Alan Cumming finally joins the Doctor Who family in The Witchfinders. His career has been more varied and littered with successes than Blogtor Who can do justice to here, but we can try…

 

In truth, it would probably easier to list all the things Alan Cumming hasn’t done in his career. Evidence of a determination to experience everything litters his 120 screen credits, let alone his stage work. He’s been layered with prosthetics to play blue skinned mutants and played the knowing and ironical sidekick. He’s also been the lead in psychologically complex stories, told tales of critical social importance, and voiced a smurf. And now he’d done a Doctor Who.

Routinely actors of a certain calibre will almost apologize for such a CV. They’ll explain that half the roles are simply there to subsidise the half they really want to do. Yet there’s no sense whatsoever of that from Cumming. He presents as a confident actor motivated by simple questions of what seems fun, or challenging, or new. An actor able to downplay his OBE, rather then leverage it as a sign of prestige.

Born in Perthside, in Scotland, Cumming was soon keen to escape his difficult home life and become independent. His first credit was as a teenager in an episode of Travelling Man, a Granada series similar to The Fugitive. But he spent much of his early career in Scotland, appearing in shows like Taggart and Take the High Road. But his biggest early role was as Tom in children’s drama Shadow of the Stone. The serial was appropriately enough about a young girl in modern times (played by Cumming’s fellow famous Scot Shirley Henderson) who has a ‘psychic connection’ to a victim of King James I’s infamous witch burnings.

 

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The Airzone Solution saw Cumming act alongside an array of Doctor Who stars, but he soon moved on to film success here and abroad

The early 90s saw Cumming in numerous small roles, including The Airzone Solution. Cast in the video release alongside former Doctors, Pertwee, Davison, McCoy and Colin Baker, as well as the likes of Nicola Bryant, Nicholas Briggs and Gary Russell, Cumming was about the only person in it who didn’t have a Doctor Who connection. An anomaly now corrected, of course, by The Witchfinders.

Cumming’s big break finally came as none-more-camp flight attendant Sebastian Flight in the short lived Scottish sitcom The High Life. Written by Cumming, along with co-star Forbes Masson, the show was a perfect showcase for Cumming’s exquisite comic timing. And it  accomplished its purpose in opening doors for him to other roles. The immediate fruit of The High Life’s success was his role as Boris in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut GoldenEye. As the seedy, arrogant and mischievous hacker, Cumming managed the difficult task of being the ‘evil comic relief’ with aplomb. Further 90s roles as the class nerd turned billionaire in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, the intrusive Piers in Spice World and the flamboyant Lord Rochester in Plunkett and Macleane continued the strand of comedic supporting characters.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Cumming was given to a three minute scene of prosaic exposition. He turned it into an unrequited love story with Tom Cruise through performance alone. He also managed the rare accomplishment of winning Kubrick’s respect. When the director complained he thought he’d hired an American, the Scotsman responded with a terse “I’m an actor.

The fussy and mercurial Dr. Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming) and Detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) are the dynamic duo of Instinct (c) CBS
The fussy and mercurial Dr. Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming) and Detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) are the dynamic duo of Instinct (c) CBS

The 2010s have seen Cumming settle into regular roles on long running shows, while still maintaining his love of experimentation

The 00s where no less busy, whether it be playing the Devil opposite James Garner’s God (God, the Devil and Bob), as Marvel superhero Nightcrawler (X-Men 2), or an entirely different version of Loki (Son of the Mask). He also continued to be tasked with providing the lighter moments in otherwise dark and gritty films like Get Carter. This decade has seen Cumming stepping into longer running roles on television. For seven seasons he played the ruthless Eli Gold on The Good Wife, right hand man and enforcer of politician Peter Florrick (Arachnids in the UK’s Chris Noth).

And he’s recently taken on the lead in Instinct, based on the book series by James Patterson. Cumming’s Dr. Dylan Reinhart is an author pulled into an NYPD investigation when his book inspires a serial killer. It’s also one of the first US police procedural shows where the main character is not just gay, but settled in a happy marriage. CBS airs Instinct airs in the US and have already been renewed for a second season. Sky Witness broadcasts Instinct in the UK.

 

On stage, Cumming has brought passion and conviction to characters often mad, bad, and dangerous to know

On stage, Cumming has managed the rare feat of winning both Laurence Oliver Awards for Best Comedy Performance (as The Madman in Accidental Death of an Anarchist) and for Best Actor in a Musical (as The Emcee in Cabaret, for which he also won a Tony Award). While he’s also taken the lead role of Max in the harrowing Bent, about gay victims of the Holocaust. Perhaps most impressively, Cumming reimagined Macbeth as a one man show, in which a fractured and psychotic Macbeth relives his crimes – playing every character himself – in a secure ward.

Outside of his work, Cumming has been a outspoken advocate for LGBT rights for decades. This activism has seem him received awards from GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign. The Queen awarded him an OBE in 2009 for a combination of his services to drama and to activism. The Emmys and Golden Globes have nominated him many times for his work.

 

Cumming’s five books display a diversity in subject and style that also reflects his love of variety

As if all of that weren’t enough, Cumming is also an author. There’s his memoir, Not My Father’s Son – the title a play on both his determination to be nothing like his father, and his father’s (entirely incorrect) belief that Alan was the result of an affair. Then You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams is a collection of photographs and whimsical anecdotes. Cumming explored the world of a bisexual Londoner in the midst of a midlife crisis in first novel Tommy’s Tale. There’s even a children’s picture book series, co-authored with his husband Grant Shaffer. The Honey and Leon books depict the imagined adventures of Cumming and Shaffer’s beloved dogs whenever their dads backs are turned.

It’s fitting perhaps that Doctor Who’s The Witchfinders brings Alan Cumming full circle.  After all, that early role in Shadow of the Stone saw him at the edges of the impact left by the witch burning mania of James I. Now he steps into the boots of James himself.

 

Doctor Who Series 11 - Episode 8 - The Witchfioders - King James (ALAN CUMMING), Ryan (TOSIN COLE)The Doctor Who adventure continues…

Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 6.30pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson. For further broadcast times in your region, check local listings. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).

The Witchfinders guest stars Alan Cumming (King James I) and Siobhan Finneran (Becka Savage) and is directed by Sallie Aprahamian.

The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th-century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land?

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