Peter Davison rose to fame as Tristan Farnon on the British TV series All Creatures Great and Small. I confess I knew as little of All Creatures as I did of Doctor Who, but like millions before me, I warmed instantly to James Herriot's fictionalized accounts of his veterinary practice during the Great Depression. But although, based on my affection for Davison in Who, I expected him to be excellent, I was still unprepared for the effect that Tristan, that "debauched choirboy" (as his brother calls him), would have on the series once he arrived on the midday train in episode two. Until then, the series is charming and winning, but -- befitting both the setting of the original stories and the era in which the TV series was produced -- a little sedate. Davison quickens the pulse. In a town filled with do-gooders, Tristan is the devil on everyone's shoulder, and Davison's presence and physicality -- the way he smoothes back his hair, or the cigarette forever tucked between his fingertips -- feels at once modern and timeless. He ignites the series. (It's the way the anti-hero, usually John Garfield, used to arrive late in the game in Warner Bros. movies of the '30s and disrupt the happy domesticity -- and you were grateful; you hadn't realized how tame the film had been until it acquired a little of that much-needed, ne'er-do-well energy.)
Davison could bring none of Tristan's detached amusement or mischievous irreverence to bear on Doctor Who. His Doctor is both more commanding and more trusting than Tristan Farnon: wiser yet more impetuous. There's precious little of Tristan in the Fifth Doctor. And just as you'd never mistake Tristan for the Doctor, you'd never mistake either for Davison in Holding the Fort or A Very Peculiar Practice or Campion, or a decade or two later, in Ain't Misbehavin' or At Home With the Braithwaites or The Last Detective. Watching Davison on Doctor Who gives a fair estimation of his skill, but not of his range.
Davison's Dr. Stephen Daker, in Andrew Davies' A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88), is particularly gratifying: the idealist swimming in a sea of academic piranhas -- a naive, neurotic delight. The series itself -- a black-tinged comedy about a university medical staff fighting for its life amidst professional rivalries, gender politics and budgetary cutbacks -- may not be as subversive today as it must have seemed in the mid-'80s, but it's no less fun. Although the key relationship is ostensibly between Davison and the blithely oblivious old-schooler Graham Crowden, I was more taken with Davison's playing opposite David Troughton, as the self-possessed Thatcherite eager to see the practice transformed into private consultancy. Troughton starred in the 1972 Who serial "Curse of Peladon" (it's overrated; he's wonderful), where he seemed like a character actor trapped in the body of a young leading man. By the time of Peculiar Practice, Troughton's features have caught up with the rest of him, and he's a gleeful devil in thick spectacles, while Davison -- during those same years -- has shed his own juvenile trappings and begun to embrace the new style of leading man that emerged as the '70s gave way to the '80s: the male prized as much for his sensitivities as his strengths. Troughton being the son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, whom Davison credits as the Doctor he most admired, watching the two of them go at each other is a visual brain-twister. I was sorry that I could only grab a few choice episodes of A Very Peculiar Practice on youtube and dailymotion; hopefully, the full series will be released on Region 1 DVD. But Campion and The Last Detective, both available in their entirety, gave me the opportunity to see Davison originate and develop some of his richest onscreen roles.
Campion (1989-90), from Margery Allingham's mystery novels, is an underrated set: better, to my mind, than most of the Agatha Christie adaptations that have crowded the small screen over the last few decades. Christie's novels, which prize puzzle over atmosphere, are too often done in by the stately pacing of the adaptations and the need to eliminate clues for reasons of time; the Allingham books, with their florid prose, practically beg for visuals. Davison only filmed eight Campion novels, and in the earliest ones (the more frivolous stories), the scriptwriters omit the "affable idiot" persona Campion adopts in his formative years to disarm his suspects. I can't fault them; it probably would have been annoying onscreen. But they don't give Davison anything to take its place, leaving Campion vaguely defined, and Davison opts for "enigmatic," a trait he does not wear well.
But once Davison settles in, once the plots get a little meatier and Campion a little more mature, he's as dashing and dynamic a hero as you'd hope. Of the eight adaptations, only the last one aired, "Mystery Mile," has little to recommend it: poorly cast, acted, adapted and directed. (As Allingham's first full-fledged Campion novel, and the only adaptation by series creator John Hawkesworth, you're left to wonder if it wasn't the first one filmed and the last aired, because the BBC realized how dreary it was.) But of the remaining seven, a good five do justice to Allingham's originals. Two of Jill Hyem's teleplays, one mystery ("The Case of the Late Pig") and one romp ("Sweet Danger"), are notably taut and spirited, and the best of the bunch, "Flowers for the Judge," adapted by Brian Thompson and vividly directed by Michael Owen Morris, who had helmed Davison's third-season Who adventure, "The Awakening," is as good a traditional mystery (in this case, of the locked-room variety) as any I've seen adapted to the small screen.
Campion is splendid, if at times slight. The Last Detective (2003-07), from the Leslie Thomas novels, is something more: the sort of role that more typically comes to a talented character actor late in his career, following years of ignominy, and catapults him to stardom -- and Davison makes the most of it. A detective instinctively juggling self-doubt, personal pain and keen deductive abilities, D.C. "Dangerous" Davies is one of Davison's most memorable portraits. There are a lot of Last Detective episodes I enjoy, and one scene in particular I haven't been able to shake. In Ed McCardie's "Dangerous' Liaisons," Davies is examining some 8 mm. film reels collected from a crime scene. They begin innocently enough (some home movies, barely worth his time), but in the final reel, the characters and setting change. A woman is bound and gagged, a man appears to be threatening her -- some sex-sadist flick, he presumes; he commits a few notes to paper, then his attention wanders. But something catches his eye: is the woman struggling to breathe? His posture changes, his eyes narrow, and he wonders: is he, in fact, witnessing a "real-life" snuff film? As the film grows more graphic, the director, the reliable David Tucker (who had helmed A Very Peculiar Practice) focuses in on Davison's face, and we experience the escalating violence solely through his reactions. At one point, Davison gives a start at something he sees on film -- and I jumped clear out of my chair.
Many of Davison's long-running roles operate like that -- they achieve startling results through subtle technique -- but I've also been impressed to see him unleashed in more traditionally bravura performances, including his well-remembered "mad conductor" scene in All Creatures Great and Small: "Out of Practice"; his drunk scene in the second part of Campion: "Death of a Ghost"; his welcoming speech to students in A Very Peculiar Practice: "We Love You, That's Why We're Here"; his departing speech to students in the pilot episode of Hope & Glory; and his gloriously moving breakdown in the first-season conclusion of Distant Shores, which had me weeping alongside him -- and then, when I rewound to watch it again, weeping once more.
(I'll refrain from lingering on At Home With the Braithwaites, the British comedy-drama in which Davison appeared from 2000 to 2003; it's terribly popular in some circles, but I couldn't get much past the first season. To me, creator Sally Wainwright seemed to be telling a very different story from the one she intended; she seemed to find her women admirable without ever showing us why, whereas the men, consistently given short shrift, seemed more sympathetic than she conceived, understood or acknowledged. Once I gave up on the series, I read a quick interview with Wainwright -- in which she admitted that she found women "braver and more complex than men" and noted, "I am just not as excited by men" -- that pretty much explained what I'd felt: she loved her women so much she forgot to give us any reason to love them too. But I will note that there's one blistering confrontation between Amanda Redman and Peter Davison near the end of the first season that's as good as anything I've seen Davison do.)
It should be noted that Davison remains a gifted actor who, like so many gifted actors, is not always the best judge of his own vehicles -- at least in terms of Doctor Who. His DVD commentaries -- his interviews, too -- are amusing, but his pronouncements are occasionally dubious. While everyone else is praising "Snakedance," he's fixating on the lights being too bright. (They aren't.) He thinks the second-season scripts were the weakest of the bunch. (They're not.) He finds his third season a great improvement over his second. (It isn't.) Most surprisingly, although he stated when he became the Doctor that he was determined not to play him as a superhero, several of the serials he favors most present him just that way: as a straight action-adventure hero, with a few of the subtleties or refinements Davison brought to the role. (He seems unaware how he redefined Doctor Who, leaving an indelible template for his 21st-century counterparts.) But none of that detracts from his work on Who, an accomplishment all the more tremendous when you consider how often he was basically acting alone.