Showbiz insiders and others in the know have labelled Breathless, ITV’s new medical drama series set in the early 60s, “Mad Men with gynaecologists”. Its star, Jack Davenport, a man who swears exuberantly during our interview, as if he’s only just been told he’s allowed to, is not one to get fazed by such comparisons.
“Well, that’s one way of putting it. That’s one spectacularly succinct way. It’s set in the 60s, yes. It’s set nominally in the obstetric wing of an NHS hospital. I think, if you’re going to – and it’s invidious to draw analogies before it’s ever been broadcast – if you’re going to draw analogies, Mad Men is really about women, isn’t it? That’s what it’s actually about. The first three minutes into this script, I was thinking, ‘Oh, forget it, medical procedure, blah.’ And then I realised, ‘Oh no, it’s not that at all.’”
Instead, Breathless is a portrait of a society that was full of hope for the future, engaged in a public health project the scale of which this country had never seen or even dreamt of. “It’s the first time there was any money to do anything other than sift through rubble. And now we’re going to build a hospital, and it will be free. So those hospitals were emblematic of a brave new world. On set, we had 15 beds, and five would be empty. There was loads of room, no one waited for anything. It was the most powerful expression of modernity in Britain in 1961.”
So even apart from the hope and the modernity, you know that the very least you can expect is some great hair and accessories. Leaving trivial remarks aside, it was also a society in which women were treated like idiots, especially when they were pregnant. They certainly didn’t have control over their bodies; abortion was illegal – although practised clandestinely, even in hospitals, as the drama acknowledges – and the Pill was only available to married women.
“It’s still kind of amazing that even now most gynaes [gynaecologists] are men,” says Davenport. “But then they really were all men. So this is a stratified world, run by men, nominally for women, but it was just, ‘Next piece of meat… What’s that cervical tumour doing there?’ I’ve spoken to doctors who were around during that period, and they’re sort of slightly ashamed of how unempathetic and unfeeling they were.”
If you’re envisaging a sort of Hugh Laurie in House with extra handsome, you’ll be sorely disappointed. “The idea leaves me completely cold,” says the 40-year- old Davenport. “Same guy, different patient, we’re going to wrap it all up in the next four minutes. This is very much an ensemble show; you’ve got characters from lots of parts of the tapestry. Some are embracing change, some are kicking against it, some are genuinely ambivalent. You can drop depth charges that don’t pay off for months. And audiences have got used to that.”
Yes, you heard the word “ensemble”, which means it’s an excuse to ask about This Life, a show that ran for only two seasons between 1996 and 1997, but I’m nevertheless still obsessed by it. It was Davenport’s huge break; before it, he’d done a touring production of Hamlet as the bearer of letters. “In my head, I rationalised it, the plot does not function without the postman. Without me, this play is dead.” It was like a “mad finishing school”, but not what you’d call preparation for the fervent adulation that was just around the corner.
“My dear old dad, Nigel Davenport, who was not one for giving unsolicited advice, did say to me, ‘Just remember this moment. This sort of stuff doesn’t happen very often.’ There was a month or two, when This Life finished, when literally every day in the broad- sheets there would be a piece about whether there would be a third series.
“Now, you could never get a show that everyone loves. There’d always be one snot-nosed git going, ‘It’s a piece of rubbish and they should all die in their own excrement.’ But then, it reached a weird critical mass where people a) wrote about it and b) adored it. And my dad was right. It’s never happened to me again.”
He is being somewhat modest here – he lives in America with his wife, Michelle Gomez (she played the sociopathic staff liaison officer Sue White in Green Wing) and their three-year-old son, partly because he plays Commador Norrington in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, a blockbuster caper so popular, so consuming, that it’s in the top ten highest-grossing franchises in film history. He also starred in several US series, including the recently axed US musical drama series Smash, in which he played a lothario Broadway director.
So you could hardly say that he left This Life and then nothing much happened. He will admit that it was the start of a great career, rather than a flash in the pan – while insisting that it was nothing to do with him and everything to do with the writing.
“This Life was all about what it wasn’t. It wasn’t patronising, it didn’t preach and it took no moral position on behaviour and issues that, until that point, certainly in British TV, you had to take a position on. People had sex without condoms and didn’t die of Aids. People took drugs recreationally and didn’t die.
“A lot of the time, there were zero ramifications. What I love about that show is that when it ends, no one is happy. I’ve married the wrong girl, there’s someone crying in the toilet, there’s a fist fight… Which is sort of what it’s like in your 20s. I look back on that with nothing but gratitude. It feels like we got written roles that weren’t ingénue roles. They were real people.”
Davenport’s next “wow” moment after that was in the 1999 film, The Talented Mr Ripley, with its stellar cast of Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett. “There was one person in that film who, for a brief nanosecond, had a bigger part than Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that will never, ever, ever happen again… That was the only film I’ve made that I think people will still be watching decades from now.”
He skirts round the edges of a conversation about what it’s like to have a face that screams LEADING MAN, when you’re actually in a profession where they need leading men. “It’s just to do with your physicality, which you can’t do anything about. You’ve either got hair or you don’t, you’re either fat or you’re not.” (Comically, when I listen back to the tape of our interview, he makes it sound like his hair is an unfair burden, and his lean frame another cross to bear.)
“The closest to a [career] plan I’ve ever had is to try and find things that allow me to move from the age I was then to the age I am now. Often you get stuck because people think of you as that other person. You’re not allowed to get old. What you look like, whether you’re Brad Pitt or Charles Laughton, is significant for actors.”
The brilliant thing about his views on the job he does, and the world he’s in, is that it’s so deeply considered and so broad – he would be just as likely to wonder what kind of career trajectory other British character actors Toby Jones or Gary Oldman deserved – in fact much more likely, than he would his own. It makes him quite hard to keep on topic – himself. Davenport seems to have a stash of extra intelligence where everybody else keeps their ego, but it’s not just that. Both his parents were actors, his mother, Maria Aitken is also the sister of disgraced former Tory MP and cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken.
“If you ever meet an actor who’s the child of actors, they’ll never tell you that they wanted to be a star. But what I did realise early on was that I just wanted to be in that tribe. I just loved them. They were neurotic and narcissistic and messed up, but they’re also compelling and complicated. And there’s nothing more collaborative than film and TV; I love the mad, collective nature of it.
“A friend of mine is a unit stills photographer,” says Davenport, “and his definition of a film unit is the circus of the unemployable. When you talk to people about their story, how they ended up making props or in wardrobe, it’s never a straight line. And yet here we all are, standing in a field at five in the morning in the rain, while I’m trying to get on a horse… it’s nuts.”
And this must be the trick to staying employed all your acting life. Which isn’t to say he’s blithely optimistic about it all. “I’m not one of those actors who thinks it’s all stupid and ridiculous. It is stupid and ridiculous, but we also provide a service. People need stories and that’s what we do. It is valuable to people. But somewhere along the line, the person behind the performer has become increasingly on demand.
“And my thing is this, if I’m not doing the thing I do, outside of that exchange, it’s part of my job to shut up. Because the more you know about me, the less you’re going to believe when I turn up in a white coat, trying to be some other person.”
Breathless starts tonight at 9:00pm, ITV