The Missing’s David Morrissey: Television was my education, much more than school

The Walking Dead star takes over from James Nesbitt in the second series of BBC1 crime drama The Missing

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David Morrissey is very serious. Really terribly serious. He walks into the London hotel where we’re meeting with the demeanour of someone thinking profound thoughts.

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When he smiles, he looks immediately affronted by the actions of his own face. When he talks about enjoying television he can “tune out of ” and I blithely ask him what his “guilty pleasure” is, he peers over at me as if from a great distance.

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures at all, really,” the 52-year-old Morrissey says sadly. “Any pleasure is pleasure.” Oh dear, I think. This is going to be as much fun as a wet weekend in the Kensington area of Liverpool where he was born and raised.

To be fair, he is here to talk about starring in the second series of The Missing, in which he plays a soldier called Sam Webster whose daughter has suddenly reappeared after 11 years in captivity. His on-screen wife is played by Keeley Hawes.

The first series, starring James Nesbitt as a traumatised parent of a missing child and written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, was so grippingly realistic that many parents couldn’t bring themselves to watch it.

“Yes, I guess, there are a lot of parents out there,” says Morrissey, who has three children aged 21, 18 and 12 with his wife, the novelist Esther Freud. “Children in danger is always very, you know… We can get very weirded out by all that.”

As research for his role, Morrissey immersed himself in books about real-life kidnapping cases (“all the Josef Fritzl stuff ”, the Austrian who kept his daughter captive in his cellar for 24 years) and had to wear a prosthetic scar on his back, which took two hours to apply on set each morning.

Over the last few years Morrissey, who is probably best known for his roles in State of Play, Red Riding and Thorne, has played the villainous Governor in The Walking Dead and a hangman in Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed play, Hangmen, at the Royal Court. 

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Morrissey as the Governor in The Walking Dead

No wonder he’s a bit morose when we meet. But then two things happen to warm him up. One is the appearance of the English Breakfast tea Morrissey ordered (he is, I note, particularly polite to the waiters).

The second is that we start talking about what television he likes to watch. I’ve lost count of the number of actors I’ve interviewed who claim never to watch TV, insisting they prefer to read difficult books or think about great art.

Morrissey is the polar opposite. He’s currently engrossed in the Netflix series Stranger Things with his youngest son, and is rewatching The West Wing, which he loves.

He’s also into Victoria on ITV and “grown-up” stuff like Gomorrah and Narcos. He caught Daisy Lowe and Will Young on Strictly Come Dancing at the weekend and thought they were “great” and, he adds, “I love Bake Off.”

Is he worried about its move to Channel 4? “Er… no. I’m so bored by it. I mean, I enjoy Bake Off but I do feel it’s a subject that’s been over-talked about and by the time this comes out it’s probably going to have more column inches. I haven’t lost sleep over it.”

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Morrissey with his wife, Esther Freud.

Morrissey’s father, Joe, was a cobbler and his mother, Joan, worked in Littlewoods. No one in their family had ever been an actor. So television was Morrissey’s gateway into that world. “Television was very much my education as well as school; probably more so than school,” he says.

Unlike his three older siblings, Morrissey failed the 11-plus and went to the local secondary modern. He is strongly against the Government’s recently announced plans to reintroduce grammar schools. “I think testing someone at 11 in a way that will affect them for what could be the rest of their life, or certainly the next six years of their education, is pretty c**p really…

“I felt really stigmatised by going to a secondary modern. It felt like failure at a very early age, and nothing in my education, nothing in my schooling, when I got to that establishment, relieved me of that feeling.”

He was “14 or 15” when he announced to his parents that he wanted to take acting seriously. They were worried, he says, because it’s not exactly a profession known for its high employment rates and, “It wasn’t like they could phone up my Uncle Tommy and say, ‘Look, can you take him on for a couple of weeks, because he quite fancies being a carpenter?’ You know, they didn’t know anybody to help me.”

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He says class is still a “massive” issue for people wanting to get into the arts. “I feel that certainly in my profession it’s harder and harder – and not just my profession, actually, I think it’s true of many professions, it’s certainly true of journalism – that in order to get on the first rung on the ladder, you need to be supported through those early years financially by your parents.

“So the fact is that if you haven’t come from a middle-class background, [that career] is denied you.”

Morrissey was lucky. He joined the Everyman Youth Theatre as a teenager in Liverpool, and quite quickly “found my tribe”. His contemporaries there included Ian Hart and the younger McGann brothers, Mark and Stephen.

His father died from a blood disorder when Morrissey was 15, and the Everyman gave him a chance to channel his emotions. “He’d been ill since I was about eight. So from then onwards I was aware that he would die any minute, which was quite odd. There was a lot going on emotionally with me and I was able to give vent to it and express it.

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“But also, as a kid, you just get on with it. And I was the youngest, so my two older brothers and my older sister were there for me, so it wasn’t as if I was abandoned.

“And when he finally died he’d been ill for such a long time that, you know, it was not the biggest shock in the world. For myself, anyway. So, yes, it was a stage of life, but I think as a teenager… I wouldn’t say I was equipped to deal with it, but I had the advantage of the ignorance of youth.”

These days, Morrissey is a vocal supporter of Cardboard Citizens, a charity that provides creative workshops for homeless people to tell their stories, and then perform them in prisons, hostels and theatres.

It’s about “giving voice to people who feel that they have no voice” and you can see why, given his own background, Morrissey so fervently believes in what they do.

He is politically engaged, and has played politicians on screen twice. First in Paul Abbott’s 2003 BBC series State of Play, for which Morrissey shadowed Peter Mandelson for a day, and then, also in 2003, he portrayed Gordon Brown in The Deal, Peter Morgan’s feature-length drama.

Morrissey put on two stone for the part and, as he does for all his characters, devised a playlist to get him in the right mood. For Brown, it consisted of a lot of 60s music. (For Sam in The Missing, it was heavy metal.)

He’s met Gordon Brown since and, “he tells me he’s never watched it.” A small smile.

What does Morrissey make of what’s currently happening in the Labour Party? “It’s been a bit of a mess for the last couple of years, hasn’t it?” He says that now Jeremy Corbyn has won a second election as leader “quite decisively”, his MPs should unite behind him because “the job of the Labour Party is not to implode, but to fight; to be there as a strong opposition to the Tories, and hopefully to be in government.

“My real worry is just the nature of the language – not just in the Labour Party actually, I think in politics in general there’s a vitriol in the language that is used in people’s arguments, political arguments, that I haven’t heard before.”

He was particularly taken aback by the debate on immigration that took place before and after the EU referendum.

Morrissey does volunteer work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and has undertaken trips to refugee camps in Jordan and to the Greek island of Lesvos.

In Lesvos, he met a 14-year-old boy called Mohammed “who was on his own, he had lost his mother and father on the trip, he didn’t know whether they were alive or dead… And just seeing the state he was in was unbelievable.”

He looks at me with that familiar seriousness. I realise I was wrong. David Morrissey isn’t lugubrious. He’s sincere. He cares a lot. It’s a very likeable quality. Still, I’m glad he gets to go home and laugh at Bake Off.

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The Missing series 2 starts at 9pm on BBC1