Most TV celebrities divide opinion. The more popular they become, the more opinion is divided. There are few things the contrary British enjoy more than turning against once-loved heroes at the moment they peak; once the proletariat has got the message, it’s time for the smarter, more selective of us to move on, painfully aware that any new talent we herald on the way up is likely to be desecrated on the rocks of middle-brow populism if success is achieved.
At which point it is our job to refer to that person as a sold-out, washed-up, lost-it loser. Used to be funny. When did he get so annoying? If Carlsberg did backlashes, they’d come to the UK to do them.
David Tennant is the exception. He’s in an exclusive club, comprising David Tennant and Miranda Hart, whom almost no one, except those with a severe personality defect, hates.
Despite his insistence that he’s never been remotely tactical – “I just trundle along and try to have a good time as I go” – he has enjoyed a career more finely balanced than a circus seal’s ball, managing to appeal simultaneously to children (Harry Potter), armchair guardians of quality drama (United, Blackpool, Casanova), lovers of smart comedy (stints in The Catherine Tate Show, voiceover on Twenty Twelve), devotees of The Bard (his Hamlet, and As You Like It’s Touchstone were rapturously received) and fans of global humanity (star turns in Comic Relief and Children in Need).
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
And, of course, striding across his career like a grinning, all-embracing, island-uniting Gulliver is his Doctor Who, adored by all camps except those so small and perverse we can without conscience discount them (they hate Chris Hoy, too, for being ‘too upbeat’). He’s even ridiculously likeable when he’s just being David Tennant – smart, funny and self-deprecating – in interviews. In short, he has the popularity contest sewn up.
Which must mess with the head of that other David desperate to be loved, Call Me Dave (first mistake right there) Cameron, one of the very few people on the planet the eminently affable Tennant has had a go at. But more of that later.
Film is the only actor/presenter’s medium Tennant has not conquered and it’s to promote another hopeful step towards putting that right that he’s on the phone this morning after a nightshoot for his new ITV detective series, Broadchurch. Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger isn’t going to win him a Bafta but it should send most of its audience, with the possible exception of the Hoy-haters, out of the cinema with a warm fuzzy belly.
A follow-up to the surprise 2009 hit, Nativity, which starred the now fully Hobbitised Martin Freeman, Nativity 2 sees Tennant play the part of two twins – anxious primary school teacher Donald and world-renowned composer Roderick – who become rivals in the National Sing a Song for Christmas competition, the first leading a bunch of mucky-faced pre-pubescents, the other the posh choir of St Cuthbert’s College.
I’d never done anything that was improvised before. But it’s good to scare yourself sometimes
In terms of plot twists, it’s not Inception, but the joie de vivre generated by Tennant and his manic sidekick Marc Wootton, whom Tennant describes as “a completely unique creation, both in life and onscreen”, makes for a highly watchable Christmas movie.
“I saw it as a fairly terrifying prospect,” he says, rather surprisingly. “There was no script, no dialogue. I’d never done anything that was improvised before. But it’s good to scare yourself sometimes. I’d watched the first film and just thought, this is completely beguiling.
“And when I met Marc Wootton, who plays the extraordinary Mr Poppy [Donald’s classroom assistant], I realised I was going to be okay. He has such a free-wheeling brain, I thought if I just hung on and kept up it would be okay.”
He describes himself as “a sucker for Christmas”, but when I ask him about his own childhood Christmases, he’s uncharacteristically tongue-tied. He “can’t think of any specific rituals” he enjoyed as a boy and is reluctant to be drawn on which old family traditions he’d like to carry on with his own children, his 18-month-old daughter, Olive, with new wife, actress Georgia Moffett, and her 10-year-old son, Tyler, whom he’s now adopted.
Tennant is famously guarded about his private life, having once explained: “Relationships are hard enough with the person you’re having them with, let alone talking about them in public.” However, he was happy to talk about the pleasure of Christmas at home in Paisley when I last interviewed him, in November 2006, when he was revelling in his plans to “get home to my mum and dad”.
Maybe his head was woolly after that nightshoot, but it’s also likely that, since the death of his beloved mother, Helen, in 2007 – he spoke movingly at her funeral, saying “Now mum has gone, and the world has lost a lot of its colour” – the subject of childhood Christmases has become more difficult to talk about with the brio he brings to discussions about everything else.
He’s certainly more animated about politics. The son of a Church of Scotland minister and a locally popular charity worker, Tennant has nailed his colours to Labour’s mast by fronting advertising campaigns for the party and recording an introduction to Ed Miliband’s speech at the party’s conference in October. For him, right and wrong is clear-cut and he’s pretty sure which party has it wrong.
“I don’t understand people who vote Tory – they’re a complete mystery to me. Lots of people do it, and I’m sure some of them do it based on deep-held instinctive belief, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t understand how you can be alive in the world and have the experience of being a human being and not have empathy for other people who are in a less fortunate situation.
I don’t understand people who vote Tory – they’re a complete mystery to me
“How can you not want a society in which everyone has a chance and as few people suffer as possible? It just seems so obvious to me. You could say that dispute is part of the rich tapestry of human experience, but I’m mystified by people who hold any other viewpoint.”
(He is less enthusiastic about Scottish independence, as the referendum on separation comes closer. “It would be very strange to have to present your passport to come over the border,” he says. “I think the world is getting smaller, it doesn’t need to be splintered any further. But it’s not for me to have an opinion on because, sadly, I don’t count as a Scottish person any more.”)
Frank Skinner once said if Jesus were alive and voting today, he’d vote Labour (I told Tennant that – he liked it a lot). Dedicated followers of Doctor Who might ascribe a similarly left-leaning bent to their philanthropic messiah (don’t snigger at the back, there are many who love the Doctor with the same fervour as evangelical Christians love JC). This might be why David Tennant was such a perfect fit in the role, and still regularly tops polls for most popular Doctor, despite having left the show three years ago.
His combination of intelligence, wit, energy and genuine compassion – his emotional, indignant film about Ugandan children suffering with malaria almost melted down the Comic Relief phone lines last year – made him seem like a real-life example of the ‘brain over brawn, kindness over cruelty’ superhero. The Doctor was a role he says he had coveted since he was a small boy. But now that the dust has settled, does he still miss it?
“I don’t think there was a single moment that was too shaky,” he says. “I left feeling like it had just been a rare and heady time. I never got bored, it was never a chore. I left feeling incredibly good about it and I haven’t really paused to take stock. It’s still something I’m recognised for pretty much all the time and something I’ll forever be proud of.”
In one of his very last lines on the show he stopped what he was doing, a look of fear and sadness fell over his face and he shouted “I don’t want to go”. That was about more than the Doctor facing regeneration, wasn’t it?
“Aahh,” he pauses. “I think that was a very clever line. It absolutely made sense in terms of character – that’s exactly what that version of the Doctor would say. So it didn’t break the fiction. But at the same time it was a bigger line than that. It was partly Russell [T Davies] expressing how he felt about leaving the show because we were all leaving together.
“We all felt it was the right time to go – we’d given it all we could – but at the same time we all knew there would be nothing else we’d ever do that would be quite like this. You might have real success doing something else, you’ll work on other things, but whatever happens this is unique. There’s nothing else like Doctor Who. In the world. So yes, it was a bittersweet goodbye.”