SFX Issue 88

March 2002

Interview:

Paul McGann

The famously publicity shy actor breaks his silence to SFX

In reality Paul McGann reminds you of an older, more content Marwood, his character from Withnail And I. What angst is there is carefully controlled. This is Marwood stabilised by middle age and a 2.4 domestic set-up. But “The Fear” is still there.

“My first instinct when I go into a room is to be schtum in the corner,” he confesses, contrasting himself to his wee hyperactive mate and fellow Time-Lord, Sylvester McCoy, “and he’s like, ‘Where’s my light?’ I think the audience will have to adjust slightly because it’s me.”

What, adjust to seeing a genuine screen star in front of them as opposed to fading Casualty bit-part actors? Not a particularly daunting challenge.

And for those fans now jaded by years of continually retold tall-tales, there’s not a little anticipation to finally hear new anecdotes being told. But McGann is no Ned Sherrin in his love for the age-old “theatrical anecdote”. “One of the pains in the arse about being an actor is that you’re often expected to have a load of anecdotes up your sleeve,” he light-heartedly grumbles. “It’s quite frightening. I’m not like that in the slightest. I’m not an anecdote-y type person.

“Also,” he adds, “my tenure [as the Doctor] was only five weeks. There’s only so many anecdotes that one could mine from five weeks in Vancouver without being a boring arse.”

He’s forgetting Big Finish, the company behind CD Doctor Who , who, in an unexpected coup, secured McGann back into the role a few years back. For many, it cemented McGann as a bona fide Doctor in their minds, with the stories setting him up with such implacable Who icons as the Brigadier and the Cybermen. McGann claims he’s up for more. “I enjoy them because there’s something very familiar about them,” he says. “It’s always good to do radio stuff. It’s a laugh. It’s not that pressurised and it doesn’t really involve learning anything and you can dress how you like. Also you’re there with a group so you can spark off people and have a good time. It’s like a little rep company.”

When Big Finish announced they had tempted back McGann, the news was greeted with stunned incredulity. McGann’s silence on the subject of Doctor Who since 1996 had given fans the erroneous impression he was somewhat embarrassed by the role. But that silence and that absence from the convention stage had more to do with McGann’s fierce sense of privacy.

“I’ve always been a fairly private individual,” he confesses. “I like a bit of mystique. It’s a bit old-fashioned. I always thought that the less people see of you, the better. I’ve never even done a chat show. The way I figure it is that people like us work hard enough to be convincing in the role that we’re playing and if they see me on Richard And Judy or on the bed with Paula or in every paper, it detracts slightly. I’d prefer they knew as little about me as possible.”

Since leaving Doctor Who six years ago, McGann’s heard nothing about the various rumours of a revival (“I’ve never spoken to anyone officially about Doctor Who and about what’s happening”) but he seems excited by League Of Gentlemen man Mark Gatiss’ proposal to exhume the show. “He’s got a name,” he enthuses. “He’s well respected and he’s lovely to work with and he knows about it! You need someone to champion it.”

But would he return? “I’d play the role again, yeah,” he says simply. “The scripts would have to be good. It’s pointless going back to doing anything if the scripts are a pile of poo.

“On the movie, [producer] Philip Segal and I talked a lot about the script and the possibilities of the thing running as long as it may have done, which could have been five or six years,” he states. “When I finally decided to accept the role I said to him, ‘Listen, this is how I see things’. That was the most palpable disappointment when it didn’t work out. We felt like something interrupted us.”

Of course, any era of Doctor Who can never be judged by one outing, especially scene-setting stories like the TV movie. You work and learn and things grow, and it’s clear McGann feels cheated by only having one telly outing as the Doc.

“When we did it it was pretty functional,” he sighs. “But then it was a pilot. It never really took flight. It was alright, but it was there having to perform pilot functions. But a year down the line, I was confident that we would have gone in such a lovely direction. There are so many possibilities…”