MATTHEW Macfadyen admits he had reservations about accepting the lead role in Ripper Street,
Richard Warlow’s gory new series for BBC1 about an 1889 police squad patrolling the streets of London’s East End in the wake of Jack the Ripper’s bloody murders.
The actor, who made his name playing Tom Quinn in Spooks, says, “Before starting on Ripper Street, I remember feeling scared. I had the same feeling before Spooks. There is something peculiar about a series. It’s somehow more frightening than a one-off. You feel more responsibility and you’re more worried that you will annoy people. It’s open-ended, so you think, ‘It’s going to go on and on irritating people.’”
Yet there seems little likelihood of Macfadyen falling out of favour with the viewing public. Good looks and his memorably brooding performance as Mr Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice mean the 38-year-old commands an army of followers; one website devoted to him is called darcylicious.com
Sitting opposite me in his agent’s office in central London, he is virtually the dictionary definition of “tall, dark and handsome.”
Dressed in a pair of black corduroy trousers and a grey rollneck jumper, he has a winning, slow burning sense of humour.
“Acting is such a lovely job. You have to take it seriously, but not yourself,” he says.
“The mistake lies in doing the reverse. I guard against that. If I started throwing scripts out of my Winnebago and shouting, ‘My trailer’s not big enough, I’m walking,’ I’d feel absolutely ridiculous.”
Nor can Macfadyen be doing with the cult of celebrity that seems to obsess so many performers. In 2004, he married his Spooks co-star Keeley Hawes, and they could certainly have marketed themselves as a celebrity couple. But that is not their style.
For a start, the actor, who has appeared in films such as Anna Karenina, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and Frost/Nixon, admits that he finds red carpet appearances difficult.
Macfadyen, who has two children of his own, Maggie and Ralph, and a stepson, Myles, from Hawes’ previous marriage, says, “You’re obliged to go to certain things. You have to go along and smile at people.”
So how does he get through these painful occasions? “You go on holiday in your head. I go to Mauritius. I’ve been there lots – in fact, I’ve been there every time I’ve been on the red carpet. It’s gorgeous.”
Continuing in this modest vein, Macfadyen says, “I read this wonderful interview with Derek Jacobi. He said – and I loved his honesty – ‘I don’t think I have much to offer as myself’. Why would any actor? What he has to offer is what he does and his talent. That’s what is interesting about him.
“You can understand why actors feel uncomfortable with interviews. I’ve only ever done one TV interview – and that was with the other two Musketeers.”
That sole TV interview aside, Macfadyen has managed to avoid the worst side-effects of celebrity. “Fame never gets to me. The only time it did was when Keeley left her husband, Spencer. Then the tabloids were very interested. That lasted for about a year.
“That did get to us. It was horrible being followed around. It was very odd to have people pitching up outside. You think, ‘How do they know we’re here?’ Only later do you realise the extent of the dirty tricks.”
The actor adds, “You never think it’ll happen to you. We got papped coming out of a pub in Maida Vale, and the first thing we knew about it was when we saw the photo in the paper the next day. That was really creepy.
“It went away as there was no story. If there is nothing to feed the fire, it goes away. I sympathise with people who have it a lot. I don’t know how they cope. For someone like Keira [Knightley], it’s horrendous. It’s not an easy way to live, whatever your circumstances. But it doesn’t affect us now. We go about our business unmolested.”
He remains unflustered about his career. One of the projects he had lined up has just fallen through, but Macfadyen is philosophical about that. “I was going to make a film called Epic. It’s a very funny comedy about filmmaking in a fictional post-Soviet state. Some of the money came from a Russian film foundation.
“But a week before shooting was supposed to begin, they gave it a quick read, and all of a sudden they pulled the money. The script pokes fun at the post-Soviet world and tinpot dictators. So they might have been worried about the reaction of some real-life leaders…”
The son of an oil executive and a drama teacher, Macfadyen was born in Great Yarmouth and attended Oakham School in Rutland. A precocious talent, he went to Rada aged 17.
In his early career, Macfadyen specialised in the theatre, earning excellent reviews for his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and his Prince Hal in Henry IV, Parts One and Two. He broke through into television in 1998 with an acclaimed performance as Hareton Earnshaw in ITV’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Lots of roles followed in The Way We Live Now, Warriors, Perfect Strangers and The Project, before he was catapulted onto the next level in 2002 by Spooks. Then Macfadyen went on to win the Royal Television Society Best Actor Award in 2007 for his harrowing portrayal of a paedophile in Channel 4’s Secret Life.
His film breakthrough came with Pride and Prejudice. At that point, it seemed as if LA beckoned, but as the actor recalls, “Hollywood didn’t come calling. It doesn’t happen like that. Everyone has their moment in the spotlight, and you just have to see what happens.
“Sometimes you’re simply offered the same sort of parts that you’ve just done. After Pride and Prejudice, that certainly happened to me.
They offered me a lot of strong, silent types, but not in very good scripts. I thought, ‘I’ve just done a very good script, so why would I now want to do the rubbish version of Mr Darcy?’ So you go off and play a paedophile on Channel 4 instead.”
In Ripper Street, Macfadyen brings characteristic intensity to Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, though he says he wasn’t sure about the role to begin with. “I was thinking, ‘Oh no, this is been done before. Not another script about this’. I really wasn’t thinking of doing another series. I thought, ‘Spooks is my series. I have no plans to do another’. But then I started reading Ripper Street, and I couldn’t put it down. There was something really unpredictable about it, which I loved.
“Richard, the creator, has made a very original thing really. He’s got a wonderful way of creating the language, and so this show is bombastic, big and colourful, but grimy as well.”
Reid is certainly a character the actor can get his teeth into. “In the late 1800s, society was on the cusp of an enormous leap forwards in science. Before that, they were just stumbling around in the dark.
“But suddenly there were great advances in detection techniques like forensics, DNA and fingerprinting. Reid embraces all that. He grabs hold of any new technology he can. So I was keen not to make him jaded. He’s very much on the front foot.”
Another factor that makes this series so compulsive is the backdrop of the Jack the Ripper story. Reid’s Whitechapel squad, known as H Division, still bears the scars of its failed investigation into the serial killer.
Macfadyen, who has also starred in such TV shows as Little Dorrit, The Pillars of the Earth, Enid and Any Human Heart, says, “It was a horrific time. The East End of London was really scary and dark back then.
“Jack the Ripper committed gross crimes. In fact, they were the first ‘tabloided’ crimes. It was real trial by media. Vigilantes on the streets picked up suspects because they thought they looked dodgy.
“They saw themselves as above the law and thought they were protecting society. But ultimately they were just messing things up.”
So does the series reveal who the real Jack the Ripper was? Macfadyen grins. “That is something that I am working on.”
One positive, unforeseen byproduct of the Jack the Ripper crimes was that they highlighted the deprivation in Whitechapel at that time. “Certainly in the East End there was enormous poverty and a whole other life going on. Actually it was the Ripper murders that brought to light the dire poverty in the East End. They showed it up to a greater audience,” says Macfadyen.
Ripper Street taps into our current love of period drama, which, Macfadyen reckons, “Is to do with us feeling adrift. We feel the pointlessness of everything. Also, the 1880s wasn’t that long ago – it was only a few generations back. So we can anchor ourselves in the certainty of the past. We can still identify with them because people don’t change that much.
“Even the buildings look the same. We were shooting in the Dublin equivalent of Hampstead, and I thought, ‘Those buildings look very modern”. But it turned out they were actually Victorian.”
The actor feels that the show should chime with a contemporary audience. “The wonderful thing about the project is that it certainly feels resonant now. Ripper Street deals with subjects like child gangs, child slavery, pornography, striking, protests, and vigilantes.
Really there’s a lot of stuff which is pretty current and still very relevant today.”
Macfadyen is hoping that, if it is recommissioned, he will be able to carry on appearing in Ripper Street. “It’s standard to do a couple of series,” the actor says. “This show is lovely to work on, and if the writing stays this good, then why not?”
However, he won’t commit for too long. “I think you should leave when you start feeling sluggish as an actor. On Spooks, I’d had enough after two series. I felt twitchy. I was being boring. It’s difficult when you’re playing the same part all the time. There are only so many times you can save the world and have doubts about the service – just sod off then! How many times can you become disillusioned and shoot your boss?”
Did Macfadyen have second thoughts about his decision to depart from Spooks? “No, I don’t regret anything. You can’t have a plan in this business. I genuinely feel very lucky to be able to work. It’s a privilege to be able to mix it up and play different characters.”
Ripper Street begins on BBC1 tomorrow at 9pm.