Actor Peter Davison: Adventures with a Time Lord through Surrey
PUBLISHED: 18:27 01 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:29 12 April 2018
As Richmond-based actor Peter Davison looks back on a successful career that has encompassed everything from All Creatures Great and Small to Doctor Who, here he chats to Angela Wintle about life on and off the small-screen – and his love for the Surrey countryside
Peter Davison often pinches himself when he stands on Richmond Bridge and takes in the idyllic view. “On a hot day, there are boats and people lazing beside the river and it’s almost like being at a classic seaside resort in the middle of London,” he says. “When I gaze at that view, I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to live here.”
However, Peter, 65, who is fondly remembered for playing the iconic Time Lord, Doctor Who, and the lovable rogue Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small, hasn’t always felt as fond of his adopted county.
“In 1961, when I was ten, my parents moved from Streatham in south London to the village of Knaphill, near Woking, to fulfil my father’s unexpected ambition to run a local grocery store – a strange choice given his training as an electrical engineer in his native Guiana,” he laughs.
“It left his family bewildered. All we children knew was that we’d been dragged away from our friends and the cosy world we loved, and plonked in the middle of nowhere. It turned out though that Knaphill wasn’t quite the middle of nowhere – it was a thriving little village bordering a tract of unspoiled common land that shouted out to be explored – and, best of all, my family was now living in what was essentially a sweet shop.
“Sadly, my father’s dream of becoming a shopkeeper proved to be a financial black hole, and after struggling to pay the bills he went back to work in the service department of an electronics shop in nearby Woking, leaving my mother to run the grocery business, a job she was unsuited to in every way. She hated the shop as much as I loved it. It made no money, possibly because I spent a good deal of time stealing sweets after closing time.”
Peter had no burning desire to become an actor, but he discovered his job prospects were limited after attaining disappointing exam results. At one point, he was an aspiring songwriter and in the 1970s his material was used on an album by Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five. He also endured a brief stint as a hospital mortuary assistant before auditioning for stage school.
His breakthrough came in 1977 in the classic BBC drama All Creatures Great and Small, although the auspices were far from good. At the audition, Peter accidentally spilled coffee over his script and pretended he was at ease around animals, despite not knowing one end of a cow from the other. Most daunting of all, however, was the prospect of working with the distinguished actor Robert Hardy, who was to play his brother Siegfried, the practice’s bombastic senior vet.
“Although Robert was charming at the ‘meet-and-greet’, taking my hand and saying what fun it was all going to be, I couldn’t help wondering how long his goodwill would last when he discovered the dashing ladies’ man who was supposed to be playing his brother was a secondary-modern schoolboy from Streatham. I convinced myself they’d made a terrible mistake in casting me.”
As it turned out, the series proved a roaring success, attracting 19 million viewers at its peak. “I think it was successful because it was a lovely, gentle story that also had a solid veterinary base – it didn’t just become a soap opera,” he says. “I still feel enormous warmth towards the series and the cast.”
In 1981, Peter went on to become the fifth Doctor Who, taking over from Tom Baker – and, at 29, he was the youngest actor at that time to play the role. Back then, he says, the series wasn’t the flagship show it is today and there was no budget for special effects. “We were very much a stock programme, even though Doctor Who was sold to 39 countries and made the BBC a lot of money.”
After a boom time in the 1980s, Peter’s television career foundered temporarily – mainly, he believes, because casting directors felt he had been overexposed. Nevertheless, he doesn’t blame Doctor Who – despite calling his recently published autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs. “It was a difficult time because it also coincided with the break-up of my second marriage to actress Sandra Dickinson,” he adds, “and I subsequently ran into financial difficulties.”
Salvation came in 2000 when he was offered a lead in the ITV comedy drama, At Home With the Braithwaites, about a dysfunctional family that wins the lottery. His personal life also took an unexpected turn when a friend introduced him to his future wife, writer and former actress Elizabeth Morton (or Lizzie as she’s affectionately known in the family). “She’d expected me to be a public-school-educated stuffed shirt; I imagined she was probably a prim and obsessively tidy actress. We were both about as wrong as it’s possible to be.”
When their two young sons, Louis, 17, and Joel, 15, came along, they moved to Richmond in 2001 and married two years later, throwing a huge reception at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, “with more friends than we ever knew we had, all with their fingers crossed, thinking – third time lucky”.
Settled in Surrey
Today, Peter feels very settled in Surrey and can’t imagine leaving the county again. “I first settled in Richmond in 1964 with my first wife Diane – in a house halfway up Richmond Hill, just above the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory,” he says. “When I married Sandra and needed a larger house, we moved to Woking and later Weybridge.
“Now I can’t imagine living anywhere other than Richmond. At weekends, we love walking our miniature schnauzer, Stanley, along the river – and invariably stop at a café en route. I also adore the Surrey countryside. I used to play for a celebrity cricket team at Shere and Abinger Hammer, so I’m especially fond of the rolling hills near Godalming.”
Peter is also a keen supporter of local causes. He is a patron of Richmond Theatre, where he has performed a few times, and has become a newly-appointed ambassador of the town’s Orange Tree Theatre, dubbed London’s only permanent theatre-in-the-round, where both his sons took their first acting steps.
“Before my last-ditch stab at acting, my family had no history of entertaining,” he says. “Now things are very different. Georgia, my daughter with Sandra, became an actress, and is married to the actor David Tennant (who coincidentally became the tenth Doctor Who), and they have four children who will probably all do the same. My eldest, Louis, has a regular part in Holby City and my youngest, Joel, is also determined to be an actor.
“I’d like to think I’ve been an inspiration, but I’m not so sure. Without a grand plan and with very little ambition, I’ve ambled through my career, pausing occasionally to look at the view, only to discover that where I was standing was exactly in the right place at the right time.”
Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs by Peter Davison is published by John Blake at £20
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Tide Tables Café in the vaulted arch beneath Richmond Bridge has a warm and friendly atmosphere, and they serve great coffee and light lunches. I’m not a food connoisseur, so I’m perfectly happy eating at Pizza Express – and there’s a very nice one in Richmond!
Shop: The Open Book in King Street, Richmond. I love the informality of this charming independent bookshop – it’s delightfully higgledy-piggledy and the proprietors really know their stock.
View: As a resident of Richmond, I’d have to say the famous view from the top of Richmond Hill, where you can look down and see the iconic bend in the River Thames.
Spot to relax: I have a favourite seat along the Thames at Richmond where I love to walk the dog. It’s the perfect place for people-watching.
Place to visit: Kew Gardens. We love strolling among the lakes, ponds and gardens. The café is perfect for relaxing and the kids loved the play areas when they were younger.