethos of art school, which is that you have a go, is one that I enjoy. People were making films and stuff and I always ended up acting in those films. And then fell into working with Bill Forsyth who was a director – I’m giving you my whole career here. That’s not the answer to your question. But yes, I have been very lucky and worked pretty regularly.

And not only as an actor but as a director and a writer as well.

Yes. Because I’m really interested in filmmaking and television-making I wanted to have a go, to see what it was like rather than just being an actor who showed up, said the words and left. I only ever wrote in order to generate material for me to direct. I think because I’d been to art school and been able to draw I was always interested in how you could put a scene together and what the images were, and all that stuff. It was quite a natural progression. But I sort of didn’t really want to be a director. I definitely didn’t want to be a writer because that’s so hard; so tough to do that and I never felt like a natural in that at all. I think I can direct. I think I’m quite an effective director, which is a different thing. I didn’t want to change my profession, but that’s what happens.

As soon as you start to direct people go, “oh you’re a director now, that’s a shame, we liked you as an actor, but will you come and direct this and will you come and direct that?” And directing takes up years. If you’re going to direct an episode of Doctor Who you can’t direct an episode of Doctor Who, you have to direct two because they’re in blocks of two. And then you’ve got to do months of preparation; you’ve got to do a month shooting it and then months of editing, so it takes up half your year. And I like being an actor, just showing up, doing the stuff and having a varied career when you can pack in lots of different things.

It does seem like a very art school kind of ethos doesn’t it, the fact that you’re creating something that’s kind of just you. Obviously you collaborate but there’s the idea of the single artist doing all the jobs.

Yes. I think that it’s a shame that people within the business inevitably like to compartmentalise you, and in fact I’m a person who’s interested in art and theatre, and acting and directing, and photography, and all of these things, and that’s what makes me up. It doesn’t make me less of an actor, because I don’t spend my entire life up to my eyes in Shakespeare; it doesn’t mean I’m not as skilled or experienced as an actor as someone who does.

I was just surprised going through your list of directing credits.  You directed the first two seasons of Getting On; that’s such a great show.

Yeah, those are amazingly talented girls, they are so brilliant: Jo Brand, Jo Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine and they wrote it all. I call them the girls because they’re fun. It’s like people call Doctor Who the boys. It’s just fun; it’s an expression of how warm and at ease we felt with each other.

I brought to that the sort of technique that Armando Iannucci used on The Thick of It and he taught me that, which was basically allowing people to improvise, and shooting a huge amount of material. The scenes were basically bullet-points where we knew what had to happen in those scene. A few gags maybe pre-written, but otherwise the cast had to use their own words to find their way through those scenes and also deliver the bits we’d already agreed upon.  And we’d just shoot with two cameras.  We ended up with a colossal amount of material so the job for me really was editing it; that was the huge part of that job.

It’s a funny show but it’s also very grim and very bleak; at least that’s what I take away from it.

I think that’s why I enjoyed doing it, because in essence what I was able to put into it was my experience with the NHS. It is an incredible organisation, which often people in Britain don’t realise, because if you were to go to America you would not have the benefit of this free healthcare. Of course it doesn’t work properly all the time, and often the consequences of that are heartbreaking. I think there’s such comic value to be had in the juxtaposition of the absolutely heartbreaking and the mundane. People are being born and dying in hospital, but that’s a day-to-day occurrence for the people who are cleaning up in there and getting the dinner ready and all of that stuff.  So it’s full of my own sense about what life in hospitals is like.

Right, because all those extremes of life, like you said, life, death, all that sort of stuff, but after the second time you clean up someone’s shit you’re over it; it’s just part of life.

Yeah yeah. And Jo Brand had been a psychiatric nurse, so had actually worked in the NHS, and so had some very bleak experiences. What I loved about Jo was, to me she was the life force in it; no matter how bleak and grey it got there was this voluptuous red face full of life, with these great red lips, and I used to make sure her cheeks were rouged and red.  She was full of humour and wit and life, and she was magnificent to have in that environment.

Probably the first time you came into prominence for New Zealand audiences was with The Thick of It, which was a famous TV series and a movie. Did you feel more or less engaged for the political process after doing that?

Well I was always interested in politics, as any kind of intelligent person has to be. I guess I had to find our more about the processes and how business was conducted in that world, which is not always attractive. But largely it was a magnificent comic beast that was also radical in the manner in which it was produced. And it enforced the destruction of whatever techniques we thought we had learnt as actors, they were left shattered and on the floor.

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What do you mean by that?  What techniques?

Armando, who’s brilliant, [is] very unusual in the sense that he’s constantly looking for new ways to make a programme.  In fact television is quite traditional; it’s a factory, it pumps out all this material and so it tends to make it the same way: you rehearse, the cameraman comes and looks at you to figure out where to put the camera, you rehearse again, you rehearse with the camera, then you shoot, and that’s it and it’s cut together.

With Armando there were no rehearsals for the camera; there was no lighting as such – or there was no lighting time, so you could go anywhere on the set because the entire set was lit, as it where. If I wanted to walk out the door the camera had to come with me. And the cameras were long barrel zoom lenses, so the camera could have been way over there, let’s say 50 feet away, but the lens it was on could be photographing me this close, even though it’s way over there. So the technique I’m talking about abandoning is one where you think you can hear them discuss that they’re going to change the lens on the camera, they’re going to put an 85mm lens on, and you think ‘oh, an 85mm lens is a reasonably close lens, I’ll deliver an 85mm performance’. Which is all nonsense, but it’s stuff that you gather as you go through your life in order to function in the television factory, so you learn how to moderate your performance according to the lens that’s available.

Of course on The Thick of It you never knew what the lens was, and you never knew exactly where anyone would go, and you never knew how the scene would end or where would be the middle, or you’d be surprised.  So it was alive and anything you relied upon to help you through it was of no use – because it was all new.

Right, so for the performance does that mean you had to bring it up to a certain level …?

Essentially what it did was made you just try and be truthful; truthful and funny. They were never spoken, but those were kind of the rules. You had to be truthful and funny. And so it was great; it was fabulous. It was like going to an acting academy late in life; a totally new way of working. I think all of the actors who did that would agree that you take that with you into the next thing.

Do you think it changed politics in the UK in any way?

I don’t think it changed the politics; what was remarkable was how realistic it was in fact, and having spoken to people who worked in offices of that nature, they all attest to the fact that it was accurate. The idea that people in politics have to conduct themselves to such a level of anxiety and stress is terrifying isn’t it? But that’s inevitable I think. I think it’s a world in which people get burnt out very quickly or they have to develop very tough skins and other personas. The character I played was very vitriolic and horrible to people, but I always felt that, a) he had to do that because that was his job and he was really surrounded by a lot of people who were not as smart as he was; and b) it didn’t cost him as much.  If I go crazy – I’ve lost my temper about four times in my life or something like that, I was always deeply ashamed and sorry; but it doesn’t cost him that much. Screaming at people and offending them doesn’t upset him terribly.

I always thought the most interesting thing about Malcolm Tucker was the fact he was one of the few characters in the show who was actually acting to achieve a goal outside of himself.  Most everybody else is kind of focused on themselves and getting the best result for themselves; he’s worried about the party line for the most part.

Yeah, he’s got a job to do and he’s dealing with all of these idiots. The other thing about Malcolm that you’re not seeing is that’s only a little slice of his day; he’s going to another department and having to fight fires there. There are idiots in all kinds of departments and all corners of the party that have to be dealt with all day long and long into the night. So he’s inevitably going to burn out. But he was a wonderful, wonderful character. And Armando did such subtle things with him.  If you watch it very carefully there’s a scene towards the end where he’s forced to resign and he’s at home, but he has a friend with him who he chats to, and the friend’s a rather forlorn and whey-faced figure. What it clearly is, to those who would recognise such a thing, is an Alcoholics Anonymous buddy. Clearly Malcolm is struggling with his addiction problems, and always has, and has an AA buddy to get him through the tough times. But that’s never said in the script.

A lot’s been made of the fact that you were a fan of Doctor Who before you ever went on the BBC payroll; for the sake of clarity how deep in fandom were you?

Very deep in [fandom] I think; but what people have got to realise is I grew up with the show. The show started when I was like, five, so it was just around but I loved it from the moment I got into it. It took me through being a teenager, until you reach a point where you leave it behind. I just followed a fairly normal course with Doctor Who and left it behind when I was about 17 or 18. Within that period, probably in my teen years, I was absolutely obsessed with it and would write letters all the time to the BBC, and I collected the autographs of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton; I was very deep into it.  But I was never very interested in recording the minutiae of it. I’m not really quite sure what it is about it that’s quite engaging.

Now that I’m doing it myself I look back at those old episodes with great admiration and humility. We have pretty good special effects and a bit more money; they were working with things that are far from cosmic – a bit of cardboard and a bit of rubber – and yet the acting is always absolutely truthful and they never for a moment put their tongue in their cheek or take the mickey out of it.  I think that’s really award-winning acting. It never wins any awards because it’s fighting rubber monsters, but to do that convincingly… and also there must have been rainy days at Television Centre when the actors would turn up perhaps feeling a little bit like they’d been left behind. But you go into the studio and there were Daleks there and you get on with it.

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Now you’re in this very rare position where you’re part of the thing you loved, and not only that you’re the main character. Is that an advantage to doing the job?

I think that it is and advantage to be a fan of the show. The way I approach the show is as I would approach The Thick of It or Getting On or any other show, which is you bring your adult, mature experience as an actor and artist to it. The fact that you’re a fan is something else, but which can be drawn upon when the time is right. One of the things about being an actor is recognising that you’re not always right and your instincts are not always accurate. In a show like Doctor Who that operates very like that, because Steven Moffatt – who is absolutely wonderful – has ideas that sometimes are different from the ideas that I think of who the Doctor is, or how he should conduct himself. But I often find that that takes us to a third place, which is better; it’s better than just my idea, it’s other people’s ideas. And that’s the reality of working on a show. Creatively, it’s always better to have other people’s ideas; other people’s ideas are most of the time better.  But sometimes you know in your heart that your ideas are fine.


Click below to watch Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who, Getting On and The Thick of It on Lightbox

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