The Line of Duty star talks to Janet Christie about playing it for laughs in new ITV comedy Action Team and finding roles which reflect working class Britain. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
Mesmerising’, ‘gripping’, ‘steely’, are the kind of words used to describe Vicky McClure’s performances in her best known work to date, This is England, Broadchurch and Line of Duty. ‘Funny’, ‘laughs’ and ‘comedy’ don’t feature much. However, this is about to change with her first major comedy role in spoof spy thriller Action Team, from Murder In Successville’s Tom Davis and James DeFrond. Although even playing it for laughs, she’s still rocking the no-nonsense, stare you down vibe as a power mad head of MI6, Ruth Brooks.
“Yeah, I play Ruth who definitely likes to feel she’s in charge of everything and everyone, though that’s not quite the case,” says McClure. “She’s got her Action Team, but they’re not that good – that’s the comedy factor. Comedy is not something I’ve been associated with in people’s minds, so the audience have never seen this side of me. But I’m happy that they are now.”
After making her name in Shane Meadows’ A Room for Romeo Brass, she went on to star as Lol in his cult This is England films, and stayed on screen with record- breaking crime drama Broadchurch and hit thriller Line of Duty. Throw in her scary stary Paula in BBC’s The Replacement with Morven Christie, and a Victorian anarchist plotline of The Secret Agent with Toby Jones and Stephen Graham (also in This is England), and McClure’s heavyweight credentials are not in doubt.
Yet when she comes on the phone she’s relaxed and easy-going, apologising for snacking on chicken wings and pitta bread as we talk – she’s starving after an early start from her home town of Nottingham for the London press junket for the ITV show.
Action Team has been described as Austin Powers meets Spooks, with the comedy being played straight as the crack MI6 team, including Scottish Gunpowder actor Derek Riddell, tackle a terror threat.
“It’s not just a full-on comedy, there’s a narrative as well with surprises revealed as it goes along,” says McClure.
“Personally, I love watching comedy that’s played straight. And when the dialogue is so good, it’s very easy. You have to capture reality to feed the story but just go a little bit further, lift it a little bit and have some fun.”
McClure’s comedy icons include Peter Kaye and Micky Flanagan, and Scottish comedy awards nominee, Larry Dean. “I saw him on Live at the Apollo, he’s so funny. And Peter Kaye has always been my number one. I relate to his comedy, that ordinary working class and family orientated comedy that I can laugh at because it happens to me or somebody I know. And I grew up watching Friends, The Royle Family and The Office.”
McClure is not, in fact, a stranger to playing it for laughs, having done a lot of comedy when she was a schoolgirl at Nottingham’s Television Workshop. She also flexed her funny bones in the comedy film Svengali with her now fiancé Welsh actor and director Jonny Owens.
“He’s a funny guy,” she says. “I couldn’t be with anybody that didn’t make me laugh.”
Owens signed her up for his film after hearing her on the radio.
“He was on his way to Cardiff with his mate Cardiff Dave, and heard me on with Edith Bowman. People always expect me to be a bit sombre, but she’s a friend of mine so we were having a good laugh. Then he got in touch and asked me to do Svengali and I said I’d love to.
“The first time we spoke on the phone about it, it was one of those conversations that went on for a long time and covered a lot of things and I thought ‘Oh My God this guy’s too good to be true!’. Then I met him in London for the first time... and only a week later we made it quite clear. Yes, we made it quite clear.”
Very nicely put Ms McClure. She laughs.
“We’ve been together six years now and it’s our anniversary this weekend.”
Were they planning anything romantic?
“Doubt it,” she says. “He’ll be going to the football.”
Not that she’s complaining as Forest, friends and family are the routine of her life in Nottingham, something McClure relishes, having chosen to base herself there. The relationship is mutual, the city naming a tram in her honour.
“I’m away a lot, but I’ve been home now for six months since Line of Duty finished and done nothing. It’s quite nice. I do get itchy and bored after a while, but there’s always something to do,” she says.
Like designing clothes for online label Finery, for whom she has just finished another jumpsuit to follow up on the sell-out success of last year’s version.
“It’s great fun doing that, and was a bit of a surprise when they approached me. I thought, a jumpsuit – comfy, smart, dress it up, wear it with trainers, washable – I don’t understand dry cleaning. I’ve always been into my clobber.”
Her clobber includes a McClure tartan scarf bought when she was working on The Replacement in Glasgow, a place fell in love with. “I could have stayed a lot longer. And I’m marrying a Celt,” she says.
Born in Wollaton, Nottingham, in 1983, McClure and her sister went to the local comprehensive and her parents were what McClure describes as “encouraging but never pushy”.
“My mum works in an office now, she worked as a hairdresser too – I wouldn’t let her touch my hair now though! And my dad is the best joiner in the world, an old school craftsman, self-taught.
“They gave us free rein to do whatever we fancied, and they worked extremely hard to allow us to do that. They’ve always got my back, even now if I have doubts. We’re a proper family. And my sister’s just had a baby, so I’ve got two nephews to spoil now.”
“There were never actors in the family, although my maternal grandad, who sadly died in his 50s, was very much a performer. He was a compere in a club and loved it. He was an extra in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning too, so if he was around now he’d be lapping it all up.”
It’s fitting that McClure’s grandfather was in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the 1960 film set in Nottingham starring Albert Finney, as it was one of the new wave of kitchen sink dramas that captured British working class life of the time, a tradition continued by Meadows.
It was in Meadows’ award-winning 2006 film This is England that McClure first caught the public’s eye, playing Lol, a role she was to reprise through three spin-off miniseries from 2010-15, This Is England ‘86 ‘88 and 90, winning a Bafta in 2011. McClure understands the cult’s longevity with fans.
“Well, Shane’s a genius isn’t he? Those who were there in the 80s can reminisce and those who were born in the 90s get educated. There’s drama and fun too.
“It was a real education for me too. I don’t remember being taught about the Falklands War at school because I didn’t pay attention and had a lot of fun. But when it’s a world you need to become part of, you delve into it, so that was the case with This is England. Everyone assumes skinheads were all racist thugs, but there was so much more to it,” she says.
“ People developed a real relationship with the characters and the drama.”
Does she think there will be any more, or has Meadows concluded his saga?
“He’s got ideas, the storyline in his head for if it ever did come back, so I’m never going to say never.”
Creating television that speaks to a wider audience is important to McClure and she’s keen to speak more to a working class audience.
“It’s a massive problem,” she says. “It’s a middle class world. And it can get a little heavy with middle class white men. The Television Workshop was free, but it isn’t now, although it’s not £30k a year. If you are privileged enough to have the cash you should pay but if you’re just as talented but don’t, you should get support. I can’t imagine the talent we haven’t seen because people can’t afford fees and expensive train fares for auditions. It’s bollocks! And it’s not fair.”
With series five of Line of Duty filming in the autumn, McClure will be packing her bags again later this year to head for Belfast where much of the series is recorded.
“I’ve probably spent, all in, a year there doing the series and I love it. I stay in the same flat, have favourite pubs and places,” she says.
She also enjoys hanging out with cast members Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar, with the trio occasionally cooking for each other.
“Yeah, I’m taking a picture of these chicken wings right now to send to Martin – he’d just eat that for the rest of his life. He did make us lemon chicken though. I said to Ade, let’s get round early to check it’s cooked before it’s served. And I’ve cooked him a roast and Ade does great fried breakfasts.”
And McClure is looking forward to reprising the role of DS Kate Fleming.
“She’s a good egg. She’s had issues and not been the most hands-on mum, but she is extremely dedicated to good public service. So I enjoy her brain, the way she thinks differently to Ade and Martin’s characters, and how they battle against each other. Season three was a bit more action packed than last season when she was in house because of her promotion. I can’t wait to see what happens to her next. More undercover maybe, but she always gets caught out at that,” she laughs.
In the meantime she’s overdosing on box sets like Sky Atlantic series Save Me from The Walking Dead actor Lennie James, starring James, Daniel Adegboyega, Stephen Graham and Suranne Jones.
“I stayed up till 2:30am this morning watching that,” she says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a very long time; prickly, considered, shocking. Great British TV. That kind of authentic TV, and roles, that’s where my attention goes. I’d rather not work and wait for something that will cause a stir. Something with a wider message,” she says.
“Oh, and I’ve just done an episode of Top Gear. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that, but it was one of the funniest things I have done!”
So she won’t be telling us how she did in the Star in the Reasonably Fast Car then?
“Ha! No, I won’t,” she says. “But I did wear my jumpsuit.”
We’ve seen her drive in Line of Duty, so we’ll put money on a ‘gripping’ McClure performance.
Action Team continues on Mondays at 10pm on ITV2