Twenty five years ago, a rather naive young doctor arrived at a university, and found himself thrown into a completely alien world. Dr Stephen Daker’s adventures in A Very Peculiar Practice and its follow-up A Very Polish Practiceare now being released on DVD – and we caught up with series star Peter Davison (perhaps better known to readers of this site as the fifth Doctor)…
Has talking about A Very Peculiar Practice brought back a lot of memories of working on the show or has it been something that’s stuck in your mind anyway?
It has been something that’s always stuck in my mind really, because it was a great time when we were making it. I did a commentary for some of the first series, and that always brings back memories sitting there watching it.
What was your overwhelming feeling about the show looking at it from a perspective of 25 years?
It is a long time, isn’t it! It was the first thing that I’d done that was a complete package: it had one director, one writer, and it was something different. I think we were very aware that we were doing something that was good.
I don’t think we thought it would be as successful as it was: still to this day when I meet people and they mention things I’ve been in, one of the first things is A Very Peculiar Practice. It hit that whole university generation, and so many people keep asking if it was based on their university. Usually it wasn’t. But it was a communal experience.
I think it had a broader satirical edge to it. The first series was a satirical jibe at general university life, and the second series was having a broader go at the Thatcher concept of big business being involved in universities, and generally the way that university education was going.
Andrew Davies was never intending to write more than one series: you have to prise series out of him really. I think he’d written this series and thought,” I’ve done that, it’s a nice complete job.” When the BBC persuaded him to do a second series, he presented them with a first episode of the second series, after some time, and I think he was quite late doing it. I never saw it, but the director, David Tucker, saw it and said it was just like more of the same. So he went to Andrew and said, “What about doing something different?” I think it was David who put the idea in his mind about taking a broader theme.
I think Andrew was generally very teed off with the whole way things were going. He was suddenly inspired, and I think within two weeks, he presented them with the entire second series in a very short space of time. He suddenly got excited about the whole idea. It was exactly what he could write about because it was what he was very pissed off about.
The first season is about Stephen Daker being thrown into the whole lunacy of the unversity, whereas in the second, he’s only part of what’s going on – in fact, all of the surgery characters are…
Yes, in a funny kind of way. I think it’s what was possibly happening to universities at the time. It was a very big plank of Thatcher’s government at the time: they had a vision that big businesses should run universities, and having that American vice-chancellor coming in was very much an attack on that whole idea and where it could eventually lead.
But when you’re making it, you’re not aware of that. It feels like the same programme. I was very aware it had a new edge to it, but I loved that.
Yes, I thought it was dead and buried. I think everyone, Andrew included, was influenced by Joanna Kanska. She was one day talking with Andrew about the new Poland that was emerging, and he thought he wouldn’t mind writing a piece about this. Although it was a very different beast, it was about the emerging Poland and how it was run by a combination of revolutionaries and black market gangsters. There was much evidence of that when we were filming over there.
Some of Robert Buzzard’s encounters seem to have an autobiographical edge to them…
(Laughs) A lot of that came from Joanna talking to Andrew, and him going over there. It was a very weird time in Poland. I’d filmed there, strangely enough, three or four years before, when the Soviets were just about pulling about. There was no sign of any sort of wealth. People were still driving around in those terrible Russian cardboard cars… and then when we went back to film A Very Polish Practice, there were lots of people driving Mercedes. There was no money theoretically being earned, but it was all black market, and things would appear… There’d be no money for something but the next morning it would appear! Somebody knew someone else who would do them a favour.
Is Daker a character you enjoy looking back on?
I don’t know that the character himself is; I just enjoyed being part of it. I always looked on it as an ensemble thing. I was the innocent in the middle of all this mayhem. I never saw it as being a lesser part because of that. I was the central character: I was the audience, if you like.
Almost the juvenile lead, in the proper sense of the word…
Yes. I suppose, looking back, the character wouldn’t be that high up. The series is either number one or number two on my list. The character would be slightly further down simply because when I was in At Home With the Braithwaites, that would probably be my favourite character. Tristan [Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small] would be high up there. But in terms of quality of the series, A Very Peculiar Practice is almost number one. I enjoyed playing the character, but I enjoyed the whole mayhem of all the characters together.
Graham Crowden’s performance as Jock is still incredible to watch…
He was absolutely brilliant. It was wonderful in the very first episode when he would pour wonderful quantities of obviously not whisky, but coloured water ,down his throat. He had that fantastic ability, and was almost mesmeric in the way he played it.
I think he had to be held back. I think it was one of Graham’s most fantastic performances because he was kept on track. He had a wonderful quality but it had to be kept in check – and I think he was aware of that. The director, David Tucker, did a very good job of controlling him and bringing the best out of him. They were wonderful scenes with him.
No, I’m not aware of anything at all.
You’re still playing the part for Big Finish, but would you be interested in returning to the show on screen?
I would be interested, yes, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. It doesn’t seem to be that same sort of show any more where that sort of thing would fit in.
It always involved a bit of a stretch of the imagination getting the old Doctors back, and as the years go back, we’re severely curtailed by the lack of Doctors. No, I’m not aware of any plans for that to happen.