Jenna Coleman: “You’re in Doctor Who knowing it will never last”

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman reveal the secrets of their successful partnership as Doctor Who returns to BBC1

Note: This interview took place before the announcement of Jenna Coleman’s departure from Doctor Who

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They’re an incongruous couple, perhaps one of the most unlikely pairings on television: he’s 6ft: she’s 5ft 2 and sometimes has to stand on an apple box when they’re filming together. He’s 57, cadaverous, an Oscar winner and a bit battered by life; she’s 29, fresh-faced, cherubic. He was the foul- mouthed enforcer Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (2005–12) and lead singer in a punk band the B*****ds from Hell; she was a demure acquaintance of Prince Harry last summer (they had tea at a polo match), and was in Emmerdale for four years.

This week, the 12th Time Lord, Peter Capaldi, and his companion Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman, begin the ninth series of Doctor Who since its 2005 revival. Their relationship is at the heart of the show and, he explains, “It has no equivalent in TV or fiction, a friendship between an alien creature and an extremely bright, clever and brave young woman. It’s unusual for a man of my age to be friendly with such a youthful lady. She wants to go out into the universe and enjoy herself, happy to be reckless and in danger. I was so lucky it was Jenna because it might not have worked with anyone else. It’s tricky to come into a long-established show, especially as the lead, and Jenna has proved to be a wonderful actress and friend.”

She recalls they had lunch together after the hype and secrecy surrounding his role. “I’d no idea who would take over from Matt Smith, and when I was told it was Peter, it was one of those ‘aha, that makes sense – genius’ kind of moments. But the first thing he said to me was, ‘There will be no romance in the Tardis.’”

He smiles. They spark off each other in an easy way. He’s self-effacing and seems curiously vulnerable; she’s lively and confident. “I was keen there shouldn’t be a romantic element,” he says. “It would have been completely creepy. It’s fine if you have handsome young men like Matt and David Tennant, but as a father [he’s been married to actress and TV producer Elaine Collins since 1991 and they have a teenage daughter, Cecily], I felt it would be inappropriate. And it’s forged a huge bond between us. There’s no romance, but there’s deep love.”

She knew Smith was leaving when she joined the cast three years ago. “I was really excited to start a new relationship with Peter although it was scary. The Doctor, who is my best friend, is not only in a different body, but he’s also getting to know himself. Age made no difference. He’s an alien. We’re not lovey-dovey. Everything is more about what is unsaid, rather than said. Clara may seem like a control freak, but she’s trying to control the uncontrollable.”

“It’s a difficult show to act,” he says. “It goes from B-movie sci-fi to Freudian drama and tragedy. There’s romance, pantomime, humour and sadness, so you’re kept on your toes. I try not to be too romantic or sentimental. Sometimes Jenna will run down a corridor shouting, ‘Doctor, there’s a monster,’ and stuff. Part of the tradition is that sets wobble and you have to fight a giant spider made of rubber. I enjoy that. It’s not so well budgeted as viewers might think [each episode takes 12 days to produce] but it looks great because of the talent of the people working on it.”

Earlier this year they did a worldwide promotional tour. “We spend nine months filming in Cardiff [at Roath Lock, BBC Wales’s 170,000 square ft facility], talking to aliens, in our own little world,” she says, “and then go somewhere like South Korea and we’re greeted with such enthusiasm at the airport. It’s a surprise to see how far-reaching the show is.”

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“I’m amazed at the audience reaction and don’t really know why it is,” he says. “It has monsters, which people like, and there are hardly any other shows with them. It’s an established part of family-oriented TV here. I’ve been a fan since childhood and have a personal relationship with this mysterious alien and his companion rambling through time and space confronted by monsters yet holding at its heart a sort of melancholy that is never quite addressed. Unlike other sci-fi, Doctor Who has a domestic element – the Tardis could turn up in the Mall or a coffee shop – but it catches fire abroad, in culturally different places, particularly with students and young adults. I suppose it offers escapism.”