INTERVIEW: From Chic To Geek

David Tennant talks to Neil Midgley about his new comedy drama Learners and what's in store for Doctor Who.

Fans of Doctor Who, used to seeing David Tennant looking cool in a natty pinstripe suit, will hardly recognise him in tonight’s BBC1 one-off comedy drama, Learners. (People who only saw him at the National Television Awards the other week, where Tennant turned up as a teddy boy, will have even more trouble.) Tennant’s character in Learners is anything but cool.

‘I play Chris,’ says Tennant. ‘He’s a driving instructor, he’s a very decent chap. He’s perhaps not the most glamorous man alive, but he’s very dependable. His confidence as a driving instructor is not matched by his confidence as a human being, really. But he’s a passionate driving instructor, he’s very good at it, and it’s vocational for him.’

Despite Chris’s geekiness – provincial spectacles and all – he finds himself the hot apex of a love triangle. Fiona (Sarah Hadland), who runs the driving school where he works, competes for his affections with Bev, his new pupil. Bev is played by Jessica Hynes (formerly Jessica Stevenson), who’s best known for her roles as Daisy in Spaced and Cheryl in The Royle Family. Hynes also wrote the script and even a song, Take Your Wheel, that’s incorporated into the film.

The film’s setting indicates that BBC1 is taking seriously the criticism that it is far too middle-class and liberal. Bev works as a cleaner at a police station; her husband, Ian, is a feckless dreamer; they live in a mobile home, and paying for Bev’s driving lessons is a real strain on the family finances. Chris’s character is also rounded by the fact that he is a devout Christian. ‘What’s nice about the way Jessica’s written it is that that doesn’t become a reason to laugh at him,’ says Tennant. ‘I think it just brings an integrity to him. It gives him a kind of moral compass and clarity of purpose. And a lack of vanity perhaps.’

It would be hard for Chris to be vain, given his nerdy clothes and, in particular, his singularly uncool haircut. ‘It’s not great, is it?’ says Tennant, patting his head. ‘And this is all my own hair. It could do with a cut. But obviously this has been tamed by the experts of our make-up department. I can make it more acceptable for walking down the street. And one always has to make sacrifices for one’s art.’

Tennant signed up for Learners after Hynes co-starred with him in two episodes of the last series of Doctor Who (as Joan Redfern). As it only required a few weeks of shooting, Learners is the kind of project that Tennant can fit around his enormously demanding Doctor Who production schedule. He recently starred in Recovery, about a man with head injuries from a road accident, and will shortly be seen in a one-off drama about the First World War correspondence between Albert Einstein and Cambridge don Arthur Eddington. ‘Three weeks with a brain injury, three weeks as a driving instructor, and three weeks as a Cambridge astrophysicist,’ chuckles Tennant.

As the Time Lord, he will soon have completed two series of 13 episodes each, plus two Christmas specials. (The schedule will soon relent a little, with three specials instead of a full series planned for 2009.) Despite the fact that he is mobbed by fans everywhere he goes, Tennant says that it is still a huge privilege to play the Doctor.

‘How could you regret it? That would be churlish in the extreme,’ he says. ‘The attention is a bit overwhelming at times, but everyone’s so enthusiastic. I’ve had very few bad experiences, to be honest. I guess it might be harder to be a Coronation Street serial killer.’

Compared to Doctor Who, Learners is very low-tech and lacks intergalactic confrontation. Its most violent scene involves Bev driving into a parked milk float. But nonetheless, Tennant explains deadpan that ‘we’ve got a very specialised stunt team. The BBC are, as ever, very health and safety conscious, and quite right too – especially after [Top Gear’s] Mr Hammond took a bit of a tumble. Anything car-related is being particularly scrutinised.’

Tennant himself famously drives a Skoda, and confesses that he sees cars as a means of transport rather than objects of desire. ‘Mind you,’ he says, ‘I do have more speeding points than are entirely practical – but that’s only because I’m up and down on the M4 to Cardiff [where Doctor Who is filmed] a lot. They have draconian speeding fines. There’ll have been some work going on three weeks previously, so there’s one sign saying ‘You should be going at 50 miles an hour here’ and then 18 cameras to make sure that when inevitably you don’t, with nobody else on the road at 3am, they can charge you hundreds and hundreds of pounds for the privilege.’

Then he adds, self-deprecatingly: ‘Listen, I’ve just got far too many speeding points. What can I do to defend myself? It’s my fault.’ Perhaps Tennant is less like a reckless Time Lord and more like a high-minded driving instructor than he’s been letting on.

Learners is on Sunday, November 11 on BBC1 at 9.00pm
Source: The Telegraph November 2007