Catherine Tate: A One-Woman Zeitgeist

Catherine Tate is a one-woman zeitgeist. A red-headed goddess of sorts, entering the Hilton Grand Salon on Friday by saying “Thank you for coming. Let’s start a cult.”

Yes, let’s. You, Ms. Tate, shall be our supreme leader.

You may know Tate from Doctor Who as the indelible Donna Noble (no pun intended)—a companion of the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant—or from the The Catherine Tate Show, where she spawned her famous catchphrase, “Am I bovvered?” Or, like many at this panel, from the U.S. version of The Office, where she once infamously ate a taco.

What you may not know is that Tate is a natural with crowds. Someone who has instant, amazing chemistry with an audience and can make a large group feel as if they are at an intimate, joyful gathering with their closest mates. She struck a rapport in minutes, teasing late comers, being quippy, and tossing out the zingers she’s known for while challenging the audience to find who came the furthest.

“Better not be me!” she shouted, before joking, “Scotland! Says David Tennant at the back!” in a “gotcha” moment that made everyone look.

Tate not only set a fun, loose tone, she also set some ground rules, and set some things straight, saying the distance challenge was to “waste time so I don’t have to answer questions about sci-fi.”

“I loved being in Doctor Who. It was an honor and a privilege and a highlight,” she told the audience before asking them not to take it to heart when she would be unable to wax philosophical about complex episodes or was incapable of remembering scenes, since much was filmed out of sequence. She later clarified that it’s not that she dislikes sci-fi, but that comedy’s quick, snappy dialogue appeals to her—the low-brow-ness of it—and that sci-fi tends to “test [her] mental powers.” She even joked about how she couldn’t get the term “regeneration” right the year before at Dragon Con 2018, when she called it “recalibration” much to the chagrin of audiences.

But, she does remember that Donna loses her memory and her favorite scene is right before that, when she is half Donna, half the Doctor.

So, this audience took her cue and kept the discussion light and fun.

When asked what brought her to Dragon Con, Tate deadpanned, “big plane” before being semi-seriously saying, “I got asked. I’m an easy mark.”

Regarding The Office, Tate said, “Yes, I understand that show.”

She said it’s a misnomer that the show was all improv, which is a testament to the writers. She said that Craig Robinson, who played Darryl, was her favorite (they have pet names for each other) because he’s a prankster, which is why she thought he was joking when he once called to tell her he too was headed to Toronto for FanExpo on the same flight out of LAX. It took the pilot, after takeoff, to convince her otherwise.

When asked about that taco scene, she said, “to be fair, I’d never had a taco before.” She seemed impressed that it has since become “a bit” that lots of people talk about and grown legs to the point that she once caught a glimpse of it on E! News.

There was lots of discussion about Shakespeare, as Tate and Tennant did a production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2011 in London, wherein she was hoisted up by cables, except one night when she was sick. She also recounted the night an understudy had to play a part last minute for which he was ill-prepared.

“He was talking crap,” Tate said. “I walked off the stage, pretending to be crying.” She left Tennant to contend with the actor alone, saying it was the only time she ever saw him break character, while she laughed offstage and composed herself enough to return.

She was also asked what female Shakespearean role she’d like to see Tennant do. “I might like to see his Juliet,” she responded before someone told her that Tennant had said in his panel earlier that he wanted to do Katherina from Taming of the Shrew to Tate’s Petruchio. She agreed that would be interesting, since it’s a problematic play to begin with.

Tate had a debilitating shyness as a child that manifested at school, something her mother was shocked to learn since at home Tate was a chatterbox. Tate admitted she was so timid that she found it “much less embarrassing” to wet herself instead of raising her hand for the bathroom. When her mother went to the school to ask why her daughter was not in the nativity play, she learned about the shyness and convinced the school nuns to create a role wherein Tate was the entertainment at Baby Jesus’ christening party. She got some laughs, and a star was born.

When asked if she had ever felt so discouraged that she wanted to quit, Tate said “I think everyone feels like that.” Early on, Tate competed for a role against friend, who got the part, and struggled with how to handle her disappointment while at a department store.

“I remember just sitting down and just lying back on the bed in the middle of this department store, just going ‘I can’t go on.’ I was a bit dramatic when I was young,” Tate said, joking in a tone mocking her younger self that it was the “worst moment.”

But it was very hard, which, she stressed, is just the way the world works sometimes. “A lot of the times in life,” she said, “We do have to negotiate massive disappointment.” But, she wasn’t willing to give up then—at least until she tried comedy and stand-up, which she felt was her final test, saying, to the audience, “On the whole, don’t give up.”

When asked what her inspiration is, she said that she’s just a “dreadful old show-off” before becoming somewhat serious and talking about how she’s actually an introvert who turned to performing as a way to cope, in a way, and control situations to her advantage—which is a theory she once heard.

“I was bullied at school,” she said, “And it was only when I found my voice to make people laugh that I realized ‘oh it’s control. I’ve got control over you, because I can make all these people laugh at your expense.’ To the bullies, you know what I mean?”

“I thought it was a very interesting theory. That it can be a form of controlling social interaction because as a very shy child that’s what I was after,” she said, before joking, “And, as I say, I’m a show-off.”

While the superstitious Tate doesn’t talk future work, she did say she’s headed back to London to film a feature-length film of Nan from The Catherine Tate Show. She then ended on a lightning round of final questions, giving every adoring fan a chance to get close and personal. Tate took it all in stride, answering everything from her favorite musical artist (Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa) to admitting that she’ll be Nan in old age (and that Lauren Cooper is based on her now) and saying that all pranks on Doctor Who, and that all her favorite scenes, involved John Barrowman’s bare behind. That sounds pretty low-brow, so maybe Doctor Who was right up Tate’s alley. Which is why she was perfect for it. And, she was the perfect companion for the 10th Doctor.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.