David Tennant was not in a good place. It was Sunday, 15 July 2007, and he was heartbroken. He had just watched his mother, Helen MacDonald, pass away from cancer of the colon after five years of battling the terminal illness. For an entire week, work on the Doctor Who Christmas episode had been suspended while he returned to his native Scotland to be with his family and to attend his mother’s funeral in Paisley, Renfrewshire.
As anyone who has lost a parent will know, it was during the service itself that he found it especially hard to mask his sorrow as he paid tribute to his mother. On several occasions, as he read passages from the same copy of the Bible that Helen had been given for her twenty-first birthday, and continued to read every night during her illness, he had to pause to allow time to compose himself.
Much the same as when he joined the congregation in singing the inspirational hymns that Helen had chosen. They included Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn ‘Praise My Soul, The King of Heaven’, which extols the eternity of creation and the brevity of human life. David was not the only one with tears in his eyes. Many mourners shared the same sadness, especially during the singing of another of Helen’s favourites, Horatius Bonar’s ‘I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say, Come Unto Me And Rest’. But there was happiness, too, because Helen didn’t want those who came to celebrate her life to leave the church downcast.
At her own request, the final hymn sung was ‘You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth With Peace’. And, as the congregation sang the final lines of the chorus – ‘the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ everyone in the church clapped their hands together to create the sounds of joy and happiness that Helen had so much wanted.
As David told mourners in his final farewell to his mum, ‘She wanted this to be a service of celebration and it is easy to celebrate her life.’ As he led his family from their seats in the front pews down the aisle to the vestibule to thank people for coming to the service, David’s father, Sandy – a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – clapped his hands and joined the congregation in singing some of Helen’s most beloved gospel hymns.
During the service, Sandy thanked everyone for supporting his family in their time of tribulation – especially the Rev Lorna Hood, minister of Renfrew North, where he and Helen had made their spiritual home after ‘gypsying’ round other places during his lifetime in the ministry, which took him to charges like St Mark’s Oldhall in Paisley and incumbencies in Edinburgh and Bathgate. He also paid tribute to the staff at Paisley’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, Charleston Medical Centre and ACCORD Hospice, as well as other carers who had looked after Helen during her long fight against cancer.
Helen’s committal took place at a private service at Woodside Crematorium in Paisley attended by members of her family and close friends. During her life of service to her family and community, Helen, who was highly respected for her charity work, was chair of the Paisley Friends of ACCORD Hospice. She was also a volunteer for Arthritis Care, the WRVS, the Samaritans and elderly care charity Contact.
As well as bravely sharing the reading of the Bible passages with his brother Blair and sister Karen, David spoke of his great pride in living in the light of his mother, and being part of her family: ‘I will always be proud of all that Mum did, and that she made the world a better place. I am privileged to have known her and received her love. Now that Mum has gone, the world has lost a lot of its colour.’
In fact, it was tragically ironic that not long before his mother’s death, David had been talking about how her illness had set his priorities straight: ‘You always know that’s the order of things, but when you’re suddenly faced with the thought that you might lose one of your parents, that’s a bit of a moment; you’re never quite ready for that. That’s something you know you’re going to have to face, but I don’t think you’ll ever know what it is [like] until you face it. You just can’t.’
Ten days after the funeral, David sent a personal message to his official website in appreciation of the fundraising appeal the site had organised in tribute to his mother. In his online message David thanked everyone ‘for all you are doing in raising money for the ACCORD hospice in Paisley which was such an important place to my mum. It is a fantastic and worthy cause and I can’t commend it to you strongly enough. The care given there to seriously ill people is of the very highest quality and my family feel indebted to them for all they’ve done for us. At this difficult time I can’t tell you what it means that you are doing this. Thanks to everyone who has been able to make a donation. I promise you, your money will be well spent.’
Just three days before he sent that message, David had returned to the BBC set (in Pontypool, Wales – about half an hour from central Cardiff), which again, was no easy task for him. The thought of having to return to work so soon after the loss of his mother and to pick up from where he left must have been a daunting prospect. Although the loss does not appear to have affected his performance, still it must have been a struggle throughout much of the filming. Ashen-faced, clearly still mourning, he was reportedly comforted by his co-star Kylie Minogue. The diminutive Princess of Pop had only recently returned to public life after battling her own, well-documented cancer demons and so it seemed perfectly natural that she would empathise and do the best she could to look after and comfort her colleague.