Peter Davison is not a man to let the small matter of quarantine deter him from working. This spring he was hard at it, recording Doctor Who audio adventures from a cupboard that he’s decorated to resemble a TARDIS, complete with roundels he made from cardboard boxes (pictured below). “I put a lot of effort into it because I’m a very sad person,” he says of his “moment of lockdown lunacy”.
He admits that he feels most alive when acting and so jumped at the chance to emerge from his police box and run away to the circus for a festive turn as a ringmaster in this year’s seasonal Call the Midwife episode. It was filmed according to social distancing rules after restrictions were initially eased – but, at 69, did he feel as though he was risking his health?
“I carry that strange British trait of thinking it’s never going to happen to me,” he reflects. “But I didn’t find it easy. It was very nice to be offered a part, and I was happy to do it, but because everyone on set was treated as though they were exuding billowing clouds of COVID-19, I didn’t get the sense of joyousness that I imagine has been there in the past.”
Even those well used to life at Nonnatus House found the filming experience odd. “We’d been away so long I wasn’t sure I could remember how to do it,” admits Linda Bassett, 70, whose alter ego Nurse Phyllis Crane reveals an unexpected passion for circus life when Davison’s troupe visits Poplar. “Rehearsing in masks made it hard to tell what anyone was thinking.”
The nation, though, will be relieved that the cast has managed to get the episode in the can, as Call the Midwife has now become a key part of many people’s Christmas viewing. Bassett says fans come up to her to tell her that they love Nurse Crane. “You can only react to that kind of thing with warmth, even though I am a little bit baffled as to why Nurse Crane is loved. But it’s so kind of them.”
Davison, on the other hand, ought to be well used to the adoration, as a former lead of both Doctor Who and All Creatures Great and Small, both of which get Christmas specials this fortnight in their rejuvenated forms. So how does he feel to see them still in the schedules? “It’s slightly scary, but gratifying. When I heard they were remaking All Creatures, there was a tinge of, ‘How dare they?’ But I gather it’s very good.”
Both are refreshingly un-actorly and direct. Bassett, for instance, questions the common misconception that Call the Midwife takes a rose-tinted view of the 1960s. “This wasn’t a sweet time – the 1950s and 60s were brutal. I went to school in that era and it was tough. And you’ll find that the people at Nonnatus aren’t often gentle. But what they are is kind. And whenever life is tough, being kind is so important.”
Davison is equally frank about the travails of life in 2020. “I’m getting a bit tired of Zooming people,” he sighs. “This year has all been about protecting older, vulnerable people. But the irony is that every vulnerable person I’ve spoken to – and I’m nearly at that age myself – doesn’t want to be locked away and protected from this disease. The last years of these people’s lives are being stolen when they’d much rather be taking the risk while they’re still compos mentis. I understand that hospital numbers have to be kept at a level where it’s still possible to look after patients, but a huge miscalculation is being made somewhere.”
Not that the two of them are planning on spending their own futures behind closed doors. Bassett says she has no intention of exiting a show with such “fantastic company”, while for Davison, “working is my social life, so I want to keep going for as long as I can stand up and remember lines”.
And why not, when plum roles, such as the chance to play against type as Henry, the boorish husband of Alison Steadman’s Gail in Mike Bartlett’s recent BBC One drama Life, are out there for the taking? “Yes, I found my niche playing nice, charming Tristan types,” he says. “You do long for those opportunities to do something more. When Life went out, The Observer’s review effectively said, ‘Peter Davison – what a find!’ My agent said I should be recommended for a best newcomer award.”
Nearly 40 years on from his first scenes in the TARDIS (the “real” one, rather than the homemade DIY variety), it doesn’t take a Doctor’s diagnosis to see that he has plenty of energy left.
“I still get a real buzz when I’m doing something. But do you know, I never even thought I’d be alive at this point. I remember thinking all those years ago that in the year 2000, I’d be 49 and my life would effectively be over. And here I am, still going strong. I’m just very happy to have got this far.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
In the US, the Call the Midwife Holiday Special 2020 airs on PBS at 9/8c on 25th December.