STEPHEN Tompkinson has had some challenging roles in his career, from charismatic priest in Ballykissangel to maverick undercover cop in the BBC crime drama In Deep.
But nothing could have prepared him for the eerie sensation he felt when returning to the scene of a horrendous crime which took place in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, more than 30 years ago.
This is where, in broad daylight, typist Wendy Sewell was brutally attacked with a pickaxe and sexually assaulted. Several days later she died from her injuries. A 17-year-old council worker, Stephen Downing, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1974.
But his refusal to admit his crime meant that he was classified as IDOM (In Denial Of Murder) and ineligible for parole.
Years later, local journalist Don Hale became involved after he was approached by Downing’s parents. Hale tirelessly campaigned for Downing’s release for six years and, largely through his efforts, the conviction was overturned on a technicality in 2002 after Downing had served 27 years in prison.
However, it was never a clear cut case. One year on, Derbyshire police announced that following their exhaustive reinvestigation of the murder, the only remaining suspect in the case was Downing.
In the new BBC1 two-part drama, In Denial Of Murder, starting tomorrow, Tompkinson, 38, plays Hale, the campaigning and obsessive journalist who fought for Downing’s freedom.
Filming in and around Bakewell stirred up a lot of interest among the locals, says the actor.
"The town still bears the scars of that day. It was a 50:50 split between the people who thought the police had got the right man and those who didn’t.
"Some don’t want to hear Stephen Downing’s name mentioned and didn’t want their licence fees wasted on the BBC doing a film of it.
"The cemetery itself was very eerie. I went up there a few weeks before we started filming and it’s bizarre to think that this brutal, violent crime happened in the middle of the day and nobody saw anything."
Tompkinson himself has not reached a conclusion about the case.
"Because I can’t find a motive for Stephen, knowing he was 17 at the time with a reading age of 12, it seems completely out of character for him to see someone and then, malice aforethought, pick up a pickaxe handle and hit them nine times. The first policeman on the scene didn’t know if the victim was a man or a woman."
He has not met the Downings or Don Hale, because he felt that might just muddy the waters.
"It’s the first time I’ve played anyone who’s living," he says. "Consequently, there was an awful lot of material available to research and I found myself getting a bit bogged down with it.
"And because there are so many grey areas to the case, I felt it would be a mistake to start taking sides.
"It clearly wasn’t fair what happened to Stephen. The police treated him badly. They know themselves that they did wrong because the conviction was overturned on account of being unsafe."
And what of Don Hale?
"I don’t think he knew what he was taking on when Stephen’s parents approached him. I don’t think it was until he met Stephen face to face that he believed him so completely.
"Don Hale has never needed convincing that Stephen’s innocent of murdering Wendy, but the other charge of sexual assault he began to have doubts about."
After such an emotional and gruelling role, Tompkinson was able to leave his characters at the door though and go home to his wife Nicci and three-year-old daughter Daisy in Datchet, near Windsor.
He met interior designer Nicci while visiting his favourite tailor in London’s Savile Row and she is now his PA - making him her boss. "Effectively," he smiles, "but it doesn’t quite work like that. It’s just always been very handy having someone you can trust dealing with your personal affairs. And there’s no-one I trust more than Nicci.
"She hasn’t complained about working hours yet or holiday pay, so I hope I’m quite a good boss."
The happy home life is a far cry from his time as a single man after the much-publicised split from his ex, Ballykissangel star Dervla Kirwan.
Since he has had a family he says the whole acting process has become less stressful for him because having a family puts everything into perspective.
"It changes everything and it focuses everything at the same time. As an actor you can tend just to chase your tail all the time and worry about where your next job is coming from and about the last one that you did and what people are going to think about it."
HE adds: "You’re lucky to be doing what you are doing but now you have a reason for doing all these silly things, for staying in the dressing-up box. Everything comes into focus. It becomes more of a job and gets rid of all the nonsense worrying that you do and fretting for no apparent reason.
"I’m enjoying the work that I do a lot more. I’m not as obsessive as I used to be.
"As you start approaching 40, which I am now, the parts don’t come in as much of a plethora as they used to. Most leads are set for people in their 20s or early 30s. I don’t know whether it’s me being more choosy or the parts being more scarce."
Tompkinson may say that there aren’t so many parts for him, but he’s not short of work offers which include a West End play, a movie in Canada and a new six-part series for the BBC.
"I just try and do something completely different from the last job because hopefully if I’m not bored with the variety of work, be it changing mediums or doing theatre or radio, then hopefully the audience won’t be bored."
•In Denial Of Murder, BBC 1, tomorrow, 9pm
What to watch today..
Law and order
Detective Lennie Briscoe and District Attorney Adam Schiff have dedicated their lives to tracking down criminals and making sure they are brought to justice.
Both are honourable, professional men, but not all of their colleagues deserve the same respect, cheating the system for their own ease or personal gain.
In tonight’s episode, the pair are shocked to hear a rumour circulating that a former prosecutor withheld vital evidence which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a man was innocent of the crime of which he was accused.
Damage limitation becomes their immediate priority, protecting the good name of the justice system and those who believe in it, but there is another, more urgent problem — the convict now residing on death row is probably innocent.
His pleas have previously fallen on deaf ears, but the officers are now more than happy to listen and set about clearing him of the charges brought against him years earlier as long as they hear the entire story.
Jerry Orbach and Steven Hill star, with Richard Masur as Judge Andrew Wolinsky.
Regency house party
Channel 4, 9PM
It’s the ultimate period drama — a real-life tale full of intrigue, mystery and flouncy frocks. Yes, it’s the latest instalment of Regency House Party, which is turning out to be by far the most exciting reality show of the year to date.
Unfortunately, those taking part aren’t finding it quite so interesting. In fact, they’re beginning to think the routine of life in the 19th century is rather dull, while the importance of finding a male partner is also starting to dawn on some of the female guests.
As a result, they decide to try a few Regency beauty treatments, such as egg white shampoo. They seem to work for Lady’s Companion Miss Martin who hears that Captain Robinson is rather taken with her, despite their difference in social standing. She’s delighted when he pops the question, but misery and possible shame is waiting for them both just around the corner.
Meanwhile, the grounds of the estate have been fashioned into a wilderness where hermit Zebedee Helm has been left to forage for food.
What to watch tomorrow..
Channel 4, 5.30PM
The Time Team love a mystery and when they discover the answer on camera, it’s essential viewing.
In the latest in the present series of the fascinating archaeological dig programme, host Tony Robinson and his experts set up camp in Wittenham at the famous Iron Age hill fort from which vast expanses of Oxfordshire and the Thames can be seen.
However, it’s not the fort they’re interested in, it’s the much larger hill less than 150m away which dwarfs the much-visited monument.
Until now, the use of this hill has been a complete mystery, although several theories have been put forward.
Some believe a tribe could have used it as a ritual site, while others have suggested it could have been a burial ground or maybe the home of those who built the fort.
The dig doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts with several setbacks, including a major problem with the local newt population, but the answer they’re looking for is found - and in a very surprising place.
If this edition of the fascinating, long-running series isn’t enough to satisfy your historical appetite, there’s another chance to see Tony and co in action in a repeat showing of The Wreck of the Colossus at 6.30pm.
Living the dream
Changing jobs can extremely stressful, especially if you’re forced to relocate, but for Hari Evans, the experience almost pushed her to breaking point.
The 28-year-old certainly didn’t make life easy on herself, but the ambitious young Londoner was sure she could turn her dream into a reality and, with the financial backing of her parents, strove to do it.
It was difficult, but her loyal mum and dad found a way of raising the cash to fund the purchase and renovation of a million-pound hotel in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean. To help ensure their investment was safe and support their daughter, they moved with her to the picturesque setting and followed her lead, becoming, in effect, members of staff.
The plan also cost Hari dearly, as she left not only her friends behind in the capital, but also her boyfriend, deciding to give the hotel 100 per cent of her time, concentration, enthusiasm and determination.
Positive they could transform the dowdy two-star establishment into something rather more exclusive, the close-knit family threw themselves headfirst into the project, but the dream quickly hit its first hurdle in the shape of the employees they’ve inherited from the previous owners.