David Threlfall walks into a shiny, modern BBC meeting room, close cropped and disarmingly respectable. You look so… respectable! I plaintively remark. “Respectable?” he says. “That’s a blow. I’m doing my next thing in a submarine.” Well, you’d want a submarine in a safe pair of hands, surely? He shakes his head, grimly. “It’s not that kind of submarine.”
In my conscious mind, I would have said I had no expectations of Threlfall’s hair, respectable or otherwise. But plainly, on some elemental human level, I was expecting him to walk in as Shameless’s Frank Gallagher, one of the few memorable TV patriarchs. Frank was a rare mix of the intoxicated and the intoxicating, and Shameless was a depressingly rare thing: a show in which the viewer was invited into a chaotic, impoverished family, not to gawp or sneer or wring their hands, but because it was hilarious and human.
Of course, that was very much down to the show’s original mastermind Paul Abbott, whose ability to make you fall for his characters is uncanny. But it’s fundamentally about Threlfall too, the complexity of the way he took on Frank, so that he never became a figure of ridicule, however ridiculous a thing he had just done. This character came out of the programme and had a life of his own, a cultural importance beyond the boost to primetime television.
The thing about Shameless was how smart the main characters were – OK, there were some exceptions, and some of them, Frank mainly, were only smart when they were sober. But if you look around now, and how fashionable it has become to insist upon the stupidity, the otherness, of people in poverty, Shameless is... well, let’s not gush; let’s just say it is much missed.
Anyway, after nearly ten years in that job, Threlfall is modest about it, makes no claims at all for its social impact.
“I just get up and do it, and get up and do it again the next day. I’m not stupid. I understand that it’s [Shameless] made an impression. But I like to let the work speak for itself, to be honest. My job is to get inside the spirit, the running condition of other people. You can’t do that if you’re somebody famous. I’m not a craver after any spotlight,” he pauses... “anywhere.”
Having dropped out of art college, Threlfall was on the way to setting up a business. It was sort of a skip business, except “this was before skips were invented. The BS era.” Amusingly, probably the most relaxed and expansive he is talking about himself is when he considers his career in refuse. “I didn’t have any friends. Well, I had one friend, Kim, we did it together, and it was just about working when I thought, I’ve got to give this drama thing a go.”
His first TV role came in 1977, and three years later, he was Smike in a long, dauntingly ambitious production of Nicholas Nickleby. I saw it when I was a kid and have been having nightmares about it, on and off, ever since. Despite the critical success of that production, his career was still up and down until 2004. When I ask him what the high point of his career has been, he says: “Working. That’s the high point. A couple of years before Shameless started, it was tricky. You have to know how to deal with what seems to be rejection, get over it quickly and not spiral down into depression. Success for me is having a job.”
One thing that is plain, when you see the physical difference between the actor and his TV roles, is how totally he inhabits his characters, so that you assume he shares many traits with them that he doesn’t share at all. One of his other projects, besides the new BBC1 thriller What Remains (which is brilliant, in ways we’ll come to in a minute) is a biopic of Tommy Cooper that, when you see the production stills, looks like the most obvious piece of casting ever. The resemblance is striking.
“I had to work really hard to get that. I had copious amounts of help, in all departments, literally from my feet up. I wouldn’t look at it, any of the photos, I can’t look at it. I’m going to worry about it if I see it, because it won’t be right. It won’t be good enough. But that’s me, I like to embody as thoroughly as I can. And you always have doubts about whether you can pull it off.”
In its own way, Tommy Cooper’s story is as carnivalesque as Frank Gallagher’s – unlike almost every other comedian ever thought to have warranted a biopic, Cooper wasn’t a backstage depressive; he was funny to his marrow, and his main problem was a love triangle (him, his wife, his mistress) that occupied the last 17 years of his life, cut short by his sudden death, not leaving so much as a note for resolution.
In What Remains, however, Threlfall plays a much different character – Len Harper, a detective, who probably presents more of a challenge for the audience. It’s an inky, atmospheric four- parter about the investigation into the death of a young woman whose body is found in an attic. There’s something very dank and British about it, both visually and philosophically.
“I’ve never played somebody who has this repetitious way of getting to the truth. Shameless was more of a celebratory, alcohol-fuelled existence. The technical aspects of shooting this were just as quick, but it wasn’t as, shall we say, chaotic. That was more expressionistic and this is more classical. Let’s put it like that and not get myself into any trouble.”
What Remains functions brilliantly as a whodunnit, but has a profundity that keeps it turning over in your head. “The chap I play is on the lip of retirement,” Threlfall explains. “He finds a kind of empathy with the dead woman. The interest for him is emotional neglect, in the way that nobody seems to know this young person who’s been found. Or at least, everybody professes to know nothing about her.
“It has a resonance to the way he feels about one day being in a job and the next day not, and also the process of realising his neglect of things around him as well. I think it looks great. It’s not rare, but it’s not run of the mill. I was very lucky to have been asked to partake.”
This attitude crops up a lot with Threlfall – how lucky he has been: “I used to think acting was a bit frivolous as a job or a vocation. But now I’m very clear about the community I’m in; it’s my job, but it also happens to be something I’m really lucky to do.”
And as much as he loves his work, he really doesn’t like talking about it. “I just like to be left alone, to get on with what I do. My work’s my work. Actors can be all windswept and interesting, falling out of nightclubs. I’ve never been like that. It’s not me at all.”
I love that as a proof of how seldom he goes to nightclubs that he thinks their main characteristic is that they’re windy. But in fact, even if he did all the things he never does, that wouldn’t make him more interesting. The work’s the thing.
What Remains is tonight at 9:pm on BBC1