Peter Davison has played some iconic parts in his time, not least his incarnation as the fifth Doctor Who, but now he is stepping into the shoes of a legend, playing the all-singing, all-dancing King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot. He spoke to Jo Fletcher-Cross about how it feels to be part of the silliest musical in the West End…
Doctor Who is one of those roles that an actor gets associated with for the rest of their lives. What is interesting about Peter Davison, though, is that so many different people seem to remember him for different things. Of course, his time as the cricket-white wearing Time Lord brought him legions of fans, but he had become a household name before that, playing Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small. Later in his career he played another doctor, this time a more earthbound one, in his role as Stephen Daker in A Very Peculiar Practice. He played the lead in period detective series Campion and then later created the role of David Braithwaite in At Home With The Braithwaites.
There is, however, one thing that Davison has done in his career that I am very excited about, and it is not one of his best-known achievements. When I tell people my age about it, they instantly get excited and want to know more. So here it is, the fact that thrills us all so much: Peter Davison wrote and recorded the theme tune to Button Moon.
I realise that to some people, that means nothing, but anyone who was small between 1980-88, when the series was broadcast, will be able to sing you the theme tune (“We’re off to Button Moon, we’ll follow Mr Spoon…”) and reminisce about Tina Tea-Spoon and Eggbert. I am lucky enough to know one of the creators of Button Moon; to then be able to speak to the person responsible for that iconic music just makes me feel like I have the best job in the world. Davison laughs when I tell him about my Button Moon obsession. “I’ve written a couple of other songs, not just Button Moon, though oddly that strikes a note where the others don’t.”
Fortunately, he is not put off by my enthusiasm for children’s television; indeed he seems to share it to some extent. “Doctor Who was arguably children’s television though it was never made by the children’s department,” he says. “It was always made by the drama department, but it obviously appealed to children.” He hosted the ITV children’s storytelling series Once Upon A Time for its first three years in 1979-82, but apart from that and Doctor Who, he has stayed away from the genre. He can see the appeal of producing work for children, though. “It does hold the advantage of being able to imprint yourself on their minds,” he muses, “so when they get older they still remember you.”
His role as King Arthur will introduce him to an audience which will certainly include older children, as well as a large proportion of adults who will know him from his television work. He seems very happy to be part of such a funny show, and being a Monty Python fan can only be helpful. He was 18 when the Pythons first began to impinge on the national consciousness. “I was one of those sad people who could recite all the sketches,” he remembers, “and I know all the references.”
He is keen to impress that Spamalot’s comic tale of the search for the Holy Grail is not just a show for Monty Python obsessives. “It goes beyond that, because I think anyone would enjoy it who came along,” he enthuses. “Some of the audiences we get are more Python audiences and some of them are fairly new to it. I mean, the audience we had on Saturday night, the moment that certain characters came on, like the Knights who say Ni, they know what’s coming, others don’t. But it still entertains.”
“I think this is about the only musical I could ever star in”
It has been a while since Davison has been on stage in the West End. The last time was playing Amos in Chicago in 1999, a role he enjoyed, though his offstage time was not so much fun. “Weirdly, what I remember of that job is mainly just these big boring sections where you’re off stage and you’re twiddling your thumbs until the next entrance.” That certainly is not an issue in this show. “You don’t get a chance to do that in Spamalot, you start the show and then you’re just there.”
< He openly admits to being nervous before he opened in Spamalot, something that is quite understandable given his fairly lengthy absence from theatre. “The first couple of days were a bit kind of…well, hairy, from my point of view,” he laughs. “They went quite well, actually, but there’s a fair degree of panic, more when you come off about when you’re coming on again. ‘What do I do now? What the hell is the next scene?’ But I’m getting used to it, it’s amazing how quickly you settle in.”
Keen to do more theatre – “You feel like you need to keep your hand in” – he is not sure that another musical is the way forward. “I think this is about the only musical I could ever star in,” he says. “I’m still taken aback when I come on and take a bow at the end of the curtain call as the star of the show, I think a lot of my friends and family would laugh – well, have laughed – hysterically at the idea of me starring in a West End musical. It’s not really what I would have imagined myself doing.”
Davison’s roles have often involved playing the straight man to great comic effect, which is perfect for his part in Spamalot. “My main song is very funny, not from me actually, I’m doing it fairly straight,” he agrees, “but what’s happening elsewhere on stage makes it funny.” His self-deprecating humour comes forth when he talks about his musical theatre talents. “The focus fortunately is not entirely on my singing,” he laughs. “I sing a song and a half, I do a bit of a dance routine, and that’s about the top end of my ability, I think.”
“I have to say, once you get over the initial nerves, it’s not a bad job”
We discuss the new casting of the Lady Of The Lake, which is to be decided by a reality TV show called West End Story, in Sweden, of all places. He seems about as bemused as I am by the thought of it, but then an idea seems to strike. “I can’t help feeling that there’s some Spamalot-type Eric Idle twist to this,” he chuckles. “I must admit I think all those casting by television programmes are slightly suspect.”
His Spamalot contract is for three months, initially, but he is having such a good time at the moment, he doesn’t know how long he will stay. “I know that quite a few of the people in it have been in it for quite a long time because they are having such fun doing it.” He thinks for a moment. “I just don’t know how long I will do it at this point. I have to say, once you get over the initial nerves, it’s not a bad job.”
As ‘not bad’ as his stint in the West End is, he has an even better idea for what to do afterwards. “They appear to be opening Spamalot around the world, so I thought maybe I could just tour the world.” He laughs heartily. “It’s in Vegas – what’s wrong with that?”