John Simm’s new role takes him back to an era of dodgy villains and dodgier cops.
John Simm’s four-year-old son, Ryan, goes to the same school as my daughter. You would regularly see John at the school gates — often, it has to be said, looking a bit wrecked — keeping a wary eye out for the pushy mums who try to domestically network anyone famous. Being one of the best actors of his generation, he is pretty good at projecting a useful aura of disinterest over any putative suggestion for a playdate at Clown Town — a demeanour that has doubtless saved him vast grief. You should see the hassle the slightly camp bloke from Sky News gets. He must have half of the reception year having sleepovers every night.
Then, at the beginning of last summer, Simm suddenly disappeared. In the playground, at the school gates and at the vile ballet class that all the kids go to, it was just Ryan and Simm’s wife, the actress Kate Magowan. Every so often Simm would reappear for one afternoon, looking pale and distracted, with Ryan clinging to his leg. But really, he was gone from April to September. They were getting ready for the harvest festival when he finally turned up at the school gates again; looking, it has to be said, quite wrecked.
“I’ve been filming in Manchester,” he would say, grimacing slightly, before explaining that this week was, on balance, looking a little too hectic for Clown Town.
But, starting on Monday, here’s what he was working on — Life on Mars, the BBC’s first stentorian blast of family prime-time drama this year, and, quite possibly, the best. Taking its cue from the phenomenal success of Doctor Who — which seemed to remind the BBC, in a flurry of surprise, that it was actually quite good at making funny, accessible and inventive mass-market dramas, Life on Mars looks like a winner.
The plot, in a nutshell, is stupid: contrary to the Vatican’s most recent ruling, there is a limbo, and it’s 1973. The uptight cop Sam Tyler (Simm) gets hit by a car, goes into a coma, and wakes up back in the decade of Slade’s unrivalled chart dominance and Vesta boil-in-the-bag curry. Deftly negotiating a pointy collar that looks like a biplane flew into his neck, Simm takes his brown Cortina into work. Where once there was a bright office full of PC PCs on PCs, there is now a sweaty collection of chain-smoking geezers dropping bits of pastie over key bits of evidence. Simm’s new boss is the beefy, sweary DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who spends a great deal of his time reversing at high speeds with a bacon sandwich in his mouth, and will quite happily punch recalcitrant witnesses.
Indeed, Simm’s new boss will happily punch Simm. Simm spends a lot of his time in Life on Mars wearing a horrid, smelly leather jacket, and being punched in the stomach in corridors and on patches of wasteland. The rest of the time he spends doing dynamic things to a classic rock soundtrack — in the first episode he jumps over a desk, in slow-motion, to White Room by Cream. In episode two, he chases three suspects, all wearing Speedos, down a canal towpath to the strains of Live and Let Die. Did I mention before? Life on Mars is very, very silly.
“It is quite different to anything I’ve ever done,” Simm says over a pint, still looking slightly startled that he actually signed the contract. “I got the script and I was reading through it going ‘No. No! NO! This is ludicrous’.”
Indeed, it is quite different to anything Simm has done. Simm’s name on a project is, as The Observer observed last month, the nearest thing there is to a quality kitemark for a drama. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the driven charity investigator in Sex Traffic, the New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People, the only good man standing in State of Play. He has the rare knack of being both intense — often very intense: The Guardian described his Raskolnikov as “pitch black” — and empathetic. A character played by Simm takes you with him, whatever he’s doing, be it cleaving an old woman’s skull with an axe in the endless day of St Petersburg, or jumping over a table to Cream. To describe him as “one of the best actors of his generation” would be to look at Ewan McGregor and Jude Law’s careers and conclude that they had the greater body of work behind them. Clearly, they haven’t.
Simm can also drink like a fish — look, here we are on our third round of drinks, already. Maybe we should get crisps.
“I only play someone I can understand,” he explains, on the Guinness. “Like, Raskolnikov — how do you understand him? He’s one of the most horrible characters in literature. He kills two women, just for the hell of it. But you start to see it from his point of view — he’s intelligent, he’s stuck in this s***hole, he’s trying to understand something about human nature, she’s going to die anyway . . .”
As someone with, as a fellow actor rather jealously put it, “a 100 per cent quality hit rate — I mean, he just hasn’t ever done anything s***”, Simm was, then, perhaps, not everyone’s automatic casting decision for a show that’s like a cross between Police Squad and The Sweeney.
“Well, the producers said, ‘You bring your audience to us, and we’ll bring our audience to you’,” Simm expands. “My role model for it was The Bionic Man. And I was quite impressed with how ridiculous the idea was. I wanted to see if I could make it work. I’ve never seen Quantum Leap, but in all these time-travel shows the main characters travel backwards or forwards in time, kind of go, ‘Oh!’ and then get on with the show. But one of my stipulations for doing Life on Mars was that Sam, on the other hand, had to really f****** freak out. There had to be a certain darkness to it. He’s like, ‘I’m in 1973! I’m trapped! I don’t understand anything! Am I in a coma? Can I ever get back to my time?’ I mean, let’s face it — it would be horrible to go back to 1973. I thought that was something they really did well in the show: 1973 looking dreadful.”
And indeed it does. The streets look empty and threadbare, everyone looks quite smelly, everyone smokes — even babies and the pigeons — and everything is made of brown. It’s a symphony of brown. Dog brown, biscuit brown, tea brown, cloud brown — brown as a kipper, or a fag, or a teak-effect unit. It’s like a brown version of Crime and Punishment’s St Petersburg.
“Did you notice I got a black leather coat, though?” Simm says, proudly. “Black. It’s the only non-brown thing in the first episode.”
However brown and dreadful Life on Mars’s 1973 may be, it does bring home to you one thing: the 1970s were the best time to be a cop. I mean, the best. Hitting people, smoking fags in pubs, driving cars through walls of cardboard boxes, throwing evidence in bins, slapping women’s arses, and having a bravura attitude to punching a colleague (“I couldn’t give a tart’s furry cup if half your brains are falling out. It’s dinner time, and I’ m ’aving ’oops.”). You wonder why they bother making dramas about modern policing. In modern police dramas, the best thing that happens all episode is that someone in forensics finds an important fibre.
“But it was like that, wasn’t it?” Simm yelps. “You only have to look at all the dodgy cases from the 1970s and 1980s — the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Six — to know that it actually was all like that. They would just punch a witness, or lock a stroppy woman in a cupboard, or not bother to interview someone because they drank in the same pub and ‘he’s sound’. That’s why playing Sam is quite satisfying — as a man of the future, he teaches them a little bit about psychology, and paperwork, and not punching each other in the head all the time.”
Having reached our seventh round — “Whiskies!” — without having ordered those stomach-lining crisps, the talk turns to Britpop. Like most of our generation who now have partially ruined their lives with small children, Simm regards the Britpop era as a time of unending sunshine, excitement and beers. During Britpop, of course, Simm had two careers going: one as John Simm, actor, and the other as the guitarist in the psychedelic pop band Magic Alex. Although he’ s now settled on acting — perhaps because you really should concentrate on acting if you are the best actor of your generation — rock’n’roll is still where his heart’s at.
All night, no anecdotes fire him up as much as the ones about meeting Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen (“I was just standing in line to shake his hand like a fan, and McCulloch shouted, ‘Lorraine! Lorraine! ’s then wife! It’s that kid from The Lakes!’ ”) or Oasis at Knebworth (“Helicopters with spotlights lit up Noel’s guitar, resting on an amp. I thought, before they even come on stage, this is the best gig ever”). Perhaps this explains how Simm does the thing that he does. After all, the best pop has a line of darkness through it — while the best rock’n’roll always takes you with it.
The next morning, I see Simm at the school gates — looking, it has to be said, quite wrecked. “I got so excited talking about music last night,” he says, “that I went home, drank a bottle of red wine and listened to Johnny Thunders until 5am.”
And then he explains how he can’t go to Clown Town that week.