Never say never to John Simm


by Alison Roberts

John Simm has a hangover and needs to eat a large bacon sandwich to revive himself. He does this while explaining why he's late: "Channel 4 thought I was a parcel," he says, a little greasily. It turns out the car sent to collect him from his house in Muswell Hill wasn't a car at all, but a bike - for a parcel. Another car was swiftly - but not that swiftly - ordered. And the hangover? He was out the previous night at the Scala, watching Johnny Marr's newish band, The Healers, then went home and decided to have a bottle of Scotch. Can he remember whether Marr was any good? "Fantastic. It was odd, though. Some Japanese woman kept coming up to me and bowing," he says, his sense of the surreal now fully engaged. "She kept saying: 'John Simm, John Simm! Wonderland!'"

It's odd being John Simm at the moment. His face - very boyish despite his 30 years - is recognisable from high-class TV drama such as The Lakes and from films like Wonderland and the rave movie Human Traffic, in which he played the gorgeous Gyp. But unless you live in Japan, or read every column inch of the NME review pages, in which his band occasionally features, you might well struggle for the name. This state of affairs, though, isn't likely to last much longer - particularly, perhaps, in London.

The new Channel 4 two-part drama in which he stars this autumn, Never Never, is set on a grim, concrete council estate in Hackney and is largely about debt: getting into it, getting out of it and the struggle of life in-between. Simm plays a vulture-like door-to-door salesman, one of those men who persuade people to buy stuff they don't really want, or need, and then charge high interest rates on money owed. They fleece the poor, in other words - though they have to charm them first.

Simm's character hasn't a scrupulous bone in his body, but you wouldn't mind being stuck in a lift with him. He says he has no direct experience of these sharks, thankfully, though he spent some of his childhood in a high-rise in his home town of Nelson, near Burnley, when his mum temporarily left his dad, and he certainly knows what it's like to be penniless. "Oh yes, I was a skint student living in a bedsit. Fingerless gloves around a candle, eating baked beans from a tin, all of that."

All of that was in London, as a student at the rigorous Drama Centre in Chalk Farm. Simm didn't have much fun, but he stuck at it because of Robert De Niro, James Dean and David Thewlis, all of whom inspired him in one way or another. Meanwhile, he was breaking his poor old dad's heart. "My dad always wanted me to be a musician. Before I was an actor, I did clubs with him up north; he taught me the guitar and we did cover versions together."

Not that Simm gave up on the music altogether - his band, Magic Alex (aka the Beatles' drug dealer), supported Echo and the Bunnymen on tour last year. "That was so weird, man!" says Simm, happily. "I used to have Ian McCulloch up on my wall." He ended up spending Boxing Day with the McCullochs: "I was walking up his drive that day and he opened the door to me. I mean, there was Ian McCulloch in his shades, welcoming me in!" In his shades? At Christmas? "Yeah. He's a total rock star, isn't he?"

Simm left drama school early for a part in Rumpole of the Bailey. There followed a succession of similar TV parts before Cracker, in which he played a villain for two episodes, and then an unremittingly gritty film called Boston Kickout (with Andrew Lincoln), The Lakes and Human Traffic.

Nowadays, Simm gets invited to all the parties you'd expect a young, cultish actor to be invited to - film premieres, daft celebrity bashes, B-list openings - and he hates them, pretty much without exception. "The last one I went to was for X-Men, and it was just so depressing. Oh, it's bollocks, isn't it? Walking down the carpet ... When Vanessa Feltz gets a bigger cheer than Patrick Stewart, then there's got to be something wrong."

Not that he doesn't know what it feels like to be the object of desperate paparazzi attention. Simm - and I find this quite hard to believe now I've met him - had a fling with Baby Spice a year or so ago. No disrespect to the Spices, but she's not the obvious choice of girlfriend for a man who despises all that celeb stuff. He says the constant cameras and lack of privacy put paid to the possibility of a serious relationship and he goes out now with actress Kate McGowan.

Next, he's off to Canada, to begin shooting a film with Matthew Modine, about which he is very excited. Acting is no longer quite the buzz it once was, and he says he only began because he thought it was easy, and he's a lazy bugger - but a decent indie film like this still makes him realise why he does it. If it was a choice between full-time music with the band or acting, he'd go for the latter every time.

Which is why Magic Alex still don't have a recording contract. They've been offered one, but only on condition that Simm give it absolute priority, and he won't. "Mind you," he says, "Jamie Oliver's band has just been signed for loads of money." And did they ask him to give up the day job? Obviously not. Well, why can't Simm get a similar deal?

"Yeah," he replies, indignant. "Why can't I cook on the telly?" And the interview ends as it began - with both of us shaking our heads and the Channel 4 PR man looking utterly, fantastically perplexed.

Never Never is on C4, on Sunday and Monday.

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