[...] Christopher Eccleston insists, "I've worked solidly in television, film and theatre for the last 21 years. I've no idea what the real world's like."
The Salford actor has a nice line in modesty as he teams up again with award-winning writer Jimmy McGovern, the creator of Cracker, Hillsborough and so much more.
"Jimmy has the magic of making average actors like me look good," says Eccleston, who takes the lead in the first episode of Accused (BBC1, Monday, 9pm). [...]
It's a powerful and clever formula which begins with Eccleston as plumber Willy Houlihan, a father in turmoil, cheating on his wife and plunged into money worries when a company goes bankrupt, unable to pay him for his last job.
"I don't think he's ever been in trouble with the law before. He's very good at his job. Very honourable and decent. He married his childhood sweetheart, they had their children in their mid-twenties. He sounds very much like a man confronting mortality in his middle years. A thoroughly decent everyman who makes all too human errors."
McGovern said this week that TV drama should reflect reality and have strong points to make. His new series certainly does that. "I hope what Accused demonstrates is that audiences do not go to bed talking about tracking shots, costumes or lighting. They go to bed talking about human motivation," explains Eccleston.
"People sit down to watch drama, to watch other people in extraordinary circumstances or whatever. And the people who provide that are writers. Stories well told. Drama does not come from actors, producers or directors. We all go to work because of writers who sit alone in rooms and think up ideas. The most difficult area of making television is the writing of the script."
He adds: "I think myself and Jimmy were both very influenced by Alan Bleasdale and that era of television. I watched BBC4's repeat recently of Yosser's Story in Boys From The Blackstuff and it's just as powerful. In fact, it takes on resonance because we're heading for mass unemployment again. It's actually a very simple story, simply told.
"You can sound like an old fart and talk about the golden age. There's no doubt at that time there was some dross around also. But basically, in terms of television drama, what was at the centre was the idea of the writer as king.
"It's very important that Jimmy McGovern is always given a voice on British television because he leads the way. He sets the standard and has done for 20 years."
Seen on screen earlier this year as John Lennon in Lennon Naked, the former Doctor Who star maintains: "There are many actors who could have played Willy and many actors who could have played (DCI David) Bilborough in Cracker. I was just fortunate. My face fitted at the time. Jimmy's rhythm's I do understand, yeah. I get his writing. I'm not the only actor who could do that."
[...] One scene sees the angry plumber wielding a sledgehammer. "I followed through with the sledgehammer and hit myself on the knee, which gave the crew a laugh. I was fine. It was just sore for a couple of hours," says Eccleston.
There's no doubt that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation, with a CV that also includes the likes of Our Friends In The North, The Second Coming and Hearts and Minds. He rates the latter, also written by McGovern, as his favourite, playing an idealistic young teacher at a comprehensive school.
"The best work I've done, I think. It was a four part series for Channel 4 and I was in every scene, the first time I'd led a series. It was a huge thing for me and happened to be about something close to my heart, the education of working class children. And was quite an autobiographical piece of Jimmy's because he'd been a teacher.
"I was reasonably late to the profession. I came out of drama school in '86 and I didn't get a professional job until '89. My first job was theatre in 1989. So I was 25. Three years out, I was thinking about giving it up.
"Without McGovern, I wouldn't be where I am. Cracker gave me a face on television. Hillsborough is the most important piece of work I've ever done and ever will do. He came along at a very important time for me because I was a young actor and it seemed that the idea was, 'Well, you just make money and have fun.' And that wasn't enough for me.
"I was that typical young man who was very idealistic, who actually wanted to make television that would last. I would hope with something like Hillsborough and possibly Our Friends In The North that I've done that.
"To be involved in a piece of television like Hillsborough which has brought to the attention of the public the lies told by the press, the police and the footballing authorities, and the failure of the judicial system to mete out justice, was very important.
"I was brought up with the idea that television and art could do that kind of thing. It sounds very pompous but that's what I believed. I didn't think it was just Pop Idol, television. I thought it was a place where the nation spoke to itself and confronted itself.
"McGovern had so much power after Cracker, he could have done anything – feature films, feathered his nest. What did he do? He went to the Hillsborough Family Support Group and said, 'I want to tell your story.' And then he told the dockers' story and then he told the Sunday story.
"There's not going to be a lot of money in that for Jimmy. That was an act of conscience. It's very rare. We should be very proud of having a guy like that in our midst."
Accused begins on BBC1 at 9pm next Monday (Nov 15)
The TV writer as king?
"We don't have an excess of great painters, we don't have an excess of classical musicians but we do have some of the greatest writers the world's ever seen. So obviously we need to keep that at the centre of our culture in terms of television and theatre. We do seem to be a literary nation. We do seem to be interested in the spoken word, the written word. It's our strength. And that's why we forged the reputation with British television. In British television now, everybody's always speaking about American television. When I came into the industry it was the other way around."
So far, I’ve seen the first and second stories. Both powerful in their own way?
"The episode is difficult to talk about because you can give so much away. This is not high concept drama. It's just drama that credits its audience with a great deal of intelligence in terms of making a moral, psychological judgement of each of the central characters throughout the six episodes. We meet each character in court, we learn that they have transgressed and then we move away from the court and the drama is about how and, most importantly with McGovern, why they did what they did. And then at the end, we have the verdict. Which is a great dramatic device.
"When we did the readthrough for Willy Houlihan's episode, there was still a great deal of debate between Jimmy and the director about what the verdict should be. So we held a vote and it was split. And what we're hoping is that the audience will be split about.
"Jimmy's not particularly that interested in the legal stuff, he's interested in – as he spoke about when he first came to prominence with Cracker – the search for the pure motive. That's always been Jimmy's thing. He X-rays each character and looks for purity. Very Catholic, you could argue."
Did the debate have any influence on the eventual court verdict?
"Nobody is going to tell Jimmy McGovern what to do. I think Jimmy always knew what should happen. And I happen to agree with Jimmy's decision."
Clever storytelling structure?
"What the director David Blair has done in the edit ... because, of course, I worked on the script, the edit can change a thing radically. And I think what Blair has done very cleverly with his editor is weave in. Suddenly we're jolted out of the flow of Willy's story, into where he's headed and it creates a tension. Also it was hard for me, because obviously I know exactly what's going to happen next, but viewing it, it's not going to be clear to the viewers what Willy has done and how he's done it. There are lots of possibilities."
Willy is a conflicted lapsed Catholic. You are an atheist. You've said you used your imagination for the role?
"How do you act? You've learned your lines and you use your instincts and your imagination ... that's only interesting in the way that it informs McGovern's work. When I first read Cracker, for instance, when it came through my door, I was drawn to his writing in a very odd way because there seemed to me to be a need to confess in McGovern's writing. The writing of Fitz, for instance. I think Fitz says, 'I rehearsed the death of my father for years.' I thought, 'That's so extraordinary, it's got to be true. This writer really need to confess to his audience.' And they respond to that, don't they? There's this interesting ingredient in McGovern's writing, a very uncompromising honesty."
One scene is set in a casino. You're not a betting man?
"No, I'm not a betting man. But Jimmy sketches in that Willy has been. He walks into that casino and the croupier says to him, 'Alright Willy, I thought you'd given it up?' And I think Jimmy's been a gambling man. It's been a motif in a lot of his dramas. And again, with that roulette wheel, like the verdict, is a great dramatic device."
His next role in The Shadow Line?
"I wrapped that last week. It's a six-parter for BBC2, written and directed by Hugo Blick, who people predominantly know from Marion and Geoff. It's a psychological thriller, very difficult to describe. Very writer led, again, and a meditation on morality and the shadow line between good and bad, viewed through police and criminals and where they intersect. And about what people will do for money, and what people will do for their loved ones, which creates the grey areas, I think, certainly in my character. What people will do for money, what people will do for their pensions, actually. What people will do to secure their future. And what it does to them spiritually."
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