PETER DAVISON looked death in the face and rather enjoyed the experience.
Within hours of the demise of the star of TV’s Doctor Who and All Creatures Great And Small being announced online, a million people paid tribute to him on an online memorial.
Except he wasn’t actually dead!
“I can highly recommend the death hoax experience,” says the 65-year-old actor, smiling as he recalls the experience in 2013.
“It’s like having a wake before you die.
“I mean, what’s the point of people saying all those nice things about you if you’re not around to hear them?”
It’s not a surprise he was so feted — in the last four decades, Peter’s predominantly played characters that have won the public’s heart.
Talking about his autobiography, Is There Life Outside The Box?: An Actor Despairs, Davison is charming and self-deprecating with a dry wit.
His role as handsome, public school-educated Tristan Farnon, the younger vet in All Creatures Great And Small, rocketed him to fame in 1978.
By 1981, aged only 29, he was chosen as the fifth Doctor Who, the most-dashing, and youngest ever at that time to hold the role.
“Tristan launched me, but I should never have got that role,” he readily admits.
“I couldn’t have been more different from him. He was supposed to be a bit of a womanising, posh reprobate.
“I went to a comprehensive, was from a mixed-race family — my dad was from the West Indies and my mother was English — and was so acutely shy I blushed all the time, especially around girls.
“I lied about being ‘at ease’ with animals to get the part, so I couldn’t sleep for days before a shoot where I had to put my arm up a cow to help her give birth.
“The start of the first series was a blur as I was worrying I’d get ‘found out’.
“What’s funny is that, even now, people will seriously ask my advice about their pets’ medical problems, confident in the knowledge that I will know because I once played a vet!”
Ironically, Davison, whose early ambition was to be a musician and who wrote the theme tune for the popular children’s TV show Button Moon, eventually assumed the confident identity of his character rather too well.
By the time he turned 40 during the 90s, the TV work had dried up, his second marriage to actress Sandra Dickinson was disintegrating, and he was massively in debt.
It’s a period he describes as his “wilderness” years.
“Showbusiness is cyclical — you go in and out of fashion, and at that point, I was out,” he admits.
“It added pressure to the problems at home.
“The marriage split was difficult because we’d been a high-profile TV couple and when that goes wrong, it’s manna from heaven for the tabloid media.
“The pressure of that somehow influenced us, delaying the end in a way that wasn’t helpful.
“It heightened everything, including the acrimony.
“Not only that, we’d been living in a rather grand style — four cars and an eight-bedroom riverside home — but I’d foolishly overlooked setting aside money for the taxman.
“I came a cropper over that and ended up living alone in a basement flat.
“It was quite a lifestyle change, but a turning point for me and I think I found myself during that time.”
These days, his career’s back on track. Last year, he received acclaim for his performance in West End musical, Gypsy with Imelda Staunton.
He’s also been happily married since 2003 to actor and writer, Elizabeth Heery, whom he descirbes as “my soul mate”.
Both their sons, Joel, 15 and Louis, 17, want to act and Louis has already appeared in a movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and in Holby City.
They are, he jokes, branches of a “new Davison-Tennant acting dynasty” as his actress daughter, Georgia Moffett, 31, from his marriage to Sandra Dickinson, is married to another Doctor Who, David Tennant.
The couple have three children, as well as Georgia’s 14-year-old son, Ty.
“It’s wonderful to see Georgia so happy because she’s had tough times in her life,” says Peter of his daughter, who met her husband on the set of Doctor Who in 2008.
“Over the years, she’s gone through her parents’ marriage break-up and having a baby when she was in her teens, but dealt with it brilliantly and has taken it all in her stride.
“She’s proved to be a wonderful mother and David’s a lovely bloke. I’m a very proud grandfather.”
He is, however, still bedevilled by shyness, saying: “Acting’s always been my escape from that trait.
“For someone without a grand plan, and very little ambition, I’ve managed to amble through and, on occasions, be in the right place at the right time.”
Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs by Peter Davison is published in hardback by John Blake, priced £20. Available now.