The late journalist Keith Waterhouse once wrote that Brighton is a town that always looks as though it’s helping the police with their “inquiries”. Like every seaside town, it has an exaggerated public face and a private face: a moral, lawful world and a sinister, criminal underworld. On the one hand there’s the superficial tourist trail leading to the end of the brightly lit Palace Pier and on the other there are the ghostly remains of the nearby West Pier.
The West Pier was devastated by a fire back in 2003; locals still talk of an unidentified boat spotted speeding away from the scene. It doesn’t take much imagination to turn Brighton into a hotbed of crime populated by gangsters in shiny suits – which is exactly what this week’s new four-part crime drama The Fear attempts.
In the opening scene we see Peter Mullan, who plays Richie Beckett, the head of a Brighton criminal family, wandering around in the dark on the beach in front of the West Pier. He is suffering from early-onset dementia. The pitch-black sea is rolling in behind him, the Palace Pier is jauntily lit up as though oblivious to any kind of menace, and the metal framework of the West Pier looms out of the gloom. A bullet travels gracefully through the air in slow motion. We can only assume that it hits Richie, but the camera cuts away before we see him fall.
Mullan won’t be drawn on the potential demise of his character, whose fate isn’t revealed until the final episode, but he is in awe of the ease with which Brighton takes a supporting role in the drama. “The incredible skeletal structure of the West Pier is in perfect contrast to the slightly jaded artifice of the Palace Pier,” says the 53-year-old in his gruff Glaswegian accent. “It was only when we actually filmed those scenes that I realised the importance the setting would have.”
Michael Samuels, who also directed the adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, didn’t particularly reference Brighton Rock when discussing The Fear with his cast. But Mullan talked to Harry Lloyd and Paul Nicholls, who play his sons, about the Graham Greene novel and both the films that have been made of it.
“Anybody who takes an acting job in Brighton is going to discuss Greene,” he says, "in the same way you’d discuss Don’t Look Now if you were filming in Venice.”
Richie has his work cut out in The Fear as he tries to stop a gang of ruthless Albanian sex traffickers from encroaching on his turf, while slowly accepting that he is barely able to keep a grasp on reality as the dementia takes hold. It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from Mullan. He’s both brutal (at one point beating up his son) and tender (breaking down in his wife’s arms when he realises what he’s done).
It’s a typical role for Mullan, who embraces tricky, damaged and aggressive characters such as the unemployed recovering alcoholic in Ken Loach’s 1998 film My Name Is Joe or the unemployed alcoholic widower in last year’s Bafta award-winning Tyrannosaur. So is he tough or tender himself?
Mullan laughs. “I’d have to be honest and say I’m more inclined towards the tender. Because of the accent and face I’ve got, there’s a perception of toughness that I’m afraid is just not there.”
Is he a pussycat really? “I guess I am. Yes. I’d stand up for myself or my family if need be, but I don’t run around shouting at people or being abusive in any shape or form. I’m sure my four kids, who range in age from 22 to four, wouldn’t think of me as being particularly strict.”
Mullan, the fifth of eight children, was brought up near the Glasgow shipyards. He was a bright kid briefly distracted by crime; at 14 he joined a gang and dropped out of school for a year, but was eventually kicked out for being too bookish. His father, an alcoholic prone to violent outbursts, died on the very day Mullan started a course in economic history and drama at Glasgow University.
For nearly a decade afterwards, Mullan taught drama in the community, which often took him into prisons. “I knew it could’ve been me behind bars. I am very, very grateful that my life didn’t take that kind of turn. But I have an affinity with folk who do find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Not that I’d ever make apologies for them; part of what appealed to me about the script for The Fear, besides its genius storyline of a gangster with dementia, was that no apologies were made for any of its criminal characters.”
The drama also makes no apologies for its endless close-ups of Mullan’s face and the lines that run across it like tributaries. “God almighty, if that camera got any closer to me it would’ve been a colonoscopy.” Still, it’s a beautifully lived-in face. “It shows someone who had a very tough paper round. It’s frightening to think that Colin Firth is only a year younger than me. He must have had an easier paper round because my face sure ain’t weathering as well as his.”
If Mullan had a tough childhood (and the paper round metaphor is a perfect way of dodging the issue), then he certainly appears to have turned into a surprisingly resilient and chirpy adult. Before he returns to the set of Sunshine in Leith, a film featuring the music of the Proclaimers, I remind him of something he once said about every gangster ultimately being a frustrated actor. Again he laughs. “Aye, I think that’s about right. I was recently asked if the reverse could be true. I think so; both live in complete fantasy worlds with inappropriate senses of their own importance.”
Mullan pauses and sucks hard on his cigarette. “We both tend to be deeply selfish, narcissistic people. I’m just glad that I ended up as an actor and not a gangster.”
The Fear is on this week - Monday-Thursday at 10:00pm on Channel 4