Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi will be a Doctor of gravitas and steel

One of the joys of <em>Doctor Who</em> is that the actor isn’t limited by their human characteristics - Capaldi won’t have to play the Doctor as a 55-year-old man, because, you know, he isn’t.

The moment the 12th Doctor was announced as being Peter Capaldi - already the bookies’ overwhelming favourite - a number of things happened: millions across the nation nodded sagely and muttered “knew it”; a hundred thousand people made the same jokes on Twitter; ten thousand Tumblr users started editing gifs of The Thick Of It to add extra Cybermen; and a thousand TV writers with looming deadlines gratefully pulled out a file called “PeterCapaldi12thDoctor.doc”, emailed it to their editors and knocked off early to go down the pub.

Before we got there, of course, we had to endure an overwrought attempt to turn a six-word announcement into 35 minutes of Big Event Television. Presenting, Zoe Ball had the manic fixed grin of someone who’s been told “keep them talking for god’s sake, you’ve got to buy us time”. We were treated to the invaluable thoughts of Liza Tarbuck, Bruno Tonioli, and anybody else who’d happened to be in the vicinity of a BBC camera crew over the past few days. Rufus Hound wore a Keep Calm t-shirt, and must now be shunned by all decent society. It came across rather like an episode of The Apprentice: You’re Fired happening in reverse.

It’s hard to shift the feeling that the whole circus of inflated importance the BBC builds around the show isn’t altogether healthy for the quality of the output. Going big is not necessarily going better in the Whoniverse. The best Who episodes of both the Davies and Moffat eras have been tightly focused, with lean plots that keep the spotlight on the characters - big stakes on a small stage. The misfires most often seem driven by a demand for bigger and bigger spectacle, or the judgement-destroying phrase “wouldn’t it be cool if...?” (“Wouldn’t it be cool if The Doctor rode up the Shard on a motorbike?” “No.”) All this razzle-dazzle makes us wary.

Regardless, Capaldi is a tremendously exciting casting choice. Just as the casting of a big-name actor like Christopher Eccleston was a statement of intent for the revived series back in 2004, going for Capaldi suggests an encouraging ambition among the production team. Lest we forget, he’s the first Doctor to have won an Oscar (for directing, not acting).

Obviously, we’re not going to get Malcolm Tucker In Space (as much as Armando Iannucci should absolutely consider that as a Thick Of It spin-off). The 12th Doctor will not be telling Daleks in great detail where they can stick their plungers, or ramming a lubricated horse cock up the space-time vortex. It will not be Doctor Who The Fuck Are You. IT IS STILL A KID’S SHOW, PEOPLE.

Moreover, while Capaldi may be indelibly linked in the public mind with language that’s the bluest blue ever, he’s an actor of great range and subtlety. You only have to look at one of his two other appearances in the Who universe to see that - his understated, heartbreaking performance as a betrayed civil servant in the Torchwood mini-series Children Of Earth, which helped elevate a jolly but juvenile show into a genuinely compelling drama.

What does the fact that Capaldi’s one of the oldest actors to take on the role mean? It’s an easy guess to suggest the character will be played as more mature than Tennant’s schoolboy enthusiasm or Smith’s clowning often suggested (and Capaldi and Moffat hinted as much in their interviews on the announcement show). Certainly, there should be a lot less companion-flirting; moreover, it’s easy to imagine the gravitas and steel Capaldi can bring to those key moments when the Doctor gets righteously angry. But then one of the joys of Doctor Who is that the actor isn’t limited by their, uh, human characteristics: in the same way the youngster Smith could often seem older than any other actor, Capaldi won’t have to play the Doctor as a 55-year-old man. Because, you know, he isn’t.

It’s an inescapable issue that The Doctor will be, once again, a white guy. It genuinely felt like this time round we might have got a female Doctor or a non-white Doctor, and pretty much everyone who isn’t a member of the permanently furious faction of Who fandom would have been fine with it (for starters, the series has clearly laid the groundwork for either to happen). And yes, this would indeed have been a huge deal on the “what do our heroes look like” front.

But for the same reason that Capaldi’s age doesn’t have to constrain his interpretation of the role, it may be possible to put too much emphasis on how much of an advance casting the role differently would have been. The character wouldn’t suddenly come freighted with a lifetime of living as that person, or be forced to progress from a starting position determined by generations of ingrained societal nonsense. The Doctor would still have been a thousand year old alien who’s too head-in-the-clouds half the time to even notice human differences.

That said, they’d better bloody let Capaldi get to use his native accent. While David Tennant was made to English up for the role (and Sylvester McCoy toned his accent down) there’s no particular reason why Capaldi should. Yes, he’ll be great whatever voice he uses - but come on, wouldn’t it be a joy to hear him giving it the full Glaswegian? After all, lots of planets have a Scotland.

Peter Capaldi. Photograph: Rankin
Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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