If you mention the name Paul McGann, to most Whovians, they will usually look thoughtful and start to give their opinion of what might have been. Today McGann is seen as the link between the classic and new Doctor Whos, the first of the modern Doctors, and the first to have a kiss on air.
Paul McGann was born, to a Roman Catholic family, in Liverpool on the 14th of November 1959. His mother, a teacher, and farther, a metallurgist, encouraged the love of acting that both Paul and his brothers shared. It was whilst at grammar school that McGann true talent started to shine through. So much so that his drama teacher would arrange for Paul to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). The audition was successful and at the age of sixteen McGann left Liverpool for London.
After spending the beginnings of his career on stage McGanns first role on TV came, starring alongside Robert Lindsey, in the snooker drama Give us a Break. His big break came three years later in 1986 when he starred as Percy Toplis in the BBC serial The Monocled Mutineer. The show even gained notoriety when the then ruling Conservative Government complained about the shows left wing bias.
The success of The Monocled Mutineer would lead to McGanns first film role. He would portray the character ‘& I’, alongside Richard E Grant’s ‘Withnail’, in the 1987 cult comedy Withnail & I. Later that year he would also appear in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.
After hearing that Doctor Who was making a return McGann auditioned for the role. He was successful and in 1996 he appeared in Doctor Who the TV Movie. The film was seen as a pilot to a possible series. It was coproduced by the BBC, Universal and Fox. If it was successful it would be picked up and shown on the BBC in the UK and Fox in the US. The film was a hit in the UK but, ratings were low in the US. This lead to Universal and Fox pulling out and the BBC went cold on the project.
For a while that seemed like the end of both Doctor Who and McGanns eighth Doctor. The film had been popular amongst ‘Whovians’ and this lead to McGann licensing his image to a number of eighth ‘Doctor’ novels. He would also start to reprise the role via the Big Finish radio plays.
The apparent failure of the TV movie didn’t scupper McGanns career. He continued to appear in high profile films and TV shows (he’s stated he prefers TV). He is also a regular in the London West End and Broadway.
After years of speculation about his return as the Doctor on screen (Fox had talked about a spin off series) McGann finally got his regeneration episode. During the celebrations for the 50th anniversary Steven Moffat wrote a mini-sode especially for McGann. ‘The Night of the Doctor’ was loved by the fans and also, as we watched McGann regenerate into John Hurts ‘War-Doctor’, gave closure to the eighth ‘Doctors’ story arc.
It’s rare in any long running series that such a short lived actor is remembered so fondly. Of course it could be said that it’s due to the fact he was playing the title role but, such courtesy is still rare; just as George Lazenby.
McGann is still a regular on the convention circuit and usually gives the money he makes from them to charity. Fans of both classic and new ‘Doctor Who’ look at him as both the first of the modern and the last of the classic ‘Doctors’. Russell T Davies has said that McGanns portrayal influenced the development of Christopher Eccleston’s ninth ‘Doctor’. You can’t get much higher praise then that.
Recommended films and TV appearances (outside of Doctor Who):-
&I – Withnail & I
Lt Price – Empire of the Sun
David Talbot – Queen of the Damned
Hugo Dore – Jonathan Creek / Ep: The Judas Tree
Golic – Alien 3