Interview: Bertie Carvel on playing Nick Clegg

Bertie Carvel will play Nick Clegg in a powerful dramatisation of the birth of the coalition in 2010, writes Claire Black. But will we really discover the origins of that legendary bromance?

Bertie Carvel as Nick Clegg, centre, with Mark Dexter, left, as David Cameron and Ian Grieve as Gordon Brown

‘I FIND reading interviews I’ve given absolutely painful, so watching someone being you must be utterly grotesque.” Bertie Carvel is musing on what Nick Clegg might make of his portrayal of him if the Deputy Prime Minister happens to watch Coalition. A one-off drama for Channel 4, it is set during the seven days in May 2010 between the general election and the subsequent appearance of Cameron and Clegg in the Downing Street rose garden announcing the deal between the Tories and the Lib Dems and giving every political journalist an excuse to use the word “bromance”. Like Stephen Frears’ The Deal, which poked and prodded around that infamous dinner between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Coalition is enticing because it allows us the feeling of being a fly on the wall during discussions the outcome of which has impacted on our lives for five years. Who doesn’t want to know what happened?

For Carvel, 37, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation about getting involved. Filming James Corden’s The Wrong Mans in South Africa, when he received the e-mail about the project, he knew instantly it was for him. “Even from the subject line I could tell it was something that was interesting to me,” he says. “That it was written by James Graham [the man behind the hit plays Privacy and This House] only added an incentive.” Carvel had met Graham socially and talked politics. The playwright’s approach, his understanding of the drama of politics but also of its seriousness was what appealed to Carvel.

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“The idea of doing something timely and right in the middle of our politics excited me,” he says. “The challenge then is, as far as possible, not to be political in the way that you do it. In other words, not to be partisan. I was fascinated by how I would do that.” There have been notable portrayals of British politicians recently – Michael Sheen as Blair, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. The difficulty for the actor is how to create a performance which is more than mimicry.

Carvel playing Mr Strange in the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarkes novel

“Your responsibility to a real person is funny because you’re an actor,” says Carvel. “What you’re being hired for and asked to do is to use your imagination, that’s your palette. But you also have to do justice to a real person. So how do you do that? It’s a sort of conundrum.” Indeed it is. But it’s not one that fazed him, because for Carvel it’s not that different to what he might face when playing a fictitious character. “What does it mean to get at the truth of a character? It’s quite an esoteric notion. You can’t just do whatever you feel, there has to be some notion of rigour about what you’re expressing: how do we get at the truth of this?”

I like Carvel. He’s not a man who will use six words, when 17 will do. He’s also someone who is brimming with the sense of recently having turned “an exciting corner” in his profession. Challenging new roles, different parts, more creative input, a growing profile. That all this came by way of an Olivier and Tony award-winning performance as a sadistic teacher called Miss Trunchbull in the RSC’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda just adds a delicious dash of absurdity to the story.

These are exciting times for him. When we meet he is in rehearsals for Dr Foster, a new drama with Suranne Jones, with two starring roles in hotly anticipated new dramas about to hit our screens. The second is the eagerly awaited BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s lauded novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. But before he’s plunged into the world of 19th century magic and rationalism, he’ll be seen navigating his way through situations only marginally less fantastical as Nick Clegg.

“My job is to work out what it might have felt like for Clegg during those days,” he says. Graham interviewed many of the politicians involved and had access to public records but that didn’t give him everything. So he used his imagination, as did his actors. “My job is to project that as truthfully as possible based on what I’ve observed.”

Carvel researched by watching a huge amount of footage, reading biographies and “getting across” (he sometimes sounds like a politician) the key political topics. He follows politics so that wasn’t too onerous. And with his family background, he probably brought as much insight as anyone could have. Carvel’s father John was a respected journalist for the Guardian. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were newspapermen too. Still, though, he wants to be clear that he wasn’t aiming to mimic Clegg. “It’s not my job to do an impression. It’s not my skill, actually. My skill is to give a very accurate portrait of a character and express something internal externally.” The task excited him because it appealed to his sense of what being an actor is about, creatively and artistically. Of course, there are some actors who wouldn’t dream of using these words about their job, but Carvel isn’t one of them. “I think that’s the role of the artist in general – I know that sounds rather grand but I mean artists of any form – it’s to look at the world and process what you see through the lens of your imagination and project it on to another plane whether that’s a canvas or a sculpture or a performance. It’s personal, subjective, because it’s my imagination so my performance as Clegg from James’ script is imagined. It’s not real life. It’s not a reconstruction.”

Family background as much as anything else means Carvel has a respect for politics, but as to whether they deserve deference or scorn – a loaded debate during the week when elder statesmen Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw were caught, if not breaking rules, certainly behaving in a way that many voters found deeply unpalatable. Carvel, though, is clear about the tone of Coalition.

“There are TV shows whose job is to make fun of, to lampoon, and that was not our agenda,” he says. “Gently satirising here and there perhaps.

“What I think it does brilliantly is portray the foibles of these characters in that extraordinary time and show the farcical nature of how the government was formed during those seven days. That’s literally just holding up a mirror to nature. I don’t regard it as aggressive and I don’t think that was our job. At the same time, and perhaps this is because I come from a long line of journalists, you want to tell the truth, you don’t want to shy away from investigating difficult areas.”

It’s a matter of coincidence, nothing more, but interestingly, the other role in which we will be seeing Carvel soon focuses on a rather fraught relationship between two powerful men. In a much anticipated adaptation of Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the BBC, Carvel has gone and bagged himself the role of the titular Mr Strange. It’s no wonder he’s feeling in matters of his career, he’s riding high, because it’s a role he fantasised about playing when he first read the book. “What’s amazing to me about the part is that the horizon keeps on receding for him,” he says. “You start off in Henry IV Part One and end up in King Lear. It’s a story of a man growing up but not just once.”

Set in 19th century England, the novel is a sweeping Victorian fantasy focusing on the relationship between Gilbert Norrell, played by Eddie Marsan, and Jonathan Strange, two men of magic who are both allies and enemies.

“The thing about Norrell and Strange is that their alliance is uneasy,” Carvel says. “They are two men who are extremely different but more similar than they know. Certainly in the adaptation, they come to understand the truth about themselves through their struggle with each other, which really is quite cataclysmic.”

Clarke’s book was a phenomenon, epic in its scope and almost unclassifiable. Carvel is having some similar issues describing the adaptation. “It’s sort of like an opera,” he says, “that’s how I’ve started thinking about it. Or a movie in seven chapters.” He’s been pondering how to describe it because doing publicity for it recently in America he bridled at the term “miniseries”. There was something about the diminution it implied that didn’t sit easily with him. “There’s a grandeur to it, a scale, and it’s beautifully shot.”

Carvel’s love of what he does is clear in every word he speaks. He’s long been known for his work in the theatre, but what he’s experiencing now is the chance to do similarly satisfying work on TV. It suits him because he enjoys the process of “cooking” a performance with other people. In the world of television, until recently, he’d not found it worked quite like this. “In filmmaking it had been my experience that most of the grown-up decisions had been made by the grown-ups long before the actors arrived,” he says. “Unless you’re the star, you’re really kept at arm’s length. So I often struggled to feel the same sense of connection to the world that was being portrayed. Even when you’ve only got one line in the theatre you feel absolutely part of what’s going on. I’ve started to develop a sense of how to do that when it comes to filmmaking and it really excites me because it means there are lots of other toys to get to play with.”

It probably means good things for those of us who watch him too. And it’s not as though he’s turned his back on the theatre. Far from it. And again, I find myself remembering about Miss Trunchbull and it makes me smile.

“I hadn’t gone out to make my career with that role,” Carvel says. “I could direct you to other roles that I’m equally proud of and which got lovely reviews but just didn’t have that phenomenon quality. But how nice to have your career given a bump by something you’re just really proud of.” Indeed. Miss Trunchbull gave Bertie Carvel confidence. He smiles. “I’ve never really felt that I had anything to prove particularly, but I have a new sense of relaxation about what I’m trying to do and an increasing awareness of what I like about my job and I love it.”

And if Nick Clegg does decide to watch?

“Whatever he thinks of it I hope he has a sense of integrity about the process we went through and in my performance.”

Can’t say fairer than that.

• Coalition, Channel 4, next Saturday 28 March, 9pm