Joe McFadden interview: Good grief

WHEN Joe McFadden swapped the cosy nostalgia of Heartbeat to play a doctor on a children's cancer ward, the actor had to face up to devastating loss in his private life.

Sitting opposite Joe McFadden, two frighteningly strong coffees and a bowl of sugar lie between us and I'm wondering about the ethics of giving an interviewee a cuddle. What about professional boundaries and emotional distance? And the fact that I only met him for the first time 15 minutes ago.

I'm with McFadden in London, where he's lived for the past 12 years, to talk about a new BBC drama he's in, Zig Zag Love, with Robert Carlyle. McFadden plays Dr Dan, the medic on a children's cancer ward helping 16-year-old patient Peter (Anthony Martin) cope with his illness and his wayward father, Jacko (Carlyle), who's in denial about how serious his son's condition is. It seems only right to ask McFadden how he prepared for the role – did he chat with a doctor? Or perhaps visit a ward? And with that seemingly innocuous question, we're suddenly on to territory that's far more difficult.

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"It's the sort of thing that you want to get right because it's important to a lot of people," he says. "At the time we were nursing my mother, who has since died. She had cancer. It was bizarre, I felt such an obligation to get things right. We did a scene with pills that the character, Peter, has to take; I knew that what we had wasn't right because he'd have a cocktail of tablets to take. I knew. It was awful that I knew."

Of course it was awful. McFadden is only 33 and he was close to his mum. She died in November, so his grief is still very raw. I feel bad for having brought it up, but McFadden seems to want to talk.

"In Heartbeat (McFadden plays PC Joe Mason in the ITV drama] my character lost his mother as well. And the episode I did after Zig Zag Love was about a boy who'd lost his mother. You just think, God's having a laugh, he keeps throwing these things in my path. It's forcing me to deal with it and that's probably good because it means I'm not able to hide from it."

It's one thing to face your grief, but it's something quite different to have to pretend to be experiencing that emotion, while in life you really are. And then there's the small matter of knowing that you're going to be watched by millions of people while you do it. Not to mention, of course, people like me who want to ask you questions about it. You can see why I'm thinking a hug might be in order.McFadden's done a lot of his growing up in public. He's got two older brothers and a younger sister, but he's the only one who was ever interested in performing. He made the regulation appearance in Taggart at just 12, and then it was on to a six-year stint in High Road (playing Gary MacDonald) from 15. Add to that the fact he's as pretty as a picture – long eyelashes, baby face – and you can see why there's always been press interest in him. For good reason, then, he wasn't sure whether to mention his mother's death or not. What changed his mind? "My family would be like, 'why is he making out like he's having the time of his life?' When I'm not and none of us are. We're all just trying to get our heads around this huge, awful thing that has happened."

Whatever McFadden feels about how he's handling his grief, or how he's managing to deal with me, he's doing a fine job. He's eloquent and open and obviously deeply sad. A couple of tears roll down his cheeks. I feel awful for him.

"It comes in waves. Sometimes you think, 'oh God, it's really sad but, you know, I'll be all right' and then it just comes and whacks you round the head. Just weird things: on a Saturday I'm still waiting for the phone to ring."

As ever, the platitudes I offer are hopelessly empty. Just let yourself feel sad. It's a lifetime of routines, you can't deal with it overnight. Don't worry, it will be OK.

"You beat yourself up about all the things that you didn't do and all the calls you didn't return," he says, tears welling up. I tell him that he shouldn't be harsh on himself, we all just try to do our best and we can't always make the time. He puts me right.

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"But you can. Now with my mates I tell them 'listen, you'll never have that again, that love that your mum has for you, you'll never experience it with anyone else. Even partners. It's so different, it's completely selfless. I was lucky, I happened to have a particularly amazing mother but you will never have that person who obsesses about you and cares for you more than herself."

Actors make their living pretending to feel things that they don't really feel but there's nothing feigned about McFadden's sadness. I tell him he must have made his mum proud and it makes him even more upset. Then he laughs.

"God, this is a heavy one, isn't it? You thought you were getting nice light entertainment, nice Sunday night telly."

And in a way, he's right. For the past two years Joe McFadden has been tootling about Aidensfield on his motorbike to a perpetual soundtrack of Gerry and the Pacemakers as PC Mason, or smouldering as handsome Dr Jack Marshall in BBC bonnets drama Cranford. But McFadden has been a successful actor for more than 15 years and as well as pipe and slippers fare, there have been celebrated roles in The Crow Road and Small Faces, as well as plenty of work in the theatre. He's done gritty dramas like Rainbow Kiss at the Royal Court (with his friend Dawn Steele) and festive frolics in panto, both in Glasgow and in London – at the Old Vic he was Aladdin to Sir Ian McKellen's Widow Twankey. There have been musicals too (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). He likes singing, he says, and quite fancies doing a bit more of it. When I mention his employment record he instantly touches wood. He's superstitious, like most actors, especially about where the next job is coming from.

He laughs. "Well, we're constantly out of work."

He was glad to get Zig Zag Love, despite the tough subject matter, partly because it was a chance to work with Gillies MacKinnon for the first time since Small Faces and also because it gave him a chance to work with Robert Carlyle, "an amazing actor".

"Doing a show like Heartbeat you assume that you're never going to work again. You wonder if you can actually do anything other than put on a uniform and ride around on a motorbike. It's exciting when you discover that people are willing to give you other stuff."

How's he feeling about the fact that Heartbeat is being suspended by cash-strapped ITV? "I came down the stairs at the hotel where we were filming and the receptionist told me it was in the paper that day. It wasn't the nicest way to find out. I'm looking forward to getting my life back though, getting back to London and seeing friends and all that. We only get six weeks off a year so it's full on. It'll be nice to get back to the real world because you do just put your life on hold. You have to. All your friendships and relationships go out the window. It's all about work."

And that brings us neatly to another slightly tricky topic. Joe McFadden doesn't talk about his private life. Back in 2000 there was a flurry of stories about him splitting up with his girlfriend but since then, not a whisper. I'm both impressed and intrigued. You don't speak about your private life, I venture...

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"There's nothing to speak of," he interrupts, with a slightly weary giggle. "I just think it's not really anyone's business. I don't mean that to sound aggressive or confrontational but it'd be like going up to that guy (he points to a waiter] and asking who he's sleeping with. It's rude. I do understand that people want to know because they know who you are and they want to know the details of your life. But you give so much of your life to the job that I want some bits for myself."

There's a pause before he adds, "And to be perfectly honest, there is nothing to talk about." He lets out a big, hearty laugh. "It sounds really enticing and interesting but it's not because life is just work at the moment and it has to be. There's no energy for anything else. I don't know how actors who are married and who have families do it, constantly, leaving them and missing them all the time."

McFadden didn't go to drama school to train. He learned to act as he worked. There was High Road's Glendarroch, of course, but it was in the theatre that he found his confidence. "For a long time I thought I didn't know how to do it – I didn't know the secret that everyone is taught at drama school. I didn't really lose that feeling until I did theatre. Every actor should do it because it's such great training. It demystified the whole thing and made me realise that no one really knows what they're doing and they're all just constantly making it up as they go along."

Working on Cranford was "brilliant" he says. "It was a masterclass in acting, but also in terms of how to be as an actor. Those women (Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton], they just really enjoy it. They were thrilled to be there. So many actors moan, they forget we're in a really privileged position."

He's discovered that he's not going to be in the second outing of Cranford – none of the doctors are – and although he is disappointed, he's now just looking forward to watching it like the rest of us.

When McFadden's not working he spends his time going to the theatre or watching films. He's just seen Three Days of Rain starring James McAvoy, which he says is "amazing", which happens to be one of his favourite words. Come May, when he finally finishes with Heartbeat, he'd like a part in a "meaty" play like that. "I'm up for some stuff at the moment," he says. "Every job is terrifying but that's how it should be. Judi Dench gets terrified before every job. It's like falling out of a plane. But being scared just means that you really care, that you really want it to be good. I'm all about challenging myself.

"I try not to cover old ground. You don't want to keep doing things that you've done before. I'm not really in the position where I can pick and choose to any great extent, but if it's interesting and challenging, then do it."

We're done talking and he's off to have his photograph taken. He seems relaxed and happy again. He deserves to be.

• Zig Zag Love is on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm.