Simon Russell Beale on why Legacy is “much darker” than Spooks

The acclaimed stage and film actor plays MI6 boss Hookey opposite Andrew Scott, Romola Garai and Charlie Cox but reckons he's "far too dipsy" to make a good spy

Simon Russell Beale plays Hookey – Commander of Soviet Bloc at MI6 – in Paula Milne’s BBC2 espionage thriller Legacy. He’s a formidable character, as one would expect from an intelligence chief, certainly more hard-nosed than Simon’s Spooks Home Secretary William Towers. But he shows a degree of softness when it comes to his newest recruit, Charles Thoroughgood (Charlie Cox) after tasking his young charge with a mission to re-establish contact with university acquaintance Victor (Andrew Scott) – now working for the Soviet intelligence service – with a view to ‘turning’ him.

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RadioTimes.com caught up with Simon on set to hear all about playing Hookey and his own memories of the Cold War period…

What can you tell us about your character, Hookey?

Well, first of all he’s a workaholic and he’s quite steely. He probably deceives Charles, the main character, right till the very end of the film. He has a statement about how our primary allegiance is to the service and that obviously is his work ethic. I don’t think he leaves that desk very often.

You mentioned Charles – what sort of relationship do they have? 

I think he is fond of Charles. He appreciates that maverick thing. I don’t think Hookey ever doubts that he can’t keep Charles in control but he’s still maverick. He was a royal engineer and bomb disposal expert stationed in Belfast – being posted to Belfast was a big deal and it was dangerous. I think Hookey appreciates that in perhaps a way that we’ve lost slightly – the dignity of military service and the courage of somebody like Charles. But he definitely recognises him as a useful maverick. I think if he went off he’d squash him like a fly but that’s not the point.

Were you familiar with screenwriter Paula Milne’s work before you signed up?

To my shame, I know she’s a very famous writer because everyone kept going, “Oh my god,” but I’m so ignorant. No. I probably am but I’ve no idea which ones I would have liked. All my colleagues at the theatre job I’m doing said she’s a good writer. I can barely remember the people I’m acting with!

What are your own memories of the Cold War period?

I was a boy so I remember the power cuts. We weren’t allowed to watch much television – I think it might have been 1979 rather than 1974 – that period when television was limited to a couple of hours a night and there were only three channels in those days. I remember very clearly working by candlelight. Of course, for a child it was very, very exciting – just thrilling, the lights going off.

Being within the intelligence service must have felt very different… 

There’s always that sense of amateurism about both sides. The idea of people going around bunkers in golf courses and burying stashes is just so absurd, isn’t it? I find it fascinating, too, the weight of information that these people have and what it must do to them. How did they get through? What does Hookey do when he gets home? I think that’s fascinating, just the weight of it.

Would you have made a good spy?

Oh god, I would have been hopeless. I haven’t got the concentration and I’m not logical enough. They have minds like steel traps and I haven’t. I’m far too dipsy.

How does this differ to your role as Home Secretary William Towers in Spooks?

It’s interesting comparing the two because the home secretary in Spooks was quite genial and a bit of a twit sometimes. This is much darker. Hookey very rarely shows any friendliness. He’s much more private but there’s a lovely bit when he’s sitting in a café with Charles which is why I think that he has an affection for him. He’s waiting for Charles and he’s obviously been looking around the other people in the café and he just says, “I wonder what life would have been like if we hadn’t gone for this line of business?” And you just see the door open a little bit and then it slaps down again and we’re back to business. A sort of regret, really.

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Don’t miss Simon in Legacy – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2