Paul McGann interview: Liverpool screen star returns home for theatre tour debut
Actor Paul McGann is a screen veteran with countless credits to his name, including a fan-favourite stint as Doctor Who and a starring role in cult classic ‘Withnail and I’.
The Kensington-born star returns to his home city in April for a stage appearance in ‘Gabriel’ at the Liverpool Playhouse, a touring production set in Nazi-occupied Guernsey during 1943.
Your Move caught up with Paul ahead of his UK theatre tour debut to chat about the play, his time as the Doctor and his formative years here in Liverpool.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
What can you tell us about the character you’re playing in ‘Gabriel’?
My character Commander Von Pfunz is a German army major who arrives on Guernsey in 1943, in the middle of the war and the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, to take over from a colleague.
He takes a shine to a local woman played by Belinda Lang, who is the central character, and she doesn’t know what to do. She thinks he is horrible but doesn’t want to make a mistake that could have fatal consequences for her family.
The audience begins to piece together where he’s been and what he has seen as the play progresses. He’s cultured and educated, speaks perfect English; but he’s weird and a bit damaged.
We find out he has been somewhere else before he was posted here and sees Guernsey as a convalescence. It was a much softer place for German service personnel than the likes of Holland or Russia. There were no commando raids or resistances to quash.
The Gabriel of the title is a mysterious young lad who is washed ashore with no memory of who he is. His arrival causes tensions to boil over and adds another element to the story.
What attracted you to the role?
When I first read the script I realised it was a page-turner and my instincts told me it would make a good show. I really wanted to know what happened in the next scene and there are times when it gets a bit surreal – it’s a genuine thriller.
No matter what age you are – whether you’re a 12-year-old child or of the older generation – I think you will take something from the story. It has a very broad target audience.
How does it feel to be returning to your home city to perform on stage?
I can’t wait. It’s been way too long since I was last here to perform – it was the year Everton and Liverpool played that cup final, 1986, so I’m really, really looking forward to it.
This is the first time I’ve ever featured in a UK touring production and I felt it was the right time to do one for a couple of reasons. Most importantly this was the right project. You don’t see a lot of straight dramatic plays touring the country, so that’s unusual in itself.
The other reason is simply because I’ve never toured before. When I first decided to pursue a career in acting I imagined this is what it would have been like – living out of a bag, turning up in one place for a week and then getting on a bus to go somewhere else.
To what extent did your experiences growing up in Liverpool help you get where you are today?
Almost completely. I think we are where we come from. Everything from the way I conduct myself to the things I respect all come from my experiences growing up in Liverpool.
I wasn’t into acting when I was a teenager. I was a promising track and field athlete in school and back then in Liverpool, in the 1960s and ‘70s, everyone wanted to be in a band or become a sporting hero. I don’t remember meeting many actors or people who were into theatre.
I only recall going to the theatre once and that was to the Playhouse when I was about 12 years old. It was a play called ‘The Hasty Heart’ starring Richard Todd.
Working class kids in Liverpool during that era usually had limited experience of theatre, so when I went to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London I related to the other working class kids from elsewhere who were inspired by their favourite TV actors and movie stars.
“I think we are where we come from. Everything from the way I conduct myself to the things I respect all come from my experiences growing up in Liverpool.”
Your stint as ‘Doctor Who’ is something of a fan-favourite. Do you have any regrets that you didn’t get to make a full series?
Not now. I could say I did back then but if it had come about there might never have been Matt Smith or David Tennant versions of the Doctor.
When you’re working as an actor, things nearly happen all the time. You might get down to the last three in an audition or just miss out on a part – this is a weekly occurrence for a performer.
My stint as Doctor Who was basically a TV pilot. They called it ‘the movie’ but it was a TV pilot they wanted to become a series. I knew the odds before I started – 99 out of 100 pilots don’t get picked up.
The point of it was to get a series in the US and it didn’t achieve the ratings for that. Two weeks later I was back doing something else – it wasn’t meant to be and I have no regrets about that.
There’s a vacancy coming up for the role of ‘Doctor Who’. Who would you like to see fill it?
I think they’re seriously missing a trick if they don’t cast a brilliant female. It’s high time they did – Tilda Swinton is top of my wish list but I’d be amazed if she joined up. Then again, I’m often amazed by things to do with ‘Doctor Who’.
Tilda is exceptional, she’s played David Bowie before and I think she could turn her hand to anything. She even looks like an alien and might actually be the best Doctor ever.
Doctor Who is almost an asexual being. It’s one character with many faces, so why can’t one of them be female? I think they need to take that leap now.
‘Withnail & I’ is another of your most famous roles. Was there ever talk of a sequel over the years?
I’ve heard talk of a sequel but never from anyone who could make it happen. The only person who could make it happen is [the creator] Bruce Robinson but he’s not interested and I don’t think he ever has been.
I think the nearest he ever came to considering a sequel was about 20 years ago when Richard E Grant and I were having a glass of wine with him.
Bruce was ranting about all these unsolicited scripts he had been sent for a ‘Withnail & I’ sequel. He said ‘a sequel would be impossible because you’re both 10 years older now, so we’d have to set it in 1979. What even happened in 1979?’ He then stopped himself and said ‘oh, hang on a minute’.
Richard and I were considering leaving the room to let him stew on that for a moment, but nothing ended up happening and, generally speaking, Bruce has always been opposed to the idea.
To be honest I’m dead against it as well. You could set it 30 years later but I think the Withnail character would be dead by then – he’s not a survivor, he’s a brilliant waster. Leave well alone, I say.
‘Gabriel’ is running at the Liverpool Playhouse between 4 – 8 April.