‘John Simm proved to me I could do it’ – Lee Ingleby reveals how he broke into acting

Lee Ingleby looks back at his career ahead of starring in ITV's suspenseful new series Innocent

(Getty)

Lee Ingleby’s new series is set in the heart of a family, but there’s nothing feel-good about Innocent. In the first episode, Ingleby, as newly released prisoner David Collins, takes a man apart with his fists.

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The scene is so violent that I found it quite upsetting, I tell him when we meet in east London. “Thank you very much,” he says, as if I have paid him the greatest compliment. “The violence isn’t pretty, it’s just relentless until somebody stops him. It’s got to be a bit messy, you don’t want to make it too Hollywood. It’s not superhero fighting.”

The Burnley-born actor’s career has yet to include a superhero, but it has taken in Line of Duty, The Bill, Inspector George Gently, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Bob the Builder. But BBC1 drama The A Word in which he played Paul, the father of Joe, a five-year-old with autism, was particularly special.

“It is a rare gem,” he says. “It’s full of complication, angst and frustration. A simple story so beautifully told. There was a lovely incident in the very first episode where Paul and Alison realised their son had never been invited to a birthday party, because Joe was a bit odd. Afterwards, somebody wrote and said their son, who was a similar age, with autism, had been invited to his first birthday party because people had seen the show and suddenly they understood. When that happens, it makes you think you’ve done something that’s really worthwhile.”

Innocent confirms that Ingleby, now 42, is trusted to hold the nation’s prime-time attention. It’s a compelling, at times harrowing, domestic disaster series, in which his character has just come out of jail, released on a technicality after serving seven years of a life sentence for murdering his wife, to find his sister (played by Hermione Norris), has control of his two children. Is he a killer or a loving husband who was framed? Who wins the battle for custody? “I don’t want to spoil it for you,” he says. “But I don’t see how you could make a second series of Innocent.”

If Ingleby is on the edge of major stardom it’s due in part to Brian Wellock, an English teacher at End Edge High School in Nelson, Lancashire, who also provided extracurricular drama lessons for pupils. “It was just an after-school thing,” says Ingleby. “They were doing Ken Loach’s Kes as a play, I just loved the film, so I auditioned for the main part and got it. We couldn’t get a kestrel though, we had to imagine it.” Which is pretty good training for being on television.

“I didn’t even entertain the idea of being an actor until Brian said, ‘This is what you should do, you’d be brilliant at it.’”

Lee Ingleby and Hermione Norris in Innocent

Wellock also “discovered” John Simm, who first began to make waves as an actor when he starred in BBC1’s The Lakes in 1997. “John was about six years older so we never met at school, but when he got The Lakes it said to me that someone from where I come from could do it.”

Ingleby was brought up in a very working class community in Lancashire. “We lived in a terraced house,” he says of the childhood home he shared with his mum Susan, dad Gordon, and two older sisters. “There were hundreds of houses and we had the gable end. We had a nice big yard, but we only knew the immediate neighbours. The next-door neighbour was the same age, so we were best friends. There wasn’t much money. We weren’t destitute, we made do.”

Ingleby, so convincing as an ex-prisoner in Innocent, has never been in serious trouble – the closest he has come to jail is filming in Wandsworth Prison for a project that didn’t make it to screen, and being brought home by the police when he was young. “I got slung in the back of a police car and driven home because I was skateboarding in a multistorey car park after hours. My dad was like, ‘Oh, you…’ then, when they went, ‘Never mind.’

Ingleby’s mother was an auxiliary nurse and his father an engineer. “Dad worked in a big box of a room with no windows. He said to me: ‘Be whatever you want, just don’t be an engineer, it’s horrible.’”

His childhood was happy rather than grim. “We were massive TV watchers. We’d sit down as a family, and loved things like Bread, Boys from the Blackstuff and Only Fools and Horses. I wanted to be a fireman purely because I used to love London’s Burning. We used to do am-dram together as a family. My mum would do backstage stuff, but my sisters and me and my dad loved the acting.”

There can’t have been many engineers living in East Lancashire who were putting on the slap and stepping out into the limelight? “I suppose not,” says Ingleby. “It was mainly a hobby, but then you’d do a week’s worth of Hello, Dolly! or something and that was quite a big thing for us. It was wonderful, really. Dad and I both played waiters in the chorus.”

When Ingleby got his first audition for drama college in London, his dad drove him down. “I’d never been to London before. It was a bit daunting. I didn’t have a bloody idea about London or drama school.” He got into Lamda after getting one of only six annual special education grants from Lancashire County Council. “I couldn’t have gone without that grant. I had to audition to a bunch of suits in Lancaster who had no clue about drama. They were like, ‘So, what are you doing?’ I was like, ‘I’m doing a speech from [Trevor Griffiths’s 1975 play] Comedians and they were like ‘What’s that?’ Oh God!”

Within a decade he was Stan Shunpike in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – not that he expected it. “I just did a ten-minute audition, then made the long journey back home, never thought of it again. It just felt like another of those auditions where they end up casting a name. Then I got it. It just felt bizarre, because it was just a huge machine, a monster.”

If he could make his own film he would go home to East Lancashire. “You can see Pendle Hill wherever you are. I’ve always had a fascination about maybe doing a drama about the witch trials [of 1612].”

Ingleby talks a lot about his roots but his past seems to be disappearing. “My school’s not there any more, and my primary school and the college I went to have been demolished as well. It’s like, what’s wrong with me?” The A Word and now Innocent offer an emphatic answer to that question. There are few actors around right now who are getting it as right as Ingleby does. “I’m not doing sci-fi where you can pretend or make it up,” he says. “I’m dealing with stuff that exists, it’s stuff that people take to heart.”

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Innocent will air from Monday 14th May – Thursday 17th May at 9pm on ITV