From The Walking Dead to Doctor Who: David Morrissey on his favourite TV roles

The veteran British actor on his stints in Britannia, State of Play and new drama The City and the City

The City and the City - David Morrissey as Tyador Borlu

The City and The City star David Morrissey talks to Radio Times about his best TV roles.

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Billy Rizley – One Summer, C4, 1983

Five-part drama by playwright Willy Russell about two teenage Liverpudlian scallies who run away to Wales

“I trained at the Everyman Youth Theatre and we had access to professionals like Jim Broadbent, Pete Postlethwaite, Anton Lesser — I could go up to them and ask, what’s it like being an actor? And none of them told me to get lost. A rumour went around that Yorkshire TV were casting One Summer and with the arrogance of youth, I read for the part of Icky, and Paul McGann read for Billy. But he said, ‘I’m too old for this part, it should be you.’ I’ve always been eternally grateful for that. [Morrissey got the part of Billy; Spencer Leigh played Icky.]

“We were terrified of the [late] director Gordon Flemyng, a real disciplinarian, but it was shot very much like a piece of theatre. I used the money I earned to go travelling. I was in a café in Nairobi, and the guy in front of me was reading The Times. He flipped the page and there was a picture of me with a really good review for the first episode. I thought: ‘I’ve got to go home!’

“People were looking at me on the train — that was weird. My mum said the phone hadn’t stopped ringing. So, I sat down and watched it. Like now, there were certain things that troubled me from an ego point of view, but I really got into the story and was able to bypass myself.”

Stephen Collins MP – State of Play, BBC1, 2003

Paul Abbott’s six-part political conspiracy thriller centring around a journalist (played by John Simm) and a New Labour MP

“I’d worked with Paul Abbott before on Clocking Off, and he doesn’t write peripheral characters who come in and say, ‘Mr Jenkins is on the phone for you.’ John Simm and I are mates so we were able to tap into our own relationship. State of Play caught the public mood — wherever I went, people were talking about it.

“At the school gates, the other parents would say, ‘I can’t believe what happened to you last night!’ But after the last episode went out [with a major twist that revealed him as a baddie], I took my kids to school and no one talked to me. The looks the parents gave me!”

Gordon Brown – The Deal, C4, 2003

Feature-length TV play adapted by Peter Morgan about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown making a pact in 1994 over who would lead the Labour Party

“When producer Christine Langan approached me about playing Gordon Brown, I thought she had the wrong person. The director Stephen Frears wasn’t wild about the idea of me playing him and met me under duress. He told me he had this ‘genius actor’ playing Tony Blair [Michael Sheen], so go away and work on it.

“I went up to Brown’s constituency, Kirkcaldy. I felt very responsible, because he was active in politics. I didn’t want to do an impersonation, but I wanted
to get under his skin. I admire him greatly [Morrissey is a lifelong Labour supporter], but there are great flaws in his character and that’s wonderful to explore. It felt like a Shakespearian tale.”

Jackson Lake – Doctor Who, BBC1, 2008

A one-off guest spot as a man who claims to be the Doctor near the end of David Tennant’s era. It was broadcast on Christmas Day and watched by 13.1 million

“I’d often tell my agent I’d love to do Doctor Who. I’d worked with David Tennant [on BBC1 musical Blackpool], knew him well and I was a huge fan. And it came through. Obviously, I loved being in the Christmas special — filmed in February! It was fun, we shot in Gloucester and Cardiff, and I was a total geek; the minute I got there, I said to David, ‘Where’s the Tardis?’

“My kids [he has three children with wife Esther Freud] liked it at that time —now, not so much—but it was one of the first things I did that they could watch. I didn’t know when we filmed it, but David was leaving. Because the episode was called The Next Doctor, I lived for about nine months with the speculation that I was going to be the next Doctor. I knew I wasn’t. I asked Russell T Davies if I could tell my kids and he said no! So, during that time, my kids were always asking, ‘Are you moving to Cardiff?’ ”

Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson – Red Riding, C4, 2009

State-of-the-nation drama about municipal corruption and murder in 1970s and 80s Yorkshire, adapted from David Peace’s densely written novels

“Andrew Eaton [the series producer] put it together for television as three distinct movies [1974, 1980, 1983], with different directors, different crews.I think it was virtually only me and Warren Clarke — God love him — who straddled all three.

“It was great to be able to see Maurice at the beginning, and who the police were in league with and how that played out over the years. He was a person carried along by the wave of corruption and he didn’t say anything. By the end, you see a man crushed. It was a hard way of working. They didn’t have any dressing rooms. There’s me and Warren Clarke getting changed in the car park in Bradford in the rain.”

The Governor – The Walking Dead, AMC, 2012-15

A two-season stint on the massive US zombie saga, playing a sadistic leader with an eye-patch. Nominated for a Saturn award

“There are similarities between Doctor Who and The Walking Dead from a passionate fanbase perspective. I was in LA visiting [old friend and actor] Ian Hart, and my manager said they were interested in me for a ‘substantial role’. There’s always a lot of secrecy around it. You have a vague meeting, but what you have to do with American cable shows is sign the deal before you meet, on very little knowledge of what the part is or how it’ll pan out.

“The show is shot in Atlanta and I was living there, so it’s a big decision and you have about a week to make it. I talked to my wife and kids and everyone was on board. Three months after that, I started shooting. You work from script to script, and I thought I’d die at the end of season three, but they brought me back. It’s ridiculously hard work as an actor, but it’s a brilliantly run show, the crew were second to none, from the people in the office to the truck drivers. They’re all there, you’re looked after.

“I didn’t feel ready to leave, but it was probably time to come home. It wasn’t easy from a family point of view but, as an actor, you’re always moving on.”

Aulus Plautius – Britannia, Sky Atlantic, 2018

Breakout hit series by Jez Butterworth about the second Roman invasion of Britain

“Aulus is head of the Roman army but has his own agenda to find out about the belief system of the Druids, searching for another meaning to life. I did my usual research, read a lot around the subject, Mary Beard, Tom Holland… I find the period fascinating, but Jez rips all that up. He’s not interested in historical accuracy and was never going to get involved with any ‘thee’ or ‘thou’. He’s the showrunner in the American style — everybody works to his vision.

“The best thing was getting to ride a horse. The last time I did that was in [2010 film] Centurion with Michael Fassbender. Years ago [in 1991], I did Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin, and I did that thing of fronting it, saying, ‘Yeah, I can ride,’ and then thinking, ‘Oh no, now I’ve got to go and do it!’ I busked it, then later had some riding lessons. Money well spent.”

Inspector Tyador Borlú – The City and The City, BBC2, 2018

Bold whodunnit set in a speculative future, based on an award-winning novel by Brit fantasy writer China Miéville

“Borlú’s world is different from ours: it’s two cities that occupy the same space, divided but, unlike Berlin, not by a wall. You need to concentrate in the first ten to 15 minutes. It hangs its bones on a familiar detective format but it plays with that cliché and wrong-foots you.

“I get sent a lot of scripts and there’s a familiarity to them. Then something like this comes along! I would challenge the term ‘sci-fi ’, it’s more ‘weird fiction’ — you’re not gonna get aliens. It wasn’t a glamorous shoot, but I don’t get many of those, and I loved working in Manchester and Liverpool. Sometimes you’re filming in the Mersey Tunnel with a lot of cars with two-stroke engines, which can be bad on the chest, but I absolutely love it. I must be mad.”

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The City and The City begins on BBC2 on Friday 6th April.