By: Michael Hogan
“It really hurt, especially that last punch. But that’s because I wear make-up and play pretend for a living. With every blow, I was like, ‘Ow! Ouch! Argh!’ A bit like Peter from Family Guy when he injures his knee.”
Actor Brian McCardie is recalling being repeatedly punched by Sean Bean. In tonight’s episode of Jimmy McGovern’s brilliantly bleak BBC One prison drama Time, the cell block’s hard-bitten top dog Jackson Jones (McCardie) advised recent arrival Mark Cobden (Bean) to fight back against the thug who’d been bullying him. He trained mild-mannered schoolteacher Mark for the scrap by making him throw punches at his raised palms. After several takes, jokes McCardie, his soft thespian hands were sore.
McCardie’s playful faux-luvvieness is even more of a pleasant surprise considering his recent TV CV. After all, the 55-year-old is best known for playing an even more monstrous villain in Line Of Duty. As the hit cop corruption thriller’s original “big bad”, organised crime supremo Tommy Hunter, he’s been a recurring evil presence through all six series – even though his character died way back in series two.
When Time viewers spotted McCardie lurking ominously in the background during last week’s opening episode, many took to Twitter to express their delight. One tweeted: “Mother of God, it’s Tommy Hunter doing #Time.” “Is that the ghost of Tommy Hunter?” wrote another. “They don’t want to mess with him.” A third added: ”John Corbett and Tommy Hunter are both in #Time! Is this a #LineOfDuty origin story?”
“It’s crazy,” says McCardie. “I did that job for two weeks nine years ago. I’ve since watched it grow into a cultural phenomenon. Line Of Duty has obsessive fans and they’ve been speculating that Tommy Hunter’s not really dead – he’s alive and imprisoned in an entirely different show. Those tweets made me laugh. I suppose it’s a compliment that Jed Mercurio still remembered me nearly a decade later.”
When Line Of Duty debuted in 2012, Hunter was boss of the balaclava-clad organised crime group who dealt drugs, laundered dirty money, controlled bent coppers and blackmailed DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) into doing their bidding. In a climactic twist, golf-playing kingpin Hunter was revealed to have groomed an inside man on the force, codenamed “The Caddy” (DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan, played by Craig Parkinson), ever since he carried Hunter’s golf bag as a schoolboy.
Is McCardie a golfer himself? “I’ve never swung a golf club in my life. At my initial audition, Jed Mercurio asked me, ‘What do you think this guy should look like?’ I said, ‘He should look like Eddie Large from Little & Large, with the Pringle V-neck, curly hair, a little bit fat. There’s one of these guys in every major town. Gangsters aren’t all skinheads who wear three-quarter length leather jackets. They’re members of the golf club, members of the Rotary Club, like someone who could be your neighbour. They have nice houses and appear very upper middle-class. They seem respectable because they employ other people to do the dirty stuff. I think Jed liked that and it fed into Tommy being a golfer.”
Series two in 2014 opened with the all-action armed hijack of the police convoy transporting protected witness Hunter. He somehow survived being shot and set on fire but was murdered as he lay in intensive care. That was the end of dastardly Tommy. Except it wasn’t. Two years later, the third series saw him exposed as part of the historic paedophile ring who’d systematically abused boys at Sands View care home.
“I had no idea that was going to be the plot twist,” McCardie recalls with a wry chuckle. “Jed had no responsibility to call me up and say ‘Incidentally, Brian, I’m going to make your character a paedophile in retrospect.’ The first I knew was spotting my photo in a Scottish tabloid with the word ‘paedo’ underneath it. I was like ‘Oh right, OK.’ Initially I was quite shocked but it was a bit of fun really.”
In the sixth and latest series, the spectre of Hunter raised its curly head again. After a tantalising cliffhanger had 13m viewers on tenterhooks, Tommy was unmasked not only as the uncle of series antagonist DCI Joanne Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) but also – thanks to those crucial “runs of homozygosity” in Jo’s DNA – her biological father.
“That came as another shock, not least because Kelly’s only 10 years younger than me,” McCardie deadpans. “Bloody hell, I know I’m playing a bad guy but impregnating people aged 10? My God.” (In the show’s fictional universe, Hunter was actually in his teens when he raped his sister.) “I enjoy Jed’s writing, the drama and the intricate plotting of it all, and that was a clever twist. I watched those last episodes at the same time as half the country did and I was as surprised as anyone.
“My phone blew up with messages. What I replied to my friends was, ‘Sure, on the downside, I’m a paedophile ringleader who committed incest. But on the upside, my daughter’s very good-looking. So every cloud…’ It feels weird that people were shouting at their screens about a character I haven’t played for nine years but there you go, that’s the genius of Jed. I’m also a friend of Martin Compston’s so I was delighted for him that the series did so well. It’s turned him into an actor of note in the UK. Good on him.”
Time for the big question. Does McCardie think Line Of Duty will return for a seventh series? And if so, might Tommy Hunter rise from the grave again? “Anything is possible. I imagine the BBC would have to pay a lot of money for it but that’s way above my pay grade. As for Tommy, he’d basically be like Mason Verger [from Hannibal] by now. But purely as a viewer, I’d love there to be another series.”
Time sees McCardie back in BBC One’s 9pm-on-Sundays drama slot. “It’s funny how it’s worked out,” he smiles. “The only thing that concerns me is that Tommy Hunter and Jackson Jones are hardly the most pleasant of people.’’
Does he feel in danger of being typecast as crime kingpins? “Maybe someday I’ll work my way up to being a Bond villain,” he laughs. “I suppose it’s because I have a gravelly voice and my accent can come across quite aggressively if required. When I was younger, I worried about being pigeon-holed but I spent years playing some lovely wee guys. It’s been a novelty over the past decade to get baddies. Anyway, I’m never going to get those Colin Firth roles, those Jane Austen heroes. If I get offered bad guys, I’ll play bad guys. Very few actors get to hone and design their own career. Most of us go where the work offers take us. If you’re offered scripts the calibre of Jed Mercurio’s or Jimmy McGovern’s, just shut up and do it.”
Time is a raw, psychologically acute portrayal of the penal system, led by a pair of powerhouse performances from craggy northerners Bean and Stephen Graham. While the former is gently heartbreaking as a softly-spoken drunk-driver serving a four-year sentence for killing a cyclist, Graham plays prison officer Eric McNally, a decent but compromised man with 22 years’ service under his belt. McCardie’s merciless manipulator Jackson Jones ends up having a hand in both their fates.
“We filmed it last November in a disused jail, HMP Shrewsbury. Cleverly, the producers realised we could create an enclosed, controllable safe space during the pandemic. The first time I walked in there, I felt like I was on the set of Porridge and had to remind myself not to do any Fulton McKay impressions. But the location was a huge help. I don’t take myself remotely seriously. I’m a clown and I love to laugh. But the atmosphere was so oppressive and intense, it elicited a visceral reaction in us all.”
How did he go about creating the deeply creepy character of Jackson Jones? “He was originally conceived as a Mr Big-type tough guy. But I think these people are often more frightening because they’re ratty scavengers, utterly lacking in humanity. Many drug dealers or gangsters aren’t scary because they’re tougher than you. They have no conscience or morality at all – that’s what’s truly chilling. You think ‘My God, I would hate to be stuck in an elevator with that guy’.
“So rather than being the hardest man in the room, I wanted to play Jackson Jones as seedy and Machiavellian. You can’t ever trust him. He doesn’t give a flying fuck for poor Sean Bean or poor Stephen Graham. They’re just numbers on a list to him. Jimmy McGovern rewrote certain scenes to accommodate my reimagining of the character, which was a bloody huge compliment.”
Time wasn’t McCardie’s first time speaking lines written by McGovern. He starred in an episode of the renowned screenwriter’s crime anthology Accused in 2010. “I love his writing,” enthuses McCardie. “Ninety-three per cent of our population aren’t privately educated, so there’s a lot of people to represent and Jimmy’s scripts always do that. Even though it’s brilliant dramatic writing, it often feels like a documentary exposé. He’s drawing back the veil and saying, ‘Look at this. Don’t look away.’
“He’s also a genius with moral ambiguity. Don’t forget that in Time, Sean Bean is in prison because he killed an innocent man. Good people do bad things – and vice versa. Jimmy McGovern plays with our sympathies cleverly, then all of a sudden, he cuts the knees out from under you with something shockingly brutal or moving.”
McCardie had worked with Stephen Graham before, on Brian Clough biopic The Damned United and wrestling comedy Walk Like A Panther (“You know Stephen’s going to bring the right stuff, so you have to be on your A-game too”). However, it was his first time acting opposite Sean Bean. “The first thing you have to get over is stopping staring at his face. He’s got this really interesting Samuel Beckett face. But he’s quiet, dedicated and clearly very smart. He was extremely humble throughout. An absolutely lovely man.”
No spoilers, but the third and final episode sees McCardie’s character explode in a burst of brutal violence. “That’s a horrible moment,” winces McCardie. “It’s truly awful because the guy on the receiving end has done absolutely nothing wrong. One of the most shocking things for people who go to prison for the first time must be the lack of any morality whatsoever, at least as we know it on the outside. It’s different rules in there. I know a few people who’ve been to jail – in Northern Ireland, Scotland and London – and they’ve been get in touch to say Time is a very realistic portrayal of prison life. I’ve been overwhelmed by the feedback.”
McCardie hails from Carluke in South Lanarkshire (“not a very noteworthy place, although I love it”) but recently moved to the Isle of Bute. “Lockdown wasn’t isolating enough for me,” he says. “So now I’ve gone to a remote Scottish island. I want to spent time exploring the Western Isles over the next few years.” Thoughtful and avuncular with a ready laugh, he’s a gifted mimic who slips into uncanny impressions throughout our conversation.
Since discovering musical theatre in a school production of Godspell, McCardie has worked steadily on stage and screen for 30 years. During that time, he’s delivered scene-stealing supporting turns in films such as Snatch and Filth, and TV dramas like Outlander, Ordeal By Innocence, Low Winter Sun, Fortitude and Giri/Haji. “I rarely get recognised but people occasionally do a double-take,” he says. “They vaguely recognise my face but aren’t sure where from. They probably think it’s Crimewatch.”
Multi-talented McCardie creates his own projects too. He’s written and self-directed a one-man play about Irish republican leader James Connolly (“a real passion project for me”) and has performed his own poetry on the Irish literary scene.
Another recent role was Roman statesman Cicero in Sky Atlantic epic Domina. “That was fantastic,” he says. “Not only did I get to wear a toga and have Roman hair but we filmed it at Cinecittà Studios, where all the Federico Fellini films were shot. I kept having to remind myself I wasn’t in Carry On Cleo, Up Pompeii or something. I gave Cicero the voice of [TV chef] Keith Floyd, which was great fun.” At this point, he slips into Floyd’s fruity bon viveur tones (“a lovely little Burgundy, one for the pot and one for me”).
In Tommy Hunter and Jackson Jones, he has now created two of TV drama’s biggest bogeymen of recent years. All the more impressive when you realise that he’s really a poetry-writing sensitive soul, Family Guy fan and self-styled clown from the Isle of Bute. Mother of God indeed.
Time airs at 9pm on Sundays on BBC One, with the final episode on Sunday 20th June 2021. It is also available on iPlayer as a box-set. Take a look at our TV guide to find out what else is on this week, or check out the rest of our Drama coverage.