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Why We Fell Under Piper's Spell

The competition was stiff at last month's National Television Awards. There was Jessie Wallace and June Brown, Kat Slater and Dot Cotton respectively, the tough-as-old-boots Albert Square legends. Caroline Quentin, the funny woman turned sturdy drama player, was a formidable threat, not least because she'd won a special Recognition Award the year before. And there was the favourite, Sally Lindsay, aka Coronation Street's much-loved barmaid extraordinaire Shelley Unwin.
As it turned out, these leading ladies were but hapless humans before a Dalek death-ray. Dr Who star Billie Piper exterminated them all to scoop the title of Britain's Most Popular Actress.
The triumph set the seal on a remarkable year for Piper. In the six months since Dr Who landed back on terrestrial TV screens, the 23-year-old has seen her public image soar to the point where she's become a kind of national sweetheart - and a hugely respected screen star. Next week she shines brilliantly alongside experienced actors Damian Lewis and Sarah Parish in Much Ado About Nothing, part of the BBC's much-vaunted season of Shakespeare updates. The Corporation has also reportedly locked her in to a third series of Dr Who with a lucrative golden handcuffs deal. How's that for a comeback?
Piper is perfect in the role of Dr Who's sidekick Rose Tyler, conveying a winning mix of streetwise pluck, cool glamour and a kind of been-there, done-that savvy. Playing pivotal love-interest Hero in Much Ado About Nothing - the action relocated to a regional TV station, with Piper as a weather girl - her gorgeousness almost leaps off the screen. But, crucially, her beauty comes underpinned by genuine, no-nonsense niceness. And, like the rest of this sparkling, often hilarious re-imagining of Shakespeare, she shows an artful knack for comedy, too.
The qualities she brings to these roles go a long way to explaining why everyone loves Piper. She's the girl next door, perky, attractive and real. At the TV Awards she was dressed simply, almost demurely, while all around were desperate wannabes spilling out of silly frocks.
The great British public knows Piper. We've grown up with her, witnessed her adolescent music success and her post-pop collapse into the arms of Chris Evans, winced as the fast courtship led to a Vegas wedding and millionaire-lifestyle loafing. Felt for her as it all went wrong. Aged only 22, Billie Piper had been through more than most of us experience in a lifetime. It was hard not to feel sorry for her - then equally difficult not to cheer her on when she came up trumps as an actor. Everyone loves a happy ending.
I interviewed Piper earlier this year, just as she was finishing making Dr Who. She looked exhausted - she had been filming intensely for eight months in Cardiff - but answered every question with honesty and remarkable good humour. Even the ones about her pending divorce from Evans, and the tantric sex she allegedly enjoyed with her new law-student boyfriend. When you've been a tabloid fixture for a huge chunk of your young life, not much fazes you.
In the wake of the massive ratings success of Dr Who (almost 10 million viewers at its peak), it's easy to forget that there was huge expectation - and trepidation - surrounding the return of the Time Lord. Yes, the gifted and famously intense Christopher Eccleston was playing the 953-year-old Doctor. Writer Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk) was the mastermind behind the script. The BBC was throwing a lot of cash at the production.
But Piper? Well, Piper, charged with the crucial role of Rose Tyler, was the unknown quantity. She had impressed in The Miller's Tale (2003), part of the BBC's modernisations of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the success of which begat this month's Shakespeares. There was also the gritty BBC2 drama Bella and the Boys in 2004. But otherwise, pretty much all she had to her name as an actor was a part with Orlando Bloom in the so-called comedy The Calcium Kid, and in an obscure horror film called Spirit Trap.
At the beginning of 2005, you might have seen bottle-blonde Piper as a younger version of fellow Swindon lass Melinda Messenger. A Heat-friendly glamourpuss who, while a pop star, had done her share of "excessive partying". Russell T Davies admitted that, prior to her Dr Who audition, this was how he thought of her. "All I had was the 'celeb' impression," he told me.
After her intensely successful pop career - two number one singles aged 15 and 16, three million copies sold of her debut album - she had slipped into that curious post-fame netherworld where she was famous for who she was rather than what she did. Which was perhaps inevitable because, after her second album flopped, she didn't do much, except get drunk with Evans, take lots of holidays and swan about in fast cars.
I asked her if she thought her time with Evans meant that people took her less seriously. "Probably," she shrugged, fingering her pack of Marlboro Lights. Did that bother her? "No. For once I did not care. I was being completely selfish, but I felt like I needed to be. And that I deserved some time on my own to do exactly what I wanted to do."
Piper was famous for most of her teens, the dizzying end result of a hunger for the stage that began when she filmed her first commercial, for a breakfast cereal, aged seven. She had to eat the stuff while suspended in mid-air.
She can still remember her clothes: Marks & Spencer hotpants and "some crazy peach leotard. I just loved it! I remember leaving London and feeling like crying. Even though it's only 60 miles up the road [from Swindon], it's a completely different way of life. And I knew that that existed and I was desperate to have it, taste it again."
More commercials followed, and a bit-part in Alan Parker's Evita. Then, when she was 12, Piper won a half-scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School.
At 14, she became the face of Smash Hits in an advertising campaign. Of all the girls who auditioned, Piper was the most confident. "She screened amazingly well on camera," says Margaret Heffernan, the brand manager charged with relaunching the pop magazine at the time. "And she was multi-talented - she had to sing, dance and act all at the same time."
The exposure led to a record deal and her super soaraway pop career. Did things like singing in front of Bill Clinton ultimately help with her acting? "Yeah, of course," said Piper. "It helped me with adults, social situations… I had to grow up very quickly."
Peter Bowker was a writer on The Canterbury Tales, and also on the new Shakespeare dramas. He says people assume that Piper will be "some fluffy bunny who laughs in the right places and will be a bit vacuous. The other misconception is that she wouldn't have a sense of humour about where she is and where she's come from. In The Miller's Tale she was playing a singer, married to an older man. But, for all that, there was clearly proper acting going on. People came to me time and time again, saying she blew them away. Now whenever I'm in casting discussions, her name always comes up."
Everyone I spoke to - including her old record label boss and her Canterbury Tales co-star James Nesbitt - couldn't praise Piper enough. She was going to be a huge star, they all said. But the best advert for Piper was Piper herself. There were no airs and graces about her, no attitude. In her 23 years she had been through the mill - twice - then set about proving that she had something to offer behind the headlines and beyond the pop. The adage was true: what hadn't crushed her had made her stronger. She just wanted to act, and to be judged on that.
"I didn't approach Dr Who saying, 'I want to be remembered,'" Piper told me. "I'm not really bothered about all of that. I just got on with it and hoped for the best, hah hah."
That laugh had sounded nervous. She wouldn't be making any grand claims as to how Dr Who might pan out for her.
Davies was less circumspect. "Billie is massively strong," he said. "I think in five years' time we'll be sitting discussing her Hollywood career."
Source: The Telegraph, November 2005