Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Eccleston, Christopher (1964-)


Main image of Eccleston, Christopher (1964-)

Tall and gaunt, with bony, long-nosed features and a deep, resonant voice, Eccleston is suited to playing intense, brooding characters. But he can also bring a quirky saturnine humour to lighter roles, and made an offbeat but effective choice for the ninth incarnation of Doctor Who (BBC, 2005- ).

He was born in Salford, Lancashire, the youngest of three sons in a working-class family, and attended local schools. At 19, inspired to an acting career by hard-hitting TV dramas like Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982), he completed a two-year performance course at Salford Tech before training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He made his professional stage debut in 1988 with a support role in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Bristol Old Vic, and landed a couple of parts at the National Theatre, but for a year or two roles were hard to come by. His screen breakthrough came in Let Him Have It (d. Peter Medak, 1991), playing the ill-fated Derek Bentley, hanged for another’s crime.

Eccleston made his television debut in 1990, and soon started getting major roles. He was a sceptical senior cop, DCI Bilborough, in Cracker (ITV, 1993-94) until, at his own request, he was written out of the series, memorably murdered by Robert Carlyle’s avenging killer in a story channelling writer Jimmy McGovern's fury at the Hillsbrough stadium disaster. Two years later he was one of the four leads (with Gina McKee, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong) in Peter Flannery’s modern-day political saga Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996). In between these he starred in Danny Boyle’s debut film, the black comedy Shallow Grave (1994), along with Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor; his character, seemingly the most inhibited of the trio, reveals an unexpected talent for calculated violence.

He was ideal casting as the dogged but ultimately doomed title character in Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1996), adapted from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, co-starring with Kate Winslet, and made a grim, befurred Duke of Norfolk in Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998). After a small but key role as the Seminar Leader in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (US, 1999) he made his Hollywood debut as a British crime boss in the actioner Gone in 60 Seconds (US, 2000). He played Nicole Kidman’s husband in the atmospheric ghost story The Others (US, 2001), before re-teaming with Michael Winterbottom for the Madchester-scene drama 24 Hour Party People (2002), and with Danny Boyle for the horror movie 28 Days Later (2002). In Alex Cox’s punk updating of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (2002) he played the protagonist, Vindici, with dark, sardonic humour.

On TV Eccleston played Trevor Hicks, whose two daughters died in the Hillsborough disaster, in McGovern’s drama Hillsborough (ITV, 1996). (Thirteen years later, he acted as the real-life Hicks’s best man at his wedding.) He was one of many guest stars in Paul Abbott's high-impact factory drama Clocking Off (BBC, 2001-2004) and a discreetly malevolent Iago - or rather 'Ben Jago' - in Andrew Davies' updated Othello (ITV, 2001) In Russell T Davies’s eccentric telefantasy The Second Coming (2003) he played a Manchester video-shop assistant who believes himself to be the son of God.

Davies, who had persuaded the BBC to revive the cult fantasy series Doctor Who (dormant since 1996), was instrumental in choosing Eccleston to play the ninth Doctor. A surprise choice, the actor won over many sceptical fans with his reading of the character: a playful, even manic, curiosity laced with moments of foreboding gloom. However, Eccleston quit the role after a single series. At the time it was officially explained that he wanted to avoid typecasting; but he later said, “I left Doctor Who because I could not get along with the senior people. I left because of politics. I did not see eye-to-eye with them. I didn’t agree with the way things were being run. I didn’t like the culture that had grown up around the series.... My face didn’t fit and I’m sure they were glad to see the back of me. The important thing is that I succeeded. It was a great part. I loved playing him. “

Since The Doctor, his highest-profile role to date, Eccleston has appeared in other fantasy roles. He was a character with the power of invisibility in the NBC TV series Heroes (US, 2007), the villainous Rider in the film adaptation of Susan Cooper’s young-adult novel The Dark Is Rising (US, 2007) and the similarly nefarious Destro in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009). In a BBC biopic, Lennon Naked (2009), he was cast as John Lennon. He played morally compromised characters in McGovern's Accused (BBC, 2010-12), and Bill Gallagher's Blackout (BBC, 2012), but the most powerful of his recent roles was as Joseph Bede, seemingly quiet consultant to a crime empire who shows his darker side when obliged to head up the operation, in the BBC’s labyrinthine seven-part noir thriller The Shadow Line (2011).

Philip Kemp

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Anchoress (1993)Anchoress (1993)

Ravishingly photographed feature about a medieval girl's visions

Thumbnail image of Business With Friends (1992)Business With Friends (1992)

Powerful short about a British neo-Nazi on a trip to Germany

Thumbnail image of Clocking Off (2000-03)Clocking Off (2000-03)

Smart, lively series of urban stories created by rising star Paul Abbott

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Hillsborough (1996)Hillsborough (1996)

Powerful drama about the 1989 football stadium tragedy and its aftermath

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

Thumbnail image of Our Friends in the North (1996)Our Friends in the North (1996)

Epic portrait of four Newcastle friends, spanning the 1960s to the 1990s

Thumbnail image of Second Coming, The (2003)Second Coming, The (2003)

Visionary drama imagining the Son of God's reappearance in Manchester

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

Related people and organisations