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Paul McGann: ‘Doctor Who couldn’t have worked out better’

Paul McGann looks back on a career with cult status thanks to Withnail and I and Doctor Who

Paul McGann’s dream at 16 was to be an Olympic athlete. Six years later, via thespian priests, a job selling shoes and a stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he was starring on primetime BBC One.

He tells Jane Graham about a career across stage and screen, through cult classic Withnail and I and the mass appeal of Doctor Who, in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.

I went to an all-boys Roman Catholic grammar school in Liverpool, near to where I grew up. When I was 16 I was mad about sport – I was a good track and field athlete and I dreamt about going to the Olympics. But I was persuaded to do a Tom Stoppard play, The Real Inspector Hound, and I kind of loved it. People laughed, and clapped. We were taught by Christian Brothers and one of them, the deputy head, Father James Higham – I’ve never met before or since a more frustrated actor. He was the director and he’d show you how to do every scene and the kids would end up saying, look Father, why don’t you just put the costume on and do it yourself?

Our English teacher, Joe Hartley, also took us to Stratford to see Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth. It was the first time I’d been to the theatre and I was absolutely riveted. On the bus home I was dreaming and I kept asking Mr Hartley, but is that a job, is that a real job? After I’d left school I came back to the school to visit and he asked me what I’d been doing since I moved to London. I told him I was selling shoes and having a nice time. He said, you should go to RADA. He told me Glenda Jackson, who was from Liverpool, ended up being Queen Elizabeth I. So I auditioned for RADA and I got in.

The very first time I was on telly – Give us a Break, with Robert Lindsay — I was about 22 and I remember thinking, oh wow, they’re gonna put it out on Tuesday night primetime on BBC One. The next morning I walked to the bus stop across the street. I wasn’t even getting the bus, I just stood at the bus stop to see what would happen. But nobody said a word to me. Nothing. Two weeks later, I was in a shop buying a paper and the guy behind the counter said: “Have we met before?” And I thought, ah, that’s how this thing is going to go. Withnail and I has had a life far beyond what we imaginedwhen it came out, in a very limited release, to a few mostly indifferent reviews. We loved it and it was the first film I’d ever made, and the first Bruce Robinson directed. We knew it was good, so when we saw the lukewarm response we were disappointed.

Withnail and I found its audience after about 10 years, then after 20 years it was on these lists of the greatest British films ever. And people are still talking about it; some fella stopped me to talk about it just yesterday in the street where I live. Because everybody’s met some mad bastard in their life, some brilliant, genius madhead who it’s obvious is never going to do anything with their life, because they’re just too unhinged. And you know that one day you’re going to have to depart from that person. It’s the best, most beautiful script I’ve ever worked on, there are so many levels to it. Robbo [Bruce Robinson] said, people are going to laugh at this but then they’ll watch again and they’ll see more in it. It’s actually a deeply sad film. It’s about a parting, the loss of a love. The last scene, when Richard does the speech from Hamlet, he’s brilliant. It’s one of the saddest films you can see.

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I was sceptical when I was offered the part of Doctor Who[in the 1996 TV film]. I thought god, do I really want to do this? This was in the 90s, before the big revival. Like everyone, I’d watched it as a child but I’d never been a big fan. At that time it even felt a bit… uncool. But my kids were babies and we needed to pay the mortgage and the BBC were offering a bit of money so I did it. It was really a pilot for an American show and it wasn’t picked up and that was that. But the revived show has such a smile on its face and a sense of humour; now, I couldn’t be happier being part of that world. Going to conventions, meeting fans, it feels like you’re in a big gang. It couldn’t have worked out better.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my dad. We lost him when I was 24. He was a factory worker and when we [Paul and his acting brothers Stephen, Joe and Mark] threatened to go into showbusiness, he was worried, I suppose, that we’d always struggle. My parents were in that era, they just wanted their kids to be stable and kind of comfortable. And I think, although he never said it to my face but mum admitted it, that probably, just culturally, he thought acting wasn’t really the right kind of job for a chap. He did just live long enough to see the four of us appear on a West End stage together, it was one of the last things he ever did. He came down to the opening night; I can still see the smile. I would love to go back and say, look, it’s all right. We’ve done OK, you know. We’ve all raised families, we’ve made a living. You needn’t have worried. I think he thought the people were gonna be horrible but for me the opposite has always been true. Showbiz is full of kind, funny, solid, supportive people. And I’d tell him on my first day of work I met this girl in the stage crew. Forty years later, we’re still together.

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My brothers and I, we’ve all become professionals and we’ve made money and got on aeroplanes to travel abroad and work abroad. So many things I think my dad would have really enjoyed – we could have taken him with us, The silly sod, the only time he stepped abroad was on June 6, 1944; he was in the special forces, one of the first boys who landed in Normandy. He got there in the dark. He was extremely badly injured, given the last rites that same day, but he survived. And when we grew up we kept saying, come on Dad, get on a plane, come abroad. If I could go back I’d say, please just give it a try. Come back to France. You know, we’ve all been to that beach in Normandy, where he fought for his life, we marked the place. Honestly, I would give anything, everything I’ve ever done, to have him back for one more day, just to make that journey with him or be with him just for one more day, honestly, I would.

If I could go back to one day and live it again it would be when I was in my mum and dad’s house and I got the letter from RADA. My mum opened it. The way she just smiled at me – that was it. I knew, my life is about to change.

But there is another memory – it’s making me chicken because I’m not sure I’ve ever told my mum and it’s a bit saucy. It’s from that famously hot summer of 1976. I know exactly what summer it was because it was the Montreal Olympics and I was sports mad. Have I… yeah, I’ve probably told my mum before. It’ll be OK. So after my exams I told my mum I was going hitchhiking down to Somerset for a couple of weeks. What I actually did was go straight to my new girlfriend’s house – her parents had gone to Spain for two weeks and we stayed in, on our own, the whole time. I was a virgin when I arrived and, suffice to say, I learned more about life in those two weeks than I had in all the years before. I’m trying to find the words to describe that beautiful feeling I still remember, the feeling of floating on air…

The only thing I’d say to that 16-year-old boy now is, just let your passions consume you one at a time. You don’t have to have the Olympics on the telly in the corner of the room the whole time. I’d also advise him to think ahead a bit, ‘cos when I got home I had to explain why, in the hottest summer for 200 years, my skin was sheet white.

Paul McGann stars in Annika, on UKTV’s Alibi channel.

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