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A Life in Time and Space
The Biography of David Tennant
By Nigel Goodall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2010 Nigel Goodall
All rights reserved.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
'I was convinced from the age of three that I wanted to be Doctor Who. Then when I discovered that Doctor Who doesn't exist I wanted to be the man who played him.'
(David talking about Doctor Who – 1996)
David Tennant is heartbroken. It was Sunday, 15 July 2007, and he had just watched his mother, Helen MacDonald, pass away from cancer of the colon after five years of battling the terminal illness. For an entire week, work on the Doctor Who Christmas episode was suspended while he returned to his native Scotland to be with his family and to attend his mother's funeral in Paisley, Renfrewshire.
As anyone who has lost a parent will know, it is during the service itself that proves to be the hardest ordeal. How many times have we wept uncontrollably, been unable to read the Eulogy, or get through a few words of love and affection for our loved ones? David was no different. Like anyone else going though the same horror, he found it especially difficult to mask his sorrow as he paid tribute to his mother. On several occasions, as he read passages from the same copy of the Bible that Helen had been given for her twenty-first birthday, and continued to read every night during her illness, he had to pause to allow time to compose himself.
Much the same as when he joined the congregation in singing the inspirational hymns that Helen had chosen. They included Henry Francis Lyte's 'Praise My Soul, The King of Heaven', which extols the eternity of creation and the brevity of human life. David was not the only one with tears in his eyes. Many mourners shared the same sadness, especially during the singing of another of Helen's favourites, Horatius Bonar's 'I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say, Come Unto Me And Rest'. But there was happiness, too, because Helen didn't want those who came to celebrate her life to leave the church downcast.
At her own request, the final hymn sung was 'You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth With Peace'. And, as the congregation sang the final lines of the chorus everyone in the church clapped their hands together to create the sounds of joy and happiness that Helen had so much wanted.
As David told mourners in his final farewell to his mum, 'She wanted this to be a service of celebration and it is easy to celebrate her life.' As he led his family from their seats in the front pews down the aisle to the vestibule to thank people for coming to the service, David's father, Sandy – a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – clapped his hands and joined the congregation in singing some of Helen's most beloved gospel hymns.
During the service, Sandy thanked everyone for supporting his family in their time of tribulation – especially the Rev Lorna Hood, minister of Renfrew North, where he and Helen had made their spiritual home after 'gypsying' round other places during his lifetime in the ministry, which took him to charges like St Mark's Oldhall in Paisley and incumbencies in Edinburgh and Bathgate. He also paid tribute to the staff at Paisley's Royal Alexandra Hospital, Charleston Medical Centre and ACCORD Hospice, as well as other carers who had looked after Helen during her long fight against cancer.
Helen's committal took place at a private service at Woodside Crematorium in Paisley attended by members of her family and close friends. During her life of service to her family and community, Helen, who was highly respected for her charity work, was chair of the Paisley Friends of ACCORD Hospice. She was also a volunteer for Arthritis Care, the WRVS, the Samaritans and elderly care charity Contact.
As well as bravely sharing the reading of the Bible passages with his brother Blair and sister Karen, David spoke of his great pride in living in the light of his mother, and being part of her family: 'I will always be proud of all that Mum did, and that she made the world a better place. I am privileged to have known her and received her love. Now that Mum has gone, the world has lost a lot of its colour.'
In fact, it was tragically ironic that not long before his mother's death, David had been talking about how her illness had set his priorities straight: 'You always know that's the order of things, but when you're suddenly faced with the thought that you might lose one of your parents, that's a bit of a moment; you're never quite ready for that. That's something you know you're going to have to face, but I don't think you'll ever know what it is [like] until you face it. You just can't.'
Ten days after the funeral, David sent a personal message to his official website in appreciation of the fundraising appeal the site had organised in tribute to his mother. In his online message David thanked everyone 'for all you are doing in raising money for the ACCORD hospice in Paisley which was such an important place to my mum. It is a fantastic and worthy cause and I can't commend it to you strongly enough. The care given there to seriously ill people is of the very highest quality and my family feel indebted to them for all they've done for us. At this difficult time I can't tell you what it means that you are doing this. Thanks to everyone who has been able to make a donation. I promise you, your money will be well spent.'
Just three days before he sent that message, David had returned to the BBC set (in Pontypool, Wales – about half an hour from central Cardiff), which again, was no easy task for him. The thought of having to return to work so soon after the loss of his mother and to pick up from where he left off must have been a daunting prospect. Although the loss does not appear to have affected his performance, still it must have been a struggle throughout much of the filming. Ashen-faced, clearly still mourning, he was reportedly comforted by his co-star Kylie Minogue. The diminutive Princess of Pop had only recently returned to public life after battling her own, well-documented cancer demons and so it seemed perfectly natural that she would empathise and do the best she could to look after and comfort her colleague.
According to an undisclosed source on the set, Kylie was really sympathetic. 'She knows how terrible cancer is and she took a lot of care to comfort David. His mother's funeral was only a few days ago and he is understandably upset. She told him she understood only too well how he was feeling and what he was going through. I think he needed some sympathy on his return to work and Kylie gave him that.'
The episode that David and Kylie were filming at the time of his mother's death was the BBC Christmas Special, 'Voyage of the Damned', which saw Kylie cast as a waitress aboard the Titanic. Despite dreaming of a better life, she was in need of some rescuing from a spaceship of aliens by the most popular sci-fi hero in the history of British television.
Two weeks earlier, pre-production of the Christmas episode had reached the point that comes in any production when the cast and crew are called on for a read-through of the script. Assembled in the Central Baptist Church on London's Shaftesbury Avenue, this would be the first time that David would meet Kylie and probably, like most, he must have wondered what she was going to be like, quite naturally perhaps, when some of the pieces written about her over the previous twenty years or so are considered. These include speculation about her bottom being made of Teflon, as well as numerous articles about how she had fought and overcome breast cancer and was almost unmatchable as a pop star. As any pop historian or music journalist is well aware, it's hard to think of another female recording artist that has become so well loved and has reinvented herself so often, with perhaps the exception of Madonna.
In fact it was Madonna, probably more than Kylie, who was David's favourite. Obsessed since childhood, his crush on her is still much the same today as when he first set eyes on her as a teenager. 'She's quite extraordinary,' he confesses. 'When I was fourteen, the first single I ever bought was "Like A Virgin". She was kind of my sexual awakening. I had some full-on posters of her on my [bedroom] wall.' But Kylie was still a favourite and he was delighted to have her on board Doctor Who, even if it was just for a one-off: 'It's very exciting to have her on the show. She's part of our national consciousness, isn't she? She's as big a legend as Doctor Who itself, if not bigger, so it seems like a nice meeting of icons for Christmas Day.'
Kylie was taking over from the Doctor's previous companion, Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman, who had in the final episode, 'Last of the Time Lords' (broadcast on 30 June 2007), decided to stay on Earth so she could look after her family and finally qualify as a medical doctor. She gives the Doctor her phone so they can keep in touch and says she will see him again, but when someone is in love and it's unrequited, they have to get out, and this was Martha's way of getting out. The Doctor sets the Tardis controls, until the room is suddenly shaken with great force, and the bow of a ship smashes through the console room wall. Picking up a lifebelt, he discovers it is a lifebelt from the Titanic, to which he can only respond with disbelief.
Like Agyeman, who was, according to David, a delight and great fun to work with, no one could imagine Kylie ever being awkward or difficult either, but that still didn't suppress thoughts of exactly what the real star might be like to have around. Would she be nice, or would she be dull? Would she be a prima donna or even a little eccentric, perhaps? Even if she vaguely resembled any of those descriptions, no one among the Doctor Who cast and crew, and especially Benjamin Cook, writing for the official Doctor Who Magazine, could imagine her having 'a hissy fit and throwing her diamond-encrusted microphone at a roadie,' noted Cook in his article 'Star Girl' in the then new-look issue of the magazine that was on newsagent stands just five days before Christmas.
According to David (and as he told Radio Times when they caught up with him for their Christmas 2007 edition): '... everyone got very twittery when we heard that Kylie was coming in. At planning meetings there were all sorts of members of the art department explaining why they had to be on set. The very prospect of Kylie coming in got everyone very overexcited. Then she arrives and is refreshingly normal and fun and easy, and none of the things that I suppose a big pop diva has the right to be. She just gets on with it and is lovely to have around. I don't want to speak for her but I think she quite enjoyed being part of a team. I imagine it must get quite exhausting being your own brand. When she came in, she was just part of the gang, which hopefully was a nice thing for her to do.'
In person, Kylie is stunningly beautiful, but as anyone who has ever met her will make a point of telling you, she is tiny, and even if you are prepared for just how tiny she is, it's still a shock when you stand in front of her and stare at her famous face. True, all the trademark features are present: the disproportionately large cheekbones and teeth, the crystal-clear blue eyes and the acrobatic right eyebrow that has long been one of her favourite tools of seduction. But with no make-up, no studio lights, she comes across as being simply girl-next-door and pretty rather than the glitzy image portrayed in a seemingly endless array of glamour magazine photo-shoots. Of course she is best known for her singing career, with 10 studio albums, 2 live CDs, 7 live concert DVDs and over 40 singles released internationally. All of these have been hits and have sold over 40 million records worldwide. Her first professional gig was as a child star, aged eleven, in the Australian television series, Skyways, eight years before she embarked on a career as a recording artist. After her seventeenth birthday, she left school to take up acting as a full-time profession.
By the time she reached adulthood, she had won five Logies (the Australian equivalent of the BAFTA) – the youngest actress ever to do so. Her character, Charlene, in Neighbours, back then Australia's highest-rated TV show, made Kylie a household name and she was the most popular actress ever to have come out of that soap and indeed, perhaps the most important phenomenon to have come out of Australia itself. And today, as then, her warm-hearted nature and zest for life clearly comes across and she seems impossible not to like.
Five minutes after Kylie arrived at the church hall, everyone was sitting round a table. Jane Tranter, head of BBC Fiction, started off proceedings by giving some positive feedback about the legend that was Doctor Who and how it had turned television into an art form. Like any read-through, whether for film, television or theatre, the cast took turns to introduce themselves to everyone: to say who they were and what role they were playing.
Kylie was taking the part of Astrid Peth, a waitress aboard the Titanic, who would end up as the Doctor's new assistant for 70 minutes on Christmas Night 2007. The name Astrid, coincidentally, whether on purpose or by accident, was an anagram of 'Tardis'. In many ways, Kylie was playing an equally significant role as the Doctor himself. Significant, that is, when you consider the variety of roles that the Doctor's assistants have assumed over the years: from involuntary passengers, to disciples, friends or, simply, fellow adventurers. Indeed the Doctor gains new companions and assistants with almost every new series. There are some he has lost because they have returned home, or found new causes, or loves, on worlds they have visited; and then there are others, such as Kylie's Astrid, who end up dying during the course of the series or episode.
The story of 'Voyage of the Damned' picked up from where the previous series had ended. Moments after the Doctor leaves his companion Martha Jones behind on present-day Earth, the Tardis collides with the bow of the famous ship. But, as the Doctor and viewers quickly discover in the first five minutes of the Christmas Special, it isn't the famous Titanic – the historical passenger liner that struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage, on the night of 14 April 1912 and sank, 2 hours 40 minutes later, in the early hours of the following morning. Indeed no, the Titanic in 'The Voyage of the Damned' is a starship operated by an alien cruise line, currently enjoying a voyage to Earth to experience the Christmas holiday.
Venturing on board, the Doctor meets several of the alien tourists, and Kylie's Astrid, who is serving drinks in the entertainment lounge just before the ship is devastated by a meteor shower that threatens the lives of everyone on board, and indeed on the planet below. The Doctor hooks up with Astrid, and the other survivors, stranded in the crippled craft, to battle against saboteurs and robotic angels, armed with killer halos, in an attempt to divert the Titanic's collision with Earth. As might be expected with any Doctor Who episode, it's a race against time as the Doctor and his companion lead a small, brave and somewhat strange band of survivors through the devastated vessel.
It probably helped the development of the storyline that Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies loves disaster movies. He had, in fact, been a huge fan of the genre ever since he was snowed in during the winter of 1981, with only a copy of The Poseidon Adventure on VHS: 'This was in the days when a VHS was rare and exotic. I've always associated those films with Christmas because of that, but they're great templates. Battling against the odds, with epic scenes of death and mayhem all around ... what could be more Doctor Who? Meshing that format with the Doctor's world was fascinating.'
Equally fascinating is the story of how Kylie came to be cast in the first place. Much of it appears to have been down to her creative director, stylist and one of her closest friends, William Baker. William (or 'Will', as she calls him) is, '... an absolute huge fan of Doctor Who. We're talking a convention-goer here! Even before its recent revival, I was always hearing about it.' Baker attended the press launch of Series Three in London on 21 March 2007, and on this occasion, according to Davies, he said how marvellous it would be to get Kylie in Doctor Who. The writer admits he just nodded over his glass of wine and thought, 'Yeah, yeah, not in a million years, but then he phoned up the next day and he meant it.' And to all intents and purposes, that is how Kylie ended up being cast.
Her new role was first reported in the News of the World in April 2007. Davies initially dismissed the story, but Baker and Kylie contemporaneously confirmed she would star in the show. Her part was officially announced on 3 July 2007. Both Kylie and Doctor Who had acknowledged each other before: 'The Idiot's Lantern' episode mentions the star as being a real person and William Baker included aspects of the classic series in Kylie's concert tours: the Raston Warriors from 'The Five Doctors' episode during the Fever tour and The Cybermen from 'The Tenth Planet' episode in her Showgirl tour.
Excerpted from A Life in Time and Space by Nigel Goodall. Copyright © 2010 Nigel Goodall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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