Home truths

Christopher Eccleston is an actor known for his anguished portraints of men in conflict. He wants to do work of integrity, prefers television, and likes his family to approve. A tall order? No wonder he has a reputation for being gloomy.

Christopher Eccleston is Eeyore with sex appeal. Famously glum, he’s rangy, a Sunday footballer, a marathon runner. He’s also thoughtful and intense. Imagine a sports master who is also a keen vegetarian. He’s taking a break from filming an episode of a new BBC drama called Clocking Off and he talks cautiously, weighing his words with care. Yet his flies are undone, and he hasn’t noticed. And it’s a real surprise when he laughs. It’s not loud, but his eyes flash. And it’s even more of a surprise that he’s talking about his work, his family, and himself at all. In fact, it’s something of a shock that he’s so thoroughly engaging.

Buttoned-up, miseryguts Eccleston, the working-class boy from Eccles, has always allowed his bone structure to cast him as moody and broody, and people presume he’s like that off screen. He’s been drawn towards characters who are in conflict, sometimes dour – even psychotic, such as David, in the homicidal chill of Shallow Grave, one of his early successes. Under Danny Boyle’s direction, he created a tension in front of the camera that carried the film beyond the appearance of normality and into terror. It was as if he was acting behind his eyes.

As Trevor Hicks, in the 1996 TV docu-drama Hillsborough, by Jimmy McGovern, one of his favourite writers, he showed a man trying to rescue what was left of his life, his marriage and his pride after losing two daughters in the football stadium disaster. Eccleston painted Hicks, one of the leaders of the families’ campaign for justice, as an honest man defeated by his own strained pragmatism. There were rages, icy drafts of grief, tears and but precious few laughs. As he says now, “There was no real room for custard pies.” Then there was Jude – pale-faced, ardent Jude opposite Kate Winslett in Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Hardy’s novel – the struggling peasant boy trying to better himself.

The men in Eccleston’s gallery of performances have not been happy. Even DCI Billborough, sidekick to Robbie Coltrane’s increasingly eccentric Cracker, lived moodily and died tragically. And Eccleston reached a peak of agonising manhood with probably his best performance to date, Nicky in Our Friends In The North. A zealous idealist, he finds himself, in his 40s, burnt out with a cynicism that was, in the end, created by nothing more basic than an inability to be reconciled with his father. The emptiness in his eyes was disillusion incarnate.

So, on screen Eccleston has turned in a powerful line of men in conflict searching for some settlement with their world and their lack of power. And he’s appeared to play the part off screen, too, unbending and uncommunicative. Until now. And there’s not exactly a confessional torrent, more a quiet, good-humoured, tentative opening of a door to his passions. “I suppose I’ve relaxed a bit. Actually, I bloody hate my work. I’m not happy with it. I feel very limited as an actor. And early on I was pigeonholed, so I wouldn’t talk about these things.” And he says – a number of times – “I’ve felt a bit lost for a while now. Ever since Hillsborough, I’ve been doing things, work, that I wouldn’t normally have done.”

He won’t be specific, but he must be talking about films such as Elizabeth, in which he played the Duke of Norfolk. It’s not that he has a problem with doing costume drama – “I’d have a go at a 19th-century, cross-dressing aristocratic poet if I was asked: I might not pull it off, but I’d learn” – but in Elizabeth he seemed to be making the most of a part that was written as a one-dimensional villain, lacking any psychological motivation. Eccleston won’t amplify, remaining tactfully vague.

In his episode of Clocking Off he plays “a 35-year-old bloke who’s shagging his brains out”. Then he meets a single woman with kids and eventually falls…well, you can guess how it goes. It’s a bit of a change for him, almost a light romantic role. “When I read it, I thought it was really good. And also I needed the work,” he says. “I also thought it would be nice to be playful, not conflicted. It’s good if it confounds a few perceptions of me.” In the series, written by Paul Abbott (who wrote Cracker after Jimmy McGovern invented it), each programme focuses on the life of one of several people who work in a textile factory. Eccleston agreed to do it because Paul Abbott’s writing “captures the rhythms of working-class people without camping it up”. And so it does. It’s the very best of that kind of television. Or if you hate the McGovern/Bleasdale school of TV drama, it’s “self-indulgent sentimentality, revealing the kind of worship of the working class that only writers who are successful and rich enough to have escaped their roots can feel” – that from a well-known working-class writer, who, for reasons of professional politeness, wished to remain unnamed.

Whatever, Eccleston, who is much associated with McGovern, has become the epitome of Conscience in his acting. That is what makes him more than his own assessment of himself as “a good, middle-range actor” – and may also drive him into a cul-de-sac of typecasting. For my money, Clocking Off has a sparkling economy in its writing and manages to dignify its characters with a complexity that, in his worst moments, escapes McGovern’s maudlin over-romanticism of working-class families. It is also my guess that Eccleston will not remain stuck where he is. He is far too versatile an actor, even if few have bothered to notice.

To Eccleston, all this is very important. “The work I have chosen to do has meant that I have played a lot of conflicted people. That comes out of my conviction that what’s on our TV screens should be of value.” He quotes Hardy later on, from the beginning of Far From The Madding Crowd. ” ‘In short he was a man of salt and pepper mixture. On a good day he was a good man and on a bad day he was a bad man.’ And I went for that, because it means playing a character with all the contradictions and grey areas, and it has an integrity in the way it is depicted…A lot of my work comes from my responsibility to my family and what we believe in and what I was taught.” And that – family – is the crux of it. His attitude to his work was born with his first screen job in the late 80s, playing Derek Bentley – the teenager who, in the 50s, was hanged for killing a policeman, and now pardoned – in a film called Let Him Have It.

“I was very naive, and I had done only a couple of theatre jobs and I got this telly job because I was a nobody. And there was a big fuss about it, of course, with my friends and family. But in the middle of shooting, I started to listen to the dialogue and how the characters were being made to talk and relate to each other by the director. At the same time, I had researched learning disability and epilepsy – which was Derek Bentley’s problem – and I had some instincts about how that should be presented. I found myself growing very uncomfortable with the way I was being asked to portray the learning disability…specifically romanticised chirpy, cheekie cockney. Really ladling on the pathos. I was surprised how much it upset me. I remember it making me very angry, because I thought it’s not like that. They’re not just telling lies about people whom I know but they’re making value judgments about their audience.” He is warming up now. “Okay, Bentley was retarded, but it ain’t sweet. Does it feel sweet to the person themself to have a learning disability? I saw two very clear paths. The blue-eyed pathos thing, very lovable and cute, or the other road, which is being truthful. And I took that road.”

Why didn’t he just take the money and shut up? Why did he choose to be so challenging on set. “I didn’t feel I was making a choice. It was a compulsion. I did think, ‘Why not keep your mouth shut, kid?’ I mean, I was an absolute nobody from nowhere. But I said, ‘No, I’m not doing it.'” So who, or what, taught him to be like that? His parents? Pause. Temporary shut-down. Prodded, he starts to talk. “What my dad taught me was whatever job you do, do the best that you can, and for me that means giving a character their dignity, even if it’s undignified. Give them their truth. It all comes from my parents. My inability to keep my mouth shut and take the money all comes from my parents.”

Eccleston was born in 1964, near Manchester. He’s one of three boys, the youngest by eight years. The other two are a builder and an upholsterer, who both now work in television and film. “They were,” Eccleston says, “both manually very accomplished.” He, on the other hand, was hopeless. “Every time I look at a piece of machinery, it blows up.” He often makes a comparison between his work and theirs. “My brother makes very good furniture, and I want to see if I can make very good performances.” Someone once said to his father, 70 this year, “You must be very proud of your son.” And his dad replied, vehemently, “I’m very proud of all my sons.”

“That’s the kind of fairness I was brought up with,” says Eccleston. As a child, he played a lot of sports, “and when I got fouled and the referee didn’t call it, I’d go wild and I’d get myself involved in monster fights. I’d get out of the showers and they’d be there waiting. Because there was something to tussle over. I suppose I’ve always been like that.” Although later, he also says, “I’ve never really been a bad boy. I can’t fight my way out of a paper bag.” It was ever thus with the youngest – especially boys with older brothers – they talk big, but they’re soft as butter.

His mother and father were both manual workers. “I used to watch my mum and dad go out at 8am and then come home at six and go out again at eight in the morning. That was one of the things that made me want to be an actor, to avoid routine, the routine that I saw grind my mum and dad down a bit. I think they feel that, intellectually and emotionally, they’ve been under-used by the jobs they have done. And it all got poured into us, the family, which was great for us. In fact, a lot of the men on the estate, not just my dad, were in repetitive work, not very demanding…” he checks himself “…though not to undervalue what they did.” Then he pauses. “I wanted a job that I didn’t hate.” Half-an-hour before, he had said, with such finality, “At the moment, I bloody hate my work.” He smiles wryly.

He left school without any qualifications because he was “a lazy bugger and didn’t apply myself”. So he went to sixth-form college in Eccles to re-sit all his exams, and failed them all again. But it was a very different atmosphere, “because everybody wanted to learn. And I came out of myself and turned into a bit of a loon.” Then he went to Salford Tech, and someone put him in a play. “I think they just needed a big lad. Although,” he says quite rightly, “I think, if I’m honest, what I always had was a physical presence.”

The play was Lock Up Your Daughters, and he was completely miscast as a romantic lead. “All my energy went like that,” he says, indicating a tight, rolled-up ball, “because I was terrified.” The play was not particularly important, but Mrs Sorah was. She was the English teacher. “A few of them thought she was a bit of a cow. But she wasn’t afraid to show her feelings about the things that we read. I took her on, in a way. She taught with a passion. And she taught us about Sassoon and the other war poets. And his journey, his act of conscience, was very striking to me. He started writing poetry that was a call to arms, published in the Daily Telegraph. And then, two years later (1917), he was writing Blighters, about the return to England and sitting in a music hall watching them do a sketch about the war.”

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home Sweet Home’, –

And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

“Poetry and classical music had always seemed rather frivolous, but these were poems, art, that had come out of something very essential and that captured my imagination. These blokes went to war and they felt compelled to write about their experiences.”

After Salford Tech, much to everyone’s surprise, he got a place at Central School Of Speech And Drama. But, after graduating, he didn’t really work for three years until Let Him Have It. Since then, he has been most noticeably in the business of portraying working-class men with a sense of truthfulness. “I remember being transfixed by the opening shots of Kes. It looked like our street, the same light as when you were doing your paper round.” His desire for truth seems to come not from anger about his roots, quite the reverse. “I saw a value in our life,” he says, “I was just very loved, really. You’d have to ask them if they think of me as different. But I feel a lot closer to them when something like Hillsborough gets a response because I think it’s probably important to my mum and dad and brothers that I’m not pissing about doing Noël Coward. It’s probably important to them that people tell them they saw Hillsborough last night…that it was something of value.”

He also grew up with that generation of dramatists – Alan Bleasdale, Alan Clarke, Ken Loach – on his TV screen, who made it their life’s work to show the reality of the lives of “the many not the few”. And he’s aware of how the impact of performances ripples out far more from TV than from theatre. Despite the excitement it might generate, he has never – at least until now – engaged with the idea that theatre could be interesting as a future direction for him. “I was an usher at the National Theatre, when I was a student, and I wanted to borrow Siegfried Sassoon’s tank and roll right over the audience.” This is said with not the slightest levity. And it kick-starts an outburst about ticket prices, preaching to the converted, how Shakespeare should be banned for a while and all the money given to theatre-in-education groups to tour the regions, etc, punctuated only by a brief shared memory of Michael Gambon’s towering performance as Eddie Carbone in Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Arthur Miller’s View From The Bridge at the National Theatre in 1987. “I remember the young girl first walking into Eddie’s house, and this huge man registering his desire by jumping up and sitting on the sideboard like an adolescent.” He says, admiringly, “Gambon has an extraordinary emotional range.” Even if he’d like to firebomb the National, Eccleston can’t help revealing, as he says later, that he is “fascinated by acting…absolutely fascinated by it”.

And he will have the opportunity to put his doubts and suspicions about theatre to the test in February, when he will play Jean in a West End production of a new translation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, by Frank McGinnis. “Well, the pressure’s on now,” he says laughing. “And it’s totally hypocritical of me, really, after all the abuse I’ve given theatre in the past. But I’m doing this for myself. The kind of people who watch Jimmy McGovern’s stuff on telly won’t be coming, and the tickets at the Theatre Royal will be expensive. But it will give me a chance to rehearse a character for four weeks, not go to work until 7.30pm every day, and not have someone shout ‘cut’ every two minutes.”

And the intensity of Strindberg will suit his style. In Jean, he gets to play a working-class butler, who “shags the head of the house” and drives her to suicide in order to protect himself. Eccleston used to think Strindberg melodramatic, until he met some friends of an old girlfriend. “They were a married couple who had a real relationship of complete mutual dependency and mutual hatred.” So, despite this being in the West End, maybe it will be another bit of Eccleston’s truthful realism, rather than standard posh theatre.

Anyway, theatre for him is less about theatre than it is about what he wants to see on TV. “I hope that someone from a council estate like me watches what I and others do and says, ‘That’s my life; that’s my accent; I have those problems with my dad or my mates.’ Jimmy McGovern writes for the telly because he doesn’t see his audience in the theatre.” Eccleston wants to be part of “a revolution on British television that went back to the Monday Play and Play For Today that created the impressions that I got as a youngster. It would be great to get back to quality drama on TV and away from formulaic, star-driven stuff. Rather than what can we put x, y or z in, it should be, ‘What does Jimmy McGovern want to write about?'” Eccleston even says, a little whimsically, “Sometimes, when I have sat at home feeling under-used as an actor, I’ve thought that I should contact Channel 4 and try and create a rep system of actors and writers and bring back Play For Today. Maybe not as an actor, but as a producer.” He probably won’t do it, because actors are actors and producers are producers, and they are, by and large, very different animals. But what he has to say is more than a whinge. It is a passion.

Eccleston has had time for these thoughts because, over the past year or so, he has sat at home quite a lot; he admits to having taken several jobs “just to get me out of the house”. He didn’t work for nine months until August 1998. Then he had seven weeks on a film and didn’t work again until May of last year, when he did another film, this time with Michael Winterbottom, the director of Jude, called With Or Without You. “Not working for so long was the worst time of my life.” To add to that he has recently had a major disappointment: he and a well-known French director called it a day on a project he’s passionate about. “I want this more than anything I ever wanted.” This from a man who doesn’t speak hyperbole, even as a second language.

But he’s not exactly either poor or forgotten, even if, at the moment, few projects measure up to his vision of what he’d like to do. And three years ago he moved back to Eccles and bought a house. He did it on impulse. He had ended a relationship and realised that, as he got older, he wanted to be near his family again. They are “pretty realistic about unemployment”. And he never really worked in London anyway.

Over recent months he has been working on an American indie film called Invisible Circus, with Cameron Diaz, whom he describes as “a really truthful actor who really does just go off wherever she is taken… totally generous”, and a television project called Killing Time, which was broadcast on New Year’s Day. It was a collaboration with Simon Armitage, the poet from Yorkshire, and a director called Brian Hill, who’s from Rochdale. Aah, the comfort of fellow northerners. “Brian and I started off with one of those ‘my council estate is rougher than your council estate’ kind of conversations, and then we just got on with it.” It was a two-handed documentary, linked with a poem by Armitage, in which Eccleston and Hermione Norris – “the blonde one in Cold Feet” – played Millennium Man and Millennium Woman. They went around the country, speaking to people who then gave them objects for a Millennium Bonfire.

It was, he says, a “genuine piece of collaboration. We shaped it together. This one woman, who had just had a child, gave away a cocktail dress to symbolise the end of that part of her life. And a farmer, who’d had to sell up his farm because of BSE, gave me a rib of beef. I was off-script when we weren’t doing the poem, and I loved it. I spent a lot of the time being me. It was a lot more exposing because it wasn’t a character. It was my way of speaking, my interests.” And it wasn’t moody, either. Perhaps, some teenager in a council estate in Eccles saw it, and it will change their life. Like telly changed Eccleston’s. But I wonder what his family thought. Because that’s what really seems to matter the most.

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