The taxi driver and I are lost in Hayes, a sprawling urban spillage that spreads from the west of Central London like milk that’s boiled over a pan. We are looking for an industrial estate where I have an appointment with the world’s most handsome man.
We pass divan warehouses and carpet warehouses. We ask for directions and eventually we find our destination: a clutter of TV studios behind some big gates. It could be yet another warehouse, except that it isn’t because there he is, Jon Hamm – the world’s most handsome man, in full actor make-up and dressed as an early 20th-century Russian doctor, filming Sky Arts adaptations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical A Young Doctor’s Notebook alongside Daniel Radcliffe.
“I’m sorry, I don’t usually walk around like this,” says Hamm, pointing to the get-up before he starts talking to me about football. I have never felt equipped to discuss football with anyone in my life, but I am perfectly happy to start with him. “I am so sad that Harry has been axed from the Spurs,” is Hamm’s opening gambit as he points to the front page of the Daily Mirror. Harry Redknapp had been fired as manager of Tottenham Hotspur the day before. I don’t correct the definite article. He’s only being nice and friendly.
Jon Hamm is out of context here in Hayes, just west of Ealing, in make-up, with an unflattering side-parting and struggling to talk about football. He should be sharp-suited Don Draper, lounging in his Mad Men Manhattan offices, a drink in one hand as he fondles a compliant woman with the other.
Hamm lopes just like Don Draper when he walks. I know this because I have studied Don Draper’s walk. I’m blushing and gushing as I tell him how much I love Mad Men, more than I’ve ever loved a television drama. “Well, thank you very much, that’s very nice of you.”
But enough for now about Mad Men; we are here to talk about Russian literature and Jon Hamm’s English accent. Don’t be confused. Hamm plays a Russian doctor in pre-Revolutionary Russia, who observes his younger self (Daniel Radcliffe) making a hash of things in a clinic in the middle of nowhere. But there are no pretendy Doctor Zhivago-type Russian accents.
“I have something approximating an English accent. I’m sure I will be eviscerated for my horrible attempt, but I am giving it a try.”
Are you any good? British people take these things very seriously, you know. Surely you’ve heard the fuss about Dick Van Dyke’s oral atrocity in Mary Poppins? There’s a big, loud laugh: “I am very aware of Dick Van Dyke, but I hope I will be marginally better than that.”
In truth, Hamm’s accent isn’t bad – not brilliant, but not bad, maybe a bit neutral and anodyne.
Everyone involved in A Young Doctor’s Notebook keeps telling me how funny it is. But I’ve read the stories and they don’t strike me as a laugh riot. “It is very bleak, but the humour comes from a well-educated man who is stuck in this backwater where he is a fish out of water. We had a show in the US in the 90s called Northern Exposure [we had it over here, too], about a New York doctor stuck in rural Alaska. Not that we are trying to remake Northern Exposure, but it was an interesting show, very funny and populated by quirky characters. It took some interesting leaps, which is what we are trying to do.”
So what is he doing in Hayes, filming a handful of Russian stories for an arts channel with a tiny audience? He’s just been in the worldwide hit comedy Bridesmaids, for heaven’s sake.
“I helped to develop it with Clelia Mountford [the producer. Notebook is a co-production between Big Talk and Point West Pictures, the production company Hamm runs with his partner, Jennifer Westfeldt]. It’s nice to choose what you are going to do. To shepherd things and have them come to fruition is remarkable. I’m glad to have my day job – it’s always nice to go back to Don Draper and to Mad Men – but it’s only five months of the year. I was unemployed for such a long time as an actor, so it’s good to be employed and to look for stuff that I find interesting.”
Will anyone watch? “I’ve been part of a show that’s been hailed as ground-breaking and also been derided for its lack of an audience. Hopefully there’s room on TV for quirky, interesting things that don’t have to pull in millions of viewers.”
We talk about Hamm’s love for strange British comedies, including BBC4’s Getting On, whose co-writer and star Vicki Pepperdine plays a nurse in Young Doctor’s Notebook. Then there’s Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the very odd cult C4 spoof horror show from 2004. Hamm, 41, grew up in Missouri loving Monty Python, and found that Mad Men coincidentally led him to great vaults of British comedy. “When we were on the BBC here I would very quietly and politely ask [the BBC] if I could have DVDs of certain shows, which is why I got hooked on all the Chris Morris stuff – The Day Today, Brass Eye and Jam.”
Occasionally, Hamm breaks out of the immaculate Draper straightjacket to star in comedies, including 30 Rock and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and he’s hosted Saturday Night Live. And, of course, the gross-out Bridesmaids. But why was his appearance as lead actress Kristen Wiig’s appalling boyfriend ‘uncredited’? Not out of modesty, surely? “I didn’t want a credit, it was just a funny little cameo, but it got a lot more play than was originally planned.”
When our brief time is up, I humiliate myself by asking him to sign my copy of Bulgakov’s stories. What the hell, I tell him, it’s not like I will ever see you again. “That’s not true,” he says, and lopes off. Bye bye, Don. For now.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook begins tonight at 9:00pm on Sky Arts 1