“DON’T measure me against him. He’s won an Oscar,” smiles John Simm.
We’re sat in a conference room at BBC TV Centre in west London, where a few days before I’d also interviewed Jim Broadbent.
John and Jim co-star in superb new BBC1 drama Exile, to be screened over three consecutive nights from Sunday May 1.
Relaxed in a grey V-neck jumper, white T-shirt and blue jeans, an unshaven John was in good spirits during the small round table chat back in January.
Where the conversation ranged from Hamlet to Harry and Paul via Exile, Doctor Who and Sam Tyler.
Regular readers will know of the many interviews I carried out over five years with the writers, casts and production teams of both Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes.
As well as the detailed blogs here at Life of Wylie.
So it was interesting to hear John’s second thoughts during this interview about leaving Sam Tyler behind.
Honest reflections which I hope are not taken out of context elsewhere.
He also spoke about a possible return to Doctor Who and much else besides.
My first Exile feature is in today’s (Thursday) Manchester Evening News and below.
But, as ever, there was more from this interview that I couldn’t squeeze into the main piece.
Plus the later BAFTA preview screening of Exile followed by a Q&A, including John and Jim.
I’ll post that material in this blog next week, with extra photos.
Along with that separate Jim Broadbent interview.
JOHN Simm does his best to cope with the fame game. But he isn’t happy when it gets too intrusive.
The Lancashire-raised actor admits: “I find it excruciating. It’s horrible to get a cameraphone shoved in your face every time you walk out the door. Not nice.
“Especially when people don’t even acknowledge that you’re a human being. They just shove a phone in your face and try and film you and take your picture. That’s annoying. But there are genuine fans there and it’s hard to differentiate.”
The crowds who waited for John last year after his acclaimed peformances as Hamlet at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre will testify to the time and effort he puts in for those real fans.
“I really tried my best at the stage door. After an exhausting night and maybe two shows a day – especially Hamlet twice a day, which should be illegal – it’s difficult to stand there for half an hour and chat and smile and to have your picture taken.
“But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s fine, if they don’t encroach too much. So it’s swings and roundabouts. And like Laurence Olivier said, if we didn’t have an audience you’d just be talking to yourself in an empty room. I wouldn’t have a job.”
John, 40, won plaudits for his role as investigative reporter Cal McCaffrey in State Of Play, written by Paul Abbott. But he plays a very different kind of journalist in three-part BBC1 drama Exile, screened on consecutive nights from Sunday May 1.
Tom Ronstadt is a washed up celebrity snooper, just sacked from his job with London magazine Ransom. High on drink and drugs, he seeks refuge with his lover, who happens to be married to the editor. A role taken by John’s real life actress wife Kate Magowan. Woken at 3am, she slams the front door in his face. But not before he slaps her.
That’s the catalyst for Tom to get in his flash Lotus sports car and head north up the M1 in this drama created by Abbott and written by Hyde-born Danny Brocklehurst.
Tom drives to the Lancashire home he left some 18 years before, after his father Sam gave him an unexplained savage beating.
Sam was a campaigning journalist on a top regional newpaper – “the equivalent of the Manchester Evening News” – and had caught his son looking at a file in his home office.
Now retired, the veteran reporter, played by Oscar-winning Jim Broadbent, is suffering from Alzheimer’s – looked after by Tom’s sister Nancy (Olivia Colman) – and, it appears, cannot answer the questions Tom has about the past.
It was revealed last year that Jim, 61, had taken over the role which was originally due to be filled by Warrington-born Pete Postlethwaite, who lost his long fight with cancer in January at the age of 64.
John recalls: “I’d never worked with Pete and thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be incredible.’ I was all geared up for that and then he was obviously very ill, so Jim took over. He’s also brilliant.”
Filmed in locations including Bury, Ramsbottom and Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park ground, the drama is the first to come from Hale-based AbbottVision and was produced by Manchester’s Red Production Company.
It was also Nelson-raised John’s first TV job back in the North West since he starred as Manchester’s detective Sam Tyler, alongside Philip Glenister as “Manc Lion” Gene Hunt, in time travel cop drama Life On Mars.
“I spent most of my youth in Manchester, in clubs and football grounds and the Manchester Apollo,” he grins. “We moved all around Manchester, and in the outskirts, and then I left.
“I love Manchester. I always have, ever since I was a kid and I go back as much as I can. Manchester’s my spiritual home. I’ve been in London for 22 years now but Manchester’s the only other place, I think, in the country that I could live.”
John was in virtually every scene of Life On Mars and completed a punishing schedule over two series, away from his wife and two children. His decision to leave forced the writers to scrap plans for a third series and then unfold Gene’s untold story without him over three series of sequel Ashes To Ashes.
“If anything, maybe I was a bit hasty with that. I should have done another Life On Mars. Maybe one more,” he reflects.
“I missed my family and I missed being away from home. The reasons were genuine. If they’d have moved it to London, I would have done it.
“And then, ironically enough, they did the spin-off in London,” he laughs. “Ashes To Ashes was set in London. I saw that and I thought, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, we could have worked something out.’ It’s a shame. It’s gone now.”
He adds: “I get bored – it was, ‘I’ve done everything I can with this character, there’s nowhere else I can go.’ There were so many different reasons and a lot of them were the fact that I couldn’t do anything else with Sam Tyler. He just became a sort of shaking his head and tutting. He didn’t get the funny lines in it.
“I think they found it hard to write for him, whereas they got more and more pleasure of writing for Gene. Quite understandably, because he was a fantastic character to write for.
“And so I can feel a backlash coming – and I could in the back of my head with Life On Mars, that I thought we’d done enough. 16 hours non-stop on screen.
“It’s only now, with years and years and years of hindsight that I think, ‘It was so iconic that show.’ Then maybe one more. I don’t know. But there’s no point regretting things like that. They did Ashes To Ashes and that was a great success and Phil’s done fantastically well out of it. I had great fun. And I’m quite pleased with my 16 hours of Seventies’ cop drama.”
Some fans hoped he would return for the finale of Ashes. “No. That was never going to happen. It was a totally different show. I didn’t want to and they didn’t ask me.
“It was very strange. I watched the first episode and it was so weird watching those characters without me stood next to them. Because they were all in my head.
“I couldn’t deal with it. I found it very difficult to watch. But I loved playing Sam Tyler and I loved working with Phil. But, you know, I work with Phil every 10 minutes, so I’m not going to miss that.”
Set to film a second series of Sky1’s Mad Dogs with Glenister, John also doesn’t rule out returning to his role as The Master in Doctor Who.
“I’m sure I could but no-one’s mentioned it. Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer and it would be nice to see what he does with The Master. Maybe they’d want him to regenerate into somebody much younger. Somebody from Skins or something like that. Or a woman. And what would be wrong with that?
“They can do whatever they want with The Master. You’re at their mercy. But I’d seriously consider it if they asked me. I’d love to have a go at Matt Smith because I think he’s really great.”
Would John ever shy away from a high profile role because of the subsequent media and public attention they attract?
“Oh, no way, no. The attention is the attention, that’s what it is. But it’s not going to stop me doing things like that. I’m incredibly proud of Life On Mars and Doctor Who. They’re just a blast to do. Why not?
“You do the serious stuff, the classical stuff, the populist stuff and sci-fi stuff. You’re an actor, try everything.”
Exile begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday May 1.