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Beware Tate’s savage jaw, she’s just turned 54

And so they’re back, from outer space…

Well, as something of an occasionally lapsed Doctor Who viewer, it’s been absolutely spiffing to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate “resume” their roles as The Doctor and Donna in a triumvirate of year-end specials.

There’s always a lot riding on any Time Lord regeneration, of course, but because new Who became a hugely (and rightly) hyped, unequivocal cash-cow for the Beeb, it felt like everything and the kitchen sink was riding on this regeneration game.

In a way, it was. On the back of his hugely successful interpretation of The Doctor the first time around, Tennant had surely become one of Britain’s favourite TV actors – if not its favourite of any medium. His version of the time-hopping hero with two hearts always felt like it was made for the people; up to date with pop culture, falling in love with a young blonde from a council estate and bantering and bickering with Catherine Tate’s gobby companion Donna Noble, he was the most human Doctor to date. So much so that he consistently challenged Tom Baker for top spot in polls of the ‘Docs and still does. 

In which case, Tennant – as much as Midas touch-like executive producer Russell T Davies – felt like the fulcrum of the show; and by 2009, so did Catherine, who happened to be raised in a council flat at the same Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury where my first book BowieStyle was designed and assembled.

As it’s the birthday of the Tate one – the day before my mother’s, CT is six months my junior, as it goes – a little recap of the time in November 2018 I caught Catherine Tate Live on the other side of the world, at Takapuna’s Bruce Mason Centre, a coastal cultural hotspot in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland.

Surreal? Well, I was passing NZ to get to Australia from Chile, as you do.

Give or take various spin-offs, it’s well over a decade since The Catherine Tate Show ran for three hugely successful seasons on the BBC in the mid 2000s. But if the number of A-list cameos was anything to go by — take a bow George Michael, Leslie Phillips, and, er, Tony Blair —  the series is clearly missed. To put that into context, when the “world tour” stage adaption was announced, demand for tickets was so great it was extended by several weeks, including week-long residencies in several venues in London and elsewhere. 

The live show essentially played like an extended version of a Tate TV episode, with a series of sketches featuring many of the comedian’s most popular characters doing a turn or two. 

Diehard fans were delighted to be reunited with the old catchphrases, like “How very dare you!”, “What a fucking liberty!” And “He’s a gay man now”.

Catherine Tate is certainly a supremely accomplished character comedian, expertly transforming herself from gobby chav, Lauren “Am I bovvered?” Cooper, to the formidable foul mouth of cackling oldie Nan Taylor and closeted camper Derek Faye. Faye = fey: geddit? Yes, I’m sure he did.

Regulars revived also include Middle England’s favourite conservative couple Janice and Ray, obsessive fundraiser Geordie Georgie and bouncy, Beyoncé-loving Irish nurse Bernie, interspersed with a patisserie of pre-recorded segments that allow the stage to be reset for the next skit. 

Indeed, props to the backstage hands who were waiting between sketches to rapidly assist with wigs, outfits and occasionally prosthetics. The production overall was brilliantly put together, with a giant, animated screen behind the performers creating bright, dynamic backdrops for each sketch.

As a performer, this was the second time I witnessed her treading the boards, after catching a West End performance of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant himself in 2011. As then, Tate is exceptional, effortlessly transforming from one character to the next and adopting not just a diverse range of voices, but physical transformations through her body language and mannerisms.

However, the main difference to the transmitted Tate is that in a theatrical production, when things went wrong it allowed the star of the show to display her talent for off-the-cuff gags, ad-libs and breaking the fourth wall. These were easily some of the funniest moments, especially when she fluffed or forgot her lines, missed cues and broke character – which, far from damaging the show, just proceeded to ramp up the entertainment value.

These moments of mirth offered Catherine room to improvise. A seated kiwi dared to pull out their phone for a photo, but caught the subject’s gaze, who put them in their place in classic comedic fashion: “I’m a memory, not a memento,” the savage jaw barked, only half seriously.

When Tate tried very hard to force her three cast-mates to break character with her and corpse, it was a brilliantly unscripted moment that, even if her colleagues stayed as reasonably straight-faced as they could, had the entire audience in hysterics. It made me wish she had given herself more opportunities to improvise throughout, given her obvious talent for it — something we don’t really see on the tellybox Tate. 

The assembled throng were laughing out loud for more than two hours, and came away on a high, particularly since the show ended strongly with one of her most popular characters, the now movie star Nan, in an extended sketch that threw in a few theatrical surprises — as well as a video cameo by Billy Connolly as St Peter.

Tate’s energy never dropped despite a show that featured plenty of singing, dancing and physical comedy. Of course, there was also plenty of swearing, a requisite sprinkling of gay jokes and poking fun at other cultures (and gingers). There was even a dig at the Aussie accent, and one could only imagine how she was portraying the cobbers in shows across the ditch, which was where the show had just come from and where I was flying to next: back home to sunny Sydney*.

Who, dear? Me, dear? Yes, dear.

Steve Pafford

*During the show of at Sydney’s State Theatre, Tate revealed that there would be another season of the TV show, though this has yet to materialise

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