Studying French and German at St Andrews isn’t your stereotypical path into an acting career that has so far spanned over a decade, but it’s exactly the route that David Caves took.
The Northern Irishman, who attended the University between 1997 and 2002, is known to many up and down the country for his performances in the BBC’s forensic pathology drama Silent Witness, which just finished its 21st series. However, his career could have easily taken a completely different trajectory.
Talking to him a couple of weeks ago I discovered both his very dry wit and that St Andrews wasn’t his first choice, with the Belfast native originally preferring Edinburgh.
When pressed on the subject he said, “I had my sights set on Edinburgh until I went to St Andrews. I happened to go there with a friend of mine and it was his first choice.
“I just loved it, you know what it’s like, it’s easy to fall in love with. It seemed to click for me that that was the place to be and I never looked back”.
Coming from a family of teachers, David had initially appeared keen to follow the same track, saying, “I think being a teacher was in the back of my mind somewhere.”
“I’d always loved doing French and German. Simple as that. I just loved it, especially French. I loved speaking it, I loved doing the accent and I was always fairly decent at it. And German similarly at school, I was never as strong but I really liked doing languages.”
As with all language students, he spent his year abroad in France teaching, and whilst he admits he enjoyed it, by the time he returned to St Andrews he’d grown a little disillusioned with academia and decided he wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was acting.
Upon his return he “threw himself” into musicals and plays at the University and began to consider whether acting was a career he could pursue long-term. He cited the support he received from his parents as important as he began to look at drama schools in his final year here, and upon graduation he headed down to London to study at LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
After completing a postgrad course he managed to pick up a lot of theatre work, which kept him busy before he joined up with Silent Witness in 2013. With the programme such an institution of the British small screen, you’d think that he was nervous before auditioning for the programme, but that was far from the case.
He said, “[It came about] just like any other acting job really. I was lucky I’d been acting at the time, doing a play at the RSC and I was in a good place, both mentally and physically. I had a great time doing that so perhaps psychologically that had something to do with my frame of mind at the audition as I’d never done any telly!”
“I [then] forgot about it to be honest! It was one of those ‘it was fun but it won’t happen’ kind of things so I didn’t worry about it. Those are usually the ones you get bizarrely. It’s usually the ones you pin all your hopes on and think if I don’t get it the world will end that don’t materialise.”
Since being on the show he has drawn plaudits for his performance as the occasionally abrasive forensic scientist Jack Hodgson, and from speaking to him it’s clear just how much he has enjoyed his six series on the show thus far. Every episode of the most recent series, which aired during January and February and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer, clocked over 8.5 million viewers.
“It’s a thrill really. I have to remind myself that it’s got such a following. We all really enjoy doing it precisely because it’s got such a big fanbase and when you’re in a show like that it’s a lovely feeling and it’s quite rare because not every job is like that.”
David explains that filming the show takes seven months, beginning in April and running until November, meaning that there’s very little time between finishing and it actually airing on our screens. Although that schedule is very taxing both mentally and physically, it also offers a regularity that very few roles do. I asked him whether that was something he enjoyed.
“I do enjoy the regularity, absolutely. It’s like a “proper” job in that sense. Acting’s often very stop-start, you don’t know when the next job is going to be, so in that respect I really like the regularity because you can have a life a bit more. You can save a bit of money and plan to do things.”
Whilst recognising the consistency the role offers, he does acknowledge that it can lead to things getting stale and people thinking that it might be time to move on and try something different. For him though, the current plan seems to be focusing on Silent Witness, which was recently recommissioned for a 22nd series, meaning that he’ll be back filming again in a matter of weeks.
Talking of regularity, one of the most consistent features in all of our lives is social media. From documenting our every movement on Snapchat to sharing our thoughts about our favourite TV shows and films on Twitter, our phones are full of social media apps. When setting up the interview between David and myself that seemed like the most obviously channel to follow, although I was soon met with a series of dead ends. Caves, who is in his 30s, is notably absent from social media aside from a few fan pages, that he jokingly quipped he was behind.
When I asked him why he was absent from social media, he was very clear.
“Basically the simple answer is that I’m not a big fan of it. I find it a little bit terrifying.
“I think it can be useful simply as a means of promoting work that you’re in but inevitably it can get personal on there and I don’t like that”, he said.
He admitted to having Facebook until a few years ago and that when he began on the programme he did look at the feedback people gave on Twitter and other platforms, but he no longer has any time for it.
“Occasionally I’ll get stuff from her (co-star Liz Carr, who plays Clarissa Mullery) saying so-and-so said this or whatever and it’s usually nice, kind of flattering, but you sometimes get people just being mean and it hurts. You always remember the bad ones, you never really remember the good ones.”
He added, “It can be really damaging and hurtful and people hide behind keyboards and just say whatever the heck they like”.
The interview then took a more St Andrews-oriented direction as I posed to David questions about his favourite memories of studying in this quaint little town on Scotland’s east coast. Unsurprisingly they were mostly focused on his experiences with dramatic productions, but he also recounted his enjoyment of staying in Sallies in his first year, and his surprise of having a roommate.
Appearing alongside his oldest friend in a production of Grease was the first memory that sprang to mind, before he then revealed that he had been a member of the Alleycats, an acapella group at the University. After asking me whether the group was still in existence, he then went on to reveal that he was amongst the group’s founding members back in 2001.
He said, “We were the first ones. It was a friend of mine that created the whole thing, there were seven or eight of us, back in the day. That was great craic. I mean again it was daft but we thought we were brilliant and we weren’t. We used to play the balls and pubs and sing there and people really liked it, or seemed to.”
He then added that the group had a made a CD during his time of their work and he had recently enjoyed listening back to it, even if the quality of the singing wasn’t quite as good as he remembered it was.
Engaging in dramatic pursuits was obviously important to his tenure at the University and therefore it seemed fitting to ask him for any advice he had for current students here and for any of the current student body that might be considering a career in acting. To both he was quite coy, suggesting that he was perhaps not in a place to be giving anyone advice, but he did impart a few words of wisdom.
For students currently studying here it was very simple: “Savour it because it was the best time of my life — the times I had there, the people I met and the lifelong friends I made. But also, don’t take yourself too seriously, just lap it up. It’s wonderful. I wish there were more places like it.”
As for acting, his advice was a little more complex. He seemed to have reservation about giving specific guidance as everyone’s path in the industry is different and his journey was in no way conventional but what he did say was very realistic.
“Don’t have any illusions about it — it can be really trying and there can be times of just not working and you’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going and think ‘what’s the next thing?’ You’ve got to hustle a bit initially, you know, you’ve got to commit to it and then hopefully your things will fall into place.
He talked about the need to stay committed to the cause because it can be a very frustrating industry to work in, stressing the importance of just practising and “keeping your hand in the game.”
“Try and keep practising and doing things, even if it’s just reading things aloud, reading plays, screenplays aloud. Just keep busy, keep your hand in because it’s a funny old mentality we have in Britain about acting where we go to drama school and then the training stops. Then you’re expected to be brilliant whereas actually it’s like a muscle, you have to keep working on it to get better.”
After a thoroughly entertaining conversation I noticed that over 30 minutes had gone by and thought it was best to let David go on his way as he is a very busy man. To wrap up I asked him two last questions — what his plans were for the future outside Silent Witness and how he’d describe his time in St Andrews in just one word.
He found the former considerably easier than the latter. It was very much a case of him wanting to just do as much as possible, be it film, television or going back to the theatre where his career began over a decade ago. Given the aplomb to which he took to Silent Witness and his part in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Jackie, anything could be possible for this St Andrews graduate.
He did hesitate when it came to describing his experience here, as though he was reaching for the perfect word to encapsulate a period of time that clearly meant a lot to him. In the end he settled on something — sensational. After spending seven-and-a-half semesters here myself, I couldn’t agree more if I tried.