How Casanova forged David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor

It might not be the Russell T Davies 10th anniversary most people will be talking about this month, but the BBC3 drama that laid the groundwork for David Tennant's turn in the Tardis deserves celebrating, says Stephen Kelly…

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Ten years ago today, David Tennant travelled back in time in order to bonk every single woman in 17th century Europe – all courtesy of Russell T Davies.

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No, not Doctor Who After Dark, but Casanova: the BBC3 mini-series which aired mere weeks before Davies revived and revitalised a cultural phenomenon, when he brought back Doctor Who. That being the case, Casanova is probably not the 10th anniversary most people will be talking about this month. And that’s fine. Not every TV show needs a monument built to it. Yet, a decade on, it’s still worth looking back at what was not only a warm, funny and poignant romp of love and lust, but also provided the bones of Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. And all before the Ninth Doctor had even had his first “Run!”

For those not familiar with it, Casanova was Davies’s three-part interpretation of the diaries of Italian rogue Giacomo Casanova, one of history’s most notorious lovers, a man who claims to have “conquered” 122 women, from nobles to nuns, and led a life stranger than most fiction while he was at it. He mingled with world leaders, dabbled in the occult, posed as lawyers and doctors, escaped from prison, invented the Parisian lottery – you get the gist.

Davies adapted the dense and fragmented diaries into a simple premise: Giacomo, now a sad, penniless librarian in his 70s, portrayed by the late Peter O’Toole, retells his life of adventure to a kitchen maid called Edith, played by none other than Bridesmaids’ Rose Byrne. Cue flashback to Tennant: young, dashing and shagging his way through the Renaissance, with not a care in the world until he falls madly in love with Laura Fraser’s Henriette, who some may now recognise as Lydia from Breaking Bad.

And although the feeling is mutual, Henriette, born into poverty, seeks financial security, leading her to marry the stuck-up Duke of Grimani (Rupert Penry-Jones) instead. Boo, hiss, etc. So begins Casanova’s quest for fortune, which he will win and lose time and time again inbetween getting arrested, falling in love (again) with a (seemingly) male castrato and finding out he has an illegitimate son.

It’s a hyper-real farce, obviously, but it’s executed with such quick wit, flair and humour that you can’t help but get caught up in its momentum, taken in by its sentiment and charmed by its quirks; even if moments such as the Ali G reference below have dated ever so slighty.

The real driving force behind Casanova, though, was the man himself. This, of course, has a lot to do with Davies’s interpretation of the character, whose rambunctious behaviour is tempered with an endearing sense of romantic naïveté. Even if he’s wrong, he clearly sees himself as a sort of feminist, a man who doesn’t ‘love them and leave them,’ but stays up all night and listens, a sensitive man ahead of his time. For a lothario so enslaved by his Casaunders, it may sound weak, but it’s certainly better than Heath Ledger’s smug big-screen version, or even the real Casanova, whose diaries often present him as arrogant, manipulative and obnoxious. 

But of course, beyond Davies, the reason it all works is Tennant himself, a human swoon machine with the substance to make Casanova’s confidence charming rather than annoying. Basically, he’s the Tenth Doctor. 

Yep, look back, forget what you’re watching and it’s all there: the Doctor, gallivanting around Europe, having exotic adventures with exotic women. It’s the Tardis trips viewers don’t get to see. It’s in Tennant’s estuary accent, which the Scottish star transplanted to Doctor Who. It’s in his mannerisms, like the heartsmashing look when Casanova realises that the Duke of Grimani wants to die because Henriette doesn’t love him; it’s pure Tenth Doctor “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. It’s in the writing too. Check out this exchange, for instance. 

Casanova: I’m a spy.

Grimani: How d’you mean a spy?

Casanova: A spy. I spy. That’s me, the spy. Of course, being a spy I really shouldn’t say I’m a spy or I’m spied by a spy.

Grimani: I suppose you can prove it?

Casanova: What? You want me to spy on something? Um, look, there’s a canal, I spied it. Look, it’s still there. Ooh, and again.

See? The Doctor’s voice springs from the page. In Russell T Davies’s ITV 2003 adaptation of The Second Coming, starring Christopher Eccleston, you can faintly hear echoes of the Ninth Doctor two years before he would come to be. In Casanova, Ten is already here: the heartthrob Doctor, the hanky-panky Doctor, the romantic Doctor whose swimming eyes made viewers sob at the end of The Girl in the Fireplace just as he and O’Toole’s do at the end of Casanova, when it’s revealed that – yet again – he was ultimately too late to find the love of his life. 

It’s fascinating watching Casanova now, knowing that Russell T Davies cast David Tennant in Doctor Who based on this performance. Who influenced who? Did Davies see the Doctor forming right before his eyes? Did Tennant deliberately keep a piece of Giacomo with him on his journeys through time and space? Or is there simply a big slice of the real Tennant in both of them? Whatever the answer, this is where the Tenth Doctor was born. And that is one reason among many, many others why today – of all days – Casanova deserves a bit of love.

After all, it is his birthday. 

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