By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
He defends the streets of Whitechapel; has battled the Alien beside Sigourney Weaver, tried to bring hell on Earth in Being Human, fought the tenth Doctor and Donna in Pompeii and is part of the cult that is Quadrophenia. Today in the wake of the end of Being Human we talk to the legend that is Phil Davis on his career, Whitechapel and what it was really like behind the scenes of Alien3.
TW: Phil, first of all thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us, it’s truly an honour. Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into acting?
PD: Oh that’s a long story. I come from an ordinary working class family and was bought up on a council estate in Essex. Somehow by the age of nine or ten I had got it into my head that I was going to be an actor. We didn’t go to the theatre or the cinema, so this was before I had ever seen a play. I could read out loud comfortably and I liked showing off so maybe that was the beginning of it. This idea of ‘being an actor’ stuck in my head and became a sort of obsession.
At Secondary school I started doing the school plays and joined all the Amateur Dramatic societies. The more I did it the more I fell in love with it. But it was very complicated. I was aware of course that most theatricals did not come from backgrounds like mine and I was not a prodigy. I didn’t bag all the best parts in the school plays or the local youth theatre. I struggled through my teens with the idea that maybe I was kidding myself. With a few exceptions, my teachers at school did their best to discourage me. My parents didn’t discourage me but couldn’t help really, it was outside of their scope. I think they were worried that I was going to end up terribly disappointed. So it was a tortuous few years. I did get into the National Youth Theatre which was encouraging, along with two other boys from our local youth theatre group but my first two seasons I didn’t shine, I was keen as mustard but not given anything much to do.
In my third and last season with the NYT I was given a good part in a Peter Terson play called Good Lads at Heart. I got a couple of good notices in the London papers and foolishly left school when I should have been studying for A levels, got a job in the coffee bar of the Shaw theatre where a new professional theatre company was being formed by the NYT management. I hung around waiting to be snapped up. It didn’t happen. Also I’d burned my boats. Grants were available for Drama school students back then in the early 70s but they did require academic qualifications to bag one. So drama school was out. Then one day I answered an advert in the Stage newspaper and got myself an audition at the theatre Royal in Stratford E15, run by the legendary director Joan Littlewood. I got the job. I was off. Terrific luck, she worked in such an idiosyncratic way that my lack of training was a positive advantage. She liked me. I stayed for a year. My first professional job as an actor.
On his early days: “I didn’t bag all the best parts in the school plays or the local youth theatre. I struggled through my teens with the idea that maybe I was kidding myself.”
TW: You’ve done several historical roles, Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House, have you a passion for these types of dramas?
PD: Not particularly. I am a Dickens fan, I love the novels, but for me it’s all about the characters, Dickens wrote brilliant characters. Even the small supporting cast in Dickens provide with th reader with specific characteristics and individuality so they are great to play. Smallweed in Bleak House was a gift from heaven. Incidentally I think the reason Bleak House was so successful was that they gave it time, fifteen half hour episodes, it’s a huge and complex novel, you can’t dramatise it into a two or three hour mini series without filleting out what is special about it in my opinion. But I wouldn’t claim to have a special passion for dramas set in the past. I wish contemporary dramas were as rich and interesting.
TW: You appeared in Alien3, were you a fan of the previous movies. Was it a hard shoot or did you have a blast doing it?
PD: I did enjoy the previous movies, especially the first but I had mixed feelings about taking it on. It’s always a frustration playing a small part in a big budget American film, it’s rarely fun. I had spent several months doing a fringe theatre production in London, it was a great success but there was no money. I needed to earn some dosh and Alien 3 coming along was perfect in that respect so it would be churlish to complain. Our band of convicts were called in to Pinewood studios every shooting day, about whether we were likely to get on camera or not, we went mad with boredom, there were card schools, chess clubs, scrabble competitions. The atmosphere on set was fractious and unpleasant, a lot of money was at stake and Fincher was making it up as he went along, story changes, script changes, every day. One character found out, (having shot all his best scenes) that he was supposed to be educationally sub-normal. It was difficult not to laugh. So not much fun, but lucrative.
On Alien 3:”The atmosphere on set was fractious and unpleasant and [David] Fincher was making it up as he went along”
TW: What sort of things influenced you growing up?
PD: It was so long ago it’s difficult to remember. In truth the major influences were not theatrical. I was a Beatles fan (obviously), I liked The Stones, The Animals, The Pretty Things and American Blues Bands Some jazz artists. Lots of different kinds of contemporary music spoke to me. I remember discovering the ‘Mersybeat’ poets Roger Mcgough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten and finding these opened the door to other poets, I found and loved Ionesco along with some Pinter sketches. US films of the 70s, actors De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman. And the British New Wave, Albert Finney, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, early Ken Loach. Casting around. Whatever we could get. I was desperate to be an actor and I knew I would not be a traditional ‘actor laddie’ type, so I was always drawn to anything new or avant garde, the offbeat, but in working class Essex in the late 60s it seemed like everything interesting was happening elsewhere.
TW: Have there been parts or shows you would love to have been in but never had the chance?
PD: Oh, yes. Of course. I’ve had a great career but there’s a lot I’ve not done, never got near. I’ve never been in a Shakespeare play, or Chekhov, Ibsen, nothing classical at all. I wonder sometimes how I might have measured up against a couple of ‘great’ roles. The grass is always greener. A couple of film roles floated towards me then went elsewhere. One of the things I learned though, when I’d got going as an actor, was to let things go. I never got bitter and twisted about the stuff I missed out on. I got on with the stuff that came my way and determined to make the very best of every opportunity. I wish, in a way, that I’d done more theatre over the last twenty years, there offers and opportunities but I chose a different route.I think of myself primarily as a screen actor. I still love it.
TW: Lucius in Dr. Who, did you visit the Tardis, was it a happy set?
PD: Yes. It was a happy set. Nice people, very welcoming, David and Catherine were very nice. I looked at the Tardis. Good fun but hard work. The climax was shot in a quarry in Swansea, in the middle of the night, in October and I was wearing a toga, no thermal underwear possible, freezing! My kids were very impressed that I was in a Dr Who, gained a lot of cred, they don’t usually take much notice so that was nice. Actually I found it quite difficult. I had to be very serious, earnest, bashing on with cryptic dialogue while David quipped and gagged around it. Did my best to make it work but not my finest hour I fear. Tried my best.
On influences: “I was a Beatles fan (obviously)”
TW: You’re also a writer and director…
PD: Well I haven’t directed anything for nearly 12 years. In the mid 80s I wrote a stage play and put it on myself at The Old Red Lion pub theatre in Islington, North London. It did well and I started to wonder if there might be a film in it and so I wrote a screenplay. Eventually the BBC picked it up for its Screen 1 strand of one off films (this doesn’t exist anymore – great shame) and much to my surprise they let me direct it. It was well recieved and played at the London and Sydney film festivals before it screened on the TV. Suddenly I had another career. I spent most of the 90s juggling my acting work with directing assignments. I never found the time to write. It was stressful and complicated. A film or TV mini-series can take up almost a year if you’re directing it and about six weeks if you’re acting in it. But it was a heady and exciting time. I loved the directing but the politics of raising money for a project and dealing with financiers is never easy. On ID, one of my feature films, we had seven different sources of finance, seven different sets of executives all wanting a say in the final cut. One of the things I found was that when I went on to an acting job after directing something it was with a sense of profound relief, all I have to do is play my part, to take responsibility for that part of it. It freed me up. I became a better actor for having directed. I had a clearer idea of what the camera was doing but it was more than that. I was more relaxed. More confident.
I feel that the directing part of my career is probably over but I do have one project, a film, I’m trying to raise some money for. But I’m primarily, first and foremost an actor.
TW: How did Whitechapel come about?
PD: No big story. They offered me the part. I’d worked with Rupert Penry Jones some years before on North Square, the legal series for (UK channel) Channel 4 set in Leeds and we had become friends. When he read it he reccommended me to the producers and they told him I was already top of the list. So we were off.
I didn’t think it would lead to a long-running series. It was a one off-mini series about a psychopath replicating the crimes of Jack the Ripper. I didn’t see how you could sustain a series of this kind and of course we couldn’t. We had to change the format. We would have run out of copycats. I think it’s found a form now that could run and run. The two-hour stories, all with some link to the past. Whitechapel is a strange beast. It’s where the cop show and the horror movie meet. An interesting place to be. Pull the curtains, double lock the doors and have Whitechapel scare the pants off you. Lovely! We are shooting series four now and it keeps developing. Even more Gothic and scary this new one!
On Doctor Who: “The climax was shot in a quarry in Swansea, in the middle of the night, in October and I was wearing a toga”
TW: What, for you makes, Whitechapel work so well?
PD: I’m not sure that I know really. Some things catch people’s imagination and some don’t. I think the horror movie part of it gives it an edge, it’s sort of preposterous but that doesn’t matter, people like to be scared. I think also, from speaking to people, that the relationship between Miles and Chandler is key, chalk and cheese, very different but a good combination, a good chemistry. The new series will be more of the same, but hopefully bigger and better.
TW: How do you find meeting fans face to face? Are they a bit wary of you in case you do a Miles on them?
PD: The Whitechapel fans may be nervous but I get recognized from quite a wide variety of work. There are the Quadrophenia freaks, even though it was hundreds of years ago, the Mike Leigh fans, followers of Silk etc etc. Actually, I don’t get bothered very much, people say ‘hello’ and ‘well done’ and that’s gratifying. It’s nice when people seem pleased to see you but it has never been a problem. I’m not shy, I don’t mind stopping for a brief chat. Every so often people seemed shocked to see me, ‘you’re off the telly’ they say, as if I live in the TV and have escaped into real life, but mostly it’s very nice to be appreciated.
TW: Right now you’re The Devil in Being Human. Did you have to audition for that role and how does one play Satan without slipping into cliche?
PD: I didn’t audition. It was a straight offer. Toby Whithouse, the writer, was familiar with my work and wanted me to do it. He’s not quite the Devil in all his glory at the beginning of the series. He’s reduced, trapped in the failing body of an old man (what made them think of me?) only when he sets the vampire and the werewolf against each other does he begin to regain his power. He is vicious, spiteful, with a sort of distilled contempt for the world and everyone in it. I didn’t worry about cliche. I didn’t seek out and watch any other screen devils. I just got on with my version. I made him as disgusting as I could, make-up painted veins in my face, blackened my teeth, put wax in my ears. It was fun. Then when he rises he sort of gets younger, turns into a dapper and mischievous imp. He is funny. Except that he’s set on destroying everything that is good in the world. Enormous fun. I tried to play him with relish.
On life: ‘Every so often people seemed shocked to see me, ‘you’re off the telly’ they say, as if I live in the TV and have escaped into real life, but mostly it’s very nice to be appreciated.’
TW: Do you enjoy the horror roles?
PD: I’ve played more bad guys than good ones. Something about my face perhaps. But of course I enjoy them. There have been some nice characters. Stan in Vera Drake, Graham in Births, Marriages and Deaths, Maloney in Rose and Maloney. But the monsters, the pyschopaths that come my way are very enjoyable.
TW: Aside from Whitechapel what else is coming up?
PD: There’s a film called Borrowed Time due for release this year. I’m very pleased with it. Google it online and find out about it. It’s worth a look. Tiny budget, made under very difficult circumstances but done with love and a good piece of work. One of the ironies of my work is that often it’s the less populist stuff that I am fondest of. I did a monologue last year called Double Lesson. It went out without much fanfare in a documentary strand called First Cut and rather disappeared without trace. It’s about a schoolteacher coming up to retirement who loses his restraint and attacks a pupil. It may well be the best thing I’ve ever done. You might find it on Youtube. Keep trying. Double Lesson with Phil Davis Ch4. My other favourites are 20,000 streets under the sky adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s novels which was on BBC4 and garnered a small audience but is a nice piece and the Curse of Steptoe in which I play Wilfred Bamble the actor from the famous sitcom. Some of these roles break the mould for me, they are characters you would not normally assume that I would play, and I love them all the more for it.
TW: Phil, thank you very much!