Interview: Mark Bonnar’s prime time

Mark Bonnar. Picture by Debra Hurford Brown
Mark Bonnar. Picture by Debra Hurford Brown
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Apple Tree Yard, Catastrophe, Unforgotten, Porridge, the Edinburgh actor is all over our screens but he isn’t taking anything for granted

Sunday night on a sofa in Hertfordshire and the actor Mark Bonnar and his wife Lucy are sitting watching his latest show, Apple Tree Yard. A gripping psychological thriller from the BBC starring Bonnar and Emily Watson, it followed the downward trajectory of a successful, happily married scientist and her husband, from domesticity to the dock.

Mark Bonnar with Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard. Picture: Colin Hutton

Mark Bonnar with Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard. Picture: Colin Hutton

“Oh My God,” says Lucy in response to a shocking turn of events. She hadn’t seen that coming. And neither had we, but then we’re not married to one of the stars. You’d think her husband would have given her a head’s up on what was about to unfold.

“No, we don’t do that,” says Bonnar. “This way you get a proper honest reaction and it’s more exciting to watch.” Usually Bonnar hasn’t seen the final cut of the show either, preferring to watch it on the sofa with Lucy. Lucy is an actor too – Lucy Gaskell of Cutting It, Being Human, Misfits and Crossing Lines fame and they met in a production of The Cherry Orchard, so her reaction is something Bonnar appreciates.

“I like to see how she takes it, and she likes to see my reaction to her work. With Apple Tree Yard we’ve had several ‘Oh My Gods’. That’s always a good sound to come from the other end of the couch.”

Having a wife in the same business is a boon, especially since the 48-year-old RSAMD graduate, who’s been in everything from Taggart to Casualty to Line of Duty, is all over TV at the moment.

“It’s great because they know what you’re talking about. You can get home, moan about the job and not have to explain,” he says.

As well as Apple Tree Yard, Bonnar has just finished ITV crime drama Unforgotten, and later in the year he’s back with Catastrophe, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s BAFTA-winning comedy, then another comedy with Porridge, a reboot of the 1970s sitcom from the original writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and next year BBC’s Shetland once more. If you’re a gamer, you’ll recognise his voice from Black Flag, Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed, and if you’re one of his children – Martha, five, and Samuel, almost two – you’ll be delighted to hear him voicing Twigs, a sprite sidekick to Tree Fu Tom, a woodland creature with superpowers on CBeebies.

“I took that over from David Tennant,” he says, “and Martha’s old enough to know vaguely what we do, so when that comes on she goes, ‘is this your one daddy?’ and I say ‘yes’, or ‘no, it’s the other bloke, whatshisname.’” He laughs.

Apple Tree Yard was the adaptation of Louise Doughty’s bestselling crime drama that explored what happened when a conscientious scientist embarked on an affair with a stranger and her life went into freefall. Bonnar played the scientist’s husband, Gary Carmichael, another scientist, and a dependable family man.

“He’s a studious, quiet, emotionally reserved guy,” says Bonnar. “There’s nothing extraordinary about him. But it’s when things happen to him that you find the true mark of the man. He’s stalwart and steadfast and fairly honourable.”

Ah, but is he? I tell Bonnar that opinion on the sofa in my house was divided over whether Gary was quite as honourable as he first appeared.

“I hope it does raise those kind of questions. Trust and betrayal are two huge themes; the nature of long-term love and relationships, and passion.”

There’s been a lot of reaction to the four-part drama, thanks to the skilful way it flipped between genres, from romance to crime, and both praise and criticism for an honest portrayal of rape. Much has been made of the broom cupboard/up a close sex with a stranger that injected passion into Emily Watson’s middle class, middle aged life, and all with a remarkable lack of skin on show.

“There’s no need to show a lot of flesh,” says Bonnar. “It’s not about that. It’s about somebody being deeply attracted to somebody and having sex with them. It just so happens that they’re the age they are, so yes it’s an honest portrayal of people in their middle age who are still passionate. As people in middle age are. As are people in their seventies. It’s not all about the youth.”

He goes on, warming to his theme, “It’s honest. Bodies don’t glisten and things don’t move seamlessly from a kiss to suddenly it’s sex. It shows the fumbles, the foot in the bucket in the broom cupboard, the Spanx getting taken off, all the awkward bits that are actually funny. I mean sex can be funny for heaven’s sake.”

Bonnar is clearly happy in his own skin and revelling in the roles coming his way. You could say he’s come into his prime at, is it 48?

“I am. Good good. My daughter said it earlier on. ‘Are you 48 now daddy?’ I said ‘Yes,’ thinking where’s this going and she said ‘just checking’. Thanks, thanks for reminding me.”

But with age comes complexity – from Chris in Catastrophe to DCC Mike Dryden in Line of Duty – would he be able to play them if he were 28?

“Well, no absolutely not. You’re right. It’s a good age to be. It’s the right age to be for me.”

A different night in the Bonnar Gaskell household would have found the pair goggleboxing another of Mark’s recent shows, ITV crime drama Unforgotten. Created and written by Chris Lang, it follows two London detectives solving cold cases with Bonnar playing barrister Colin Osbourne, another character who was not all that he seemed. Again, the suspense was ramped up to the max with viewers desperate to know what happened next, the question that landed Bonnar the role.

“I’d only been given the first three episodes and they ended with a reveal, so my first question in the audition was, ‘What happens?’. They wouldn’t tell me so I thought, I need to do it now! It’s a real page turner and that’s what attracts you to any story, whether it’s a book or a script or a play. You want to be grabbed and taken through it.”

All is quiet in the Bonnar household when we talk. It’s 8pm and the kids are in bed.

“That’s not to say they won’t come charging down the stairs at any moment,” says Bonnar, and laughs, his voice as smooth and warm as a slug of Glenkinchie single malt, matured not too far from his teenage years home in Tranent, pouring down the phone. Lookswise, Lucy has him as a cross between Simon Pegg and Rufus Sewell, according to Bonnar.

“She’s shown me photographic evidence where I do look like Simon Pegg,” he says, “but Rufus Sewell? I should be so bloody lucky!”

Bonnar laughs a lot, full of enthusiasm and energy, which he needs with a young family for him and Gaskell to balance with their work. This spring he’ll be in Glasgow and Shetland playing Duncan Hunter in the fourth series of Shetland.

“Lots of people work away, you just have to deal with it and it’s great you can FaceTime to say goodnight to the children. Even if you’re going to be working really long hours, you know it’s only going to last for a few months; that’s the beauty and curse of the job. And I love doing Shetland: it’s a great bunch of people. I’m very fond of Dougie [Henshall] and Alison [O’Donnell]. It was brilliant before, but I think the last series especially hit its mark.”

So, with Line of Duty, The Bill, Taggart and Shetland, he’s done a lot of crime in his time.

“That was a long time ago and I’d rather not talk about it,” he jokes. “And if I had I wouldn’t share it.” Quite right, but to what does he credit the current popularity of crime as a genre?

“Crime makes for great drama and it’s interesting because it delves into the darker side of us. Those kind of stories go way back, the detective and the criminal. I mean Sherlock’s still around for goodness’ sake. If it’s well written it’s one of the most original and best forms of drama and satisfying to the viewer. And something like Unforgotten is impressive with the myriad threads of people’s lives so brilliantly woven together.”

Crime can also be funny, especially if it’s Porridge, with Bonnar appearing in a reboot of the hugely successful 1970s sitcom. The series was commissioned after a successful one-off episode with comedian Kevin Bishop playing the original Fletch’s grandson, Nigel, and Bonnar taking on the role of his nemesis, warder Meech, with a passing nod to Fulton Mackay. Filming will be in front of a live studio audience.

“Meekie is an updated version, a wee tip of the hat. He stands on his own two feet, but obviously there’s a soupçon of Fulton in there, how could there not be?”

Updates in the new Porridge include requests for gluten-free granola instead of porridge and Fletch’s grandson doing time for cybercrimes.

“I love the way they manage to step into the present and yet it’s just like the old days. ‘A warm hug from an old friend’, as one of my pals texted me to say after he’d watched it. I’m very, very excited about starting it, and in equal measure, terrified.”

Also coming to a couch near you this year is a return of Catastrophe, in which Bonnar plays the hilariously gloomy existentialist Chris. Will he get back with uptight wife Fran, played by Ashley Jensen, or continue exploring his sexuality – a journey that saw him hiding bewildered in a cloud of his own vape smoke in the toilet of a gay haunt last season?

“Chris is brilliant fun to play because nothing’s too ridiculous or out there and they kind of let me do what I want,” says Bonnar. “He’s weird, wonderful, witty, sardonic, scary… unsettlingly hilarious.”

Catastrophe also gave Bonnar the chance to work alongside the late actor Carrie Fisher, in her last TV role just before she died.

“She was fantastic, a wonderful warm, hilarious person. I found myself sitting beside her in between set ups one day and we had a great big chat where she was telling me about her past and what a life she had. Obviously I grew up with Star Wars and I’m a huge fan of hers, so it was a real golden moment to have in my heart, especially now that she’s tragically gone at such a ridiculous age. I’ve got a photo of the three of us, me, Carrie and her dog Gary.”

Comedy was always something Bonnar wanted to do more of.

“I was brought up on it, Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python, The Goodies, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I love all that kind of slightly skew-whiff, dark, unsettling hilarious stuff, that’s my bag, so Chris is a kind of gift really. He’s got Laurel and Hardy and Tom and Jerry in him, because I have too.”

The son of Rosie and Stan, a former social worker and an artist, Edinburgh-born Bonnar enjoyed drama at Leith Academy, but didn’t pursue it. However after spells in Edinburgh city libraries and planning department after school, he was persuaded to join Leith Theatre, where someone suggested drama school.

“I thought, oh right, you can do this as a job? I’d never thought of it in that way.”

Back at Telford College he did a National Certificate in drama then a degree at the RSAMD where winning a BBC radio award in his final year took him to London. Theatre work saw him at the RSC and National Theatre, then he made his TV debut in an adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Rebus. Bruno Jenkins in Casualty followed and since then he’s racked up everything from The Bill to Silent Witness.

In Unforgotten, Catastrophe and Apple Tree Yard, whether crime or comedy, all have a focus on relationships, and in Unforgotten Bonnar’s character is at the centre of an adoption drama. How does he feel about dad roles now that he has children?

“I think it resonates more now than it used to. I think your emotional thermometer is a little higher and you feel things more acutely if it’s about kids. It’s easier to draw on initially when you’re first doing it and then you can let the scene take over.”

For Bonnar having kids is “wonderful”. “I always thought it would be but you can’t plan anything in this job. So I never planned, but it was wonderful when it happened. It makes you think about everything differently, including your own parents. Obviously I’m of more advanced years than they were when they were new parents, so knowing what I was like when I was their age, God knows how I would have been as a parent if I’d been younger.”

So getting older suits Bonnar all round and only seems to add to the parts he’s being offered. There were times when the jobs didn’t come so thick and fast and he has been out of work for a year on two occasions.

“It’s a long time. You’ve got to steady yourself and think maybe I should do something else, but luckily it’s never come to that. You keep the wolf from the door doing bits and bobs, voiceovers. As long as the story is good and the part interesting it doesn’t matter if it’s TV, theatre, radio... I love radio, because imagination is key for the person listening, and it’s a very intimate, your voice in someone’s ear. There are all kinds of wonderful facets to different bits of this job.”

At the moment, Bonnar has plenty of work to keep him busy, but there’s no sign of him getting complacent.

“Yes, it’s been a very nice two, three years, but you are always counting your blessings. I’m very, very lucky to be on the telly, but there’s no point in kind of going, great, well that’s it, I’m successful now. Because when you finish whatever job it is next, you might be out of work for three years.

“There’s a lot of good stuff around so let’s hope it continues. If the writing’s good, it’s good. I’m 48, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed … and everything else... legs, toes... and just pray that I can keep working till I drap aff.”