THERE’S a plate full of biscuits on the table.
James Nesbitt reaches for one as he describes what he saw while attending four brain operations.
Just another day in the world of television.
I met up with James in London before Christmas for a small round table interview ahead of his flight to New Zealand to star in The Hobbit.
He’d finished filming new ITV1 drama Monroe just a few days before.
My feature is in today’s Manchester Evening News – and also below.
Followed by some edited extracts that could not be squeezed into the piece.
Including what he learned about brain surgeons while filming the series.
You can also hear his reply via the short audio clip below:
JAMES Nesbitt isn’t squeamish. “I’ve seen four brain operations,” says the actor who stars as a neurosurgeon in his latest role.
“I’ve seen the drill go in and bits of skull dust flying off, the brain being opened, this amazing organ pulsing away, and the revelation of an angry, horrible, grey-black tumour. I’ve seen it being taken out.
“And I’ve been standing next to the surgeon as he’s pointed to where a brain has been opened up and said, ‘See that? That’s thought.’ It’s amazing.”
Monroe (ITV1, 9pm Thursday March 10) sees the former Cold Feet star as brain surgeon Gabriel Monroe. As he remarks: “Get it right, no-one’s impressed. Get it wrong, it’s catastrophic.”
The six-part series, co-starring Sarah Parish and Tom Riley, was created by award-winning Hazel Grove-born screenwriter Peter Bowker, whose previous work includes Occupation, Blackpool and Casualty.
Peter once trusted a neurosurgeon with his child’s life. “When my daughter was four years old she had a brain tumour,” he explains. “For five days my partner and I inhabited the world which I had created in so many medical scenarios.
“We were the waiting couple; she was the beautiful child with so many tubes coming of her she looked like a musical instrument. And we sat there, staring without understanding at a scan, while a brain surgeon explained what he was going to do.
“He operated successfully. My daughter’s tumour was removed. Non-cancerous. A full recovery. A good news story. We leave the hospital with the cards, presents and profound relief. To get on with our lives.
“And tomorrow the surgeon has to go and do it all again. And see families to whom he has often to break bad news not good. He goes to work knowing that today somebody might die, or be irreparably brain damaged, as a result of his actions in trying to heal them.”
Charismatic Monroe works at a northern teaching hospital and passes his knowledge on to others climbing the career ladder. “You’re taking a knife to somebody’s head,” he comments. “The only difference between you and a psychopath is good A-levels.”
Of course, not every story is a happy one. James recalls a morning in Leeds General Infirmary, as he was about to accompany a neurosurgeon on his ward rounds.
“As I was sitting there, a 13-year-old girl – a trauma, accident – came in. And they didn’t operate. She was too badly damaged. So in the space of me being there 10 minutes, a young girl had been brought in and died. And that happens regularly.”
James, 46, adds: “Monroe is someone who thinks, in a way, that he is God. He thinks he’s the best of a very defined and brilliant profession. The surgeon is God but everyone has a role to play and he is very aware of that. It was the hardest, but the best, 12 weeks I’ve ever had.”
He attended one operation where the patient was brought out from under the anaesthetic during surgery and shown picture cards to test their responses. A similar scene is included in the first episode, as well as a question about the Stone Roses.
“What you come away with thinking is just how fragile everything is. How fleeting life really can be. And what the human brain can withstand.”
Monroe is married but his wife Anna springs a surprise after they settle their son in for his first year at university.
“Neurosurgeons tread a very psychologically dangerous line because they often ‘wreck‘ patients – and that’s the word they always use. They have the courage to come in the next day after wrecking someone and know this person may have become someone who can’t walk or talk, who may leave with a crooked smile in a wheelchair.
“To be able to deal with that and to go in the next day is what defines them and what makes them slightly odd. Because of that, their private lives are often in disarray. The divorce rate is pretty high among surgeons.”
Manchester United fan James accepts that comparisons with Hugh Laurie’s American TV series House are inevitable. “But I think it’s very different. I’m hoping that performance, Pete’s writing, our particular look and just the very difference in the characters will dispel people’s thoughts on that pretty quickly.”
The Coleraine-born actor is currently in New Zealand to play drawf Bofur in the two-part big screen version of The Hobbit. He’s moved across the globe with wife Sonia and daughters Peggy, 12, and Mary, eight, but hopes to return for a flying visit to play in Alex Ferguson’s annual golf tournament.
“I always play in it with my three best mates. When I told them individually that I was going to New Zealand for a year, the first thing all of them said was, ‘What about Alex’s golf do?’ They weren’t that interested otherwise about me going. But I will be back for that.”
“Peter Bowker is obviously someone I’ve loved working with before. He’s my favourite writer. Not only the stuff I did with him, like Miller’s Tale…and then Occupation. But I think what defines him and what separates him is that he is an incredibly intelligent writer that can take very serious matters and make them accessible. I think he makes intelligent writing accessible, which is a skill and which is why he’s so successful, I guess.
“And so we had been looking for something else to do after Occupation. We just sat down and talked about a lot of things. Meanwhile bobbling along had been the idea of this programme about a neurosurgeon.
“Pete has a daughter who had a brain tumour a number of years ago. But she was fine, they got rid of the tumour, they took it away and now she’s completely fine. But he was fascinated by the idea of just taking someone so little, so fragile, and that was yours, and handing them over to someone who then opens their head up and takes out this badness. And he was fascinated by the people that do that on a daily basis and what impact that has on their lives.
“And so he created this character. Then when I came on board he was then very much writing for me. Something that he does better than anyone else. So he created a slightly dysfuntional, clearly a bit flawed, character. Someone who’s rather brilliant, someone who we don’t necessarily expect to be a brain surgeon. But someone who is very good at looking at other people’s brains and going into their heads and sorting out their lives, but is not very good at looking at his own brain and doesn’t really know how it works and is quite good at closing that off.”
“Someone whose domain and home is the hospital and not his own house. The impact that has on his life. Someone who has got a remarkably arrogant attitude. Someone who’s terribly impacted by when it’s gone wrong and someone who understands that there are four great things to being a neurosurgeon. One is manual dexterity, memory, good people skills and the courage to come in day in, day out, after maybe things have gone wrong. So, there you have him.
“There’s huge banter in theatre and during surgery. But you always know when something serious has happened or when they get to the heart of the tumour or when they think, ‘Oh, this isn’t going the way we thought.’ The atmosphere changes very quickly.
“They have a sense of humanity because they see the margins of life and death. They know that they can extend life and they get to meet people from all walks of life. But they’re so obsessed as well.”
Acting out his TV operations?
“The prosthetics were great. There’s a fair bit of blood. It depends what the operation is. I’d say to my wife when I was away, ‘Oh God, I’m in theatre all week.’ And she’d be like, ‘No you’re not. You’re not a brain surgeon.’
“At the end of the job – we just finished on Friday night – I’m fairly certain I could do it. I was lucky. I’ve got very steady hands, actually. And that’s so important.
“The kit we have is incredible. All the medical people, when they came into our theatres and our wards and our ITU unit, they just wished that they’d had it at the hosptial. Our theatre was better equipped than the theatres at Leeds General Infirmary.”
The patients knew he was there?
“I talked to one beforehand. One was an emergency trauma, a French guy. And that’s where you saw how difficult it is and the decisions that have to be made very quickly. He was drunk, a big, big guy, had been involved in a fight, had been sleeping for a long time. They couldn’t bring him round – there had been significant trauma. They couldn’t get consent and had to make the call of operating on him quite quickly. He survived but I think he was probably a bit wrecked. That was pretty horrendous.
“I spoke to the guy in Leeds before his operation. They were worried about him. But that went quite well. He had a tumour. There was a hole, basically, in his brain. I could have put my finger into it. You could see the tumour there. But they got a lot of that out and were very pleased with how that went. They think they extended his life by maybe five years.
“I spoke to him before and after. But he was at that stage where you’ll often find them before…they get to quite a heightened state of almost hallucination. They think God’s talking to them but they’re very pumped up and ready for it.”
So what did they think when they saw you?
“I think they thought that God was talking to them.” (laughs)
Does he watch medical dramas?
“I watch Casualty with my daughter Peggy. When she got into Casualty, I started watching that. House I hadn’t really watched, to my chagrin. When I have watched it, I thought it was brilliant. I don’t really watch that much telly. I don’t know why I’m an actor!”
Was there anything that he discovered about the human brain that surprised him?
“Well, that it can survive some of the stuff that they do to it. And also it is very beautiful. When I saw my first one, and when they go through the violence of getting into it, of cutting through the skull and drilling in – and that really is incredible, bits of skull dust and there’s a burning smell and skull dust flying everywhere. And then sometimes when they cut a big bit off, it’ll be just like a jigsaw. A bit of skull will fall on the floor and they have to pick it up and put it there…but once you get through that violent and crude element, and once the Dura is cut through, it’s amazing.
“It reminded me very much of the first pictures of the planet that are beamed. It doesn’t really look like that but there’s something similar about this rather beautiful thing. And also what it can withstand.”
What sort of a doctor would you have made?
“I’ve no idea. What this has taught me is that, actually, you can be the most technical, brilliantly gifted academic person in the world. Of course you need to know all that, but it’s about courage, I think, neurosurgery. It’s about knowing how far to go. It’s about understanding that you are holding in your hands, literally at times, the thing that contains our unique humanity. It’s about a sensitivity, it’s about having a relationship with the patient. I think that’s probably what defines them.
“So if I was going to train as a doctor now, I would know that it’s a lot to do with that and not just memory and remembering all the different things. I think it’s to do with an appreciation of life, actually.”
Last November James opened a Second Chance clinic in Wakefield run by the brain injury charity Headway:
“Society is not that great at dealing with victims of brain injuries because they may be the same inside but they are very different on the outside. They can’t speak, their face might be funny, they make funny noises, they move in a different way. And we’re not that brilliantly equipped at dealing with that.
“And so I went to this clinic, Second Chance. It was astonishing just to see how many there are, for a start. And this is in Wakefield. Victims of someone drunk when they were a student falling through a window. And the amount of car accidents, people just with natural brain tumours. No-one knows where the brain tumours come from. They just have no idea why they happen. Although, funnily enough, they say the brain has been pretty much the same for a very, very long time. But they’re not closer to understanding why these things happen.
“So I hope Monroe maybe, in a way, can help and make people less afraid of sufferers of brain injuries. Because it’s terribly frustrating for them. To have this active brain inside but because one bit of it went wrong. So they’re there with this life, this sentence.”
Moving to New Zealand to film The Hobbit?
“I’m there for a year. The family’s moving. We’re doing two films. I have to go back again in 2012. We get a bit of a break during the summer and I’ll probably come back. It’s an adventure. I’ve never done a massive film like that. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. Not just for me but for the family.”
The reaction of his two daughters?
“At first they were heartbroken. But they’ve come round to it pretty quickly. They’re still telling me that I’m ruining their life but it should be exciting.”