By: Michael Hogan
At 9:41pm on Sunday came Line Of Duty’s “Keyser Soze moment”. Recurring cult character DSU Ian Buckells suddenly transformed from bumbling oaf to cocky villain when he was unmasked as the elusive crime lord once erroneously codenamed “H”, latterly known as “The Fourth Man”.
“It was really funny that Radio Times described it as my Keyser Soze moment because that’s exactly what I likened it to,” laughs actor Nigel Boyle, reflecting on the previous night’s blockbuster-rated series finale – possibly the last episode ever (more on that later).
“I remember saying excitedly to my wife, ‘Buckells goes all Keyser Soze!’ In fact, I very nearly tweeted a Usual Suspects meme in the build-up to the finale. I really wanted to post that clip where Kevin Spacey suddenly straightens up and stops limping. Luckily, I thought better of it. Spoilers!”
In Hollywood thriller The Usual Suspects, of course, the head-spinning twist comes when Spacey’s smalltime conman Verbal Kint turns out to be legendary crime don Keyser Soze. Line Of Duty’s was a very British equivalent, which saw “blundering fool” Buckells unmasked as the master of balaclava-clad mayhem who’d evaded capture for the past six series.
He might have been sitting down but Buckells somehow acquired new swagger during an interview scene where, before our very eyes, he morphed from convenient stooge into gangland puppet-master. “I thought very carefully about the reveal and how to handle it,” says the 41-year-old actor. “Buckells needed to suddenly display more assurance and confidence. The best way to do that was through body language.”
A record-breaking 12.8m viewers were yelling at their TVs as the seemingly hapless Buckells was exposed as the corrupt cop pulling strings on behalf of organised crime. Boyle confesses that it’s a secret he’s been “sitting on for months”. The only person he told was his wife Lainy.
“She knows everything,” jokes Boyle. “Happy wife, happy life. But no, I needed somebody to use as a sounding board. It’s been nearly two years since I knew I was returning for series six and about nine months since I found out I was H.”
Rather like the duplicitous Buckells, he had to become an accomplished dissembler and dodger. “At first, I didn’t want anyone to know I was back in Line Of Duty at all,” he recalls. “It became pretty obvious when I was back filming in Belfast but I got good at saying: ‘Well, you’re going to have to wait. Just watch the show and see.’ Besides, people might ask questions but they don’t really want to know the answers. It would ruin the surprise.”
Writer and showrunner Jed Mercurio first told Boyle about the shock plot development before filming resumed last summer after a COVID-enforced hiatus. “Jed texted me during lockdown saying ‘Are you free for a chat? Don’t worry, it’s not that chat’ – meaning the call that everyone dreads, telling them they’re about to be killed off. I was still pretty worried about what he wanted but I replied ‘Yeah, sure’. Then he phoned and said ‘Look, you’re going to be revealed as someone quite significant. I thought you should be the first to know, before we send out the scripts.’”
Boyle was “gobsmacked” and “buzzing with excitement” when Mercurio filled him in. Despite playing Buckells in three series across nine years, he never suspected his character would become the blockbuster drama’s big baddie. Like us viewers, he assumed Buckells was merely a low-level wrong’un. A “useful idiot”.
To Boyle, the sudden rug-pull made sense. “I think it’s very well-written and thought-out,” he says. “A rotten apple needn’t always be a mastermind. You don’t have to be a criminal genius to be bent. It can just be gross incompetence and people turning a blind eye. I always saw Buckells as the comic relief, so it’s clever that it was him all along. When you reflect and rewatch, I think it’s a stroke of genius. Looking back, it all fits.”
Some vociferous viewers on social media found the finale underwhelming but Boyle is more philosophical: “Not every series can end with car chases and shootouts. I think it’s a smart, subtle way of telling the story.”
Did he sit down and watch along with the rest of the nation? “Absolutely. We don’t get to see it prior to transmission, so I wasn’t going to miss it. My phone was going mental and I couldn’t keep up with all the messages. It kept buzzing but I was trying to concentrate on the show, so I just switched it off in the end. I still haven’t read back through them all. I know my friends and family are pretty furious that I didn’t give anything away but that was never an option.”
Having first appeared in the debut run nine years ago, Boyle says getting his own AC-12 interview scene had long been “on my bucket list”. This series, he got not one but two – Buckells’ humiliation in episode four (which ended with him mumbling “I don’t know why I don’t know”) and the much more even contest in episode seven.
“They’re very contrasting but I loved both,” he says. “You savour those set piece interrogation scenes as an actor. And it brings out the true Buckells, doesn’t it?”
Well, eventually. Before showing his true criminal colours, Buckells stonewalled his AC-12 inquisitors with no fewer than 14 frustrating “no comment”s. How did he work with such repetitive material? “As an actor, it’s important to listen to the other characters, lose yourself in what’s going on in the scene and just react naturally. So that’s what I tried to do.”
Was it hard to keep a straight face when desk-thumping Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) made his morally righteous speeches? “Normally it would be tricky not to crack a smile but the stakes are so high,” says Boyle. “You never want to be the one to drop the ball in that glass box.”
The newly alpha Buckells was also in evidence when he mockingly asked the splutteringly indignant Ted if he wanted a glass of water. “That was a killer line, wasn’t it?” grins Boyle. “I absolutely loved that. The one-liners have just got better and better for me this series but I can’t take any credit. That’s all Jed.”
Boyle chuckles at mention of Buckells’ saucy side – references to his “porn stash” and the cringe-inducing sexts to female witnesses: “That was amazing. Every time I read a Buckells scene for the first time, I’d laugh out loud. He was a gift who kept on giving. He was the character who everyone loves to hate. I just hope I did him justice.”
Born in Moseley and raised in Bartley Green, broadly accented Birmingham native Boyle relished the character’s occasional Brummie-isms (“this is a piggin’ joke… total b*****d b*****ks!”). “Those came from Jed but he’s known me for 10 years now, so he realises I’ve got that in my lexicon. He enjoys writing those Buckells lines and I definitely enjoy playing them.”
Another regional in-joke was Buckells’ shady shell company in the Cayman Islands being called “Holte End Holdings” – a reference to the famed Holte End stand at Villa Park, home of Boyle’s beloved Aston Villa FC.
“That was a little baby that Jed gifted to me because he knows I’m Villa through-and-through,” smiles Boyle. “There are other little nods too. If you look carefully, there’s lots of claret-and-blue [Aston Villa’s colours] in Buckells’ scenes. Early in the series, I wore a blue suit with a claret tie. Even my final prison uniform was claret-and-blue. The art department put up a framed claret-and-blue football shirt in Buckells’ office, which I managed to steal as a souvenir.”
If there’s a seventh series and Buckells reappears, perhaps he could wear full Villa kit? “Yeah!” Boyle laughs. “I doubt it would be appropriate but why not? Shinpads, boots, the lot. That would be very Buckells. If anyone was going to be a full kit w**ker, it’d be him.”
Buckells was eventually caught due to his habitual misspelling of “definately”. Boyle compares it to Prohibition gangster Al Capone ultimately being incriminated by his tax returns: “It makes for great storytelling. The one thing Buckells couldn’t do was spell and that proved his downfall. He thought he’d gotten away with it but was tripped up by a typo. Things like that do happen, don’t they?”
Can Boyle spell the crucial word correctly himself? “Probably not,” my laughs. “My spelling used to be good but since the invention of mobile phones with autocorrect, it’s got worse and worse. Now I do homework with my son and have to think a bit harder about words like definitely myself.”
In the home stretch of the series, many viewers mistakenly assumed that the arch villain would instead be Chief Constable Philip Osborne (played by Owen Teale). “I enjoyed seeing that,” says Boyle. “You always want to keep the audience guessing, so Jed leads them down different alleys and throws them off the scent. It was smart to pack Buckells off to prison and leave him out for a couple of episodes, before bringing him back. Osborne’s a great character too. Owen Teale has that super voice and huge presence.”
Our last glimpse of Buckells was standing in his prison cell, giving a sly smirk before the door slams shut. “That’s there to get viewers asking questions,” says Boyle. “It could be the end for Buckells but that’s open to audience interpretation. No evidence of institutionalised corruption will be heard in court because the force doesn’t want to admit it exists.
“Maybe Buckells knows that. Maybe he got a reduced sentence. Maybe he’s not going to come out of it too badly. Maybe he’s off into witness protection, like Jo Davidson in that cottage with her girlfriend and dog. If you got offered that package, you’d take it, wouldn’t you? But who knows? All good writing gets the audience asking questions. Line Of Duty is the absolute epitome of that.“
If that is the last we see of the dastardly DSU, Boyle has relished his decade-long Line Of Duty stint. “It’s been brilliant,” he says. “When I got cast initially, I vividly remember sitting at the table read-through with all these great actors – Lennie James, Adrian Dunbar, Neil Morrissey, Vicky McClure, Martin Compston – and felt so privileged to be there. Then to find out I had scenes with every single one of them was just a joy.
“Every time a new series comes around, you keep your fingers crossed, so to get called back for series four and six was even better. I got to be horrible to Thandiwe Newton. I got to be petulant with Adrian Dunbar and call him a mug. Then I spent this season with the great Kelly Macdonald. It’s testament to the show that it attracts such high-calibre actors.”
In real life, father-of-three Boyle bears little resemblance to Buckells. He’s much cooler-looking, with a beard, unruly moptop and dapper sense of style. Musically he’s partial to reggae, Northern soul and “90s dance classics”. So when we saw that police mugshot of a young Buckells with a sharp indie haircut, was it a Photoshop mock-up?
“Oh God no, that’s really me,” grins Boyle. “I like to think I’m a bit of mod and that’s an old passport photo. It’s the only one of my younger self I could find which was appropriate. It was comical to see it on-screen. Britpop Buckells! I’ve got long lockdown hair now, so thankfully I look very different. Well, you don’t want to look like Buckells, do you?”
Is he similar to his character in other ways – playing golf, perhaps? A penchant for “fast cars and bits on the side”, as Ted put it? “I’ve just taken up golf, actually. I’m a complete beginner but I’m having lessons and really enjoy it. But as for fast cars and bits on the side, that’s not my bag.”
Another key difference is their brew-making skills. In episode four, shaky-handed Buckells was shown making an unforgivably bad cup of tea in his prison cell. “I’ve been taking loads of stick for that which is annoying because I’m actually brilliant at making a cuppa,” insists Boyle. “That was all acting because I promise you, I make good tea.”
Prior to Buckells’ unmasking, Boyle was most recognised for his memorable cameo as a pub landlord in The Inbetweeners, refusing to serve Will a pint by demanding “ID please” (“People do quote that to me quite a lot” ). He also played policemen in Home Fires and Peaky Blinders: “I don’t know what a copper looks like but maybe it’s me. I’ve certainly played a lot of them. I don’t mind that. It’s kept me in work and paid the mortgage.”
He’s proud of his more recent role as a corduroy-clad 70s teacher in Education, the fifth film in the Small Axe anthology: “I was so excited by all those BAFTA nominations last week. Credit to Steve McQueen and everyone involved. It was an amazing thing to be part of. And I didn’t play a copper either.”
So what’s in the pipeline for Boyle? “Sleep, that’s definitely in the pipeline,” he smiles ruefully. He barely got any on Sunday night, thanks to a combination of finale adrenaline, a beeping phone and an early alarm call to capitalise on his new-found infamy by appearing on breakfast TV. Oh and then there’s the small matter of his three-week-old daughter, Cora Rose.
“Work-wise, though, I’m in the new series of [Sky One medical thriller] Temple with my youngest boy, Declan. It was a real treat to work opposite Mark Strong, who’s an absolutely lovely guy, and Declan was brilliant in our scene together. That’s out later this year. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
First, though, a restorative kip is in order. “It’s been a hectic week,” says Boyle. “It’s all gone a bit crazy but the reaction has been immense. It’s been fascinating to see how everyone’s come on board with it. To have these kind of ratings, which are comparable to the old-fashioned figures, is just tremendous. The fans have been incredible.”
The big question they want answered now is whether it’s R.I.P LOD or whether our heroes will “carry the fire” into a seventh series?
“For my money, I’d love there to be another series,” says Boyle. “Regardless of being in it, we’re all huge fans of the show, so we’d desperately love there to be more. It’s down to whether it feels right and there’s a story to be told. But that’s above my pay grade. It’s a question for an officer at least one rank senior.” Spoken like a true bent copper.
Want more analysis of the finale? We have plenty – you can read our Line of Duty ending explainer, check out the Line of Duty unanswered questions left up in the air, or take a look at all of the Line of Duty red herrings that teased and deceived the finale outcome.
Line Of Duty season 6 is out now on BBC iPlayer. The DVD & Blu-ray, plus the season 1–6 Collection DVD Box Set, will be released on 31st May.