Is Matthew Macfadyen the Paul Newman of British TV? Bear with this for a second… Both burst onto the screen as simmering hunks with a difficult attitude – Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me and Macfadyen in Spooks. Both met future spouses on set and built long-lasting thespian marriages (Macfadyen wed Keeley Hawes in 2004). Most significantly, however, just as Newman persistently and deliberately undermined his dream-boat status with weird and difficult roles suggesting more depth than is typical in a hot male star, so too does Macfadyen pick parts that have meat, drama and immense problems.
Take the spooky drama, The Enfield Haunting. The plot is based on real-life events that dominated the front pages of newspapers back in 1977. Peggy Hodgson, a single mother of four, called the police in to investigate moving furniture and loud banging in her council house in, obviously, Enfield, north London.
The Society for Psychical Research sent two investigators – Maurice Grosse and raffish Guy Lyon Playfair, played by Timothy Spall and Macfadyen respectively. Grosse, the show suggests, was nursing the loss of his daughter Janet and became obsessed with Janet Hodgson, the girl at the centre of the storm.
Unpicking this takes TV as close to The Exorcist as Ofcom is likely to accept – with Macfadyen sporting 70s beige, looking constantly stressed and getting hurled around by what appears to be a poltergeist.
“There’s something thrilling about a good horror story,” he grins mischievously over coffee in a London hotel. “Nightmare on Elm Street completely ruined my childhood. The conceit was so brilliant – it would only get you when you’ve dropped off. Terrifying.” There have been some rational explanations for the Enfield events, not least of which is fakery – but Macfadyen says it makes no difference if you believe in ghosts or not.
“This is a scary story, but it’s also quite touching,” he explains. “It becomes less about ghosts and more about Tim’s character.” And he quotes a line from DI Edmund Reid, his character in Ripper Street: “It’s not that we become the abyss, it’s that we are the abyss.” Then he pauses and laughs. “Howling abyss? I really should do something lighter next, shouldn’t I?”
Perhaps he’s always slightly restless professionally because of his upbringing. His father Martin worked for an oil company and was constantly moving the family around the world – the classic cover for a spy, perhaps, and good training for his breakthrough role in Spooks?
He bursts out laughing. “He could have been a spy, I suppose, and just very very clever at keeping it under wraps. Although I’ve always loved John le Carré – A Perfect Spy is still my favourite novel – and that’s because Dad had them lying around the house. So who knows?”
It’s a good job he did love spy fiction – for a while after Spooks those were the only roles that came through. The show’s pace and style reshaped British TV; its impact was huge. “We really didn’t know what people would think about all the cut screens and stuff at the time,” he admits. “I was really frightened. I remember thinking: this is not good, this is really naff.” He laughs. “But like it or loathe it, it went for ten years and they made a movie.”