Ahead of his return to playing the First Doctor in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, we were honoured to sit down with famed British character actor David Bradley to discuss the challenges of playing such an iconic role, as well as 60s sensibilities, and his possible future in Star Wars…
There’s always a lot of pressure for someone going in to play The Doctor. How did it feel going in to play the ORIGINAL Doctor?
There wasn’t any pressure to feel like I was playing The Doctor in An Adventure in Space and Time, but the responsibility and the pressure came from portraying William Hartnell accurately. His granddaughter wrote a book called ‘Who’s There?’. She gave me a copy of that and that filled me in on a lot of his history. And, of course, having the benefit that we all had of seeing the old black-and-white footage in order to play him. But the responsibility was in doing justice to someone who was a fine actor, one of the best British character actors of his time, and also the fact that he was a very complicated man. He had a few problems, and Mark Gatiss, thankfully, made him a completely rounded human being for all his virtues and his darker sides. So, you felt it was an honest portrayal rather than a soft-focus biopic. Coming back to it for the Christmas special, it felt like not an actor playing the actor who played The Doctor, this is playing The Doctor. I wouldn’t say it was a pressure, because I’d had the background of playing in Adventure, and all that kind of fed into it and helped. I think I would have found it difficult just playing The Doctor in the Christmas special without having done An Adventure in Space and Time, which was one of, if not the, best experiences I’ve ever had. We did it in the conditions that they did it, and in a very short space of time. We had a lot of fun along the way.
Mind you, it’s easier nowadays for actors to work on TV than it was in Hartnell’s time, because they had no time for retakes or anything, and they had to negotiate those massive cameras and all those cables on the floor. Now you can just stop and say “sorry, can I pick it up from the previous line because I messed up?” It was more like a play, and I should imagine that the pressure of doing it in that way in the early sixties must have been enormous!
Being on-set with Peter and Jodie, what makes them such special performers?
Well, Jodie… our paths didn’t really cross in the Christmas special, but they certainly did in Broadchurch. As soon as I heard that she was doing Doctor Who, I was happily surprised because she’s got this great depth as an actress. Anyone who saw Broadchurch saw the range she has. Not only that, just hanging out with her, you realise what fun she is. She’s always up for a laugh. She’s got everything needed for playing the part. She’ll be absolutely brilliant.
Peter was an absolute joy from the word go. I met him briefly when he came to the set of An Adventure in Space and Time. We didn’t know that he was The Doctor then, and he said he didn’t either! (laughs) He was a friend of Mark’s, so he just came in. He found out a while after that that he got the part. When someone has ownership of such an iconic part for so long, coming in to share the screen with him, I was so thrilled. As soon as they asked me to do it, I didn’t read a script or anything, I just said “yes!”. He was an absolute joy. We had a lot of laughs. We share a lot of territory in terms of people we’ve worked with and people we know, so in between takes we never stopped talking! When I had guests to visit the set, he took so much care to make sure they had a good time. He had quite a lot on his plate to learn, but he’d always chat to my friends and family, conducting a little tour of the TARDIS. He was an absolute gent, and I hope it’s not the last time I get to work with him!
And, of course, you also worked with Matt Smith’s Doctor on ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’…
Oh, yes! Well, I went into the studio on the first day of that and saw this old TARDIS in the corner in the dark, so I had to go over and touch it and open the door and everything. I thought that was going to be my Doctor Who experience! Little did I know that something else was lurking around the corner! But Matt was great fun. We flew out to San Diego together for the big Comic Con there, and we were walking through the forecourt of the airport at Heathrow, and there was a big display with a big picture of Matt promoting the show. He’d had a haircut for some other TV show he’d done and he walked over and said “what’s going on here then?” and they said “oh, it’s a Doctor Who thing we’re doing…”. He was talking to them for a fair few minutes and nobody clocked it was him!
How was it playing with these two aspects of the same character who have existed almost half a century apart?
It’s these two different generations. Hartnell’s Doctor is from a time which isn’t quite so PC; it brings all that 1960s “gentle” chauvinism… He’ll say to Pearl Mackie’s character “this spaceship needs a bit of a spring-clean!”. He comes from that kind of era. There are a few of these little clashes that pop up and show that those fifty years have made quite a difference in attitude. He’s from that time and he’s bringing all that into the scenes. It’s not a big conflict, but it’s a difference of ideas, and I hope it’s as funny as it looked on paper!
Would you be willing to come back again if they asked?
Oh, if they asked me, yes! I’d bite their hand off! I’m very happy to have been involved. It’s quite something. Something you’d never expect in your career. Something you’ve watched when you’re young; you never imagine that you’ll be involved in something so iconic. I’d say it’s a late treat! (laughs) I’d be very interested yes!
Having done Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones… Have you got your eyes set on Star Wars next?
(laughs) Well that would be nice! I don’t know what I could do in that! I saw the last one and loved it. Yeah… Wouldn’t it be nice… It’d be like a full house in poker. A complete running flush!
Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time airs on Christmas Day on BBC1