Transported back to the days of the Sweeney

 

John Simm tells Wil Marlow about researching his new detective role set in 1973.

John Simm only has vague memories of growing up during the 1970s, but he does remember exactly where he was when Elvis died in 1977.

"I remember it very clearly," he says. "I was at school and I remember coming out and seeing a billboard saying The King Is Dead. Then I walked home and my dad came in the house and was really upset. It's a very clear memory."

And while the rest of the 35-year-old's memories of that era only amount to some long hot summers and The Sex Pistols arriving on the music scene, John has had a refresher course on the decade thanks to his latest role in new drama Life On Mars.

He plays the bizarre part of a detective who is inexplicably transported back 33 years to 1973.

"I didn't need to do any research because the guy I play - Sam Tyler - is from now, so I didn't need to know about the 70s," says John.

"But I did some research anyway," he laughs. "It was an excuse to get out old episodes of 70s cop show The Sweeney, which surprised me because it really holds up.

"It's a fantastic show - gritty, well-acted, brilliant storylines. It's the only one that's held up as well, because I got out Starsky And Hutch, which I used to love, and The Six Million Dollar Man, which I loved more than anything, and they were rubbish. I wish I'd never watched them again now."

The Sweeney is heavily referenced in Life On Mars. Once Sam starts to settle into his new life as a detective working in the 70s, using simpler (and often more corrupt) methods than the 21st century ones he's used to, we see him jumping over desks and sliding over car bonnets.

"I think the police did actually work like The Sweeney back then," says John. "I don't think they were bad people, I just think the world was different then. But Sam is shocked by how they are.

"They beat up suspects, smoke in morgues and hospitals, and forensics take two weeks to get back to him. He's absolutely gob-smacked by it all, and it's an absolute nightmare for him. It takes him a while to decide he really is there and that he just has to get on with things."

Sam's troubles start when he's on the hunt for a serial killer in 21st century Manchester. It becomes personal when it looks like his girlfriend and colleague Maya has been kidnapped by the killer. Then his world his shaken up even more when a near-fatal car accident knocks him out, only for him to wake up in 1973.

"I had to play it as if this was an absolute nightmare for him," says John. "If I was watching this and I didn't believe he was having a nightmare, then I wouldn't believe it. I had go with the thing of, what if it happened to you?

"Immediately my reaction is, well it's not going to. But then I say to myself, yeah but what if it did? And I think it would have been an absolute nightmare. It would have really freaked him out for a while."

It is an unusual role for John to take, having been known thus far for playing characters that are very much entrenched in reality. He's made his name in acclaimed dramas such as The Lakes, State Of Play and last year's Sex Traffic, as well as films such as cult clubbing flick Human Traffic. So why the change of tack?

"I was interested in doing something mainstream and glossy," says John. "It's not the kind of thing I'm used to doing. Also I just thought the script was so absolutely insane - the mad twist at the start appealed to me. I thought, if I can make that believable I can make anything believable."

It's another twist in a career that's only been predictable in its quality. John has a knack for picking roles in dramas and films that get him good reviews, and he's become known as one of the UK's most talented actors. He is, of course, modest about his talents.

"I'm only affected by reviews if they're personal, I guess," he says. "I'd love not to read any of them at all but the temptation is too great. You want to know what people thought. Not that I'm that bothered but it's nice if people enjoy things.

"I find it difficult to form my own opinion about my work. I can never tell if it's good. I can tell when other people are being good, in scenes I'm not in. I can watch those scenes. But in Life On Mars I'm in every single one so I can't tell if it's good or not, I've no idea."

John admits he also has no idea what the future holds. He's looking forward to spending some time with his wife, actress Kate Magowan, and their four-year-old son Ryan.

He's very rarely committed to long-running series, and he baulks slightly at the thought of doing a second series of Life On Mars.

"I find it a bit boring," explains John. "I couldn't play the same person for that long. But I don't know, it depends on the part. I did two series of the Lakes. And I'd happily do State Of Play again. But Life On Mars I'm not sure about. Let's get the first series out of the way first."

One thing we definitely won't be seeing John in is Celebrity Big Brother or one of the many similar reality shows. Having never been one to cultivate his celebrity status - he's not even particularly happy speaking to people who recognise him on the street - John has a deep-held abhorrence of that side of the industry he works in.

"I'd be gutted if they asked me," he says. "Why would I want to do that? I'm not tabloid fodder, I'm not interested. I can't even watch those programmes, I go red. It'd be like standing on the gallows and having people laugh at me. It makes my skin crawl."

© Wil Marlow, http://icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost/

1