For whatever reason, we actors can take ourselves very seriously no matter how often we are reminded that it’s “only television”. That being the case, it’s interesting that the imminent broadcast of Ordinary Lies series two (OL2) could fill a sack with an uneasy juxtaposition of apprehension and hope in me.
Let’s face facts – I’m terrified that I will not do the story justice, which is not an illegitimate anxiety, right? If my performance isn’t up to scratch, I potentially don’t work again. Simple. Yet that is not what weighs heavy the sack. In truth, characters like the one I play in the series – a young ex-footballer named Ash Driscoll – are few and far between, so when they do arise, so does the realisation that sometimes it’s more than “only television”.
Filming Casualty first brought this to my attention. It may not be the gritty drama referenced in parliament for its socio-political conviction, but it does receive hundreds of letters a week, crammed with gratitude for its hour-long presence every Saturday. For some it enables an escape, others a window or mirror. And if I ever overlooked the relevance of TV, my journey through OL2 reminded me of it.
In the upcoming series, Ash has mental health problems – problems that have no doubt affected more people than we care to know. In fact, it’s a tribute to the craft of writer Danny Brocklehurst that Ash epitomises a clandestine reality for many – one that we rarely admit to the wider public.
With that in mind, as an actor you try to do your homework. The greatest actors are not destined to become somebody else but to instead explore their own humanity in the circumstances provided. I expect it is more compelling for an audience to grasp on to honesty from actors. Even in a world of make believe, like Toy Story, the emotional reality is what allows us empathy. When approaching any character, research is required but the significance with which I regarded Ash weighed down the aforementioned sack further.
This is not the time to go into too much depth regarding my own experiences with mental health, but instead I’ll let you explore that through Ash, which basically means you’re going to have to watch, right? I wanted the portrayal to be honest, for viewers to sympathise. I didn’t want the individuals that Ash represents to feel short-changed.
When exploring Ash’s back story I met a guy called Chris who I had the pleasure of spending a morning with at the Big Issue North offices in Manchester. He is a vendor and, although Ash is not homeless, it felt to me when reading the script that he could be on that path. Chris offered first-hand insight into drug abuse, relatable experiences and, for reasons I would later discover, was happy to share them with me. There was a familiar quality about Chris. Maybe it was in his eyes, which were welcoming and soft, his generous candour or the way in which he looked out for his dog, an old staffy that was clearly the love of his life.
We chatted for an hour, eventually happening upon the moment of deception that systematically tore his life from him. There was a calmness as Chris spoke about how his job, family and home were each stolen from him by “the brown”. I felt pathetic as I tried not to cry, but Chris seemed resigned to acceptance. There was, however, a moment when Chris inflamed with passion. Agitated, he paced as he relayed the perceived injustice at how his life and the lives of his friends were misrepresented by the media – oversimplified in order to dismiss their humanity, further burying them in the public consciousness. And he’s correct. And I’m determined to not let that happen.
So I guess my garbled point is this is that while to some it’s “only a TV show”, to others, myself included, it can be much more. The fervour with which Chris wanted me to understand his life highlighted that people need their stories told objectively. I’m not an aid worker or doctor. I realise I’m not saving the world. But my message people like Chris is that I know the sack is being carried, and it is heavy with the hope that you will be heard.