Though we are meeting to talk about his first role for the BBC since Ashes to Ashes ended last year, part of me hopes that Philip Glenister will enter the room with a Gene Hunt scowl, turn over the table and bark, “I get to ask the questions round here, all right?”
However, instead of a burly Mancunian in a camel-hair coat, the actor (slighter than he looks on the telly) sports a sky-blue shirt that exactly matches his eyes, carries a stylish man bag and greets me with a cheery “hi!” Household names they both may be, but Glenister sans Hunt is like Cillit without its Bang.
Meanwhile, his new series Hidden is a taut conspiracy thriller written by Ronan (The Hamburg Cell) Bennett, that gripped me like State of Play (in which Glenister also appeared) and looks (thanks to the series’ Danish director of photography and its washed-out retro colours – think Tinker Tailor…) like Wallander. Both of which are good things.
New Age Man
Glenister plays down-on-his-luck solicitor Harry Venn (the surname suits; it would be helpful to be provided with a diagram to map the overlapping plots and characters), whose low-rent world is tipped on its axis when an enigmatic lawyer played by Thekla Reuten re-introduces him to aspects of his murky past he’d rather forget. It’s intelligent, grown-up stuff.
“The first episode is quite a slow-burner. There’s always that fear that you’ve got to get them in the first minute or you’re f****d, but with conspiracy theories it has to build and you have to use your brain a little bit.”
Hidden is also rather timely. “Yes, police corruption, media corruption, government corruption – and I’m sure hacked phones are probably in there somewhere. We finished filming a drama with riots and a breakdown of democracy with a coalition government… Ronan is psychic.”
Glenister, 48, was born in the north-west London suburb of Harrow and grew up in nearby Hatch End. His father, John Glenister, was a TV director while his brother, Robert (Hustle) Glenister, is another successful actor. He’s married to the actress Beth Goddard (two daughters, nine and six) and as his former sister-in-law is Amanda Redman (who encouraged him to apply to the Central School of Speech and Drama), it’s practically a dynasty.
Given his connections to the BBC include family ties, I wonder if working here (our interview takes place at TV Centre) feels like coming home?
“I love this building. The first time I came here I was about nine. The Blue Peter studio was the first one on the left, then Doctor Who was where Strictly is. Usually it was a birthday treat for me and my best friend. I was fascinated by it all, but if my dad had been a plumber I’d probably have gone to work with him. I knew quite early on it wasn’t particularly glamorous.”
Did he act as a child?
“A little bit. When I was at primary school, I played George in George and the Dragon. I had the chainmail – a sack painted silver, head cut out and the cross. You wouldn’t get away with it now.”
It would be a multi-faith George?
“Exactly. So I waved the sword around and all these little girls are going, ‘George! Kill the dragon!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah!’ ”
So it was as straightforward as: “If I do this, I get the girls?”
“Absolutely, it was that simple. But I never really planned anything…” he pauses for effect, “…when I was six. I was born with a lazy gene.”
No pun intended, but while we’re on the topic of Genes, does he divide life into BG and AG? “Before and After Gene? Well, it was one of those moments in your career when you think, ‘I have to play this part. I know exactly how to play this, how to pitch it.’”
Indeed, Hunt’s unreconstructed one-liners and off-the-radar political incorrectness captured a late noughties mood even as the shows nailed the look of the 1970s and early 80s.
Mad Dogs and beleagured blokes
Glenister has joked in previous interviews about being contractually obligated to work once a year with his Mars co-star John Simm (with whom he is genuinely close: “we were a double-act”) and shortly before we meet they have finished working together on the second series of Sky1’s Mad Dogs, alongside their mates Marc Warren and Max Beesley.
“One night, when we were on location in Majorca, we sat and watched an episode of Life on Mars, just the two of us, in my room with a bottle of wine. There’s a scene in the surveillance van when DC Chris Skelton farts and says something like, ‘Sorry Guv, ate something dodgy last night’ and I say [adopts raspy Gene Hunt tones] ‘What’ve you been eating? Pedigree Chum?’ John and I roared with laughter. It sounds terrible to say you’re laughing at yourself, but it wasn’t at me, it was at that line. At the end we were, like, ‘Not a bad little show, that.’”
Was Ashes a very different experience?
‘Yes, but still great. For me, though, the 1970s was very much my childhood, so it was far enough away to be nostalgic about but also close enough to remember. No matter how well written Gene Hunt was, in the 1990s he’d have had to beat up Liam Gallagher, or something.”
We both grimace – though perhaps for different reasons. For me, a 1990s version of Gene-Hunt-as-unlikely-sex symbol would have suffered horribly in translation. Unsurprisingly, Glenister isn’t entirely comfortable with the sex symbol label, despite the fact that this is what, for a very broad female demographic, Hunt became – “I took it with a very large dash of salt, it was amusing, really” – though he does have a thesis on Gene’s undeniable popularity:
“We were seeing the end of New Labour and the whole country was feeling let down by Blair – the broken promises and the war. At the same time as feeling that we were not allowed to have an opinion; being told ‘You can’t say that’ for fear of being racist or homophobic. So Gene Hunt became a kind of spokesperson for…” He tails off.
“No, not just beleagured blokes, because a lot of women responded to him. Look, this man comes along and says, ‘F*** it, you’re the bad guy, you’re nicked!’ and people were like, ‘Yeees, thank god!’”
Does he often hear Quattro jokes?
“Not every day now, but yeah, if I had a pound for every time I’d heard ‘Fire up the Quattro’, I’d be a millionaire.”
So, as a nod to the Top Gear demographic, what car does he drive? “I drive an Audi. Of course.”
Did they give him a car?
“No, er, they lend me one. It was a marriage made in heaven.” A slightly apologetic-sounding laugh. “The writers maintain ‘Fire up the Quattro’ was their idea, but it was mine. They will dispute it but – sorry guys – put it in print. ‘Fire up the Audi’ would’ve been product placement, so it became ‘Fire up the Quattro’. And of course a reviewer wrote, ‘There’s no way a copper would have a Quattro’. We were, like, ‘He’s not real, he’s a ghost. Jesus!’”
It’s been a busy year for Glenister. “Tough year. I worked out I’ve only been home for five weeks since Christmas.” As well as Hidden and Mad Dogs, he has completed Treasure Island (to be aired on Sky around Christmas) in which he plays Smollett, Captain of the Hispaniola alongside Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver.
“I play him with a slight Welsh lilt, a bit like Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty. I thought I’d done something the kids could watch but, no, it’s really dark – but it looks amazing.”
There are not, I observe, many parts for women in Treasure Island – and it turns out that the lack of roles for actresses of a certain age is a subject that exercises Glenister greatly. I wonder if he and Mrs G ever flip a coin for jobs?
“In an ideal world that would be great, but it’s much harder for actresses of a certain age.”
Even when, like Beth Goddard, they’re great and gorgeous?
“She is, I know. But too often if a woman is over a certain age, drama says you have to be dowdy, which is ludicrous. One of the refreshing things watching David Hare’s Page Eight was that pretty much every actress was of a certain age – brilliant actresses, with wit and wisdom. Maybe the tide is turning?
“I would’ve thought the majority of people who watch TV drama are late 30s and over-40s, because we’re the ones who don’t go out and don’t have a life any more. I don’t understand why people are desperate to get kids to watch TV – don’t forget them, obviously, but don’t pander to them either. Don’t forget your core audience. But it’s been nice to see grown-up dramas like Exile, The Shadow Line and Page Eight.”
It’s been a while since he hung up his Quattro key fob, but with his bloke-ish CV, I wonder if Glenister has ever hankered after a rom-com?
“Ha! I don’t think people see me that way.”
As he says his goodbyes he picks up the man bag. “I know,” he pre-empts the comment, “it’s not very ‘Gene’, is it?” While some of us may wait in vain for a Glenister rom-com, perhaps the more-troubled-than-twinkly Harry Venn may help to lay Gene Hunt’s charismatic ghost to rest.
This article originally appeared in Radio Times magazine, on sale Tuesday 27 September.