Peter Capaldi: "I was an accident waiting to happen"
New Doctor Who Peter Capaldi, 55, recalls home-made flared trousers and burning the evidence of his former geekhood
My adolescence in the ’70s was a kind of motorway pile-up, and like any trauma comes back to me only in flashes: terrifying purple shirts and home-made flared trousers; vivid spurts of acute embarrassment as I hear my youthful self – cocky, ignorant, scared and courageous – attempt to navigate the course from uber-geek to punky art student and beyond, falling into every trap along the way. I have asked an older colleague who knew me at the time what I was like and he said simply: “You were like an accident waiting to happen.”
I wanted to be an actor, a painter, a rock star, a comedian, a film director. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I knew that I didn’t want to join the queue of depressed-looking souls standing at the bus stop in the rain every morning. And when I eventually settled on the idea of being an actor, I had no idea how to get started.
Everything I read about actors seemed impossibly alien. They were Shakespeare-loving intellectuals who devoured books but were also passionate and ‘edgy’, constantly angry about something or other, spitting and shouting at each other in that actory voice. What was that voice? “Neutral,” I was told. Neutral? But it sounds like you’d have to swallow mugs full of Lord Byron’s saliva and inject Churchill’s cigar butt juice into your vocal chords to come even close to ballooning your own voice into that impossible sound. Neutral? No. It was Standard English. Even most English people didn’t speak it. What chance did I have, with my Glasgow accent and ice cream name?
At his best I would like the 16-year-old Peter. He’s pretty harmless, just a little confused by the world. He’s trying his best, even if he does make more fashion errors than is natural for a supposedly trained artist. He could be a bit braver. He could be a little bit wilder and not do any harm. He could try seeing more of the world. And reading some books.
I’d tell my younger self: worrying that you are crap is a waste of time. Worrying that you can’t do it is a waste of time. Worrying that you failed is a waste of time. No one cares. Just get on with it. I’d tell him to celebrate being different. In the end, my Glasgow accent didn’t matter. The fact I was different would provide me with the employment I’ve had.
I wish I’d known that one day the geek would inherit the Earth. When I was 16, geeks hadn’t been invented, so being tall and skinny, into horror movies and sci-fi and unable to play football simply made me the go-to guy for the sociopaths (some of them teachers) who wanted to practise their torturing skills on someone.
I destroyed all my geek stuff because I didn’t want to be a geek, and I regret it to this day. Consumed in the geek bonfire of the vanities was a collection of autographs and letters from Peter Cushing, Spike Milligan, Frankie Howerd, the first Doctor Whos, actual astronauts and many more.
The biggest challenge for my younger self will be dealing with himself. It’s the attitude that he brings with him that will define what he makes of himself. I’d tell him, don’t avoid the gifted, talented, hard-working or privileged because they frighten you – that’s a waste of time and the opportunity to learn something. Embrace everything. My mother said: “If you fell in the Clyde you’d come out with fish in your pocket.” I’d like him to learn sooner that luck will not be enough.