“WHO invented this?”
Tom Ronstadt, played by John Simm, is in a pub, unimpressed with the world of karaoke.
“Have you any Smiths, Leonard Cohen?” he asks his screen sister Nancy (Olivia Colman), perusing the songbook in three-part BBC1 thriller Exile.
Who then proceeds to treat the locals to her version of Britney Spears’ Toxic.
There is much to love about Danny Brocklehurst’s drama, with a script as fresh as the day Morrissey first waved gladioli on Top Of The Pops while singing This Charming Man.
Not forgetting John’s own track record as songwriter and guitarist with Magic Alex, which adds an extra layer to the karaoke scene for those who have followed his career.
It’s a serious thriller with a shocking secret at its heart, co-starring Jim Broadbent as Tom and Nancy’s father Sam, a retired journalist now suffering from Alzheimer’s.
I’ve seen all three episodes – screened over consecutive nights from this Sunday (May 1) – and they pack a powerful punch.
Leavened by moments of humour, including John Simm riding on the back of a pink moped – or is it a scooter? – called Valerie.
Shamefully ignored by the short-sighted panels who give out awards, John is one of Britain’s finest actors. As is Jim Broadbent.
Put them together on screen and you have something very special indeed, with added fizz from the terrific Olivia.
Plus strong support from Shaun Dooley and Claire Goose as Mike and Mandy.
Tom strips off in the third and concluding episode to share a bath with his dad, just as they did when he was a child.
Desperate to use past memories to unlock the secrets in his father’s mind.
Their final scene together had me reaching for the tissues, while cheering a truly sparkling three hours of television.
My feature interview with John Simm was published last week – you can read that here.
And my interview with Jim Broadbent is due to appear later this week.
For now, as promised, here are some of the edited extras from my round table chat with John that could not be squeezed into the main piece.
Plus a few extracts from the subsequent BAFTA preview screening of Exile episode one and Q&A.
There are some spoilers below but – I hope – nothing major.
Your character Tom?
“He’s the son of a brilliant journalist, a proper journalist up north in Manchester and wanted to do that, wanted to be like him. He worshipped his father. Then something terrible happened when he was about 17 and his father beat him really badly to within an inch of his life. A terrible beating. And he has no idea why.
“He found something in his father’s study because he wanted to be like his dad and he wondered why this was out of bounds. So he went snooping and he found a file with a name on it. And that’s the only thing he remembers.
“So he left after that and never went back and never spoke to his father again. Never saw his father again. His sister is increasingly bitter that he’s left her to look after their father on her own. So her life has kind of disappeared doing that. She’s a lovely woman but she’s understandably quite angry with him.
“He’s been down in London doing loads of cocaine and shagging loads of girls and becoming a journalist for a magazine.
Did you base him on anyone you know?
“I don’t know any of them. I’ve met some. But no, I didn’t base him on anyone I know at all. He became very successful but from snooping after celebs and doing that kind of thing. So he’s not very happy with himself and probably feels a bit disgusted with himself. He gets sacked from his job, hits a woman and drives back up north. And that’s where we find him. So that’s the kind of guy he is.
“He hits a woman. He’s drunk, he’s on drugs, he’s having an affair. The magazine is called Ransom and he’s having an affair with the boss’s wife. He gets sacked. He knocks on her door, he’s drunk and all over her and she slams the door in his face. And before she does that, he hits her. He immediately regrets it, it’s a terrible thing to do. And I think that’s the catalyst and he thinks, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ He gets in his flash, ridiculous car and drives up north, stopping only to do a line of coke in a motorway service station on the way. So he’s that kind of guy. A lovely fella.” (smiles)
Another actor plays the younger Tom for the beating scene?
“I’m 40 now. I was 17 when he beat me up. So that would have been a push, even for the make-up department, as good as they are. I did see it. I saw what they filmed and it was pretty bad. And it’s quite weird seeing Jim Broadbent do something like that to somebody. It’s quite odd.”
Working with Jim? One of your heroes?
“Yeah, absolutely, one of my heroes. I love everything he’s been in. I’ve watched him ever since Blackadder, Slater in Only Fools And Horses. Since then he’s just become one of the greatest actors in the world and I’m a massive fan of his. It was awe-inspiring working with him, really. Even at the readthrough when I looked across and looked in his eyes and we started reading it, I thought, ‘OK, you’ve got to be on it here, on top of your game.’ He was wonderful. In no way was I disappointed in him, in any way whatsoever. He’s a lovely guy, a fantastic actor and he’s wonderful to work with.”
Did you do anything to build up the father and son rapport?
“We had a great time on set, we were doing gags. We went through most of Harry and Paul’s sketches every day. We just kept cracking each other up, really. I think that was essential because it’s such a heavy piece of drama, that if we didn’t keep it a light set and a nice atmosphere to work in, it would have been unbearable. It’s great stuff to do but you’ve got to keep it a bit jokey. And that was easy to do because the first few weeks it was me, Jim and Olivia Colman, who’s wonderful and, obviously, one of the funniest women in Britain. And so we just had a right old laugh. It was wonderful. Apart from the on set, which was grim, the actualy story itself. It was great to do.”
So which particular Harry and Paul characters did you major on?
“We did the two surgeons that go, ‘Forty, forty, forty-five, forty-five, forty, forty-five.’ We did that a lot. And the landlady and the writer, ‘I can’t say that I have…not really.’ All that. I’m letting the cat out of the bag here, he’s going to go mad.”
He’s quite a fan, is he, of Harry and Paul?
“He knows Harry. He texted him half way through it and said, ‘We are actually doing your sketches here.’ And Harry Enfield texted back and said, ‘Well, it’s in Manchester, so it’s quite cold, so I hope your forty, fortified against the weather.’” (laughs)
And the original:
The appeal of this role?
“I did Hamlet just before this in Sheffield and I thought, ‘There is no way I’m doing anything after this.’ I had a couple of months left until Christmas. I’d just done Mad Dogs and went straight on to Hamlet and I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything else.’ But when this arrived, it was one of those State of Play moments when you just read it and think, ‘Well, if I don’t do that then I’m an idiot. I don’t care when it is or how hard it’s going to be, I’ve got to do it. Because somebody else will do it and I’ll be watching it with my head in my hands.’ And he’s a brilliant writer, Danny. The best compliment I can pay to him, and I said this to him, was when I read it I didn’t look at the front and I thought Paul Abbott had written it. It’s that good. It’s Paul Abbott good. Obviously Paul had a lot to do with it but the writing is superb. It’s just a fantastic story.
“And also it gave me a chance to get back to what I did before Life On Mars and Doctor Who, which was gritty, hard-hitting drama, like Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott and Tony Marchant kind of stuff. So I was keen to get back to do some of that, get back to that kind of thing.”
Comparisons to State Of Play because playing a journalist again?
“Maybe. They’re very different journalists. Cal McCaffery was an excellent journalist, a good man. There wasn’t as much of a journey with him. He was very professional right to the very end and he did what he had to do to get the job done. This is a very different journalist. He’s professionally a mess and he’s doing something he hates and hates himself for it. But there is a redemption in it because he’s inspired by his dad all over again and then realises that what he’s doing is kind of vacuous and pointless.”
He has the journalistic skills which he’s never used properly. So he uses those to solve the mystery?
“Yeah, I guess for the first time. We don’t know his back story, whether he’s worked his way to up to become one of these kind of journalists. But I don’t think there was much serious reporting going on along the way. I don’t know how he got there but he certainly has never used those skills.”
Screen father has Alzheimer’s Disease – are you familiar with that?
“Relatives of friends. But Tom is very shocked by how much it has taken over his life. Because he hasn’t seen him for so long, he barely knows who he is. Which is really upsetting. It must be an awful feeling.”
Does Tom long to forgive his father in a way?
“He wants to find out why. His father was a good man, a decent human being, a brilliant journalist, just a brilliant local top man. Everybody thought he was an incredible man, not just journalist. And so he misses him and he misses that and he’s just very confused about what happened. And because his father can’t speak to him or explain what happened in any kind of way because he’s so far gone with Alzheimer’s, he has to do it on his own.”
“Tom hits a woman and you think, ‘Well, maybe that’s something to do with his father. Is that an excuse? There’s no excuse whatsoever. It’s revealed in the end why his father hit him and you totally understand why. And so does he, at the end. There is a reason. It’s a shocking, shocking reason.”
How did he feel after Hamlet had finished? Completely exhausted?
“Completely exhausted, yeah. I felt like a hollow shell. But it was incredible. It was the most incredible experience of my acting career. It was amazing. It was sold out. The reaction was stunning, every single performance. To nearly a thousand people every single time. The gasps when Gertrude drank the poison at the end, told you that most of the audience hadn’t seen it. It was just fantastic. It was wonderful. I had a great time.
“I lost about half a stone. It took me a while to get used to doing it. It was exhausting. Absolutely mentally, physically exhausting. But I’ve never had a buzz like it. We did a public dress rehearsal, which I’d never done before and it was packed. And when I came off stage – two of my best friends were in it, Dylan Brown and Colin Tierney…and Dylan was stood there. He looked at me. And I said, ‘I’ve just played Hamlet.’ And he went, ‘I know.’ And he gave me a big hug. It was one of the most incredible feelings. It was just like, ‘Oh my God, I really have just played Hamlet.’
“And then I could start playing with it. And the best thing about the whole experience was that this part, you can change him every single night. You can play with it. Once you get that ridiculous pressure of press night out of the way, which is ridiculous…I’ve never felt nerves like it. You just literally get through it in a daze, try and get through it. Once that’s out of the way, then you can carry on where you left off in rehearsals and just play with it, this amazing character, and say these incredible lines every night. It was a joy.
“I’m quite happy with what I’m doing in my career. I’d love to do Shakespeare again at some point, I’d love to play Iago. There’s loads of parts – Richard III I’d love to do. King Lear, maybe not yet. But I’d love to do more classics. I’d love to do Chekhov and I’d love to do Pinter. There’s tons more theatre I’d love to do but not yet. I’m going to give it a while. Because the problem with Hamlet, it’s like a double-edged sword. Once you’ve done that, where do you go from there? Nothing is ever going to be as fulfilling or as wonderful to play, I shouldn’t imagine. I don’t know. I’ll give it a while.”
Having done Hamlet, is TV not as challenging for you?
“It’s totally different. It’s a totally different muscle to use. The muscle I used in Life On Mars and in this to learn lines, because of being in every single scene, Life On Mars prepared me well for Exile, actually, because he’s in every single scene again. It’s brilliant in a totally different way. Different in every single way. You get two minutes, maybe, tops, to do a performance and then you have to do it again and again and again and again and again and again and again. When you do the theatre you can just be that character the whole way though and not come out of character. It’s all split up when you’re filming. You’re trying to work out where you’ve just come from or you haven’t filmed it yet. So it’s a different discipline. But equally as enjoyable.”
Still excited by roles?
“It’s a challenge. Hamlet was a challenge. All of it is. If it’s not a challenge then I’d find it deathly boring, I think.”
Mad Dogs 2 on way?
“We’re up for it. Why not? It was such fun to film. And I think it’s pretty good as well.”
Going back to Exile, was your own father in real life inspirational towards the kind of career that you’ve had?
“Absolutely. He was absolutely inspirational. He’s the reason I went on stage. As everybody knows, he was a club artist. So, yeah, he inspired me to go on stage, definitely. And there were lots of parallels in it. Without me getting too personal, there are parallels that the northern boy goes down south and becomes a success and goes back up north and deals with all the people that he knew.
“Sometimes people are different with you if you haven’t been back for a long time and they’ve seen you on TV. Old school friends, it can be a bit complicated and a bit strange. So I could draw on all that. Golden bollocks driving back into town in his flash car. Not that I ever had a car like this idiot. It’s a Lotus. My back went trying to get out of it. It’s ridiculous. It’s a fantastic car but it’s just got ****** written on the windscreen.”
Why tend to do no more than two series of anything? Life On Mars and The Lakes?
“I think there’s many reasons. I get bored. The Lakes burnt me and Jimmy McGovern knows, because he actually apologised about the second series of The Lakes because he gave it off to loads of different writers. Loads of different producers, loads of different directors, too many cooks. And I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. It was a missed opportunity because it was so good, The Lakes, and I was desperate to do another one that good. And even though the second series was fantastic in many ways, it was nowhere near the first one, I don’t think. And Jimmy knows that. So that kind of burnt my fingers a bit and I got a bit scared about going back to do another one, of anything.
“That goes for Life On Mars, I think. It was, ‘I’ve done it. I’ve done everything I can with this character, there’s nowhere else I can go.’
So taking a break now?
“Hopefully. I’m going to try to. There’s a few things knocking about but I’m going to take a little time off because I was away for most of the year. Yeah, just to re-introduce myself to the family and then off I go again. Hopefully.
“I read things and say no, or maybe. And then they go. I do say no sometimes and say don’t send me anything. Like I said after Hamlet and then Exile landed on the doorstep. So sometimes it’s good that they ignore me. But then I get my head turned by a brilliant script. It’s always about the writing. I’m a sucker for it. So, we’ll see.”
Several weeks later John took part in a BAFTA Q&A after a big screen preview screening of Exile episode one:
“There were elements of him that were quite easy for me to relate to. I grew up in a town very near the town that we filmed in and it was quite a similar situation. I left when I was 16 and I went to London. I did go back and see my dad but the whole of the returning back home and the meeting old friends and being uncomfortable. I can relate to some of that.”
Father and son relationship in Exile?
“It is very potent. I’ve had difficult relationships with my father within my life. You just draw on what you can and experiences of friends.”
“I don’t watch much of anything. I watch kids’ programmes. Not from choice. But there certainly are fantastic dramas out there.”
The scene at the start of episode one where he hits his lover, played by real life wife Kate Magowan?
“They’re difficult to do those scenes. But they are very technical. You’ve got to be absolutely bang on and you have to make it look like it’s happened. When he hits the woman at the beginning and when he gets hit at the end, all those kinds of scenes. And the scenes with Jim, pushing him on to a bed – and I have to try and almost drown him in a bath. They’re not particularly pleasant things to do. You’ve got to gear yourself up and get yourself in the right frame of mind.”
Northern drama – why is it so great?
“It’s probably there are very good writers that come from there and they’re making a big success for themselves.”
*Exile begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday and continues at the same time on Monday and Tuesday.
Update: Exile: Jim Broadbent