Paranoid’s Robert Glenister: sibling rivalry? Life’s too short

The star of ITV new's drama series on his relationship with his brother Philip, and how a panic attack helped him explore his character's illness

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When actor Robert Glenister had a panic attack on the London Tube, he never imagined that it would one day help him prepare for a role. “It was quite a frightening scenario, especially in an enclosed space,” says Glenister. “When you can’t breathe, everybody around you… everything becomes very strange. And that terrible urge, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’”

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That experience was a one-off, and a long time ago, but it allows Glenister now to get under the skin of police detective Bobby Day – his character in ITV’s new eight-part drama series Paranoid.

“Bobby starts off vulnerable, having panic attacks all over the place – and doesn’t get any better,” says Glenister. He has to investigate the murder of Angela Benton, a female GP who’s brutally stabbed to death as she pushes her toddler on a swing in a rural Cheshire playground. Bobby’s sleepy, parochial CID is ill-equipped to handle such a high-octane case – putting him under even more pressure.

“His medication changes, and that puts him on an even higher plane of neurosis,” says Glenister. “But the benefit to that is that, all of a sudden, Bobby’s antennae are up – he’s the one who clocks, when the police are in the park, that they’re being watched.”

As Bobby’s investigation continues – and he starts to receive unnerving parcels at the police station – the story expands into a complex, cross-Channel conspiracy thriller. And the title, Paranoid, applies equally to both police and villains: the prime suspect for Angela’s murder is a local lad who suffers from psychopathic schizophrenia.

For an ITV crime series, it’s a challenging, chewy watch – Midsomer Murders, this ain’t – and it raises real-world questions about the secrecy and taboo of mental illness. “I think people do talk – you’ve got Stephen Fry talking about his, and things like that,” says Glenister.

“But if you get somebody on the street who has a genuine mental health problem, people will not be able to recognise that, necessarily. And therefore will react in an inappropriate way, in as much as that person is potentially going to be a threat to them. I don’t think we understand mental health as much as we could.”

And, Glenister points out, people have a legitimate hope for privacy around illness of all kinds. “If you look at people like Alan Rickman or Victoria Wood, they knew they were very ill – but kept it private,” he says.

“If other people are aware of your own mental health problems, then they judge you without knowing what those mental health problems are, how they came about and how it affects you. For example, the word ‘schizophrenia’ puts the fear of God into people – but, if it’s controlled, it doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself as aggressive or violent.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICY7S__X52A

For Paranoid’s Bobby, peace and serenity appear to lie with Lucy, a witness to the murder who is a contemplative, almost sagacious Quaker. Played with delicious reserve by Scott & Bailey’s Lesley Sharp, Lucy is at least as sinister as the murderer. Back at the police station, Bobby has to corral an unruly CID team – who are wrestling with relationship break-ups and murky pasts – played by Neil Stuke, Indira Varma and stud-muffin newcomer Dino Fetscher.

It’s Glenister’s biggest TV role since Hustle finished in 2012, but you’ll now be seeing a lot of him at once – he also stars in BBC Two’s upcoming post-war drama Close to the Enemy, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, and in Ben Affleck’s new Prohibition-gangster movie Live by Night. “I never thought, to be honest – because I’m 56 now – I thought, those [Hollywood] things aren’t going to come my way,” says Glenister. “But it was a great experience.”

Glenister auditioned for the part – an Irish mafia boss – on videotape from London. Even when he’d got the part, he then had to apply for a US work visa. “What do they call you?” Glenister pauses, trying to remember the American-immigration jargon. “They call you ‘an alien of extraordinary ability’.” Like ET? “Exactly. You have to get all this stuff together, people saying how marvellous you are.”

Ben Affleck, says Glenister, is “great – an absolute gent. He’s an ordinary bloke with exceptional abilities. To be able to direct a multimillion-dollar picture, and be in virtually every scene – it’s quite an achievement. He’s just immensely calm.” Live by Night is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, as was Affleck’s 2007 film Gone Baby Gone – and, says Glenister, Affleck shows laudable deference to Lehane.

“Dennis wasn’t sure… because potentially Ben is a bit too old to play his character in the film. To his credit, Ben said, ‘OK, I’ll screen-test.’ So they screen-tested him, and he got the gig. I think the Americans are far more willing to do that than we are.” It would certainly be unusual for Glenister – whose recent television CV spans not only Hustle but Law & Order: UK, Appropriate Adult and Sky1’s The Café – to have to stoop to an audition in the UK.

His younger brother, Philip, is of course equally famous (being best-known as DCI Gene Hunt in BBC One’s Life on Mars, and currently making a second series of American exorcism drama Outcast). But Glenister dismisses any suggestion of competition between the pair – pointing out that they have just appeared together as fictional brothers in a Radio 4 production of Sam Shepard’s play True West (directed by Glenister’s radio-producer wife, Celia de Wolff).

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“The way I see it, this game is difficult enough as it is, without going down the sibling rivalry route,” says Glenister. “Life’s too short. It really is too short. As far as I’m concerned, he’s my brother, I’m his brother. End of story. Get on with it.”

Glenister’s 29-year-old daughter Emily, from his first marriage to actressAmanda Redman, also had a go at acting. She went to Bristol Old Vic drama school, guest-starred on New Tricks beside her mum, and then went to work for a theatrical agent. But, says Glenister, “If it’s not going your way, it can be very brutal, and I think rejection can be very tough to take.If you get rejected time after time after time, in the end, enough’s enough.”

Emily – who’s “always loved books, and thought, there’s something that I want to do, that I think I can do better” – now works as PA to literary agent David Headley.

Today, it’s Glenister and Celia’s 20-year-old son, Tom, who aspires to carry on the family acting business – he’s just starting his second year at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “Tom knows the pitfalls – he’s seen how pissed off I can get on occasions,” says Glenister. “But he’s passionate about it. If I thought he was crap, I’d say, ‘Look, this isn’t for you.’ But he’s not.”

Indeed a recent Radio 4 comedy series, Expenses Only, was not only directed by Celia but featured a cast including Glenister, Tom and Beth Goddard (who is brother Philip’s wife). “Nepotism rules in our house,” jokes Glenister. “But no, no, to be fair, before Cel can do any of that, she has to get permission from the Beeb – certainly to cast me.”

So could a successful career for young Tom spawn a multi-generational Glenister acting dynasty, like the Redgraves or the Wests? “You never know,” says Glenister, with a twinkle. “I dunno. I mean, who knows? I suppose, yeah, maybe it is in the blood.”

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Paranoid starts Thursday 22 September, 9pm, ITV