Chloe Hamilton – inews.co.uk
15th February 2018
Roger Allam attends the Evening Standard Theatre Awards at The Savoy Hotel on November 17, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images)
The actor, known primarily for his work on stage, has an authoritative presence. His voice is instantly recognisable
There is one great unmentionable on the set of ITV’s Endeavour – one subject that hangs like a spectre over the cast and crew, ignored and unuttered but ever-present: Inspector Morse.
Colin Dexter’s curmudgeonly detective was made famous by John Thaw, who played the character for 13 years. With his love of beer, vintage cars and the opera, Morse was the embodiment of cosy, early-evening drama in the 90s. Audiences across the UK would snuggle down in front of the TV to watch as Oxford’s body count rose bloodily. Fourteen million viewers tuned in to the final episode in 2000 to watch the great man’s finale, as he died of a heart attack. Many were left bereft.
Perhaps this is why, on the set of Morse prequel Endeavour – which is set in the 60s, when the title character is a young detective – all thoughts of the show’s predecessor are shoved firmly to the back of the cast’s collective mind.
So says Roger Allam, who plays Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, Morse’s gaffer and mentor. “We try to ignore all things Morse,” he says, a slightly sheepish look in his eye.
Sheepish isn’t a word typically associated with the 65-year-old. The actor, known primarily for his work on stage, has an authoritative presence. His voice – which somehow manages to be both booming and silkily subtle – is instantly recognisable. Were it not for the absence of DI Thursday’s trilby, trench coat and pipe, it would be easy to kid yourself, sitting in front of him, that you are at Oxford’s Cowley Road Police station, having been hauled in for questioning.
Thursday is a brilliant character: tough but steady; sometimes morally questionable but ultimately a good guy. Allam, who describes the hat, coat, and pipe as his “route” into the character, agrees.
“He’s a proper, feet on the ground, decent – well, trying to be decent – human being,” he says.
“He reminds us of that generation who were ordinary and who went through the extremity of the most awful war ever in terms of the number of people killed. Really ordinary people who faced the worst possible thing.”
Thursday was never mentioned by John Thaw’s character, which doesn’t bode well for the character’s future. Allam isn’t fazed.
“We all die in the end,” he says, with a throaty chuckle. In fact, he adds, playing an entirely new character is something of a blessing.
“I didn’t have anyone to live up to.”
A shade darker
Our love for crime dramas, Allam says, stems from the fact that people “love murder and death”.
Although Endeavour is, arguably, a shade darker than Morse, it is by no means gritty, especially compared with series such as Luther or Line of Duty. The show airs pre-watershed, which limits what can be shown. Viewers are more likely to see a victim neatly strangled to death with a don’s cravat, for example, than dismembered and stuffed in a fridge freezer.
“Luther starts at nine o’clock. Once a show starts at nine o’clock, you can spread someone’s innards on your toast,” he says. That wouldn’t happen in Endeavour.
“No, it’d be Marmite, instead,” says Allam.
Indeed, Endeavour is the dramatic equivalent of a cup of tea and a slice of toast. Yet the series has been accused of becoming too convoluted – a criticism seemingly levelled at every crime drama currently on our screens. Allam nods when this is put to him.
“Well, they’re certainly complicated,” he says, of the show’s plots.
“Obviously part of the fun of a whodunit is that you’ve got to have the…”
Here he stops to act out a red herring, waving his hands around, saying: “Look at me, look at me!”
It’s impossible not to. So how is he at solving TV crimes himself? He shrugs. “Neither awful nor great.”
Allam’s love for performing was sparked by a trip to the theatre when he was young. He paid 15p for a ticket to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic. It ignited a passion in him that has burned ever since.
These days, the idea of getting a theatre ticket for so little – the equivalent of £3.30 today – beggars belief. Would Allam be where he is today had he not been able to get a cheap seat? Perhaps not. It is something he feels strongly about.
“In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what the top price is,” he says.
“What’s important is that whatever price structure you have, in whatever theatre, it can include people who have very little money.”
Although he is supportive of live theatre being shown in cinemas as a means of inclusivity, he is unsure that it can really replicate the experience of being part of an audience.
“Being in the same room as the performance is just tremendously exciting.”
Takes all sorts
Over the years, Allam has taken on a broad variety of roles, never stopping for long enough to be typecast.
“One of the things that appealed to me about acting was seeing people on stage playing different roles,” he says.
“I always worry about being typecast, which is why I try to do so many different things.”
Most notably, Allam played Inspector Javert in the original London production of the stage musical Les Misérables, appeared as the merchant-prince Illyrio Mopatis in the HBO series Game of Thrones; and starred as Peter Mannion MP in The Thick of It. He has been nominated four times for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor, winning twice, once for Captain Terri Dennis in a revival of Privates on Parade and once for Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. He has become, in the process, one of the UK’s most distinguished actors.
It is refreshing, then, to find that, like many of those roles, he is also very funny. When I ask about his latest project, a play written in 1912 by Githa Sowerby, he says: “It’s a pro-feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-industrialisation kind of play,” before raising an eyebrow and deadpanning: “And not as dry as that sounds.”
The Thick of It
His response to a question about whether he watched Inspector Morse when it first aired is that he did but that there were “only four television programmes” on TV in those days. And when we, somehow, find ourselves on the subject of extortionate rail fares, he suggests that if he were to pay more than £200 for a ticket to the Midlands, he would expect to be “wrapped in silver and carried” to his destination.
Of course, this sense of humour will come as no surprise to anyone who watched Allam – as Mannion in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick Of It – utter the immortal line: “I’m bored of this, I’m going for a Twix.”
Playing the Tory MP and Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship was “such good fun”, says the actor. But whether or not the series could return to skewer the increasingly shambolic Brexit is something he remains tight-lipped about.
Would Mannion be a Leaver or a Remainer?
“He would try to survive,” says Allam, grinning. “He would sit on the fence for as long as possible to see which way it fell.”
He’s clearly put some thought into this. Is there really no chance of the series returning? Allam stonewalls. “It would be down to Armando.” A politician’s answer if ever there was one.
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