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I always think I'm going to get found out

From Doctor who to Gypsy, the popular actor's career has been anything but conventional. And that's just the way he likes it.

TURNING ON your TV set in the early Eighties there was a good chance the first person you’d see was Peter Davison, be it as the ‘wet vet’ (Peter’s words) Tristram Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small, the bedsit dwelling Brian of Sink or Swim, or as the dashing fifth incarnation of Doctor Who.

Such ubiquity has its drawbacks, however, and within ten years Peter was struggling to find work, mainly, he believes, because casting directors felt he had been over-exposed.

Today, however, Peter is as busy as ever, having enjoyed great success in the West End with the musical Gypsy, as well as reprising his role as the Doctor for a spoof that he wrote, directed and starred in as part of the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Then there was his appearance in Grantchester playing a cricket-loving solicitor – echoes of the fifth Doctor – and his brilliantly funny cameo in Toast of London, playing a debauched version of himself.

Despite his impressive CV, Peter has always retained a sense of perspective about his achievements, as well as a healthy, and self-deprecating, sense of humour. His autobiography, Is There Life Outside The Box?, is not the usual collection of self-satisfied, rather luvvy reminiscences, but an honest, and frequently very funny, account of a life and career that has had more than its fair share of ups and downs.

What also comes across very strongly in the book is how fiercely proud Peter is of his mixed-race parentage – his father, Claude, was an electrical engineer from British Guiana in the West Indies, and his mother, Sheila, was English.

“Not a lot of people know about that because I look so damned English, which has been very useful in terms of working but I loved it, this exotic side to the family in the West Indies – it seemed kind of cool,” Peter told the Sunday Herald.

Peter was born in Streatham in 1951 and remembers being painfully shy as a child, which wasn’t helped by the family moving to live in Knaphill, a village in Surrey, so his father could fulfil, a l o n g - s t a n d i n g ambition to run a grocery store. For a child who struggled to make friends, suddenly being planted in the middle of what seemed like the middle of nowhere was a traumatic experience, at least at first.

In truth it was hard for all the children – Peter had three sisters, Pamela, Shirley and Barbara – “all we knew is that we were dragged away from our friends and from the cosy world we loved”. The shop struggled and Claude had to eventually go and work in an electronics shop, leaving Peter’s mother to run the shop.

Meanwhile Peter was struggling at school, only finding his niche in plays and amateur theatricals. He passed one ‘O’ Level and even managed to fail CSE Level Woodwork, “my teacher, in his state of shock, said ‘all you had to do is recognise wood’.” Intoxicated by the Summer of Love, and inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s album Alice’s Restaurant, Peter embraced the hippie revolution, learning guitar and piano and wearing a kaftan that his mother had made for him out of old curtain material.

He went back to school and upped his ‘O’ Level tally to three, but left after one year of the Sixth Form. When Peter told the careers master that he was thinking of a career in acting, “he looked at me the way you might look at someone who’s expressed a desire to grow wings and fly.” Undeterred Peter researched possible drama schools, while also developing his musical talents (he would later write and perform the theme songs to the TV shows Button Moon and Mixed Blessings). He took any work that would pay the rent, including stints as a mortuary attendant and dry cleaner press operator, eventually winning a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1969. At his audition Peter was asked why he’d left school after just one year of the Sixth Form.

“To experience life,” he replied, thinking on his feet.

“And what did you do to experience life?”

“Became a mortuary attendant.”

Peter came out of drama school with the motto “never do a soap opera”, something he’s managed to stick to over the years. His first professional job was at Nottingham Playhouse, as an actor and assistant stage manager. (Peter- who was born Peter Moffett- adopted the stage name Davison to avoid confusion with the actor and director Peter Moffatt, with whom Peter would later work on All Creatures Great and Small)

Peter had married his long-time girlfriend Diane Russell in 1973 but they divorced 2 years later, after Peter embarked on and affair with American actress Sandra Dickinson, when they both appeared in a rock musical version of  A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Peter wrote some songs for Sandra, which didn't register on the chart, but EMI were impressed enough by a demo tape he'd sent them to offer Peter a song-writing contract. For £500 a year he'd have to write 15 songs. He never took up their offer.

"It was a bit like that Groucho Marx thing- I didn't want to be a member of any club that wanted me as a member. Anyway, it was a bad deal and the money was rubbish, so I suppose I thought if EMI was interested, I was good enough to do better than that."

As it turned out, his acting career was taking off with a role in the ITV series Love for Lydia, followed by the part of Tristan in All Creatures Great and Small. The role would not only make Peter a household name, but it would also help him to overcome the crippling shyness that still afflicted him.

At first, though, the old anxieties surfaces. How could someone from Streatham play the brother of Robert Hardy, who was descended from landed gentry. And when Christopher Timothy breezed into the rehearsal room, took one look at Peter and joked,"too tall, recast", Peter was convinced he would not last very long in the series. 

As it turned out Tritram become a firm favourite with viewers and the role was quickly upgraded so that Peter became a regular feature in the show. He even found himself absorbing many of Tristram's characteristics into his public persona, a useful device to overcome his shyness in interviews, This had its downsides however.

"When I look t old interviews on YouTube, I don't even recognise the voice of the person speaking" he says now. So completely did Peter allow his alter-egoo ti tale over that he would turn down parts that would have been perfectly suited o his lower middle class background simply because they did not fit in with his 'posh' public image.

So when, in 1981, he was offered the lead role of Doctor Who, Peter's first reaction was that it was a "mad idea". "I grew up with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton and they were the older Doctors, avuncular figures. I don't think I've ever been offered a part where I've thought 'I'm right for this''. Nearly every part I've ever done, I've though I'm completely wrong and I'm going to get found out. I has no idea what I was doing but by the end, I think I was quite comfortable in what I was playing"

Peter stayed with the show for three years, it did not seem to suffer from the curse of Doctor Who- being forever typecast- and after leaving enjoyed success with A Very Peculiar Practice and Companion. By the end of the eighties, however, his marriage was starting to disintegrate and Peter entered into what he now realised were the wilderness years.

Peter and Sandra had married in 1978 and had one daughter, Georgia, who was born in 1984, but although they presented a public facade of the affluent, TV couple living in heir big house in Berkshire, peter had started to feel suffocated by Sandra's controlling attitude.

"in the past, I was drawn to people who decided things for me. In a way, I was happy to go along with it, and that was a flaw on my part.

"Sandra decided where we went and what we did,. It was just easier for me to be told what I was going to do. But then I realised that it's not the way I want things to be. It' got to the point where I thought: 'I cannot go on like this- I have to leave.

"I just wanted out, I wanted to it to be over. I'm amazed it went on for as long as it did" he recalls in his book.

Very soon after leaving Sandra,Peter had no money, was living in a one bedroom flat and, for the first time in years, had no work to keep him going.

"I think people just got a bit sick to death of me- not the viewers, it was the people who made the programmes. I think probably parts came in and they would say 'what about Peter Davison?' and then 'no, we see him in everything'. There's no doubt I went slightly out of fashion.

On top of struggling to find roles he was being pursed by Sandra for £30,000 in maintenance payments and faced the prospect of jail if he did not pay up/

After a battle in the courts he won a stay on the payments and gradually things picked up for him.

Peter was offered a part in the TV series At Home with The Braithwaites- which, along with A Very Peculiar Practice, Peter regards as some of his best work- and, most importantly, met writer and actress Elizabeth Morton, the person who would become his third wife.

Elizabeth moved in with Peter and sold her flat, the proceeds of which went towards Sandra's divorce settlement. They also had two children together and married in the summer of 2003. Both children, Louis and Joel, are actors, Louis having appeared in the 2016 film Mrs Peregrine's home for Peculiar Children.

Georgia was also carving out a career for herself as an actress, appearing in The Bill for seven years, before carry o n the family tradition and appearing in an episode of Doctor Who as, appropriately, the Doctor's daughter. The episode proved auspicious in other ways too, for as a result David Tennant, the then current Doctor, started asking Georgia to go out to the theatre with him, as Peter recalls "She said David Tennant keeps asling me to go to Shakespeare, I think he's trying to get me interested in Shakespeare' and I said 'have you thought about the fact that he like you?' and she said 'no, no, it's not that'.

"Her logic was 'he's David Tennant, he could have anyone If he wanted to ask me out, he would just say, come out with me'. He was incredibly slow- I think they had gone o several thatre shows over three months so he persevered and then one day she rang me up and said 'I think we might be going out'."

David and Georgia married in 2011 and have, to date, given Peter four grandchildren. So what;s it like having another Time Lord for a son in law?#

"He's a charming man so I suppose in a way I'm a but more intimidated by him. But we get on fine. I've always been uncomfortable generally dealing ith male company- I don't know why- perhaps it's just because I@ve got three sisters. i don't have the sprt thing, I can't join in that conversation."

Now reincarnated thanks to his recent roles in Gypsy and the Monty Python musical Spamalot, as an unlikely song and dance man, Peter hopes that he has provided some kind of inspiration to his children and grandchildren.

"They can look at me, pictured in sci-fi magazines, immortalised in six inch high figures with articulated limbs, and in various re-runs on any number of cable channels. and think with some confidence,- if he can do it, anyone can"

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