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
Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.