The new Doctor Who was announced to great fanfare last week. Peter Capaldi, well known for his role as foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in BBC's The Thick of It, will be replacing current incumbent Matt Smith as the Doctor. There was much excitement and speculation in the press about who would take the role in the weeks leading up to the announcement. For Bond fans, this press interest recalled the frenzy of speculation that has traditionally preceded the casting of an actor in the role of James Bond, and there has been a number of similar elements to the media campaigns for both characters. In this post, I'd like to look at some of these elements, and examine the conditions that have led to such media interest in the casting for major TV and film characters.
Just as dozens of potential candidates for the role of James Bond are put forward in the media during casting, the list of possible Doctors has also been extensive. In 2005, before David Tennant was cast as the Doctor, some of the names mentioned in connection with the role included Bill Nighy, Richard E Grant, David Thewlis and Alan Davies. When David Tennant left the role in 2008, Russell Brand, Sean Pertwee, David Morrissey, and Robert Carlyle were among the actors considered by the media as potential replacements. The role ultimately went to Matt Smith, but when he quit earlier this year, the speculation resumed. This time, it appeared that David Harewood, Dan Stevens, Bill Bailey, Daniel Rigby, Damien Molony Aneurin Barnard, James Nesbitt, and Bond alumni Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear were in the running.
But there has been speculation about the who'd play the next Doctor Who almost since the first Doctor, William Hartnell, left the role in 1966. For example, an article in the Daily Mirror in February 1974 was headlined, “Who next? Jon Pertwee ('I can't stand Daleks') quits”. In January 1996, the Daily Express announced that “Our man McGann beats the stars to become the next Dr Who”, and in July 2002, the Express predicted that Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Head would be cast in the role.
The same sort of press interest has accompanied every period of casting for the next James Bond. If anything, the level of interest has been much higher and more intensive than that for Doctor Who. The tradition of speculating on the identity of the new Bond actor began during casting for the first Bond film, Dr No (1962). Many names were mentioned in connection with the role, including James Mason, Patrick McGoohan and David Niven, and famously the Daily Express ran a campaign to find James Bond, settling on model Peter Anthony. Over the course of the film series, actors have been put forward as potential candidates for the role, even when there was no position available, and there were particularly intensive periods of speculation in 1986, 1994 and 2005 ahead of the casting of Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig respectively.
Notably, recent media speculation on potential Doctor Whos has included consideration of black actors, among them Paterson Joseph and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Similarly, the press has championed black actors for the role of James Bond. The Sun in December 2004, for example, tipped Colin Salmon for the role, and more recently Idris Elba has had to address persistent rumours that he might be James Bond when Daniel Craig hangs up his dinner-suit. However, while the media have been open to the possibility of a female Doctor Who (Helen Mirren, Olivia Coleman and Sue Perkins have been among the names mentioned), the prospect of a female Bond has never been given any serious consideration.
Evidently, then, the search for the next James Bond and Doctor Who has usually been accompanied by intense media coverage. But what are the conditions that induce such speculation, and why are other serial fictional characters of less interest to the media? Clearly the media reflect the considerable public affection that there is for both Bond and Doctor Who (hence the casting for the roles of historical characters attracts little attention, even if the characters have been portrayed several times), and this in turn reflects the sense that the characters are bigger than any actor who plays him. In the case of Bond, this was a view that Eon Productions had sought from the start. In his autobiography (When the Snow Melts, 1998), Cubby Broccoli wrote that “if we cast an unknown actor, the public would be more likely to accept him as the character.” This recalled a view that Broccoli had expressed to Alan Whicker in 1967, agreeing with Whicker that after Connery, there would be other Bonds. On the face of it, Batman would seem to be an exception to this rule; casting for the role has also attracted a reasonable amount of media speculation, despite the fact that Batman has been played by top-flight Hollywood stars. But in this case, the actors have been largely hidden under a mask, which to an extent has anonymised the actors and allowed audiences to focus on the character. In contrast, Matt Damon is so strongly identified with the role of Jason Bourne, that there was no question that another actor would take the role following Damon's departure from the Bourne series.
Continuing this point, for the media to be encouraged to generate lists of potential actors for certain roles, there must generally be an established pattern of transition. Even with prolonged gaps between films, there has never been intense speculation about actors who might take on the role of Indiana Jones or Ethan Hunt, and it seems unlikely that the characters would appear on screen unless played by Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise. It is interesting to note that when Disney announced that episode seven of the Star Wars saga would be made, it was taken for granted that the actors who had appeared in the original trilogy would resume their roles, rather than the possibility that the roles would be offered to other actors.
It is difficult to gain an accurate view of this without a significant amount of research in press archives, but I wonder whether, in the UK at least, intense media interest in the casting for a serial character has until the past decade or so been confined to James Bond and to a lesser extent Doctor Who. Now there is (almost) as much speculation about who might play Batman, Superman and other characters. If this is the case, it may in part be a product of the changing means by which the media source their information. In the past, rumours about certain actors were generated by journalists themselves (whether based on anything substantive or not). Today, newspapers and other media organisations are as likely to respond to rumours generated by the public and disseminated through the internet, especially social media sites.
There is one other point worth making here. The idea of the next James Bond, or the next Doctor Who, is itself a meme that has currency in cultural space. It exists as an entity in its own right, serving as a phrase which is transmitted through various media and in conversation. To hear the phrase in the home, pub or the workplace triggers a sort of parlour game in which lists of actors are championed or dismissed. And even before the ink's dry on incumbents' resignation letters, the media and public speculation commences.