Interview with ‘Doctor Who’ star Paul McGann
This is the most surreal interview I have ever done. I am sitting next to Withnail and I and Doctor Who actor Paul McGann at Collectormania, a convention where fans can meet their science fiction and fantasy heroes up close and get signed photos and memorabilia. The only thing is, I have joined McGann on the other side of the table while he meets fans. He hastily pulled up a chair for me so that I could sit next to him rather than leaning over the table.
Somehow this feels wrong. I shouldn’t be on this side of the table which is reserved for television and film legends while the other is for the fans. I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that I’m a bit of a Whovian myself or that I had a massive crush on his Doctor as an eleven-year-old…
‘This is going to have to be an action interview,’ he tells me and he’s not kidding. The interview is conducted in the snatches of time between him meeting fans, signing autographs and getting up to take photos with adoring fans. At times he becomes so engrossed in meeting his fans that he loses the thread of the conversation and I have to remind of the question. But throughout he seems to have boundless energy as he flits between the interview and engaging with the people who have come to see him.
Although McGann only played the Time Lord for six weeks while he filmed the 1996 Doctor Who film, it is something that has stayed with him throughout his career. The film was supposed to be a pilot for a television series, unfortunately the ratings were not as high as expected and it was a further nine years before the show would return to the small screen.
I ask him whether he was asked to take on the mantle of the Time Lord again when the show was rebooted in 2005. The role eventually went to Christopher Eccleston. ‘No, I didn’t and in fact since we’d filmed the pilot, since ending the film, no one’s ever called me. I’ve never been invited aside from the audios which I do with Big Finish.’
He tells me to hold that thought while he speaks to a fan who tells him how much they enjoyed Withnail and I. I then have to duck out of the way when they ask to have their photo taken with him. This is going to be a recurring theme throughout the interview. The woman assisting McGann with the signing and stocking him with pens and photos laughs as I try to hide from view.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and there will undoubtedly be a celebration to mark the milestone. For the 20th anniversary of the show there was a specially-made film called The Five Doctors which featured five incarnations of the Time Lord. But McGann says he hasn’t heard anything about the celebrations for the 50th. ‘No, I mean, I know it’s imminent but no, there’s been no invites to or sounding out taking place but maybe it will happen, we don’t know.’
On the topic of Doctor Who old and new, does McGann watch the new series? ‘I don’t have a television. No. So, I don’t watch anything. In fact some of my mates, particularly my gay mates, they say: ‘how do you live? What do you do?’ I’ve never seen an episode of Friends. I don’t know who the newscasters are.’ He sighs: ‘I just got out of the habit.’
‘Never watch myself. Sometimes you’re made to watch yourself. […] I’ve just about got used to the sound of my own voice, doing voice works. But actors are like everyone else, why would you want to look at yourself? See yourself leaving a room?’
‘But I know Matt Smith and I saw him the other day. It’s in safe hands, the kid’s obviously brilliant, a really, really good choice to take it on.’
When McGann was drafted in to play the Doctor for the film, the television series had been off the air for seven years. It was a welcome return for Whovians missing the show but the character of the Doctor was quite prescriptive for McGann down to the costume.
‘I was only Doctor Who for six weeks, so there was very little latitude. We had to do the pilot and the pilot was for North America, just basically hit a lot of iconic beats. You know, a lot of it was compulsory.’
He goes on to say: ‘For some reason it never made the ratings or it didn’t make the cut. It’s a shame, it’s showbiz. But if there’s any solace, any vindication, I think we were probably at least responsible for generating enough momentum to get the thing back on the box back in England. Because of that period, the interregnum, means that I was actually the longest-serving – by accident though’.
I tell him not to let Tom Baker hear that. Baker is also at Collectormania and played the Doctor for seven years. He is possibly the most iconic incarnation of the Time Lord with his big hair and ridiculously long, stripey scarf. McGann retorts: ‘Bring him in! I’ll tell him myself!’
McGann then turns his attention back to the fans and says: ‘Terrible wig, terrible wig, what were they thinking?’ He is referring to the lustrous mane that his Doctor had and there are a whole stack of photos of him with this bouffant barnet.
He tells me that he used to watch the show back in the Sixties and that his Doctor was the first one, William Hartnell. ‘I’m pretty old but keep it to yourself,’ he adds conspiratorially before sharing a joke with another fan.
From this side of the table you can see the eager but patient queue of people waiting for their turn to meet him. He is friendly, asking their name or shaking their hand and almost feeding off their positive energy. For fans, it makes meeting your hero something you’ll never forget.
He turns back to me and has completely forgotten what we were talking about. I tell him that we were discussing his Doctor. ‘Was I? Oh yeah. So then there was only three channels on the telly anyway, so every kid watched Doctor Who. You came home from school and it was on all the time, you watched it.’
‘I was never a huge fan [...] but in fact since doing it I’ve really had to play catch up because there’s decades of mythology that you’ve got to learn and people with PhDs in it.’ McGann explains how he is quizzed on his knowledge of the show. ‘Yeah, they’re really tough. I’m always forever making mistakes and now they know I’m crap.’
He adds: ‘I loved Hartnell. He seemed like a Victorian, someone kind of stern and paterfamilias about him. Something kind but scary, I like that.’
At this point a fan holding a five-foot canvas depicting all eleven incarnations of the Doctor arrives at the table. He would like McGann to sign the painting and take a picture with it. This time I crouch under the table to avoid getting in the way.
Traditionally, the relationship between the Doctor and his companions was strictly platonic but the 1996 film broke from this when McGann kissed his assistant Grace Holloway played by Daphne Ashbrook. ‘Yeah, it caused this brouhaha and I was completely nonplussed and of course Daphne Ashbrook, the girl who’d never heard of Doctor Who in the first place, was completely mystified.’
‘Like I said, I’m not that hot on the mythology, I didn’t know that. And could you imagine Pertwee kissing anything or anyone or Tom Baker? Tom Baker giving someone a snog, that would have to be after the watershed, wouldn’t it?
I mention to McGann that his Doctor’s kiss is a tradition that has been carried on in the rebooted series. Audiences have seen Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor kiss Billie Piper’s companion Rose Tyler, while David Tennant has locked lips with each of his three main companions. Matt Smith’s Doctor has shared a smooch both with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond and Alex Kingston’s River Song. ‘See what we started. See we broke new ground.’
Before I go, McGann tells me he has a couple of projects lined up. He will be starring alongside Martin Clunes in a two-part ITV crime thriller called A Mother’s Son, about a woman trying to keep her family together despite her suspicions that her son could be a murderer.
He will also be making a guest appearance in BBC drama Ripper Street which explores London in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper murders. McGann says of his character in Ripper Street: ‘He’s this corrupt, self-aggrandising politician type. It’s going to be really good, I think. Doing that, doing a bunch of audios for this [Doctor Who]. Some other things which I’d tell you about but I’d have to kill you.’
And on that note we finish up the interview which has been interesting to say the least. With conventions and crime dramas, it seems like it’s all go for McGann. I thank him before returning to the other side of the table. It’s certainly been an eye-opener, witnessing the convention experience from the perspective of a celebrity, however the side with the queue of fans is probably the right one for me.
For information about Collectormania visit: www.collectormania.com
Image credit: Neela Debnath/The IndependentTagged in: doctor who, doctor who film, matt smith
Recent Posts on Arts
- Friday Book Design Blog: Here
- A shouting economic adviser, a Nobel Laureate and a rock star scientist on stage at the Jaipur lit fest
- Children’s book blog – the last post!
- Children’s books for December: Herman’s Letter, The Yeti Files, Greenglass House and Winter Damage
- Friday Book Design Blog: The Ariel Poems, and other seasonal pamphlets
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter