“These are the perils of working from home,” mutters David Tennant, typing into his phone, filmed by his computer and watched, bemusedly, by me.
The 49-year-old actor has been texting, intermittently and apologetically, throughout our Zoom call. One of his five children (aged 18, nine, seven, four and eight months) has returned to school, and it seems pickup arrangements have been miscommunicated.
Tennant’s correspondent – I assume it is his wife, Georgia – is messaging from inside the house; Tennant is in the garden, his long lockdown locks pushed back into a Beckham-style headband. Over yonder, he gestures off-camera, a homeschooling lesson is under way: “I came outside to avoid the maths.”
Yet Tennant seems to have embraced the realities of home life, with two BBC projects drawing on his experience of raising a family. In the meta, of-the-moment series Staged, he and Georgia play versions of themselves in lockdown in their Chiswick home, while There She Goes (which returns for a second series tomorrow) captures an oft-unspoken truth about parenting, says Tennant: that “it’s sort of a slog”.
Coupled with doing interviews from his garden – Tennant tips his camera to show me Myrtle the cockapoo, flopped at his feet – it offers a surprising glimpse into the family life of an actor who has previously been reluctant to reveal any of it.
“We’re not quite as squeamish as we were,” he agrees, not least because his eldest son, Ty, is now also an actor. “I don’t think we’ll ever be sharing pictures of our children in Hello! magazine, but I think a lot of that comes from an insecurity about being uncovered or invaded. The longer you’re together, the less that feels like a threat.”
Tennant met Georgia (then Moffett) in 2008 on the set of Doctor Who – her father is a former Doctor, Pete Davison. “As our relationship was born out of people trying to stick lenses through windows, it’s taken us a long time to slough off that residual nervousness about sharing anything.”
These days, their guard is low enough for Georgia to post on Instagram a shot of herself breastfeeding – and to rail against Mark Zuckerberg when the image was removed by Facebook for breaching community standards (“I’ll come round there and squirt you in the eye”).
But, Tennant adds: “It’s still important to us that the characters in Staged are not us,” “David” being “more pathetic” than Tennant and “Georgia” more indulgent of him. “We’re not telling the actual story of our private life.”
There She Goes, however, he praises as scrupulously honest. The comedy stars Tennant and Jessica Hynes as parents of a child with a severe learning disability, based on the experience of the writers Shaun Pye and Sarah Crawford with their daughter, who was born with an extremely rare (and still undiagnosed) chromosomal disorder.
Tennant plays Simon, the character Pye based on himself: a loving but somewhat hapless father, always out to foist young Rosie on to his wife so he can head down the pub. Tennant says he tried to catch Pye out on set: “I’d go: ‘This bit we’re doing today – that didn’t really happen, did it?’ And everything is true.”
The first series was widely praised for refusing to sugarcoat the realities of parenting and marriage, while still finding moments of sweetness. Hynes won a Bafta for her turn as Emily, Rosie’s harried but devoted mum who, in a low moment, admits to struggling to love her newborn.
Simon, meanwhile, leans on booze and dark humour. There She Goes can be an undeniably uncomfortable watch. But the dual narratives of each episode – switching between a challenging but joyful time for the family and a more desperate early one – provide relief and perspective.
Tennant considers the series a mainstream comedy. Yet there had been trepidation within the BBC about how it would be received, he says, “because it lacked a certain sentimentality and political correctness – there was a real fear”. He disdainfully recalls a journalist at the press launch playing devil’s advocate, warning of a coming “shitstorm”: “He said: ‘You are going to be destroyed for putting this on television.’ We all hoped he was wrong – but we feared that he might be right.” And this was after the huge critical success of the police drama Broadchurch, which might easily have convinced Tennant he could do no wrong.
The casting of a non-disabled actor as nine-year-old Rosie – who is non-verbal, with the mental age of a toddler – was one sensitivity, says Tennant. The possibility of casting an actor with a learning disability had been explored, he says, “because, of course, that’s a live issue and one that has to be rightly unpicked”. But the demands of the role were found to be too great for a young actor with a disability. “Anyone who appreciates the kind of challenges that a child like Rosie would have doesn’t doubt that it would not really have been possible.”
Miley Locke, who is now 11, was “an incredible find”, says Tennant, praising her as nimble and uninhibited in a challenging role. Locke has met Jo, on whom Rosie is based, and has “an incredible capacity to find the truth of that character”, he says. “She’s also very game – I’m endlessly having to pick her up and fling her about and yank her around …”
Any parent will identify with “that constant sense that you’re falling short”, he says – now, perhaps, more than ever. A scene in which Emily tries desperately to work in the face of Rosie’s demands has taken on new relevance during lockdown. “Well, quite,” says Tennant, while texting in response to the latest news from Georgia. “Erm. Sorry …”
A big part of the challenge of shooting Staged was finding moments when the children were “either asleep or quiet”, but Tennant counts himself as “phenomenally fortunate” to have had the work, given how acting has been affected by the pandemic. This October, he was due to appear in CP Taylor’s play Good; that now seems unlikely.
Even when theatres are able to reopen, Tennant does not foresee audiences flocking back, “to sit there watching three hours of Chekhov as someone coughs all over them”. The impact on British culture could be catastrophic, he fears, even for institutions such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s a huge bill just to keep those buildings running … We could be left with a cultural scene that’s vastly changed, and that’s a huge part of who we are as a nation.
“Even if the theatre is of no interest to you, even if it feels like an elitist playground, it’s places like that that all the other creative industries feed off,” he says, adding that the arts make a significant contribution to the UK economy – nearly £11bn in 2016, more than agriculture.
Tennant’s career first developed in theatre. As a teenager in Paisley, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he became one of the youngest students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Even as his work in television and film has taken off, Tennant continues to be a regular on stage, especially with the RSC.
It faces a “titanic problem” in the pandemic, he says, having furloughed 90% of its staff. Government intervention is needed to support theatres until they can reopen, he says, but he is sceptical of it materialising. “If one felt more inclined to trust this government, one might relax, but they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory thus far.” In fact, since I spoke to Tennant, the government has promised the arts and heritage sectors a rescue package worth £1.57bn, which the playwright and funding advocate James Graham described as “surprisingly ambitious”.
A longtime Labour supporter, Tennant appeared in an election broadcast in 2015 before becoming disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (to summarise various diplomatic responses to interviewers). Asked if he was a fan of Corbyn in 2017, he said he was a fan of the party – although its ambivalent position on Brexit (which Tennant has called a “shitshow”) was a sticking point.
Before last year’s general election, he said he was not even sure if he would vote for Labour. He did – to return Ruth Cadbury to her Brentford and Isleworth seat: “And, also, what was the actual alternative?”
He admits he found Labour’s defeat and the postmortem “disappointingly predictable”, although he still struggles to fathom how so many red seats turned blue. “How do you go from ever being a Labour supporter to supporting Boris Johnson?” he asks, dumbfounded.
He expresses some limited sympathy for politicians handed a pandemic when they thought they “were only going to have to talk about Brexit”. “But if you choose a cabinet purely to surround yourself with people who won’t disagree with you, you’re not necessarily getting the greatest brains in the country,” he says, although a caveat is quick in coming. “One might postulate, were that to be the case, and I’m not for a minute suggesting it is …”
Last year, Tennant singled out Michael Gove’s call for “enough of experts” as a “political lowpoint”. That attitude has had deadly consequences during the pandemic, I suggest. Now the government is “hiding behind them”, he agrees – “selectively, of course. If the experts then say: ‘We told them not to do that,’ suddenly they’re evil again.”
He shakes his head in despair. “Ugh! It’s a very sad state of affairs. Remember when there used to be clever people? When you look back on David Cameron and George W Bush with some kind of sentimentality, you think: ‘Jesus – how low have we plummeted, when they look like better options than what we’ve got currently?’”
Under Keir Starmer, Tennant says Labour “are looking a lot stronger”: “We’ve got a clever grownup in the room, which makes the other side look as ridiculous as they are. Let’s hope he can fulfil his early promise.”
Tennant has said he was inspired to act by watching Doctor Who at the age of three. When he was cast as the 10th incarnation of the Doctor, in 2005, he quipped that the first line of his obituary was written. Ten years since ceding the role to Matt Smith, Tennant remains as connected as ever to the programme, recording a new Doctor Who audio drama while in lockdown. “It’s a nice show to be associated with, because people feel kindly towards it,” he says. “You may not be a fan, but it sort of sits there in the cultural firmament. As a nation, I think we’re quite proud of it.”
Unlike many vehicles for British nostalgia, the malleability of the format has allowed Doctor Who to move with the times, he thinks. “It absolutely comes with all that nostalgic goodwill, but it also manages to live in the moment.
“It felt like a very different show in 2005 than it did in 1963, but it also has that link to the past – which is a positive, rather than preserving it in aspic in any way.” And the Doctor, defined by his (or her) kindness, a peaceful champion of the underdog, is “a wonderful character to aspire to. It’s about being the cleverest person in the room, not the strongest.”
Tennant, meanwhile, remains in his garden, the school pickup plan no more clear for all the messages sent back and forth over the threshold. “Probably would have been quicker just to go and have a conversation,” he says, cheerily. “But less fun for you, obviously.”
The second series of There She Goes starts on BBC Two tomorrow at 9.30pm