Squeamishness is not Tim Roth’s problem. As Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, he enacted possibly the bloodiest death in screen history.
He has played every kind of villain since his breakthrough performance as a teenage skinhead in Made in Britain (1982) to a murderous reptoid in The Incredible Hulk.
Nothing, however, prepared Roth for
his role as a serial killer in BBC1’s Rillington Place.
It’s hardly a whodunnit.
The case of John Reginald Christie, who murdered eight women and stowed their bodies behind the walls, under the floor, and in the yard of his Notting Hill home, is one of the most notorious in British crime history and took an innocent man to the gallows. (Christie’s effigy is strung up in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors.)
“I did a stack of research,” says Roth. “The production company sent me a vast amount of articles that had been written about Christie, transcripts of the trials, autopsy reports, statements from work colleagues, friends and neighbours and a lot of pictorial evidence – I kept it on my computer so my wife wouldn’t have to see it lying round.”
“You piece this together and you start to come up with an interpretation of what he might have been like. And as all this came trickling through, I did think, ‘My God, what have I got into?’”
John Christie (1898-1953)
The real Rillington Place was bulldozed long ago, so a crumbling corner of Glasgow stands in for 1940s/50s Notting Hill in the three-part drama. Instead of a chronological narrative, each 60-minute episode follows the story of a different protagonist: the first focuses on Christie’s wife, Ethel (played by Samantha Morton), the second on Timothy Evans (Nico Mirallegro), the young husband and father who lodged in the flat above the Christies.
Timothy Evans (played by Nico Mirallegro) and Beryl Evans (Jodie Comer)
“The last one is Christie’s own perspective on events – the idea was to show exactly what he was,” says Roth. “But I think it might have been a bit too disturbing for some at the Beeb. We did shoot some very difficult stuff, and I’m not sure all of it made it to the final cut.”
As he points out, “It’s one thing to read a scene on the page, but it’s another thing to see it on screen once you’ve shot it.”
At a time when screen violence against women is a focus of energetic public debate, the unexpurgated story of John Christie was bound to be problematic. Forensic evidence confirms the serial killer had sex with most of his victims when they were either dead or dying.
“There was one day when the actresses who played the various victims came in – they were extraordinary, sitting round the monitor checking each other’s performances,” recalls Roth.
“And there were some tough scenes; we went as far as you can go. I don’t think we dealt with the necrophilia aspect, but we did have Christie accumulating women in the cupboard behind his wall, and we showed what he did to get them there. The idea was that we’d shoot it all, so that Craig [Viveiros, the director] could then use the footage in a more subtle way.
“I haven’t seen the result, but Craig’s a talent, I’m sure he did it well. I think, though, that if you’re going to take on a subject like Christie, then it’s worth examining who this man really was, what he really did. I think it’s something that should be exposed.”
Roth plays Christie with precisely calibrated menace, turning the dial from pursed prissiness to full-on psychopathy without ever raising his voice. And it’s the voice – soft, insistent, an instrument of absolute control – that is likely to live on in the heads of viewers.
“Christie was gassed during the First World War and didn’t speak for a very long time afterwards,” Roth explains. “He had this very hushed tone – one of the newspaper headlines at the time was ‘The Whispering Killer’ – but he also had that comforting Yorkshire accent, which seems to have acted as a kind of character reference for him.
“Because despite a violent, criminal past, he managed to put out this very unthreatening, respectable demeanour – people who lived on the same street would invite him over for Christmas.”
Christie was hanged on 15 July 1953, despite pleading “not guilty by reason of insanity”.
Three years earlier, Timothy Evans, Christie’s upstairs neighbour, had been hanged for the murder of his wife Beryl and their baby daughter Geraldine – and Christie was the chief witness for the prosecution.
When, in the course of his own trial, Christie admitted strangling Beryl, the bungled case against Evans became a significant plank in the campaign against capital punishment.
The death penalty for murder was abolished in England in 1965. Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous royal pardon in 1966, but his conviction has yet to be formally quashed.
“The Christie case changed everything,” says Roth. “Because if an innocent person is hanged, how can we trust ourselves with the death penalty?”
While he is “100 per cent against capital punishment”, the actor is unsurprised by calls for its return. “The way the country is moving – with everything that’s been happening with the Brexit thing – I can see reinstating the death penalty is an attractive proposition for the extreme right wing. I have faith enough in the British public to say that I can’t imagine it coming back in Britain, but one never knows.”
A long-time resident of California – he was part of the 1980s “Brit Pack” with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis – Roth sees uncomfortable parallels between contemporary US and UK politics.
“It’s the same thing going on, the same kind of animals. Now we’ve got Farage being some kind of weird, self-appointed advisor for Donald Trump. That makes sense. The lack of subtlety in the American presidential campaign absolutely mirrors the lack of subtlety in the Leave campaign.
“The right wing is sweeping across Europe – partly as a result of our inability to accept the repercussions of our wars in the Middle East – and I find that deeply disturbing.”
As a child in south London, Roth, 55, was taken on anti–Nazi League demonstrations by his father, a journalist who changed his name from Smith to Roth as a gesture of solidarity with victims of the Holocaust.
Following a stint at art school, Roth enjoyed early success with politically engaged directors such as Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears. “When Thatcher and her guys came into power, the arts was one of the first things that went. I was fortunate to be in the backlash against that.”
More recently, Roth returned to Britain to take the lead in Reg, Jimmy McGovern’s acclaimed TV film about the Iraq War.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Tony Blair kowtowed to the Bush administration to serve his own ambition. I’d have him hauled off in chains. As soon as I heard there was a campaign to crowd source a lawsuit against him, I threw some money down.”
If Roth looks edgy and sounds earnest, he is, in conversation, exceptionally easy-going. There is no Los Angeles overlay on his London vowels and he speaks with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. Maybe it’s an ex-pat thing, where you “stick” at the age you left home, but it’s certainly working for Roth, who has never been more in demand.
He hugely enjoyed getting back with Quentin Tarantino and the gang for The Hateful Eight last year, he’s just wrapped on a comedy, shot in New York and co-starring Stephen Fry and Uma Thurman, and is now shooting an epic ten-part thriller, Tin Star, with Christina Hendricks for Sky Atlantic.
There have, it’s true, been stinkers along the way. 2014’s United Passions, starring Roth as disgraced Fifa boss Sepp Blatter, was panned by critics and by Roth himself, but he is relaxed about “legacy”.
“I’ve got to get my guys through college [he has two sons, Hunter and Cormac, with his wife, Nikki Butler, and an older boy, Jack, from a previous marriage]. I don’t want them to come straight out with a mortgage, so if I’ve got to do a few dodgy films for that, it’s fair enough.”
For now he’s happy to put on ice a long-held ambition to direct a film version of King Lear, based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter. If commitment to “the important stuff ” is deeply held, it’s lightly worn.
“I always just wanted to be in films,” says Roth. “I thought it would be fun. You know what? It was.”
Rillington Place is on 9pm tonight, BBC1