Catherine Tate? On a politics site? Really?
Well, this is a lovely Summer Saturday morning, Parliament has just broken up for its holidays, so I just thought I'd do something a little bit different. You can tell me to take a running jump if you like, and this is something I would only ever do sparingly, but I thought I'd give it a try. Please don't worry. My fixations with Doctor Who, Strictly and F1 will be confined to my own blog.
A few weeks ago, I missed both the Social Liberal Forum Scottish conference and the British Grand Prix to spend the weekend in Birmingham at a Doctor Who convention. While it was officially my daughter's birthday treat, you will know that it was hardly an ordeal for me to have to accompany her.
For the first time ever, Catherine Tate, who played David Tennant's Doctor's companion Donna Noble in the 2008 series appeared at a convention. We were looking forward to asking her questions, not just about Doctor Who but about her long and successful comedy career which has recently included being on the US Office.
These celebs certainly earn their money at conventions. They have to stay smiling through hundreds of photos with individual fans, and then spend hours signing all sorts of memorabilia. After all of that, she gave a one hour talk to close the convention.
I noticed later in the day that this bloke, who looked like a grumpier version of Adrian Chiles, was hanging around her. I wondered if he was security or something. As I wrote on my own blog, shows how much I know about celebrity gossip. What struck us throughout the day was how very down to earth she was. She seemed genuinely amazed that people had come to see her and thanked everyone for waiting in the enormous queues. I saw her wandering around the hotel by herself, too, with no entourage.
When she came on stage, she forgot to take water with her and went back and got it herself. I do like a big star who keeps it real.
"It didn't occur to me people would watch"
By the time she came on to Doctor Who, Tate was already a very Big Name. After drama college, chosen because it was where her school drama teacher had gone, she had had a few television parts. Apparently The Bill was good for a job a year aspiring London actors. You had to have a 9 month gap between episodes, but it gave her the chance to play a few different characters. She chose to go into stand up comedy because she thought it was better to "create her own work." Winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival led to her being offered her own tv show, but she fitted in a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in between.
With characteristic modesty, she said that it never occurred to her that people would watch her show. Observing people, creating characters and dialogue is very much how her brain works. She certainly found inspiration for her characters in her own social circle, but she says that if you changed their hairstyle, they wouldn't recognise themselves. One relative was convinced a particular character was based on them because the hair was the same, while another friend, whose habits she'd copied almost exactly, didn't recognise herself because of a radically different coiffure.
She famously gave her teenage character Lauren a confrontation with Tony Blair for Comic Relief in 2007. She described Blair as "one of the finest comic actors of his generation."
"A script I knew I couldn't better"
Tate was invited to co-star in the 2006 Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion, playing a shouty bride who finds herself in David Tennant's TARDIS on the way to her wedding. It was the only secret the production team of new Who has successfully kept - although it was very nearly let out of the bag by Catherine herself. She's been booked into a Cardiff hotel under an assumed name, but she had forgotten what it was. When she hesitated, the receptionist suggested her room might be booked under "Catherine Tate".
She was "completely blindsided" by the offer to be the full time companion. She says she'd been invited to meet the team under the guise of doing a biopic of Margaret Thatcher.
She says that working with David Tennant was "joyous." Knowing that he was going to be in the make up truck up 5:30 am was a motivator to get her out of bed, despite the gruelling schedule and Wales, as she put it, "not having the friendliest climate."
When you write, you do have an urge to tinker in other people's work, but she never felt the need to interfere with the lines Russell T Davies wrote, despite the fact that he was very collaborative. She knew she couldn't better the script.
She worked with Tennant in two different settings, as Donna and the Doctor and later in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. In the former role, there was no romance whatsoever, but in the latter, these warring characters end up as reluctant lovers. She prefers theatre to television as there's much more time to establish and investigate the relationship between the characters and you get the instant feedback of the audience.
"Be nice to everyone, don't be late, learn your lines"
Her tips for aspiring actors wouldn't be out of place in a political environment, although a lifetime of being late hasn't hurt Shirley Williams or Simon Hughes. She said it's important to treat people well, not just for altruistic reasons as "You never know what runner will bite you in the arse in 10 years' time when they're a producer."
She seemed to enjoy her first convention. I hope she does some more because she is so interesting and funny. If you get the chance to see her interviewed like this, don't pass it up.
And now for the Doctor Who geekery
She loved playing Donna, a character who developed so much during the series, but the heartbreaking thing is that when we leave her, she's learned nothing as her mind has been wiped. She said the most poignant and hardest to portray moment was when Donna as the Doctor/Donna realised that she wouldn't survive unless he had no memory of the Doctor. She said the Doctor and Donna were both better people as a result of the time they'd spent together. She reckons Donna would have found Matt Smith's Doctor frustrating as she wouldn't be able to wind him up. And as for the 9th Doctor, well, he and Donna would have bristled and it would have been a race to see who pushed who out of the TARDIS.
She said she didn't know much about Doctor Who - but she actually does. Certainly she's more into it than Billie Piper, who really didn't have much of a clue when we saw her in December.
She talked about not really understanding the techno-geekery in the scripts and would just ask David if they were going to be chased by aliens that day.
I really, really hope that the BBC don't ask her to suggest people for the next Doctor. It seriously is not the role for Janette Krankie. She said that Matt Smith had been brilliant. It had been no mean feat to take over from David.
Asked about her favourite companion, she said, to the approval of the room, Sarah Jane. She spoke about working with Lis Sladen, and described her as "a beautiful person, so youthful, ethereal" who had been utterly bowled over by the second chance to play the character.
And the monster she's most scared of? The Vashta Nerada as the enemy is far scarier if you can't see it and can't hear it. The line which scared her most was "It's not in every shadow, but it could be in any one."
Spare a thought for poor Les, a lovely guy from Scotland, who called her Karen by mistake. She showed no mercy, teasingly calling him practically every name under the sun. Not Adrian, though.
Catherine was a superb convention guest and I hope she does more in the future.