David Tennant on There She Goes, Staged and his Doctor Who return
The Good Omens star spoke with Radio Times magazine about his prolific work-life, the "family business" and returning to Doctor Who.
This week’s television has a David Tennant for everyone. On Wednesday, he returns to BBC2 in a one-off special of There She Goes, alongside Jessica Hynes playing Simon and Emily, parents of two children including one with a severe learning disability.
It clashes, rather unfortunately, with the third episode of ITV1’s Litvinenko, in which he stars as the Russian dissenter who accused Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination.
Not enough Tennant for you? Later that evening, you can flick over to BBC One and watch him reunited with Michael Sheen for their ongoing Zoom meta-com Staged.
Or, for those who prefer Tennant delivering a cheekily engaging voiceover, you will find him narrating more aquatic encounters with nature on Sunday with Spy in the Ocean. Even for a man with his work ethic and an enthusiastic fanbase ready to lap it all up, isn’t this a bit much?
"I don’t know if it’s remarkable or unfortunate," he muses, wryly articulate as ever during a rare week off (sitting in a kitchen that, thanks to Staged, is now almost as famous as he is). "But having five kids does generate a certain necessity to keep going, and I do like to know what the next thing is because I don’t think one ever quite relaxes. Ultimately, though, you want your work to be seen by as many people as possible."
If nothing else, this glut of televised Tennant (Tennivision?) demonstrates his formidable range. While Litvinenko is a necessarily serious piece about an unfathomably brave man, his remarkable widow and the despot they defied, There She Goes is a very different type of real story.
Writers Shaun Pye and Sarah Crawford, whose teenage girl Joey has the same chromosomal condition as Simon and Emily’s daughter Rosie, continue to wrench breathtakingly candid, sad and funny stories from the frontline of parenting as Rosie uncomprehendingly enters puberty.
"You can’t really slip a bus ticket between the real family and the family on the show," says Tennant, whose character may have reined in the drinking but still erects a shield of dark humour (describing Rosie as "the girl who never grew up, like an annoying Peter Pan") against the raw terror of an uncertain future. In a time of echo chambers and talking over listening, There She Goes has been aptly described as a parable about communication.
"That’s a lovely way of putting it," agrees Tennant. "Part of what makes Shaun and Sarah so extraordinary is their willingness to examine their own shortcomings. [The show] would become homogenised and sentimental if they were more objective. Jess and I are always thrilled to return to it, because it’s so honest – you can recognise that portrait of parenting and cast yourself within that family."
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Did it lead him to reassess aspects of his own parenting? "It’s hard to know," he demurs. "You’re influenced by things you’re not necessarily aware of, but parenting defines who you are to such an extent that this job feels accessible in a way other days at work don’t. The bit you get paid for is making up the difference between your own experience and the experience of the character."
If so, his salary for Staged must be vanishingly small. In this third series, yet another version of "David Tennant" once again trades with "Michael Sheen" barbs that only close friends would dare hurl. Alongside some gloriously executed farce and with their partners Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg on sparkling form, it’s a silly, cerebral treat.
"We needed an idea clever, creative and silly enough to be able to spin some new stuff," Tennant admits. "[Writers] Phin Glynn and Simon Evans came up with something, slightly inspired by the Beatles’ Get Back documentary, that gave us reason to come back. We love doing it – that first series was such a huge tonic in the heat of lockdown, when we had a very young baby and were reaching the nadir of our day-to-day experience with home-schooling."
Staged has also seen the previously reticent Tennants open up their domestic lives with unexpected glee. "I don’t think it’s something we would have done, had circumstances not enforced it," he concedes. "We’ve always been – and I don’t apologise for this – quite overprotective of our family bubble, which comes from having our relationship scrutinised very early on and wanting to keep all that to ourselves. But we’ve been together for a long time and maybe we’re more confident about that now. We recently did our first photoshoot as a couple, which was very peculiar."
Next stop Hello!? He roars with laughter. "We’re not there yet, but give us time! Every time we’ve done anything together, we’ve liked it more, so Staged allowing us to do it may have helped us loosen up a bit."
One of the surprise cameos in Staged comes from their 21-year-old son Ty, previously seen in House of the Dragon and Channel 4 drama Consent; with their 12-year-old daughter Olive also appearing on screen for Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar and BAFTA-winning Belfast, how does Tennant square his concerns over the industry with the need to support his children’s acting?
"Well, it is undeniably the family businesses," he shrugs. "Georgia’s parents [Sandra Dickinson and Peter Davison] were both in it and my kids have grown up surrounded by it. You can’t deny them if they’re desperate to do it, but while we help them where we can, we certainly don’t encourage it – we would love them to be doctors and lawyers!
"Your heart’s in your mouth when you think, ‘What if they can’t do it? What if they turn up and it’s all a bit embarrassing?’ It’s a great relief when you realise they’re good, because, while having parents in the industry might initially get you in a door, if you can’t do it after that, it ain’t going to happen. That’s as it should be. This is an oversubscribed industry and you’ve got to earn your place."
Most would agree Tennant did that decades ago. And yet, despite the cult immortality, mainstream smashes and Radio Times covers ("the only accolade I search for"), a BAFTA eludes him. A gloriously pointed exchange with Catherine Tate at this year’s awards saw Tate lament her six nominations and zero awards, only for Tennant to point out he has none, either. A good punchline – but does it genuinely rankle?
"It can’t! When you start out, everyone tells you actors don’t make a living, but you always think you’ll be all right and that it’ll be everyone else that won’t work. Then, when I left drama school, I didn’t get a job for about six weeks. I was abjectly skint, no prospects at all, staring into the abyss. Then I got lucky, got a job and began picking up all kinds of ludicrous gigs to pay the bills.
"I remember filming adverts for [early on-demand service] HomeChoice in 2000, shouting in a beret like Citizen Smith in a tank on Leamington Spa High Street. Then I’d do Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in the evenings! I am incredibly fortunate to be working consistently, so it would be really churlish to get worked up about the rest of it."
Still, his banter with Tate did also serve as a tantalising taster of their imminent reunion with Russell T Davies for Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary – another time we’ll see Tennant on our screens this year.
"The specifics of coming back to Doctor Who took a bit of wrangling," he says. "But we were always receptive to the notion. Initially, it was a casual conversation going, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a one-off?’ Then Russell was back running the show and suddenly it could be something bigger. But there’s really no pressure. It’s a victory lap, in a way – you get to enjoy something that had meant so much to you, one last shot before you get too old to do it again."
Has he seen incoming Doctor Ncuti Gatwa at work? "I have!" he grins with the excitement of a lifelong fan. "It makes me feel like I’m just holding the coat till he arrives, because he’s very exciting."
While it’s too early to say whether his ubiquity will stretch into a 2024 already affected by ongoing writers’ strikes in America, Tennant’s other three forthcoming projects present yet more sides to the man.
He will be back on our screens in July as the demon to Sheen’s angel in Good Omens, and his stage debut as Macbeth will be one of four major productions of the Scottish play this year (another starring Ralph Fiennes). His will be at London’s Donmar Warehouse in December, opposite Deadwater Fell co-star Cush Jumbo and directed by Max Webster, the man behind the Olivier-winning Life of Pi. Tennant has a healthy trepidation about it.
"It’s possibly the play I’ve seen most – I’ve seen some absolutely brilliant ones and some terrible ones. When it works, it flies but, oh man, it can go wrong – I saw it set on a spaceship once! Cush as Lady Macbeth is as good casting as we could have hoped for and Max is fantastically exciting – fortunately it’s a play that can take reinvention."
Finally, there’s Jilly Cooper’s Rivals (Disney Plus), from which he is currently enjoying a week’s break. His obvious relish in playing unreconstructed cad Lord Tony Baddingham has been only slightly diluted by the revelation that Rishi Sunak is a Cooper fan.
"It was a bit of a blow," laughs the lifelong Labour voter. "But I’ve enjoyed it, not least because it’s my first period piece that I have direct experience of having lived through. It’s been interesting to look back on that period, with Thatcherism… well, is it in the rear-view mirror? We’ll see.
"There’s something both awful and liberating about playing characters who live by a different moral compass. The world has progressed in the right direction, but it’s fun to visit a sort of consequence-free version of that world. He was a man of his day!"
So says the man of the moment.
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