Worlds apart

Actor David Morrissey on returning to Liverpool for reality-warping thriller The City and the City and says the concept of overlapping cities isn’t far from real life today

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David Morrissey is poking around in piles of junk, deep inside the cavernous and abandoned Littlewoods building on the outskirts of Liverpool. Don’t worry – the Bafta-nominated actor hasn’t ditched the showbiz life for a new job in scrap metal. He’s shooting the BBC adaptation of China Mieville’s weird thriller The City and The City, and the desolate interiors of the Littlewoods building are standing in for a particularly grimy corner of Beszel, one of the two cities in the story.

“There’s people we don’t see, people we choose not to see. Grenfell was part of that.”

If you haven’t read the book, then getting your head around the central concept might take some time. The cities of the title, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the same physical space. Beszel is grungy, lively and poor. Ul Qoma is pristine, advanced and wealthy. Inhabitants are trained from birth to not see or acknowledge the existence of the other city, and deviations from this perceptive blindness are harshly dealt with by a fascistic police force known as Breach.

Morrissey is playing Inspector Tyador Borlú, a Beszel detective investigating the brutal murder of an Ul Qoma student on a Beszel street. As he delves into the inner workings of this strange overlapping society, with some reluctant assistance from his opposite number in Ul Qoma, he discovers dark secrets that threaten to overturn the whole fragile system. And if that’s tricky to get your head around in theory, imagine the headaches involved in bringing such a bizarre concept to life on TV.

“I love the book,” says Morrissey, several months later, now considerably more comfortable in the offices of Mammoth Screen, the production company that also brought us Poldark. But so surreal is the story that he enjoyed the novel only as a reader, convinced nobody would ever try to adapt it. “I always love a book when I can turn that bit of my brain off,” he confesses. “That was a book which I read and I thought: ‘Can they make this?’ And I thought it was so difficult as far as the concept, I just enjoyed the writing.”

Then he learned that Tony Grisoni, writer of the Red Riding dramas, which Morrissey co-starred in 2009, was daring to tackle the script for TV, and suddenly the prospect of bringing Mieville’s tale to life was a real possibility. “I only read it that way once Tony told me he was working on it,” Morrissey laughs. “And he didn’t tell me to read it terms of being in it – just as a nosey person!”

The key to going from intrigued fan to playing the lead role came about thanks to an addition Grisoni made to the story, giving Borlú a tragic history not included in the original book. “Tony’s brought this other element which I think is really good, this historical element,” Morrissey explains. “It’s like any sci-fi or something set in a different land – we have to get to know the rules and as viewers we do that. But if they don’t give a fuck about the characters then they’re not going to stay with it and I think there’s something about Borlú, you really want him to succeed, you want him to make his life better. You want to put the pieces together, not just for the victim and her family but also for himself and his sanity.”

Morrissey is also energised by the social and political metaphors in Mieville’s concept, particularly at a time of cultural estrangement, soaring homelessness and rampant urban renewal in the north, often at the expense of long-term working-class residents.

“What I really like about it is the idea that we live in different cities even though we’re inhabiting the same place. There’s people we don’t see, people we choose not to see. Grenfell was part of that. You know, here is something, a place that people are just not seeing or they disguise it, they turn their back. I think that idea of Trump, Brexit, all that stuff – we live in an echo chamber rather than debate and that’s very much what’s happening in The City and The City. People are choosing to keep themselves smaller in a way.

“We ghettoise ourselves, whether it’s financially or whatever, but also the idea that we’re locked into history, how we’re locked into legend, into conspiracy, how we’re locked into that sense of our ancestors and what that means to us. Laws that were bestowed on us centuries ago that need to be righted – that’s all in there as well and I love that China plays with that.”

The City and The City, I suggest, reminds me most of David Simon’s two books, Homicide and The Corner, which later formed the basis for his seminal TV series The Wire, in the sense that Baltimore has two different worlds, two economies, one supposedly legal, one illegal, co-existing in the same space.

“They are different places but actually their ground rules are the same,” Morrissey agrees. “You see the street and you see City Hall, and they have the same way of working, they have the same way of finding money, they have the same volume of taxes, they have the same sort of intimidation but as well as having a legitimate side, the other one is criminal. And I think what’s interesting about Borlú is he lives in a city that’s teeming, it’s multiracial, cosmopolitan, it’s analogue, it’s dirty and when he gets to this other militarised, beautiful vast place it takes him a while to realise the rules are the same. The idea that people would want to be with their loved ones, to protect their families, to fall in love and that is the same. They’re catered to by fear.”

Now 53, Morrissey’s career has taken him all over the world – and made him a bankable genre star thanks to his turn as the Governor on zombie hit The Walking Dead – but any chance to return to his native Liverpool is one he seizes. Originally the plan was to shoot The City and The City somewhere in Eastern Europe, but the versatility of the North West and the distinctive architecture of both Liverpool and Manchester – where other scenes were shot – clinched the deal.

“I was very proud not just of Liverpool but of the North West in general. Our industry works so well, you know. Using its infrastructure, using its architecture, you can close roads off, it has great crews. For me, one of the great things is we have a lot of extras supporting, they’re all connected to it, they all want to be involved. When we were in Liverpool and Manchester, there’s umpteen productions working, Peaky Blinders is up there and there’s loads of films being made and I’m really excited by that.”

As for what’s next, Morrissey is understandably tight-lipped but he seems genuinely distraught that his long-planned movie biopic of Liverpool rock legend Julian Cope, which he hoped to produce and direct, seems to have fizzled out. “I had the rights to Julian’s book, Head On,” he sighs. “Aah, God, I wish I’d done it! We got quite close and then they did the film about Factory Records [24 Hour Party People] so we slightly lost momentum there.”

It certainly seems that helping to develop projects as a producer is what excites him most. “I’m producing quite a few things at the moment, whether they’re for me to direct or not, I’m not sure but I’ve got a slate of stuff I’m doing. I’m doing something here with Mammoth Screen, which I’m really excited about. I’ve acquired the rights to one or two books so my production side is much more about that than directing.”

In fact, the last time we spoke was when Morrissey was promoting his low budget movie Don’t Worry About Me, a two-handed romance set on the streets of Liverpool.

“If I’m going to do it again I’d need a proper budget,” he laughs. “When I did Don’t Worry About Me it nearly killed me. I mean, just the fact that you are relying on people’s goodwill and you can only do that up to a certain point, you know, and if it comes back you’re taking the piss really. I value my friendships too much to go to the well again. But I loved doing it and even though I would say that it’s quite a small piece of work, the experience of having done it… I just didn’t have enough money basically. At the end, I was lying on the floor, thinking I was going have a heart attack. It was pretty tough.”

What’s clear is that whatever he takes on next, it has to have something to say or provoke a response, as The City and The City seems sure to. “I watch a lot of television and I also feel like I watch a lot of television in order to talk to people about it. I watch stuff. Stranger Things is a great example. I watched it and then my children and I have massive conversations about it. We talk about it and the way that it is reflected back into our own lives about fear, about parenting, about all those things.”

The City and The City is on BBC Two and available on the iPlayer

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