TV Hugh Grant. In his third ever production notes for Doctor Who Magazine, in issue 343, the one with Christopher Eccleston's interview in it, Russell T Davies reveals that they offered the part to Hugh Grant first, knowing full well that he or at least his agent would turn it down, but so that they’d at least tried. I subsequently heard that it's become a tradition and happens every time they have to cast the thing again.
Why would Hugh Grant be at the top of Doctor Who’s casting other than that he’s a brilliant actor?
The Curse of the Fatal Death. Because of the two minutes he spends playing the dying Doctor in The Curse of the Fatal Death.
Up until that point, Steven Moffat’s affectionate parody of the show’s tropes oscillates wildly between sitcom and something, which is a close approximation of what the classic series was actually like, especially during the Adams/Williams years, especially Roman Atkinson’s performance as the Doctor.
When the regeneration sequence begins, much of the comedy is in who they’ve got to fill in. During the wilderness years both Richard E Grant and Jim Broadbent were both touted as possibles and so it is of course hilarious to see them both finally playing it, albeit for laughs.
Then, as I remember shouting at the time, fuck me, it’s Hugh Grant.
Hugh Grant in 1999 was a massive star. Thanks to his tabloid-bating shenanigans he hadn’t been in films for a while, but the release of Notting Hill had returned him to pre-eminence and now here he was playing the Doctor.
Then, as I remember noticing at the time, fuck me, he’s taking this seriously.
Which he is. After emerging from the smoke, he’s suddenly giving one of the franchise’s best performances as the Doctor, making the most of the comedy prop, with rebellious chemistry with Julia Sawalha playing his wife.
Like all the best Doctors, but unlike either Grant or Broadbent, we instantly believe that he’s the Doctor, the same man fans had been watching since 1963. Watching back again for the purposes of writing this, it’s an interesting transition.
Atkinson’s very good at playing at being the Doctor.
Grant just is the Doctor.
Then just as the joy of that begins to sink in, he’s shot, he’s dying, back slumped against the TARDIS and he’s breaking our heart and the whole production is supporting that.
For a moment it looks like it’s going to once again be a parody of these kinds of scenes, ripping the piss out of Androzani or Logopolis.
Then somehow it, just, isn’t. Jonathan Pryce helps a lot. He dials down his performance as the Master from full on Ainley to the Delgado who fights to save the Doctor’s life in The Mind of Evil.
Moffat’s script is offering jewels too: “Look after the universe for me. I’ve put a lot of work into it.” If the Doctor ever does leave us, I can’t imagine a more fitting final line than that.
It’s still heartbreaking even knowing what’s to come.
Then he “dies” and Julia gets that speech, which she plays with much the same intensity as the haranguing her character gives Michael Maloney during In The Bleak Midwinter about what really matters. This speech:
“Doctor, listen to me. You can't die, you're too... You're too nice. Too brave, too kind and far, far too silly. You're like Father Christmas! The Wizard of Oz! Scooby Doo! And I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!”
Which is also a blue print for how Moffat’s crafted his version of the character all these years later.
After that, Curse returns to the silliness of before, but for these brief moments, proper Doctor Who returned to our screens once again, with the best actor in the role we’ll never, probably, properly have.
Unless, of course, Moffat and the gang have asked him again, and for some bizarre reason he's said yes.
Imagine that. Hugh Grant.