Humble, self-deprecating, affable. An advocate for female empowerment at work, and good-looking, charming even, in a dishevelled, rough-around-the-edges way. One can’t help but hope that there will be just a smidgen of Cormoran Strike about Tom Burke.
We meet in a modern Soho hotel (a dingy Soho pub would be more fitting) and when he arrives, real Tom seems much smaller. It’s as though, without Strike’s huge trench coat, he’s also removed the detective’s hulking frame. “I love that coat!” he says. “I’d like to wear it in real life, but people would think I’d gone mad.” It’s more than a taste in overcoats that Burke shares with his on-screen self. There’s a similar unpretentious vibe. Dressed in jeans and T-shirt, he flops onto a sofa and offers to pour tea.
After previous incarnations as Athos in The Musketeers and Dolokhov in War & Peace, this latest starring role in the BBC’s adaptation of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike bestsellers is one with which he seems genuinely to empathise.
“I was very happy with how Dolokhov turned out, but I felt slightly terrified playing someone who had this peacockish vanity. I’m just not like that so it was a bit of a leap. When it’s just me being me, I probably don’t look too dissimilar to Strike.”
His lack of ego is refreshing. He downplays the fact that his parents are both actors (Anna Calder-Marshall, perhaps best known for playing Cordelia opposite Olivier’s King Lear, and David Burke, once Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock), and that Alan Rickman was his godfather. But he acknowledges with a self-effacing smile that his father’s family were of peasant Irish stock – more of which later.
He’s cleaner-cut than the bearded Strike, who spends much time holed up in his grotty Soho office surrounded by beer bottles and takeaways, the antithesis of his immaculately turned out assistant Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger). But the crime-solving duo complement each other well. The chemistry that’s been bubbling beneath the surface really comes to the fore in this third adaptation, as we find them working as partners. She has quickly proved her worth as much more than a temp. After a dismembered leg is sent to the office addressed to her, they find themselves at the centre of the narrative.
Burke, who tends towards slow and ponderous conversation, is all animated enthusiasm when talking about working with his co-star. “It’s a total pleasure. She’s the perfect combination of somebody with focus who’s fun. A brilliant actress. She turns up on set and bang – it happens. And she’s so easy with it.”
The fictional meritocracy in which they work – Robin promoted quickly up the ranks regardless of gender or experience – seems enviable. Are things so equal in real life? Did he and Grainger discuss the hot topic of equal pay?
“We didn’t, actually. We were probably hermetically sealed within the intense schedule of the show. But I absolutely think we should have equal pay. I’m pretty sure we do. We have the same agent so I can’t imagine we don’t. We certainly should.”
What about his own love life? He grins rather smugly. “I am very happy.” With a woman? “Yes.” And that’s as far as he is going with that.
Back to the relationship we can talk about. For those who are new to the series, Robin is engaged to her wimpish, controlling, jealous fiancé Matthew, but her fondness for Strike is there in almost every look, every pause, in unmistakable moments, such as when the rain-soaked pair run into a hotel. An awkward kerfuffle ensues over the booking of “separate” rooms. Yet Burke and Grainger are frustratingly enigmatic on the matter.
“You could look at it and go, ‘They are in love and they don’t realise it,’” says Burke. “Does that mean they should be together? Maybe…” He’s giving it serious, laborious thought.
“I mean, it’s such a big thing. What is enjoyable is watching both of them push it to the periphery. This sort of wilful blindness. They might be perfect for each other but they might not be ready for it. They might never be. Life is so complicated and there are many reasons she’s with Matthew. There are relationships like that all over the place. You can’t discount them.”
When I speak to Holliday Grainger later, she is equally inscrutable. In this two-parter, a story from her past threatens her relationship with Matthew, but Strike doesn’t, well, strike.
“Robin’s feelings for Strike are so mixed up in her pride in herself and the fact he respects her,” says Grainger. “For the first time in her life she is given the freedom to have the vocation that she has always wanted and she is good at it and there is someone there who recognises that she is good at it and is allowing it – he’s kind of the facilitator of her career. One might say it could be the recipe for true love! But… I can’t imagine them in a domestic set-up. He might be quite difficult. It might be the true love that broke up over who did the washing up. That would be pretty tragic and not exactly great viewing!”
We can assume that the only person who really knows the affairs of their hearts, who has any understanding of their fate, is JK Rowling. And we might well be kept guessing for a while to come. Currently writing Lethal White, the fourth novel in the series, she’s said she has at least six more planned. Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling is also an executive producer on the TV series. But it seems she keeps her input to a minimum.
“Jo [Rowling] knows exactly what to say and not a word more,” says Burke. “She always says the one thing you need to hear. She said to me, ‘He’s not self-pitying’ – in a way the best thing [of Strike] she could have said. It was good to know to resist that.”
This lack of self-pity certainly defines Strike’s attitude to perhaps his most prominent feature. The detective is an amputee who lost the lower half of his right leg in an IED explosion when serving in Afghanistan. The on-screen representation of the leg is flawlessly authentic, as we see him remove the prosthetic, massage ointments into the stump or move around without it.
“That’s all credit to CGI and prosthetics and an awful lot of other stuff. I spent a lot of time observing and talking to a very generous chap called Barney, who has the same condition. There’s also our wonderful movement director Toby and my trainer Matt. For the first few days it was a bit of an intellectual exercise. It takes time to get into a rhythm.”
I wonder whether he feels the role should have been offered to an actor with a disability. “I’d be dishonest if I said I was completely decided on that. But the fact I’m even getting to play a character that the producer, director and writers want me to play is a rarity in the industry. You’d think it happens all the time. It doesn’t. There are so many hoops to jump through to get cast in something. It’s by far the best part I’ve ever been offered, one of the few I’d happily sign away however many years to… There was no way in hell I was going to turn it down. I wanted to do it too much.”
If anyone knows about the peculiarities of the industry, it’s Burke. Acting was all but written in the stars – given his parents’ successful careers. “I remember spending time in Stratford growing up with all that company running round and putting on silly hats and just having fun all the time. It was probably that more than anything that made me want to be a part of it.”
He acknowledges he may have had an easier ride than some. “I was lucky. For a lot of people it’s become something that seems very far away, exotic and unreachable for all sorts of reasons. I was right in the middle of it – from a middle-class family with artistic leanings, and I suppose those doors were open to me.”
Naturally, he’s keen to emphasise that he got to where he is on his own merit. “When I entered the profession, I didn’t make a big deal of it. People didn’t really know I was my parents’ son… In fact Jo [Rowling] didn’t know I was Alan’s godson. Which was nice. I wouldn’t have wanted to think that had anything to do with it.”
Rickman played an important part in Burke’s early career, even directing him to award-winning acclaim in the Donmar’s 2008 production of Creditors. “He was amazing. Amazing. A wonderful man. Immensely generous in terms of his time, energy and advice.”
But enthusiasm for the profession hasn’t always been synonymous with Burke family life. His father’s mother was from a deeply religious Irish family, living in Bootle, in Liverpool.
“My dad was part of that generation with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, of working-class actors breaking through. They’d never had an actor in the family. I’m not sure they knew what to make of it… I mean my Auntie Kathleen, God rest her soul, was a nun, and wouldn’t even watch me in an episode of Inspector Lynley. It was all too dark and nefarious for her tastes.”
What Burke feels he owes most to his parents is a sense of the importance of not believing the hype. “They’ve always been grounded people and real life comes first. So I’ve always felt that needs to be cultivated and nurtured just as much as one’s career. Perhaps more so. To have the headspace to actually enjoy one’s career. Because it can be weirdly stressful for all sorts of reasons.”
Indeed, as I remind him, his father David evidently lamented celebrity culture, and as the man who played Dr Watson once said in an interview: “There’s no way I could be in a show like Sherlock today… all that showbiz and razzmatazz. It stinks!”
“I do feel slightly nauseous,” Burke says. “It all makes me feel giddy. Everything involved with selling something feels a bit pushy… People should want to watch the show because they think the show is interesting. It’s not about how interesting I am as a human being. I’m not that interesting.”
Strike: Career of Evil begins on Sunday 25th February at 9pm on BBC1
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news