Big interview: David Bradley

David Bradley has made a career out of playing baddies '“ but this Christmas sees him star as the first incarnation of one of the nation's favourite TV characters. He talks to Georgia Humphrey.

David Bradley.
David Bradley.

Amid the millions who will watch David Bradley on television this Christmas, one person will be paying particular attention. While he has a career stretching back to the 1970s and has become a familiar face on stage and screen, for his three-year-old granddaughter this will be the first time she has been able to watch him on the box.

“My son got her on camera and she said, ‘My grandad is Doctor Who!’,” says Bradley, unable to contain his obvious pride at his newest fan.

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Given that he has starred in some of the biggest television dramas going, from the groundbreaking Out Friends in the North in the early 1990s through to the current ratings winner Game of Thrones, you might be forgiven for thinking he’d take landing a part opposite Peter Capaldi’s Timelord in his stride.

Not so. While the the 75-year-old actor has a soothingly gentle, quiet voice when talking off-screen, mention Doctor Who and he becomes immediately animated and if he ever had any doubts about accepting the part, thoughts of what his grandchild would say quickly convinced him.

It’s a touching portrait, but the image of a doting family man doesn’t exactly match up with some of Bradley’s most famous on-screen characters. For years, the role he was most recognised on the street for was Argus Filch, the villainous caretaker from the Harry Potter films. Then Game Of Thrones and the loathsome Walder Frey.

“Fans of the show tend to be quite wary when they approach me,” he says. “People will say, ‘Ooh, I hate you, you’re horrible’.” A couple of minutes in his company should be enough to convince them otherwise.

Born in York, Bradley first took to the stage as a member of the Rowntree Youth Theatre, but even then it wasn’t obvious that he was a destined for a career in the spotlight. When he left school he completed a five-year apprenticeship with the optical instrument maker Cooke, Troughton and Sims. He stayed with the firm, which closed in the late 1980s, until 1966 when he moved to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

He has pretty much worked constantly ever since. There was a spell at the Royal Shakespeare Company which saw him pick up an Olivier Award for his portrayal of the Fool, but for the most part laughs have be few and between. Over the years he has been a gangster in Band of Gold, played the miserly Sir Pitt Crawley in Vanity Fair and in Our Mutual Friend popped up as the villainous Rogue Riderhood.

However, Bradley is nothing if not versatile. Having appeared as a baddie when he last starred in an episode of Doctor Who, alongside Matt Smith in 2012, in this year’s Christmas special, Twice Upon A Time, he plays the heroic First Doctor and he clearly relished the chance to play against type.

“William Hartnell played the First Doctor and if you get asked to reprise it, well who would say no?”

It was a role the Yorkshire-born star was a logical fit for. He had previously portrayed William Hartnell, the first man to play Doctor Who, in one-off BBC drama An Adventure In Space And Time, which told how the prolific science fiction series was first created in 1963.

Written by Mark Gatiss, who also stars in this year’s Christmas special as a First World War captain, it also depicted Hartnell’s personal life and what he was like as an actor. Transforming into the First Doctor, when it has already been played by someone else, sounds tricky at times.

“Sometimes I rehearse a scene and I’m thinking, ‘That didn’t feel like Hartnell, it felt like me’,” Bradley confides. But the acting veteran mastered methods of bringing the character to life – including watching old episodes on his iPad while on set to try to capture his physicality. “He slightly looks one side down his nose at people,” Bradley says. “And his voice was always clipped and precise.

“You feel you have to get it right as near as possible – without being too over-fussy, otherwise you find yourself in a bit of a straitjacket.”

Bradley, who retains his links to Yorkshire as an avid fan of York City FC, acknowledges there’s a slightly different pressure that comes with starring in the Doctor Who Christmas special.

“Playing William Hartnell, the responsibility for getting it right was more to his family and the people who knew him, because I wanted to do justice to who I considered to be one of the great British screen character actors of that time,” he says. “Whereas this, I feel a responsibility of getting it right for the fans.”

From the sounds of it though, the millions of viewers won’t be disappointed. The episode promises plenty of action scenes – jumping out of a captured Tardis and aliens throwing bombs are just two stunts Bradley loved filming.

“It’s also very Christmassy,” he insists. “Expect lots of snow. There’s a kind of It’s A Wonderful Life feel to it.”

And when it comes to the script, there’s “comic energy” between his character and the Twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, who come from different worlds.

Stranded in an Arctic snowscape, we will see both Doctors refuse to face regeneration.

“They wanted me and Peter to have fun, and the relationship and banter between them, that’s what I loved about it,” says Bradley.

“Not hanging about or indulging, but just ‘bang bang’ dialogue where you’re bouncing and sparking off each other – that’s when it works best for me.”

It seems this electric on-screen partnership between Bradley and Capaldi started as soon as Bradley turned up for his first day in the rehearsal room.

“I felt a bit intimidated at first,” admits Bradley. “I thought, ‘They’ve all been together for so long, they’re the Doctor Who family’. But Peter sat next to me for the read-through, we just started bantering straight away. He made me feel so welcome.”

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room 
when talking about Capaldi. Even though we 
don’t know how the Doctor will regenerate, or 
how the episode will end, we do know this is his last adventure in the Tardis. Bradley lets on there was one particularly emotional scene to film together – though he’s tight-lipped about exactly what it details.

“There was one moment where me and Peter just looked at each other in the middle of this scene and it was like, who was going to well up first?” he reveals.

Writer Steven Moffat is also leaving after the Christmas episode and will be replaced by Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall. Meanwhile, Jodie Whittaker – who Bradley starred with in Broadchurch, and whose praises he can’t sing enough of – is the latest star to join the list of Doctor Who actors. A list that Bradley can now also firmly claim he has a – very worthy – place on.

“While I was just playing Hartnell, I couldn’t say I’d played Doctor Who,” he says.

“But now I can. And there’s a figurine coming up to prove it!”

Twice Upon A Time – The Doctor Who Christmas Special – will air on BBC One on Christmas Day.