Brian Cox returns to the small screen with a role as the secretive head of MI5 in a stylish Seventies tale of spooks and sleeper agents that’s been called Mad Men with Spies, writes Jackie McGlone
Has Brian Cox been cloned? The Olivier award-winning actor, that is, not “the bane” of his life, mop-haired Professor Brian Cox, who he regards as a remarkable young man doing a remarkable job, despite the endless requests he receives to pontificate on particle physics. Although, given the 68-year-old Dundonian’s ubiquity, it’s probably only a matter of time before he turns up in a Hollywood movie playing a charismatic, if venerable, physicist.
For he has made numerous films and TV series and is still doing so. His credits include Braveheart, the first two movies in the Bourne franchise and he was the original – and arguably the best – Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, as well as winning an Emmy for TNT’s Nuremberg. Currently, three films he prepared earlier are in post-production.
Then there are his regular appearances on political platforms speaking passionately about his decision to quit his once-beloved Labour party to join the SNP –he’ll be campaigning for them in Fife and for Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the party’s candidate for Ochil & South Perthshire. “I’m keen to support her – and Nicola —Sturgeon, of course, because it’s been a joy and an honour to watch her grow out of Alex Salmond’s shadow. She really has become her own woman. Very impressive!” he exclaims.
Nonetheless, his prodigious work ethic —he was born into an “eccentric Scots-Irish,” Catholic working-class family and suffered a troubled childhood — is relentless. Recently, it was announced that he will play Vladimir to Bill Paterson’s Estragon in Waiting For Godot to mark the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre’s 50th anniversary. “It will be exactly 50 years to the day that I stepped onto that stage for the first time the night we open, 18 September.” But that is only after he’s completed filming a supernatural thriller, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and recording another series of the popular Victorian sleuth stories, McLevy, for Radio 4.
Will he ever stop working? “You know me, darling, I’m a workaholic,” Cox replies. “I’ll stop when I’m dead.”
Meanwhile, if proof were needed that, like taxes, he’s always with us, Cox is back on the box starring as a secretive spymaster, head of MI5 and known only as Daddy, in BBC2’s The Game. This sinister Seventies tale of spooks and sleeper agents during the Cold War is, so to speak, Game of Moles. It’s a role to which Cox, with his familiar lived-in features – “more rented-out than lived-in,” he once told me – brings “an air of incontrovertible authority and canny judgment,” according to one American reviewer.
A critical and ratings hit, when BBC America premiered it late last year, The Game also stars Tom Hughes as haunted but handsome spy Joe Lambe, who is being tipped to replace Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark as TV’s latest lust object. Hughes won rave reviews in the US as did Cox’s paranoid father-figure. He plays “the role of Daddy to rumbling, wise perfection,” according to the LA Times. The Huffington Post admired one of the great, grizzled lions of the acting profession’s “air of gruff, intelligent weariness… [he is] always a pleasure to behold.” Indeed, the Hollywood Reporter critic suggested he “should be in all spy stories.”
When I mention this to Cox, who is speaking down the line from London, where he’s filming The Autopsy of Jane Doe, in which he and Emile Hirsch play father-and-son coroners, he says: “Well, The Game, which I am really proud of, isn’t the first spy story I’ve been involved with. I made a BBC radio version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, one of the best things I’ve ever done for radio; I wish they’d repeat it. Years ago, I was in a Ken Loach film, Hidden Agenda, a really important political thriller set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, about the shoot-to-kill policy and the intelligence services.
“I enjoy playing spies, although I haven’t played battalions! I’m more often the villain, but I do like all that bluff, double-bluff stuff. Remember, spies have to be excellent actors. Look at the Cambridge Five, they all wore two faces. Spies are actors, spending their lives pretending to be other people. So it’s about playing a role, hence The Game. Actors and spies go to work to play games.”
Therefore, he relished playing Daddy. “He’s this 60-something guy, who’s been a commanding officer and is ex-SAS – [Cox’s ex-father-in-law was in the SAS] and he’s a complex character, in his element in the world of espionage. Also, the writing, by Toby Whitehouse, who created the series, and who is one of the best writers of his generation, is in a class of its own. There’s a kind of zeitgeist about the work of British writers just now, with terrific shows like Broadchurch and Toby’s Being Human, which I loved because it’s actually about dealing with the reality of being a human being.
“I watched that show and I suddenly thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind being a part of all that.’ It’s a while since I did a major TV drama anyway – apart from Shetland and the comedy Bob Servant – because I’ve been making movies and TV mini-series in America, then doing Conor McPherson’s play, The Weir, again on stage in the West End last year.” Daddy, he says, “is like a tired, old horse being brought into the paddock again to get all the other horses into training” at a time when MI5 are under threat because of counter-espionage. “Great stuff! But James Bond it is not, because spies are usually seedy, little men. This show, though, is pretty damn hot.”
In the States, it has been described as “Mad Men with spies,” does he agree?
“Yes, I do. It’s certainly slick, very stylish. The setting is 1972, a time of great political change when a lot of fissures were appearing in English society – just as they are today. We filmed in Birmingham at the Library, which has since been demolished so if they commission a second series they’ll have to rebuild all that brilliant, Brutalist architecture.
“We were at the Birmingham Rep, too, which was a case of déja vu for me, because I was in the very dressing-room I shared with Michael Gambon when I was Iago to his Othello in 1967. Yes, I am still most proud of my career as a classical actor.” (He’s played many great roles, including Titus Andronicus, which he’s said he believes to be “the greatest stage performance” he’s ever given, and King Lear, the subject of one of his two books about acting.)
Has going back to the 1970s in The Game made him nostalgic for the era that style forgot?
“No, not at all, although the early Seventies were happy years, despite the three-day week and the power cuts in the mid-70s. My son, Alan [the Young Sherlock actor], was born in 1970. (Cox also has a daughter, Margaret, with his first wife, the actress Caroline Burt.) Now we look back on the decade and see how grubby those later years were, people smoking all the time, the loose living.”
As shocking revelation has followed shocking revelation about the predations of various male celebrities during the sleazy Seventies, Cox believes that many of them got away with it “because they were powerful and they synchronised with Thatcherism”.
Which brings us to politics and the general election. As he lives in downtown Brooklyn, with this second wife, the actress and yoga instructor Nicole Ansari and their two sons, Orson, 13, and Torin, ten, Cox is no longer domiciled in Scotland, although he returns here whenever he can. He has no vote in the election, but, like fellow actor Alan Cumming, he has been criticised by people saying that only those who live in Scotland should decide its future. But they both grew up here, says Cox, they have seen the country’s influence spread and evolve, and he believes fervently that they should have their say.
Does it grieve him that he can’t vote on 7 May?
“It does and it doesn’t,” he replies. Then he interrupts himself, confessing: “Of course it grieves me! But I’m just so happy and proud to be active in the SNP campaign. I want Cameron and Osborne out. I find Cameron strangely absent in this campaign.” Disengaged? “Exactly! Disengaged is the word.”
Why did he resign from the Labour party? “Disenchantment,” he replies. Only the other day he met Ed Miliband. “I liked him; I found him very affable,” he confesses, adding that the Tory’s personal attacks on Miliband have been “disgusting”. The Labour leader asked him twice what they could do to get him back into the fold. “I told him I’ve nothing against him personally. It’s historic. It’s not the referendum as such – I was actually in the devo-max position – but I’ve been disenchanted with Labour since the Iraq war. Miliband is the unfortunate inheritor of all that. We are responsible for the situation in the Middle East – that’s Tony Blair’s legacy.
“I find this really upsetting because I was excited about New Labour. I even did a series of advertisements for them. But it turned sour so quickly. They let us down on many issues: the economy, equality, reform of the House of Lords. We have to have a second, elected chamber. Nonetheless, it has been very, very hard for me to make this decision because I’ve been involved with Labour since my teens. I look at Jim Murphy, however, and he’s doing the party no favours. It needs to rebuild itself. They have to learn to talk to people.”
He pauses for breath, then says: “I’m a great believer in social democracy, so I’d like to see a United Federation of Great Britain, which would mean federal responsibility. Now, I’m watching the SNP constantly stealing a march on the Labour party, which was started in Scotland. When Keir Hardie founded it there was no incompatibility between Scottish home rule, as it was then, and a British socialist party. They went hand in glove.
“Ironically, it’s the SNP – a party I once thought represented stuff I believed to be nonsense – going with the social democratic idea. What really got to me was this feudal thing during the referendum, people saying, ‘Why don’t the Scots shut up? Why can’t they stay in their place?’ They wanted us, now they don’t want us. So the Labour party has been shameful in its attitude to Scotland. I agree with the historian Tom Devine, the UK is over. The old system is broken.
“It behoves us now to shift the power back to Scotland, away from Westminster. We’re on the verge of something historic. We can literally shift the political paradigm. So we really need to muster the troops,” he says, sounding positively Shakespearean.
Finally, Cox may have no vote here but he’ll definitely be exercising his democratic right in the States come the 2016 presidential election. “I supported Hillary Clinton last time and I will this time. I’ve a lot of respect for her. She’s an old war horse!” And with that, he’s off to have a lie down before tomorrow’s filming, an actor and an activist still at the top of his game.
• The Game, BBC2, Thursday 30 April, 9pm.