David Tennant on his wife Georgia’s cancer scare: ‘We were numb. A few months later could have been too late’

Georgia and David met on the set of Doctor Who
Georgia and David met on the set of Doctor Who - Kristina Varaksina

Georgia Tennant is recalling the moment, at the start of the pandemic, when she realised she was going to be locked down with her husband. ‘David was supposed to be filming in South Africa,’ explains the 38-year-old actor and producer. ‘But then there was a series of phone calls, South Africa shut down, and he turned to me and said: “I’m not going back”.’

Georgia and I share a look that speaks volumes: about the slo-mo dawning experienced by wives all over the world when it became clear they would be trapped with the man they’d promised to love and cherish – but not, crucially, have lunch with every day for weeks on end. About what became more like the premise of a twisted reality TV show when those weeks turned into months.

‘I remember having this sudden realisation…’ Glancing at her Scottish stage and screen star husband, Georgia pauses, blue eyes wide, and at this point I’m already smiling because I think I know what’s coming. ‘That, oh my gosh, David’s just going to be here, the whole time.’ I nod compassionately. ‘Which obviously I’d never had before.’ Another nod. We’ve all been there.

‘And just thinking: that’s really exciting!’

Oh… It’s a needle-across-vinyl moment and I stop mid-nod and stare. Georgia and I are not on the same page. In fact, she seems to be reading an entirely different book: this wife can’t think of anything nicer than being holed up with her husband of 12 years.

‘We just really like each other,’ she says once all three of us have stopped laughing. ‘Even now, we like hanging out with each other more than we like hanging out with anyone else.’ Some might say that’s a pretty good basis for a marriage. ‘Exactly. And when all the kids are around it’s like a commune here, which I love.’

With a semi-apologetic shrug the 52-year-old Doctor Who and Broadchurch star confirms, ‘It’s true.’ There’s no way around it: he too just really likes his wife. ‘In fact, the more time we spend together the more we get on,’ he says. And although I’m not sure I can deal with any more bombshell revelations so early on in an interview, this is probably just as well. Because the Tennants didn’t just end up marooned on the couch together for the duration of the pandemic – with their five children, Ty, 21, Olive, 12, Wilfred, 10, Doris, seven, and Birdie, three – but filming a lockdown TV comedy series, Staged, which became the surprise summer comedy hit of 2020.

The Tennants with Michael Sheen and Anna Lundberg in Staged
The Tennants with Michael Sheen and Anna Lundberg in Staged - Paul Stephenson

The whimsical meta sitcom follows David’s fractious friendship with Welsh actor Michael Sheen as they plan various ill-fated ventures from either side of the world on Zoom. Only this isn’t reality TV, but a hammed-up version. Its two actors forever making a drama out of a crisis, as their partners watch, bemused, occasionally stepping in when things get out of hand.

Georgia and Swedish actress Anna Lundberg’s attitude is probably best described by the bumper sticker quote: ‘Behind every successful man is a woman rolling her eyes’, and audiences liked them so much that their roles get progressively bigger with each series.

Amazingly, Staged outlived the pandemic premise it was built on and I’m here today, in a sleek home office at the back of the couple’s west London home, to talk about the third and final series, which is currently airing on BBC One. Having spent the past 24 hours binge-watching six episodes of the show, I’m slightly thrown by how dialled-down the real David and Georgia are compared with their on-screen personas. He’s far less wild-haired and neurotic in real life – perhaps in part because after a trip to the dental hygienist this morning, he’s not yet been allowed his coffee – and she’s just as beautiful, with the same poise she maintains throughout Staged, but more amused than exasperated, today, by her man.

‘This wasn’t our first project together,’ David reminds me when I ask whether working on the show together over three years didn’t tip this perfect partnership over the edge. ‘After all, Georgia and I did meet on set.’

It’s true that it was while he was playing the Tenth Doctor in 2008 that he met his future wife, who was cast as his genetically engineered daughter in the BBC show. Does Georgia still get endless joy from that? ‘Oh, I’ve had 15 years of joy from that,’ she flings back. ‘Of course, I was already 900 years old at the time,’ David deadpans.

After the Doctor Who years, the pair went on to co-star in the 2017 film, You, Me and Him, which Georgia also produced. Still, when it came to filming Staged, he got ‘incredibly nervous’, he admits. ‘I think we were quite anxious about what that would… do, weren’t we?’

His wife murmurs her agreement, although like her Staged character she seems serene and in control and it’s easy to imagine her talking David down from various ledges in daily life.

Georgia with parents Peter Davison and Sandra Dickinson in 1984
Georgia with parents Peter Davison and Sandra Dickinson in 1984 - Getty

For all their harmony, they seem quite different. Certainly, they come from different backgrounds. As the daughter of actors Peter Davison and Sandra Dickinson, Georgia was born into the profession, making her debut at 15 in ITV’s Peak Practice, before going on to appear in shows such as Where the Heart Is, Like Father Like Son and The Last Detective.

Bathgate-born David, meanwhile, is the son of a Presbyterian church minister, who attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and established himself with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre early on. After winning the game-changing role of Doctor Who at 34, he has continued to demonstrate his versatility as an actor, flitting from hard-hitting TV dramas like Des in 2020 (playing serial killer Dennis Nilsen) and Litvinenko in 2022 (as the former Russian spy) to playing a demon in Amazon’s ongoing fantasy series Good Omens. Then there’s his stage work: the recent West End play Good, in which he played a professor drawn into Nazism, and a forthcoming stint as Macbeth at London’s Donmar Warehouse in December.

Despite his success, the actor has suffered from acute anxiety ever since he was a boy, fretting about everything from ‘not being good enough’ and ‘being found out’ (as he told one interviewer in 2019) to the loss of anonymity he knew he’d experience back in 2005, when he was cast as a TV hero he’d idolised from the age of three. ‘Because with a show like Doctor Who,’ he tells me, ‘it’s on a different scale.’

As anyone who suffers from anxiety knows, the primary, all-consuming worry is that everything ‘probably will go wrong’ at any given moment. In 2018 something did go very wrong when Georgia was diagnosed with cervical cancer – something she shared in her blog, despite usually being a private person. ‘I thought it was easier than having to phone everyone and tell them,’ she explains today.

‘It was a very weird experience,’ muses David. ‘Because we found out the bad news after it had been dealt with, so we had the relief at the same time as the horror.’

Following an abnormal smear test result, Georgia had a biopsy and a cervical excision to remove the tissue causing concern. It was only after that procedure that test results showed the cells had been cancerous. David pauses, looking at his wife. ‘At least we were spared the prospect of living with, “You’ve got this, and can it be caught?” But I still have these flashbacks of “What if you hadn’t…?”’ He shakes his head. ‘I don’t think I acknowledged at the time how serious it could have been.’

The couple’s daughter Olive, then 10, made her screen debut in the Oscar-winning film Belfast in 2021, directed by Kenneth Branagh
The couple’s daughter Olive, then 10, made her screen debut in the Oscar-winning film Belfast in 2021, directed by Kenneth Branagh - Alamy

The couple were too busy ‘just dealing with each stage’, David goes on. ‘The slightly funky test and then going in and having the biopsy.’

‘But I did make you answer the phone, when we were waiting to hear [the results],’ Georgia cuts in. ‘I obviously knew there was going to be something, so David got the news first: that it was bad but that they’d got rid of it. And then he made me get on the phone so that I could hear it from the doctor myself, because he knew that was something I needed to do.’

Afterwards, ‘both of us were just numb,’ David murmurs. ‘It was such a Sliding Doors moment. Even a few months later it could have been too late.’

‘Which is why now,’ Georgia concludes wryly, ‘I’ll tell everyone with a cervix: go and get yourself checked.’

With the couple’s eldest son Ty now a successful actor – having starred in the TV series War of the Worlds and HBO’s House of the Dragon – and Olive, then 10, making her big-screen debut in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning film Belfast, two years ago, I’m curious to know how they both feel about their brood following in their footsteps? ‘I just want them to be happy and to be able to survive in the world,’ Georgia says. ‘So if acting is what they want to do…’

It helps that the industry feels fairer now in almost every way, they believe, and we segue into a discussion about inclusivity and ‘real representation’ in acting – meaning, for example, that only LGBTQ actors should play LGBTQ roles. Until we’re all caught up, David maintains, ‘you have to protect those spaces for actors who come from those communities’.

It also helps that the industry is a safer place for women now than it was 10 years ago, says Georgia. ‘Because it 
definitely is,’ she adds. ‘Things happened to me when I was younger that I now realise were not great, but at the time I thought it was all part of it – that I had to laugh them off. I’m talking about situations that made me feel uncomfortable,’ she explains. ‘Now I would be able to say so, but at the time the dialogue just wasn’t there. And I don’t think any of our kids would have to feel like that now. Even if they did, they would have the words and the people behind them to say: “that’s not OK”.’

Georgia on David: ‘We just really like each other’
Georgia on David: ‘We just really like each other’ - Kristina Varaksina

David is currently filming the Disney+ series Rivals, based on Jilly Cooper’s famous bonkbuster, he tells me. ‘And there’s an “intimacy co-ordinator” on that because there’s quite a lot of shagging, so everyone’s being very appropriate and careful.’

But doesn’t it feel strange having your sex scenes ‘co-ordinated’? ‘Oh, it’s ludicrous.’ He grins. ‘Because it means you’re making the most intimate, private moments very compartmentalised and that there’s someone there asking the embarrassing questions nobody did historically – but that’s because you’re not doing these things with your actual partner. So that’s another thing that has got better over the years.’ He tilts his head to one side, narrows his eyes: ‘That said, there are still lots of reasons not to become an actor.’

This seems as good a place to end as any, and as the Tennants take me back through the garden to a side gate, Georgia tells her husband she’s ‘going for a manicure – and you have to come with me’. When I leave they’re still bickering gently, with David asking: ‘Why do I have to come?’ I don’t catch his wife’s reply, but I suspect it’s just because she really likes him.

First published: June 23, 2023

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly implied that David Tennant found intimacy directors ‘ludicrous’.  In fact Mr Tennant told us that having intimacy co-ordinators on set was helpful and an improvement in the way the industry handles such scenes. We are happy to correct the record.

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