PIRATES of the Caribbean star Mackenzie Crook sips a cup of tea as the sun streams in from the garden behind him.
June 3 2010 in north London, just around the corner from his own house – once owned by Peter Sellers.
“It wasn’t the reason we bought it,” he smiles. “We decided to buy the house and then found out that Peter Sellers had lived there in the fifties, for about three years.
“I love that about it. I’ve got a great set of photos from when he lived there. A journalist came round and interviewed him and took photos of him in the house.
“So I’ve got a nice photo of Peter Sellers opening my front door.”
Mackenzie was here to talk about his role in the second story of Jimmy McGovern’s new drama series Accused on BBC1 next Monday.
Playing British Army Corporal Alan Buckley in Afghanistan.
As night follows day, Jimmy’s story has sparked controversy over the last few days as others have caught up with it.
But I won’t detail that here as it would involve revealing what happens and spoil the film.
There’s a flavour of the predictable row here.
Update: (Major spoiler): Head of the British Army claims drama is “deeply offensive to all those serving”.
Perhaps better to watch it yourself and make your own mind up?
My feature on Mackenzie is in today’s Manchester Evening News – I’ve posted it below, along with some extras that could not be squeezed in to the main piece.
MACKENZIE Crook almost turned down his latest role in a controversial TV drama.
“Initially my reaction was, ‘This isn’t me. I don’t know if this is a part I can play.’ It just didn’t read like anything I’d done before,” recalls the Pirates of the Caribbean star.
“But then I very quickly thought, ‘Well, that’s the wrong attitude. I need to do challenging roles. I need to stretch myself. I’d be a fool to turn this one down.’”
He plays Lance Corporal Alan Buckley in Accused (BBC1, Monday, 9pm), the story of two young Manchester men who sign up for the Army and end up facing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sipping tea just around the corner from his north London home, softly spoken Mackenzie reflects: “He’s a very tough career soldier, military man. That’s so far removed from what I am in real life that I couldn’t imagine how anyone would accept me playing that sort of role. So it didn’t seem right at first. But I’m glad I went for it.”
Buckley justifies his bullying behaviour as necessary to preserve the lives of his men. But it has shocking consequences, which eventually leaves Private Frankie Nash facing the verdict of a jury back in his home city.
He is played by Ben Smith, who was Damien Trotter in Only Fools And Horses, with ex-Shameless star Ben Batt as his best pal Peter McShane, a champion amateur boxer who becomes traumatised under fire.
Writer Jimmy McGovern says the story is about “how young men kill other young men”.
It’s set to spark off debate about Army brutality but he insists: “It’s a total work of fiction.
“My dad went through the Second World War and never fired his rifle once. That applies to the vast majority of guys who went through that war. They didn’t want to fire the rifle. It is very difficult to get men to kill men. Even more difficult to get them to put themselves in the line of fire to kill other men.
“I’ve got huge respect for soldiers because they come from my social class. But they have to be at a certain mindset to be able to kill.”
Montcliffe Quarry near Bolton doubled for Afghanistan. “We were very lucky with the weather,” explains Mackenzie. “It was blazing hot sunshine. A lot of the extras were ex-military and said that we got it absolutely right.”
Lancashire-raised former soldier Adnan Sarwar was a script consultant. “He had served in Iraq and was an incredible help. He showed me his diaries, his journals from his tour and talked about friends of his who had been killed over there.”
Adds Mackenzie: “It’s quite a serious thing to put on an authentic Army uniform. I felt, ‘I don’t really have the right to wear this. Who am I, pretending to be a tough soldier when I couldn’t even comprehend what these guys go through?’ But that’s my job, to pretend.”
One of the first scenes filmed in the quarry was a fierce gunfight. “It’s hairy. Obviously not as hairy as the real thing but you’re firing automatic rifles. They’re still dangerous weapons, even if they’re firing blanks. We had some very strict safety training beforehand.”
Despite what happens on screen, the former The Office star maintains: “Buckley is not a monster. He’s a very serious soldier and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Back home in Manchester these two young guys are Jack-the-lads, they’re full of bravado and confidence.
“But they get into a uniform and get a gun in their hands and it’s a completely different story. Suddenly they’re not ruling the roost anymore and they find it very scary.
“They imagine they’re going to waltz out there and be just as confident. But the reality of actually getting shot at and these people are trying to kill you, it’s something entirely different. And it’s my character’s job to make them aware of that. At no point is he being nasty for the sake of it. He’s got his reasons.”
Mackenzie reveals: “I’ve been longing to do some serious drama for a long time. A lot of the time casting directors are not very imaginative and I’ll get lots and lots of the same sort of roles, the strange geeky character, that sort of thing.
“So a meaty part like this in a television drama is a dream come true. But I don’t necessarily think that is going to stop the weird geeky parts coming my way. Over the last 10 years I’ve played lots of different roles and I couldn’t ask for more.”
Many families watching Accused will have sons or daughters serving in Afghanistan, some leaving home to fight at an age when others depart for university, with the same music on their iPods and posters on the wall.
Father to son Jude, seven, and daughter Scout, two, Mackenzie says: “I would like my son to do whatever he wants and I’ll support him in whatever he does. But I’ve got to admit, if he said he wanted to join the military my heart would sink.
“Simply because I wouldn’t want my son to be in a situation where his life is endangered. Not because I disagree with the military. I would probably try and persuade him against it.”
And if he wants to be an actor? “I’ll probably try and persuade him against that as well,” he laughs.
*Accused continues on BBC1 at 9pm next Monday (Nov 22)
How did the role come to you?
“It was quite late on. It was only a couple of weeks before filming started that it came along.
“I’m not sure where the idea came from to cast me in the part. It was one of a bunch of scripts that was sitting there to be read and it just stood out as a brilliant piece of writing.”
Jimmy had hoped to work with Mackenzie. He was on his wish list:
“That’s a great compliment but I don’t think he wrote it with me in mind.
“I get lots of scripts to look at and the vast majority of them, you can tell immediately that they’re badly written and not going to go anywhere.
“And this one just stood out with a great piece of writing and with a part that was going to be a challenge for me, in that it’s an unusual part for me to be thought of for.”
Researching the role with the help of Adnan Sarwar?
“He’s worked with Jimmy before on other things. He was in Iraq (a corporal for eight years) and was an incredible help.
“He obviously helped on the technical side of things but more on the personal stuff, the way people conduct themselves, the sort of language they use. Things that would stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who had been in the military or been in that situation – it was those really important details that he helped with most for me.
“He went through the script and wrote reams of notes. I went out with him a couple of times and put any questions to him that I had.”
Did Mackenzie do any private research of his own?
“I didn’t have to do that much because all the help was there. They made sure we had all the information we needed.
“I was brought on quite late, so I had a couple of weeks at the most to prepare. It was all set in place for me, so it’s not like I had to go out and do any bootcamp or anything.”
Is the story political?
“No, I don’t think that’s political. He’s (Jimmy) just pointing out how difficult a situation this is for young lads who can’t really imagine what they’re letting themselves in for.”
Working with a Jimmy McGovern script?
“It was an absolute joy to work with him. I have quite a lot of dialogue and quite a lot of long speeches in this which were so easy to learn.
“You often get people saying, ‘How do you learn the words?’ Which is a bit of a trite question. But the fact is, if it’s a bad script it’s very difficult to learn because that’s not the way people speak and it just doesn’t make sense. So it takes a long time to learn.
“With this, even with the very long speeches, it just came so easy because it’s so naturally written. It was no problem at all to learn. They’re so beautifully and skillfully crafted these scripts. It was a joy.”
Was he a fan of Jimmy McGovern’s previous work?
“Yes. I’ve seen The Street and Cracker a long time ago, I was very much aware of what a great writer he is.”
Jimmy was aghast when ITV Granada made his drama production team redundant. Producer Sita Williams, script and development executive Roxy Spencer and Jimmy subsequently formed their own company, RSJ Films.
“Yes, absolutely. It is ridiculous. They’ve taken their family and they’re now making the same quality work. It seems like a very close-knit family that they’ve got there. They all understand each other and work very well together.”
The format of Accused?
“It’s a very clever premise and it allows him (Jimmy) to do really whatever stories he wants. They’re individual screenplays but with this link. It’s such a simple concept. You start off with someone awaiting the verdict, then you see the story and throughout that story you can make up your mind, whether you think they’re guilty or not. And then you finish off by hearing what the jury think. It’s beautiful.”
Anything else that really surprised you about soldiering?
“You imagine it’s all very strict. The tent where we slept, the bunks, you imagine that the rules are that you get up and polish your buttons and make your bed.
“But it’s just a mess. It’s like half a dozen blokes’ bedrooms. Some of them are tidy, some of them are messy, there’s pants hanging up. So once you get out there, it’s not as strict and regimented as you might imagine. They find a way of living together that works and it’s a more casual approach to living, at least, when they’re out there fighting and in battle. In camp they have to try and make it as comfortable as possible.”
Mackenzie didn’t have his hair cut / shaved like those of Buckley’s young recruits:
“I had long hair when I started this and I said to them, ‘Do with me what you will.’ But my character has been there a long time, I didn’t have to have a number one. Both the Bens had their heads pretty much shaved just to make the difference between them, fresh in there, and my character, who had been there for a while. So I let it grow a little bit.”
He has been doing wide range of roles from stage to TV via film:
“Over the last 10 years I’ve played lots of different roles and I couldn’t ask for more, to be honest. It’s great. They’re all such different disciplines, even between film and television. Doing Accused was great. Television just moves faster. There’s not so much hanging around, they don’t have the money to do endless takes on a shot. It just feels more alive. Doing a movie, you can turn up, get into costume and make up and not do anything all day, and get sent home again. That could happen three days in a row or more. So you lose momentum. With this it’s far more immediate.
“And theatre is, again, something completely different. It’s very hard work. I find it quite exhausting doing the theatre. But then you get the immediate reaction. With television, you don’t get to see the results for months afterwards, film sometimes years afterwards. The theatre is a luxury I can afford myself once a year, probably. It takes it out of you. Just the amount you have to immerse yourself into it, the pressure is every night to make it fresh and new. I’ve got kids, and for the amount of time that I’m in the theatre I don’t get to put them to bed or give them their tea, or spend the evening with my wife. So three months per year is probably enough in the theatre.”
Does it make any difference working away from home?
“I prefer to go away to do a job like this because it feels like an event. Obviously I wouldn’t want to go away for an awful long time, which I’ve done before. That’s quite gutting, to be away from them. But to pack your bags and go up to Manchester and Bolton and stay in a hotel, you can concentrate very much on the work then. I think I’d prefer to go away on location, even if it’s just up to Manchester. With Pirates, we were away for a long time.”
But he’s not against spending long periods of time away from home if the job is right:
“I would have to manage it properly. I went to Broadway and I was away for three months from my family. They were able to come out for 10 days in the middle. That was really tough. I didn’t do that very well. If we go again, I think I’ll put my son in an American school for a term or for however long and think more about how to do it properly.”
His children’s book?
“It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it was going to. I found it hard work, writing. I’ve written scripts before but a script can be adapted and changed right up to the point it’s filmed, whereas a novel, even a children’s novel, is there, it’s set in black and white by the time it’s published. So everything has to be just right and I found that very difficult.”
When did he know he wanted to be an actor?
“It was quite late on. It didn’t occur to me. It wasn’t always my vocation because nobody ever suggested it was a viable career option. The school I went to wasn’t particularly creative. So late teens, early 20s probably, before I realised that this is what I want to do.
“Being an actor is difficult. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve got some really nice breaks and the journey has been relatively pain free. But I’ve got friends who are brilliant actors who are really struggling because they haven’t had that specific break that has got them noticed and opened other doors for them. It’s tough.”
Did he ever imagine have this range of successes?
“This is what I hoped for but I didn’t necessarily think or assume it would happen. I couldn’t have asked for more in what I’m doing.
“But I don’t remember a bolt of lightning moment. I started off doing character stand-up and I just knew that when you did a good gig it was just the best feeling ever to be entertaining people. It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that this is what I enjoy doing the most.”
How did he go about building himself into this bold soldier character?
“It comes with that limited period of research. The learning of the lines and the pacing around and getting into the character. I don’t have anything particularly revelatory to say about that. That’s the job.
“It’s more of a challenge for me. I obviously wanted to be convincing in this role. It takes a lot of thought, really. That’s what it comes down to with me. Different actors are different.
“In the Army it’s all about rank. There’s absolute respect for your higher ranking officers. He’s a Corporal and the men below him are Privates, so he has that power as well, no matter what he’s like physically. He can’t be questioned, he’s authority.”