sat 01/11/2014

Hamlet, BBC Two / Doctor Who, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews

Hamlet, BBC Two / Doctor Who, BBC One

David Tennant's Hamlet suggests that there's life beyond Doctor Who

David Tennant is reborn as Hamlet, as he leaves Doctor Who behind

The BBC's reinvention of Doctor Who under the auspices of Russell T Davies has proved to be an inspired upgrade of a legendary 1960s marque fit to rank alongside BMW's resuscitation of the Mini, though it would hardly be sensible to argue that the new-look Doctor is distinguished by Germanic precision engineering or a coolly mathematical design philosophy. Quite the opposite. Although the cardboard scenery and risible special effects that used to lend Doctor Who much of its jerry-built charm have been digitally upgraded, the series is still a hard-to-define mix of soft sci-fi and a kind of slapstick Carry On-style Britishness. In Christmas Day's first half of David Tennant's swansong as the Doctor, we even found such grizzled old lags of British light entertainment as Bernard Cribbins and June Whitfield.

Tennant's first full-length outing as the Doc was in "The Christmas Invasion", on Christmas Day 2005. Five years later, having propelled the show to cosmic ratings and boosted its international profile, he's bowing out with "The End of Time", which finds the earth a day away from annihilation, thanks to the return of The Master (John Simm, pictured below).

But the more portentous Davies' plots become, the more they burst the seams of the show's eccentric structure. The idea of premonitory dreams foretelling the titular End of Time has undoubted spine-chilling potential, but not when the dreamer of them is Bernard Cribbins. Having Catherine Tate as Bernie's granddaughter, Donna Noble, is like cocking the trigger for comedy sketches that never happen, while Timothy Dalton's Time Lord voice-over is couched in such clunking cod-Biblicalisms that at any moment you expect Cecil B De Mille to walk on to deliver the authorial viewpoint in person.

simmI've generally found Tennant's self-conscious whimsicalness and exaggerated facial twitches quite irritating, but he's probably walking away at the perfect moment. His soliloquy about his impending death and transfiguration as the Doctor gave the show its one moment of undiluted emotion, and the next night, lo and behold, Tennant was indeed born again, as Hamlet, prince of Denmark. This was the TV version of his performance with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon last year (he missed most of the London run because of a slipped disc), and although it was shot fast and cheap - or maybe because it was - it gripped like a boa constrictor.

Suddenly Tennant looked like a full-scale actor instead of a novelty turn, capable of raising his game substantially enough to keep abreast of a superb cast including Patrick Stewart as Claudius, Penny Downie as an expertly modulated Queen Gertrude and Oliver Ford Davies squeezing maximum mileage from the pontifications and doddering memory lapses of Polonius.

Thus contained within a strong but flexible framework, in which the Elsinore court was depicted as a paranoid, claustrophobic bunker under constant video surveillance, Tennant was able to apply his skills where they counted most. His knack for mixing up facetiousness and deadpan double-bluffing was invaluable for Hamlet's mad scenes, playing on the tension between what was real and how much he was faking it, and he unleashed manic energy at moments such as the one where he's reeling from learning that his father was murdered, having been given the news by his dad's tormented ghost.

In the scene with the travelling actors, he even suggested one possible explanation for Hamlet's notorious indecision - he became so animated and enthusiastic when planning the play-within-a-play that would flush out his murderous uncle that he was clearly missing his true vocation as an actor-manager.

One other benefit of having Tennant in the leading role was that without him, BBC Two would surely have been loth to schedule three hours of Shakespeare on Boxing Day.


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