This must be a first: David Tennant declines to be interview unless the writer of his latest three-part crime thriller The Escape Artist, David Wolstencroft, is involved, preferably at the same time.
“He’s the reason it’s such a compelling series. He has British integrity in what he writes, but is not afraid to give it the Hollywood twists and turns. Without good writing there’s nowhere to go, and I’m interviewed so often, what more can I say?” Admirable sentiments, made difficult by the fact that Wolstencroft, who created Spooks, lives in Ventura, north of Los Angeles, and I meet Tennant at the Royal Shakespeare Company rooms in Clapham, south London, where he’s rehearsing for Richard II [now at Stratford-upon- Avon until 16 November, and the Barbican in London from 9 December to 25 January].
He’s one of life’s cheerier people who seems boundlessly optimistic and good-natured. “I’ve got an hour’s break so we can go wherever we like” – a none too tantalising prospect. As he remarks, “People said this area was up and coming when I was first rehearsed here in 1995. I don’t notice much difference today, although it’s become a little more chichi.” We find a pleasant café – “perfect” – and he settles in with an iced coffee.
He enjoyed playing the grumpy Detective Inspector Alec Hardy in Broadchurch because it allowed a surprising alter ego to emerge. “I’d love to be rude. I’m getting better at it with journalists from certain publications, rather than pussy-footing around. It doesn’t change the world, but it makes me feel better and is hugely liberating. I’d like to be much ruder to people who put their elblow in your face on the Tube, or don’t look where they’re going. I want to say, ‘Don’t do that’, but I’m crippled by the notion people will think ill of me.” A grumpy old man at 42? “I’m cursed with self-consciousness from my Scottish Presbyterian upbringing [his father way Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland], but I’m getting grumpier and it’s usually a good thing.” He’s also happy to be a geek. “I’m very proud of that. Geeks should rule the world. I want my leaders to be boffins, not smarmy.”
He adds, “It’s no secret I’m not a fan of Cameron.” Indeed, he’s done his best for the geeks, or at least Gordon Brown: contributing a voiceover for a Labour Party broadcast in 2010.
Although he seems confident, he seethes with insecurity. “I’m so over-critical. The day I say, ‘I nailed the part’ is when I’ll stop being any good.”
False modesty? “No. I hope it’s true because it’s the only way I can deal with the torture I put myself through. No review is ever good enough, while the bad ones are like tolling bells drawing you to the workhouse. I’m haunted by the notion that it might all end so I try to generate employment. I’m doing OK now, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Think of the money, I mutter. “Ah, yes, that’s why I do it,” he laughs. Pure hard cash – which is why I’m at the RSC! No, it must be some deep insecurity that makes me try to better myself to prove I’m not so pathetic as I imagine at four in the morning. I stare at the ceiling and wonder, ‘Why did I think I could do this?’ I travel in hope, but try not to inflict it on others. I have very little to complain about, but my career is down to luck as much as anything. The industry is brutal. I have brilliant friends who are unemployed and others who work all the time who you wonder why they’ve been given another job. I’m sure some people think that about me. There is no justice.”
At 42, success is imprinted on him, both professionally and personally. He’s married to an actress, Georgia Moffett, 28, whom he met on Doctor Who in 2007, and they have a two-year-old daughter, Olive, and a five-month-old son, Wilfred. His work is enormously varied – voiceovers, radio, theatre, films, television. “I was so proud to be the voiceover in Twenty Twelve [the BBC2 spoof on the Olympics planning], a glorious piece of telly. I love radio. You produce work very quickly – a 90-minute drama in a day and a half – and act against type because you’re not limited by your physicality. And you don’t have to learn your lines.”
A new film is out next year, provisionally titled What We Did on Our Holiday, about a family’s trip to Scotland, with Rosamund Pike and Billy Connolly, from the creators of Outnumbered. “Who knows what it’s like until you see it, but it was with a nice bunch of people in Scotland and I got to see the family.” In general, his films have not been critical hits. “My last one, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger, had bad reviews but made back three times its budget, so we have to wonder what criteria we’re working on.”
But back to The Escape Artist, and its writer, David Wolstencroft, 44, who was born in Honolulu of British parents. His father is an astrophysicist who commuted between Hawaii and Edinburgh where the Royal Observatory is located. He was educated in Edinburgh and Cambridge university, where he studied history, performed in the Footlights and formed a comedy duo with Alexander Armstrong. “I loved comedy and never thought I had it in me to write drama, which I assumed was for deep-thinking people. Then a friend persuaded me to have a go, and I wrote Psychos for Channel 4 [in 1999]. It was a hoot and I was surprised it was nominated for a Bafta.”
He wrote Spooks in England but then left “because I loved playing tennis, wasn’t married and it was a good time to go to America [he has dual nationality] to see what would happen.” He’s now married with a child whose sex he won’t specify. “I don’t talk about my family.” He moved to Ventura a few months ago. “I enjoy the cut and thrust of the TV industry, but like to come home to real life and a slower pace.”
He took Spooks to about 12 different production companies and did many rewrites before it was accepted by BBC1 in 2002. “Writers won’t tell you this, but we do multiple drafts, and the more the better. Television is always a collaboration. As the creator, writer and executive producer, I’m very opinionated and have clear ideas of what will work, but other people have fantastic input. You have to understand it’s not about digging in your heels and saying, ‘This is my work’. In The Escape Artist, as the writer I was very attached to a particular scene, but as executive producer I realised it had to go. Once you’ve done that, and put on your different hat, you realise there is no perfection.”
In The Escape Artist Tennant plays a junior barrister, Will Burton, who has never lost a case. “He’s ethical, but exploits loopholes in the law, using whatever it takes to find a way out for his clients,” the star explains. “I won’t reveal too many of the plot twists but he flies too close to the sun [when a client is acquitted as a prime suspect in a horrific murder trial]. You see acts of hubris from brilliant people in public life all the time – Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer, Chris Huhne. They are slightly different because duplicity was involved, whereas Will is just doing his job. The law can be a debating club where the person with the cleverest verbal aptitude wins.
“One barrister told me that acting is nine-tenths of what he does, but I wouldn’t have their skill. I’ve had little to do with the law personally but I hope it’s the best system we can have. Inevitably when it’s complicated it opens itself to exploitation, but broadly speaking it’s a noble cause practised by noble people. I spent time in court and marvelled at their mental dexterity. I watched one thrilling case at the Old Bailey, the “National Theatre of law”, where the defendant’s guilt looked cut and dried – and in the end he was found guilty – but his barrister convinced me in five minutes that his client was innocent and persecuted by the system. It’s a fiercely competitive world, so it’s not just about winning, it’s also about paying the bills.”
Wolstencroft agrees. “I’m terrible at arguing, unless it’s about writing, and then I’m obnoxious. But if someone is persuasive and has a good way with words I’ll bend over and say, ‘OK, that seems plausible’.
Part of his inspiration for The Escape Artist was a civil law suit he had in California over a property issue.
“You’re subsumed by legal tactics and become a caged animal, a tortured creature. The law often seems like an intellectual exercise, but underneath it’s blood and guts. Both sides have to put their case emphatically. There is the law. And there is justice. Two very different things. Sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they don’t. Lawyers generally feel it’s better for 1,000 guilty people to get off than one innocent person goes to jail.”
In 2009 Tennant played a brilliant lawyer who suffers panic attacks in an American pilot for a potential series, Rex Is Not Your Lawyer. It went no further. “That’s not seen as a failure. Americans invest vast sums in 20 pilots from which they’ll get a handful of series. I suppose the danger is that some scripts are too scrutinised and have interesting edges knocked off them by committee. It’s hard to get a new idea across because it’s so expensive and executives are scared. It’s a frustrating industry, but great stuff is still being made on both sides of the Atlantic.” In fact, Tennant will reprise his successful Broadchurch role, albeit with American accent, when a US version starts filming in January.
Wolstencroft concurs with Tennant: “I have no problems with how the industry is organised. It’s enormously satisfying to write a script and pitch a show because the potential upside is huge. There are so many international co-productions they can hedge the risk, and put more money on screen. But you still have no inkling of what will happen. I love television and if I keep being employed [he’s also written two novels – “paralysingly exciting because you’re director, producer and cast”], I’ll follow that for a while. There’s been a renaissance in television, a plethora of channels, and it’s enormously exciting to tell a story like The Escape Artist over three hours.”
On 23 November Tennant is in the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who. “It’s the actual birthday, which is quite something. The show is thriving and clearly not past its sell-by date. It will keep re-inventing itself. There can be very few TV programmes which announced their change of leading actor [from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi] live. I knew about the choice a few days before, but didn’t put money on it, or when Broadchurch became the bookies’ favourite [over the killer’s identity]. It was tempting, but then I thought it would be traced back and the carnage that would cause in the popular press... It’s basic cowardice and hopefully a lack of avarice. Don’t make me out to be entirely without virtue.”
Perhaps too many series are based on the law? “All aspects of it are fertile ground for drama,” replies Tennant. “There’s a ready-made package of plots with a beginning, middle and an end.” When Broadchurch became a national talking point it took everyone by surprise. “You’re always hoping to fire audiences up. It was wonderful to be stopped everywhere and asked, ‘Whodunnit?’ I have enough of an ego to be thrilled by that.” Next year he might be in the British sequel – “If the phone call comes. It’s a writer-led piece, like The Escape Artist, rather than an executive saying, ‘We need something for David Tennant to do on Wednesday night on BBC1’. I can’t imagine that would be any good.
“It seems there’s nothing so compelling as crime drama. Doctor Who manages it, and Downton Abbey, although I’ve never seen it. I should because it’s part of our popular culture. It’s funny – political dramas aren’t so popular as they should be. I enjoy dabbling in that world [The Politician’s Husband, this year on BBC2], and The Thick of It is wonderful. But I guess the terrible truth is not enough viewers are interested. They should be. If you don’t have an opinion and don’t vote you have no right to complain about anything. Just shut up and pay your taxes. This is my question for Radio Times readers: why are there so few political dramas on television? And why am I not in one? I’m ready, and have some gaps next year.”
With that he puts on his flat cap from Ted Baker in Chiswick High Road, pulls it down – “It helps a bit as a disguise” – and returns to rehearsal, to torture himself again.
See The Escape Artist tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1