Fantastic Universes Exclusive: 8th Doctor Paul McGann Live From MCM Comic Con London
Interview by Steve J. Ray, Adam Ray and assorted members of the UK TV and sci-fi press. Transcribed by Steve J. Ray.
Paul McGann is one of Britain's most beloved actors, and part of a family of successful and well respected acting talents. He first came into prominence in 1986 TV drama The Monocled Mutineer before wowing audiences alongside Richard E. Grant in Withnail And I. He's also played Mark North, a recurring character in the critically acclaimed British crime series Luther, which starred Idris Elba.
Paul has numerous film credits to his name having appeared in several feature films, including David Fincher's Alien3, where he gave an outstanding performance as Golic, a deranged inmate of the prison planet.
To sci-fi fans worldwide, though, he is - and always will be - remembered as Doctor Who. He first took on he role of the Eighth Doctor in 1996, and he reprised the role in the brilliant mini-episode "The Night Of The Doctor" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series in 2013.
Even though he's only appeared as the doctor twice on television he also made an appearance in the hilarious anniversary spoof "The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot" and has starred in dozens of Big Finish audio adventures as the Eight Doctor for over 17 years, starting with "Storm Warning" in 2001.
Fantastic Universes had the extreme good fortune of attending an exclusive round table interview with the man himself at the 2018 MCM London Comic Con. He is a warm, friendly, passionate and talented man. The answers he gave us were well thought out, and not what many of us expected.
Adam and I sat in the press room with fellow journalists, chatting amongst ourselves. The room went silent when he walked in, as he genuinely has gravitas and presence... and that oh-so distinctive voice.
As he entered, he was talking to one of the event organisers:
Paul McGann: It's a song called "Internationale." International song of the workers...
... talking about the workers! Hello!
(He points to the table and chair at the front of the interview room) Do I sit there?
Wow, this is like a press conference! Shall I do a scowling one, like Jose Mourinho?
(Large round of "No, no", head shaking, and laughter).
Press: Is there a universal (consensus) that all Doctors agree on that's the best thing about being the Doctor?
PM: I think, doing these shows... because these are the times that you meet the people that you make the thing for; and it's sociable, and it's funny. I'm not saying they all are, some of them don't quite work out. But when they're as well run as this, and you can hear yourself talk and we get a chance to meet the people. So... that's the buzz.
I suppose for us, as actors, it's the feedback. Quite simply you're in a room with the people that love it like you love it. So, what could possibly go wrong? That's the best bit!
If you're an actor and you're doing theatre the feedback's instantaneous; you can talk to people in the bar, you know... and that's great because everyone likes talking about their work, or well most of us do. With Doctor Who, for example, or say you were in Star Wars or whatever, you're meeting the people that you make it for.
That's the best thing. There's no other thing. That's the only thing.
In a recent episode (Rosa) there was a lot of talk on the fan forums that it was "Too P.C." What was your take?
PM: I didn't see it. With Jodie Whittaker? That was the third of the (series)? I saw the first one where she was introduced, and I've got the other two saved on catch up. God, I've got to get home! I haven't been home yet. I don't get home 'til Sunday, so no spoilers! Don't tell me what happens in it! I can't answer your question, because I haven't seen it.
That was Arsene Wenger, wasn't it?
(Raucous laughter from the whole room).
I didn't see it! From where I was sitting, how could I possibly see it?
Should Doctor Who, and Sci-Fi in general, be political? Or has it been that way from the beginning anyway?
PM: The fact is, it's a drama. It's a TV drama, isn't it? With the stories you're going backwards and forwards in time, different eras. You're making stories, like all the best stories - and like the best sci-fi stories - often many of them end up being morality tales. There's only four or five ways to tell a story, and Doctor Who works best when... look at the first one where Jodie came down; for me there was something nice and old fashioned, and familiar about it. The Doctor sorting out a bit of stuff on Earth, between good and bad...
By extension, I think you can hardly not involve yourself in politics. I think there's a difference between matters that have a political aspect, and party political politics. Doctor Who should never be party political... there's no need. Why should it? That would date it quicker than anything.
What's universal about it is that most of the stories, from any era... look at it right from the beginning with William Hartnell; there's politics in everything, there's politics in all of the stories. Doctor Who had a family - politics begins there.
If you go out and you're trying to sort out crime, and good and bad, and villains... you're gonna get involved in politics. I agree that there's no need for it to stray into party politics... but it never has, has it?
If some of the stories end up getting involved in Earth conflicts, war and stuff... then I'm sure, as a writer you'd have to be careful. You wouldn't want to take sides. But again, I haven't yet seen the episode that you mentioned, so... I hope that they handled it with tact.
(The panel and writers comment about the episode and how great we all thought it was).
I've heard very good things about it, I've heard people raving about it.
Interviewer: So far this series has been on fire, actually.
PM: I think she (Jodie) is!
Press: She is brilliant.
From the moment she arrived I thought that she nailed it. Any of us that has played the Doctor has had to do that same thing... I'm talking about the first episode where it's necessary that you arrive and you go, "Oh... I've just woken up" and "I don't know who I am!"
(Laughs and agreement all round).
Everyone has to do that same thing. She did it beautifully, and she got through it quite quickly, and then was into her stride real quick. She's obviously a superb actor. I'd love to meet her, I've never met her.
Press: I've met her and she's beautifully bonkers, which I think is essential.
PM: But she's technically deft as well. As another actor watching her, she's doing things immediately and you're going, "Wow. She's just great."
Look how (Peter) Capaldi started, Matt Smith started, even (David) Tennant himself... who's a very confident actor, if you went back to their first few (episodes) they're feeling their way in... it's just the way it is. You're stepping into something that other people have done before you - which is a little bit of pressure anyway - and she didn't seem to have any of that! She just seemed to... dive in. With humour. That was the best way.
That's kind of what you had to do. You've had in many ways the toughest job... you had to nail it, and you're still remembered as the Doctor, which means that you did nail it, and everybody enjoyed it.
PM: I had a weird job, I think. I suppose that in '96, when we did that telly pilot... that was almost a double weird job. It was meant to get a series off the ground in the States. There was that huge departure. If it had been successful and a series would've gone on, I'd have belonged to them for six years, and we would've made the series in North America... so the Doctor would have moved lock, stock, and barrel to North America.
It didn't happen, which is why we got Matt Smith, and David Tennant and all the others since... but it was a strange pressure given that (seven) years before they'd got rid of Doctor Who, in '89.
The fans still existed, it had been on for twenty-odd years... the chief remit, the job of this pilot was to find an American audience - which they were convinced existed.
It seems mad to say that now, because that's where it is! That's where Doctor Who is... in North America. In the mid 90s they were convinced, and presumably they didn't watch in sufficient numbers that it made the ratings that got it to a series.
I suppose we had this dual objective of trying to appeal to this new audience, trying to educate them in the thing, while not putting the noses out of joint of the people back home, so to speak, who'd followed the thing for twenty-odd years.
Adam Ray: With that entry into trying to break a new audience, plus being aware of this huge body of work that had come before... what were the things that you felt were really important to get that character started?
PM: That's a good question. We had a pilot to make. Even had it been successful, the pilot would probably still have been distinct from what followed, because it's almost formal. You're having to say that this is this, and I can almost remember conversations that the "Grown ups" were making, the producers saying, "Look we need five things... five iconic things that we've got to make sure that we include." They were having to do it by numbers, almost.
If you've watched Jodie Whittaker's first (one), of course there's a pressure to introduce new faces... the first (episode) of anything is what it is. Then you can get into your stride after that. We never got further than that.
Of course there were ideas that I discussed with them, "We come back in October, and we do this, that and the other" ways that, over the years, we were gonna play character. In this TV pilot, which they now call "The Movie", for reasons (unknown), we had to say "We've got to do this, you've got to do that"...
Of course you had to have the regeneration, that had to be there, and then certain aspects of the costume, and the look. Things that you say, and things that you do, and how we finish it. We had to play it straight... plainly it wasn't enough.
Adam Ray: I imagine they gave you a lot of prompts, but do you remember any of the things you specifically wanted to put into the character?
PM: When Phil Segal (executive producer on the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie) was responsible... it was mostly his energy, I think that's probably fair to say. He got the companies together; it was Universal, Fox and the BBC, he got me to do it... he wore me down over about a year, because I didn't want to do it. By the time he persuaded me to do it, it was mostly by dint of our having sat down and talked, and him selling the idea to me.
For example; the year before, when there'd just been rumours that Doctor Who might return, "Have you heard? Eric Idle's gonna come back, he's gonna be the Doctor... in America", or Rowan Atkinson. At the time they were names, and I thought, "Oh God yeah, I could see that." Well, you sort of could, because it was within keeping, with say what (Sylvester) McCoy had been doing.
Segal had seen me on the telly with my brothers in this period thing, and I was dressed as a priest from the 1840s in this long dark frock, with the long hair and he's gone, "Who's that kid?" because I looked like his idea of the Doctor. So now he's trying to persuade me to do it.
Initially I was like, those guys you're talking about; Eric Idle and the like... they're all proper comedians, and they're this and that... and I don't do that, that's not what I do. And he's gone, "I know, I know!"
(Paul's said this with a perfect Philip Segal voice, and accent. His impersonation of the TV producer is uncannily accurate, as the laughter from some of those in attendance demonstrated).
So we had these conversations. Like most actors I'm going, "No, I think he's dark." Actors are always saying that, they go for the darkness. Phil's just nodding his head going, "Yep. O.K. we'll have dark." He's letting me hang myself.
(More laughter all round).
And I ended up doing it. So, in answer to your question, what probably would have followed, or what certainly would've followed, because I was more taken with the idea of the Doctor as a kind of, not a fugitive, but he's left his home planet, he can't go back... something has happened. There's been a schism, and he's travelling, and he's itinerant and he's a voyager. He's melancholy, and of course he's also got a human side. That half human thing was more contentious - I didn't know that at the time - but not as contentious as when he kissed the girl! And I found that out.
So Philip said, "No, no. We want a dramatic actor", which is what I arrogantly purported to be, "That's what we want." So, as has been proved since, that's what he is. Jodie Whittaker, Matt Smith, first and foremost it's just a really solid, lovely actor. That's what you need.
Have you played the Withnail And I drinking game?
PM: (With a look of shock and horror on his face) Do I look like the kind of person who has a death wish?
(Lots of laughs)
That would just be insane, wouldn't it? Have you ever played it? I've heard of people trying to do it.
Press: A friend of mine is trying to convince me.
PM: Don't do it! Why would you want to? You'd get twenty minutes in, if it's even twenty minutes, and that's before the lighter fluid enters the picture...
Press: We're talking about substituting that with vinegar.
PM: That's what Richard (E.) Grant did, that was what was in the tin. But that means you've already got past two pints of cider, and two large gins... you're gonna be $#!+ faced then!
And you're only twenty minutes in, aren't you, and you've still got an hour to go! And you haven't even got to the red wine. What... are you trying to kill yourself? Why would you want to do that? I think it's nuts... crazy.
It's at this point, dear reader, that to our shock and dismay a member of the press embarrassed himself. Anyone who knows Doctor Who knows that the Eighth Doctor is one of the shining stars in the Big Finish firmament.
Big Finish began releasing full cast audio Doctor Who audio dramas in 1999, and they continue making them to this day.
Paul McGann joined the company in 2001 and has made some of the best loved stories in the range. One of the gentlemen asking the questions came in clearly not knowing this, and asked Paul whether he'd consider reprising the role of the Eighth Doctor for Big Finish.
To his ever lasting credit, even though the rest of the room was cringing, Paul McGann stayed professional and talked about his work for Big Finish. While the rest of us were laughing and/or shaking our heads in disbelief. Paul remained stoic and professional.
That's been my whole career. The Eighth Doctor... on screen I've been Doctor for about an hour and a half, in twenty-odd years. I've done the pilot we were talking about and the six minute thing ("The Night Of The Doctor"), and that's it... but I've done a hundred-odd Big Finishes. That's where the Eighth Doctor lives. He lives on audio.
To talk about the question from before, particularly about what me and Phil Segal had talked about in terms of the character of the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor - the one that I was going to do - most of that we've put that into the audio plays. All that sort of dark stuff, the melancholy voyager, whatever it is... it's all in there.
I'm going back next week, I'll go back and do some more... and that's just been continuous. I've been doing them since (2001). That's been 17-odd years.
Press: Do you approach acting on audio differently to TV or film?
PM: Not really, no. It's storytelling... you don't have to learn the lines, thank God! You can read it out.
When we make the Big Finishes, generally there's a big studio that we use in West London. They've purpose built these wooden isolation booths, so seven or eight of you can work in the room at the same time, and there's glass in them so you can see each other. But you can all be on different channels, so you can see them all shouting there heads off! We can all look each other in the eye, it's great! It's a great way of working.
So no, it's the same. You approach it the same... except you're freed from having to pull all the right faces.
You know, if you were on the telly, that's what telly acting's all about, you've got to pull the right faces.
If you would have got the American show, if you could pick two or three actors from the past or present, from Hollywood to be assistants, who would you want?
PM: To be assistants? That's a good question. Louise Brooks... maybe I'll pick two women and a fella. Louise Brooks, Karen Black - you're looking at me now blankly...
(Laughter from everyone)
You can Google them after I've gone... Karen Black... I'm telling you... (with a cheeky glint in his eye, followed by more laughter from us). You'll thank me later...
And a fella... how about, I was gonna say Cary Grant, but he'd be too good for everybody... he'd be the best thing on it. Who played little Caesar? In the silent movies... who was that? Arghh, what's his name? Edward G. Robinson! There you go, Edward G. Robinson... he'd be the best, man. He'd be fantastic. Tell you what, he'd give Bradley Walsh a run for his money! Or maybe the other way round... don't you think Bradley Walsh is fantastic?
Press: He's spot on.
PM: He's been a revelation. When I saw him... I mean, I knew he could act. Me and (Peter) Capaldi did a job with him years back. Did you know he came from football? He was a professional footballer.
When I saw that first (episode) with Jodie in, particularly where they got to that funeral scene, I thought wow... that is as good as anything. He's beautiful, and he's subtle, he doesn't give it away, and - I tell you what - he's the quiet revelation.
(Jodie) can do all that stuff, but he's got it... he's going to anchor it just beautifully, I think.
How was it recording with Sheridan Smith again? (Eighth Doctor companion Lucie Miller)
PM: That was a hoot. I can tell you we had a laugh! That had been six or seven years since she'd (left). We had a real good time. We lost her to super-stardom, so it was nice of her to... to deign to come back! (Totally tongue in cheek).
(More laughter from all of us).
To grace us with her royal presence. It was like a royal visit. No, it was great. And do you know what I liked as well? For that first half an hour she was nervous... because it meant that much. It was really sweet... she's Sheridan Smith!
Press: Are there any historical characters you'd like your Doctor to meet and interact with?
PM: David Bowie... Karen Black.
Interact is putting it mildly.
(Loud laughter from all of us).
You've probably been asked a million questions over your career about everything.
PM: Make it good then. It had better be a good one!
SJR: Was there one question you wished someone would ask you, but they never did? If so, what is that question, and what's the answer? What would you like your fans to know about you?
PM: I'm regretting that make it good comment now, yeah... I've dug a hole for myself now, haven't I?
Press: You've got to come up with a good question.
PM: I have, yeah... though I don't think there is one. Do you know why? I think that actors should have a little bit of mystique. I'm genuine. You can't give it all away... I mean that.
Then I've got a question you've never been asked.
PM: Go on, then.
Press: I heard this from a four year old boy once, and it was, "Do you see the invisible people?"
(Everyone laughs and claps)
I'm a famous insomniac, seriously... for years and years. If I'm in a bad bout I have -I don't know what the word is - but I call them micro-dreams. Waking dreams. I could dream now, when I'm awake... that's in a bad bout. They might only last for four seconds, and in those four seconds I've seen some (in a whisper) invisible people.
(Laughs from everyone).
It's really disconcerting, and it means you can't drive, you've got to leave the car at home. So, yeah, sometimes I get them. I've seen some weird things. To dream briefly, while you're still awake... Sometimes it's quite ordinary; I'll think that we've had a conversation about something or other, it might be one of my kids, or a friend. Then they'll go, "What? I didn't say that", and I'll be, "Yes, it was about ten minutes ago", and they'll go, "No, no, no... you dreamt it", and I quite literally really dreamt it.
So, yeah... I've seen invisible people.
In fact, I think I'm seeing them now! I think you're all in my dream, mate. In fact, I'm lying in that hotel across the way.
(Laughter all round and applause, as the interview wraps up and Paul prepares to leave).
So, that's it. What a great conversation, and what a great guy. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope it's been a good read too.
What did you think?
We'd love to hear from all the Doctor Who fans out there, old and young, new and forever. Please leave questions and thoughts in the comments.