Jonathan Miller slams the bloke from Doctor Who

I’m not in the habit of writing to the Times but this soured my morning coffee this morning:

West End theatres are putting celebrity ahead of quality, complains angry Miller

Now before all you Americans say, “I thought Miller was dead,” we’re talking Jonathan here, not Arthur. He’s a very, very famous and distinguished British theatre director and he’s annoyed that two of his recent productions in the British provinces – one of which was Hamlet, couldn’t get a London producer on board because they lacked big-name draws, even though the actors got great reviews. He goes on to complain about “that man from Doctor Who” just walking into a West End part as the moody Dane, and Jude Law gets an even rougher ride “I suspect he can’t act better than the young unknown who played him for me.”

Presumably, as a National Theatre director, Miller draws the line at stating publicly that David Tennant can’t act, but he makes up for it by forgetting his name, even though DT’s no stranger to the South Bank (Perhaps Miller’s still a bit peeved that he once turned down a big NT part to go off and do Dalek Empire for Big Finish).

It’s the second anti-Who swipe I’ve read in the Times recently – I think our friend Caitlin Moran’s overdone the fangirling and prompted a bit of a backlash. Miller has a point, in principle, but come on. He’s been on TV quite a bit himself – was he completely unknown when the BBC approached him? I doubt it somehow. And isn’t it a tad disingenuous to accuse the theatre, of all things, of obsession with the cult of celebrity. It’s not as if there was a golden age when people landed starring parts on ability alone. Larry Olivier, Alec Guinness, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving…what were they, if not celebrities?

I’m sure it is tough to get a cast of unknowns a West End deal, but it’s not impossible. Bennett managed it with “The History Boys”; indeed, he took the show to Broadway. And it was a great pleasure, just over a year ago, for me to attend the movie premiere of THB, and see director Nick Hyntner passionately champion the cause of the proposed drama centre at Manchester Grammar School. But it does help to think creatively instead of whinging.

Anyway, I sent the following e-mail to The Times in David Tennant’s defence, if only to show that some of us don’t think that the only interesting thing the papers ever say about him is where he allegedly spent last Saturday night:

Jonathan Miller has a valid point, but his attack on David Tennant’s forthcoming appearance as “Hamlet” is misplaced for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s inaccurate to describe Tennant as a “West End celebrity Hamlet”. The production will only transfer to the West End after a lengthy run in Stratford. Nor is this an example of celebrity casting for the sake of it: David Tennant was acclaimed for his work with the RSC and the National Theatre long before “Doctor Who” made him famous.

You don’t just walk into a part like The Doctor. Both Tennant and Christopher Eccleston, his predecessor on the show, were distinguished actors with wide-ranging theatrical experience before being offered the role. The sniping at Tennant seems particularly unfair in view of his recent campaigning efforts on behalf of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, not to mention the beneficial effects of his delightful portrayal of the Doctor meeting Shakespeare last year!

As a librarian in a primary school, I know at first-hand that many young children had their interest in live theatre awakened by that performance. I am also proud to be playing host to no less than four American friends who will be visiting the UK to see “Hamlet” this summer; their determination to experience David Tennant’s performance live at a time when the dollar is so weak is testament to his pulling power and its beneficial effect on the national economy.

There is something very British – and not in a good way – about this bad-tempered sniping at a famous person, and the implication that fame is arbitrary rather than the result of many years of hard work. Indeed there are celebrities devoid of talent, but David Tennant has it in abundance, refined by a lifelong dedication to his craft.  Can’t we just rejoice that he’s chosen to stay here and return to live theatre when he must have had no shortage of offers from Hollywood?  If he was really interested in playing the fame game, that’s where he’d be.

And now I’m waiting for the inevitable cartoon: “All I have to do is snap my fingers and – whee – there I am playing Hamlet in the West End…”

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9 thoughts on “Jonathan Miller slams the bloke from Doctor Who

  1. Oh, honestly. What rock has this doofus been under to not recognize Tennant’s considerable and acclaimed amount of stage work? Personally I think of him as a stage actor more than anything, as that’s where the bulk of his work has been over his career so far and it seems to be his greatest love. Until the last several years most of his TV and film appearances were small or short term parts. I suspect that once DW is over for him he’ll dive right back into the theatre for most of his time.
    I am also proud to be playing host to no less than four American friends who will be visiting the UK to see “Hamlet” this summer; their determination to experience David Tennant’s performance live at a time when the dollar is so weak is testament to his pulling power and its beneficial effect on the national economy.
    Never have I crossed an ocean to see any celebrity. Tennant will be the first, and I’m going to see him not because he’s a celebrity, not because he’s The Doctor, not because OMG HE’S SOOOOOOOOO HOT (which he is, but that’s incidental), but because he’s my favorite actor and an incredible talent. If I want to see celebrities I can go to L.A. for a song and get my fill. Fuck that. I want the real thing, and I don’t spend my money or my fangirling lightly.

  2. There’s a kind of cult of anti-celebrity long established among British intellectuals. It predates the awfulness of Big Brother and other nonentitiy-celebrating TV shows and it must baffle many Americans. In my experience, whatever their faults, Americans celebrate success rather than sneer at it.
    I’ve been flabbergasted by the numbers of you crossing the pond to see Hamlet this summer. I can’t think of a single actor I’d cross the Atlantic Ocean for. I totally fangirl Matthew Broderick but I’d draw the line at seeing him in “The Odd Couple” or “The Producers” on Broadway. for, yet I’ve four people coming from Washington State and none of them are millionaires by any means. Cudos to them for knowing what they want and going for it.I’m really looking forward to sharing this beautiful, if infuriating country with them.
    BTW there is a lovely new TV interview with David up on the fansite – talking to Andrew Marr on Sunday morning.

  3. Well, Americans go too far with the celebrity worship, I think. We have far too many people who are famous simply for being famous. Somebody’s always getting their own show or appearing on a commercial and I’m thinking, “who the hell is this person and why are we supposed to care?” But people like Tennant have earned their success.
    It always pisses me off when people are amazed at why he’s a celebrity and why he has so many fans, because he doesn’t look like Brad Pitt (for some reason he’s always compared with Brad Pitt) and he’s a pale, skinny, and gawky geek. Um, some people actually like actors because they are talented and can ACT, not just because they’re model perfect or are married to so-and-so. Some of us prefer pale, skinny and gawky geeks too!

  4. Well done you, that’s a great letter. Very sour and elitist of Miller. It’s not as if he hasn’t been able to do a production of Hamlet! Which I’m sure the good folk of Bristol appreciated not having to slog into London to see.

  5. Nice letter. And I have to say, I’m very jealous of these four American friends of yours… I blew all my savings on a trip to Japan a few months ago, which was very much worth it, but it *does* leave me without the funds to see DT as Hamlet this summer.
    Even on this side of the pond, though, there’s a sector of the intelligentsia that will dismiss an actor/actressthe minute he or she becomes famous–as if such success is indicative of a lack of talent rather than a testament to it. (That, or so-and-so has “sold out.”) Anyway, Miller sounds like sour grapes to me. Screw him.
    But I hope the Times publishes your letter. 🙂

  6. Personally I think of him as a stage actor more than anything, as that’s where the bulk of his work has been over his career so far and it seems to be his greatest love…I suspect that once DW is over for him he’ll dive right back into the theatre for most of his time.
    Somewhere–in an interview or a podcast? I don’t remember which–I know I’ve heard DT say that he almost feels like being on DW has been an extended holiday from what he considers his “real job”–as a stage actor.
    In any case, he more than deserves his success. He is immensely talented, and I am *very* jealous of you getting to see him as Hamlet this summer. 🙂

  7. I’m sure John Barrowman was unknown when he was invited to be in the West End.
    Isn’t he being a bit hypocritical? I’m sure I read another online newspaper article where the columnist was sarcastic about waking up on another planet because there was no Doctor Who mention in the Radio Times the week of Eurovision. He said the world had been blinded to believe Doctor Who was more amazing than it really is. The people who commented said that he was only using the term “Doctor Who” to draw attention to himself, when he had nothing to contribute by writing his article.
    That’s what this man seems to be doing: Dropping in celebrity names to draw attention to himself. In fact, the parts about celebrities are much larger than the point I think he’s trying to make. Common knowledge of a performer should not influence the decisions of plays performed at a well known theatre.
    A big thing that this guy is overlooking is that London is expensive. The West End need to guarantee full audiences in order to keep in business. Audiences are attracted to names they know.
    The other thing is that he’s making points that lose his argument. ‘Famous guy no better than than my unknown lead guy.’ That implies that the performers are of equal ability, so the one that is better known is a better choice for a famous venue. He also falls into the assumption he’s accusing the producers of: That anybody famous lacks talent compared to the unknown. Just because we’re saturated by American waitresses that want to be actress doesn’t exclude the possibility that there are some people with acting degrees that are capable of performing a broad range of styles and mediums.

  8. Excellent letter. And I see you also got a comment on the page you linked to, and that almost every comment refers to Tennant’s long and very respectable stage career. That kind of petulant sniping from Miller won’t win him many friends.
    And I wonder how long it’s been since the RSC was this sold out so far in advance? A good friend of mine from France, , wanted to see Tennant in Hamlet on her visit to the UK next month. She contacted the RSC box office about a month ago – could not get tickets.
    Miller, see icon.

  9. I’m sure I read another online newspaper article where the columnist was sarcastic about waking up on another planet because there was no Doctor Who mention in the Radio Times the week of Eurovision.
    You did. That was in “The Times” as well. And as far as I know, Caitlin Moran hasn’t mentioned DW once this series. Go figure.

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