Conflict studies

From Nicky in Our Friends in the North to Oedipus, Christopher Eccleston has specialised in playing characters at odds with themselves. It’s the stuff of drama, says the Salford-born actor

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It’s 25 years since Christopher Eccleston first came to public notice playing the doomed real life figure of Derek Bentley in the 1991 film Let Him Have It, and in that time the Salford-born actor has given us some of the most memorable, anguished and conflicted characters to have graced the stage and screen over the past two decades.

In Shallow Grave (1994) he played the mild-mannered flatmate of Ewan McGregor and Kerry Fox, driven to paranoid psychosis by murderous greed. His BAFTA-nominated performance as the idealistic Nicky in Our Friends In The North (1996) stole the show from under the noses of a ridiculously talented ensemble cast, while no one who saw the same year’s TV drama Hillsborough can ever forget his distinguished, heartbreaking portrayal of Trevor Hicks, a grief-stricken father tirelessly campaigning for justice. Other notable roles include the glum DCI Bilborough in Cracker, the son of God in The Second Coming, Hamlet at Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse and an acerbic John Lennon in Lennon Naked. Even his regrettably short run in Doctor Who saw him imbue the centuries-old Time Lord with a previously unseen depth, searing intensity and spikey vehemence.

“The period I grew up in, you didn’t feel artistic pursuits were what people like us did.”

“I’ve not exactly been Tommy Cooper, have I?” semi-jokes the 53 year old, over the phone from his London home. “I always seem to have been cast as conflicted men, but then conflicted men and women are a staple of drama. Without conflict there is no drama. I remember reading Far From The Madding Crowd when I was 17 and on the first page Thomas Hardy describes Gabriel Oak as a mixture of salt and pepper: ‘On a good day he was a good man. And on a bad day he was a bad man.’ And that’s certainly how I see myself and how I see the rest of humanity. Dennis Potter said: ‘We’re all half ape and half angel.’ And the greatest writers always address that – the contradictions and tensions within individuals – and I really enjoy playing that.”

It should come as no surprise then that the tragic hero character of Oedipus, the mythical Greek king of Thebes, is one that Eccleston has always wanted to play. “He’s the ultimate outsider,” states the actor, who stars in a powerful BBC Radio 3 adaptation of Sophocles’ classic text broadcast later this month. “He sleeps with his mother and kills his father and then rips his eyes out. I don’t think you can get anymore primal than that. You’re going to the very extremes of human experience, so technically and emotionally to portray that is the biggest challenge of them all.”

The drama, which also stars Don Warrington as Creon and Fiona Shaw as the blind prophet Tiresias, carried extra appeal for the actor as the script was written by Anthony Burgess, the Harpurhey-born author of A Clockwork Orange. Eccleston first came across his work as an impressionable teenager growing up in Little Hulton, a fiercely working class part of Salford, and immediately found a deep “personal connection” with the novelist and playwright.

“The period that I grew up in, you didn’t in any way feel artistic pursuits were what people like us did. And then you come across a figure in the 1970s who’s being lionised for A Clockwork Orange and you realise he’s from around the corner. That’s a big attraction when you’re starved of the arts or feel that you’re not entitled. It’s the whole thing of: ‘What? He comes from round here and he can do that. Maybe I can too,’” recalls Eccleston, who remembers regularly travelling across Manchester as a teenager to sell jeans and cords on Harpurhey Market.

Burgess’s writing resonated with him due to its distinctive rhythms and inventive vocabulary. “I think that’s partly to do with the fact that we both grew up with the same working class dialect and use of language around us, which is quite percussive. It’s language used like a blade or a weapon.”

When delivered through Eccleston’s pursed lips, those words gain added intensity, with Burgess’s adaptation of Oedipus – written for a 1974 American theatre production and never before performed in the UK – still relevant today due to its timeless themes of identity and family. “We all have a mother and a father. They are the first gods in our lives, whether they be present or absent, loving or abusive. So it’s always going to resonate.”

Eccleston was born in 1964, the youngest of three brothers to Elsie and Ron. The couple met when they were workers at the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Salford and Eccleston describes his childhood as a blissfully happy time. Upon announcing that he was going to study acting at Salford Tech, his parents bought him the complete works of Shakespeare by way of encouragement. When he played the title role in Michael Winterbottom’s 1996 film of Hardy’s novel Jude, his parents watched it at a cinema in Bolton with his father proudly telling the other people there: “That’s my lad.”

“My dad has been an enormous influence. Enormous,” says Eccleston, who drew on elements of his father’s personality when playing the comically tactless Maurice Scott in The A Word, last year’s acclaimed BBC drama series about a dysfunctional family adapting to life with an autistic son. Eccleston, who has two young children, Albert and Esme, says the public response has been overwhelming.

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and speak emotionally about it. [Writer] Peter Bowker was absolutely brilliant because he never soapboxed and he never preached. Autism is just a fact of life and families have to normalise their children’s autism and I think The A Word did that.”

A second series begins filming later this year, with Eccleston reprising his role as Maurice.

“When I was growing up, my belief was that art was politics and politics was art. Yes, it has to be varied and it has to be entertaining, but also there has to be substance. Art, in my eyes, has always been about the voice of the disenfranchised and the outsiders. It’s not some exclusive executive prawn sandwich brigade operation. Art is vital and urgent and it’s about questioning society.”

Not that Eccleston is above occasionally taking well paid parts in mass market fare that has absolutely nothing intelligent to say. Just watch Thor: The Dark World, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra or Gone In 60 Seconds, all of which feature the actor, in you’re in any doubt.

“I have gone in there and whored myself with the best of them and given some of the worst performances of my life in Hollywood. Made some money and sold out completely,” he admits.

The vast majority of his acting life has, however, “been ran on my heart, sometimes to my career detriment”, he states, adding: “If I died tomorrow nobody could ever take away from me that I was in Hillsborough, which is the most important piece of work that I have ever done and that I imagine I will ever do.”

Last year, two decades after Hillsborough was first broadcast, provoking questions in Parliament, a jury ruled that the 96 football fans who died in the tragedy were unlawfully killed, exonerating the Liverpool fans blamed for the disaster. How did Eccleston – who struck up a friendship with campaigner Trevor Hicks through making the drama and was best man at his second wedding – react when he heard the verdicts?

“It’s very, very mixed for me. Obviously, I’m delighted that this country and its public services, the judicial system and the police, are now finally admitting – not just for those families, but for the sake of society – that they lied. But I’m aware that once this is all done and Trevor and Jenni and the rest of the families get justice, their children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers will not be there. And their indescribable, unimaginable grief at the time was compounded by lies that came straight from Thatcher’s mouth. What they went through at that time was sickening.”

The summer vote for Brexit is dismissed with equal contempt. “Little fucking Englanders again, aren’t we? Enoch [Powell] would be delighted,” he rages, while acknowledging some of the reasons why people, especially from poor and working class backgrounds, voted for Brexit.

“It was an ageing vote and in this country, if you’re elderly you’re invisible. So I can understand the anger and the bitterness and the years of abuse for the working classes, which started in 1979 and never ceased. Unfortunately, those people are creating a world for their grandchildren and children that they’re not going to live in for a great amount of time, but Albert and Esme are going to have to live in it.”

Equally troubling for Eccleston is the lack of opportunities for working class voices in the arts. He has long spoken passionately about the issue, echoing the concerns of fellow thespians David Morrissey, Julie Walters and Judi Dench. “This government is saying ‘We don’t want working class kids from council estates turning into actors or artists or poets’ because we’re a threat, so they make it financially out of our reach.

“Undoubtedly, film and television and theatre is a middle class industry. I come from a working class background and I will never lose the notion that I’m breaking in, that I’m sneaking around the house looking for the money. But the great thing about culture is that it absorbs people like me and I always feel now, whenever I go onto a film or television set, or to a lesser extent the theatre, that I belong there – that my voice is resonant and valid.”

Anthony Burgess’s Oedipus the King was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 February

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