Earlier this year, at a rather fancy awards ceremony where Sir David Attenborough, Detectorists’ stars Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones, Line of Duty writer Jed Mercurio and actor Lesley Sharp were among the guests, Mark Bonnar accepted the award for best actor. The Broadcasting Press Guild, which was giving out the awards, consists of journalists who write about television, media correspondents and critics, including Radio Times’s own Alison Graham. Writers who know their telly.
Unlike the Baftas, or the Royal Television Society Awards, or the NTAs, the BPG Awards recognise an actor’s body of work in the year in question. Hence, Bonnar took home the award for four brilliant but very different performances: BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard, Channel 4’s Catastrophe, ITV’s Unforgotten, and Eric, Ernie and Me for BBC4.
But ask the man himself if he thinks he’s reached the sunny uplands of success, and he’s as wittily diffident as you’d hope the Edinburgh-born Bonnar would be. “Success is something that other people always point out,” he says, plainly. “I don’t think one ever thinks of oneself as successful, because if you do, you’re going to immediately lose whatever it is that’s driving you, aren’t you?”
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Even now, having joined the cast of another acclaimed drama, Humans, Bonnar says, “I’m happy to take work and to consider offers from anywhere.” He doesn’t consider himself a leading man because “I’ve no idea what that means. It’s all well and good thinking of yourself in one way. Then you wake up in the morning and go, ‘Right. How am I going to pay the mortgage this month?’ There’s a balance to be struck, always. But I think that the choice we have – the one choice we have as actors – is to say no. And it’s about doing that well, making the right choice.
This pragmatic thinking perhaps speaks to Bonnar’s roots. “I always considered myself working class, because I was brought up on a council estate. I still do, really. I mean, I might have a bit more money now than I did then, but it’s in your head, class, I think. It’s how you feel in there.”
So how does he view his career? “Little steps on the way to death,” Bonnar grins. “Hopefully each of those steps is a nice, intricately crafted little something to look at, to observe and to feel something for.”
I know, first-hand, about one of Bonnar’s “little steps”. When my monologue Something Borrowed (part of a series called Queers, curated by Mark Gatiss for the BBC to mark the anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality) was performed at London’s Old Vic theatre last year, Bonnar took the role of Steve. Some of my friends imagined my disappointment that Alan Cumming, who played Steve on BBC4, couldn’t reprise it for the stage. Disappointed? Delighted, more like. To have not one but two of my favourite actors speak my words was an extraordinary privilege, and watching Bonnar hold the 800-strong Old Vic audience in his thrall was simply exhilarating.
But you don’t have to take my word for Bonnar’s brilliance, or the BPG’s accolade as an indicator. Instead, take the word of Chris Lang, writer of the excellent Unforgotten, who cast Bonnar as the tormented barrister Colin Osborne. Lang says that he knew Bonnar was right for the part within ten seconds of him starting his audition.
“It doesn’t happen often, but there’s something about actors like him – they’re completely comfortable in the skin of the character they’re playing,” Lang says. “With Mark, you see none of the cogs whirring or the feet pedalling furiously. You just see an actor, at the height of his game, being the character.”
That Bonnar can shine in a mainstream hit like BBC1’s Shetland as well as sparkle in the dark Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe, alongside fellow Scot Ashley Jensen, is testament to Chris Lang’s rumination that, “Most actors play a version of themselves, but Mark seems like he can do anything.
Bonnar’s passion for acting and the arts was something of a slow burn – at least in adulthood. He won a drama prize at school – “I must have been 11-and-a-half, or 12” – and, as he could read music, even started writing his own symphony. “I started writing my own symphony. I wrote about a page and a half. My mum and dad took it into music class and gave it, pleased as punch, to the teacher, Miss Montgomery. She played it on the piano for them. So I think they’re the only ones that ever heard it.”
On leaving school, Bonnar worked for Edinburgh’s libraries and its planning department for a total of seven years. It was only after a brief period as a burglar alarm salesman – “It was awful, so I only did it for five weeks. I earned £200 in total, doing 80-hour weeks” – that Bonnar went to drama school. Stints on stage followed, including at the National Theatre and in the West End. And, like most Scottish actors of a certain age, Bonnar did a Taggart.
“I did two! One of the earlier ones, and then the very last episode.” You broke Taggart? “I broke it, yes. The director Douglas Mackinnon, who directed the series of Line of Duty I was in, also direc ted that Taggart, and he said the same thing. I was like, ‘Well let’s just hope we don’t break this,’ but we didn’t.”
Bonnar certainly didn’t break Line of Duty. In fact, playing Deputy Chief Constable Mike Dryden in the series in which Keeley Hawes stole the show as Lindsay Denton, was something of a breakthrough role. Writer Jed Mercurio is full of praise for Bonnar, who stepped into the role at very short notice, replacing Robert Lindsay.
“When things didn’t work out with Robert, I flew back to London to meet with Mark, who very graciously cut short a holiday to come,” says Mercurio. “Mark was intelligent, sensitive and collaborative. He completely got what we needed for the role and a couple of days later, we were sitting in the famous Crown pub in Belfast introducing him to the rest of the cast.
“The following morning, Mark’s first scene was addressing a congregation in St Anne’s Cathedral, Dryden’s ‘Vengeance is mine’ speech. I remember telling him, ‘No pressure!’ Mark was utterly professional and delivered everything we needed and more, instantly becoming a hit with the rest of the cast and the crew.
“A few weeks later, we filmed a big 20-minute interview scene: Arnott and Fleming versus Dryden. Mark, like Vicky [McClure] and Martin [Compston], was word-perfect. After the first take, the whole crew applauded.”
With that applause now echoing across Britain, Bonnar points out that what may appear to be overnight success took years of hard work. And not just on TV. For eight years he was Denny, a regular in the BBC World Service’s dearly departed soap Westway. “I loved Westway,” he says. “Sarah Phelps [Ordeal by Innocence, Witness for the Prosecution] used to write on Westway. That was a brilliant job to do because at its peak it had millions of listeners around the world. We got letters from all over – Texas to Australia – and you would get stories of kids from Uzbekistan scrabbling together to get batteries for their radios so that they could listen to it. There was a real sense of community on that show.”
Bonnar evidently finds acting incredibly rewarding. “I think it’s a fascinating job to be able to pull off while nobody notices I can’t actually do it. There’s nothing quite like being able to get into the minds of other people, and figure out how they work, and what makes other people tick. And going against your own grain sometimes, to push yourself into places you wouldn’t go emotionally.”
Pretending to be other people isn’t the only benefit that Bonnar has reaped from being an actor. He met his wife, Lucy Gaskell, when they were both in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – “We didn’t have any stage time together at all, but, you know…” he says bashfully – and the couple have two children.
Bonnar, now 49, had always wanted to be a dad. “Very much so. It was late in the day for me. I met Lucy when I was in my mid-30s and we had eight years before we had children. My parents always said to me: ‘If you’re happy, we’re happy’ and I’m going to try to do the same with my kids. As a parent, your children’s happiness is the most important thing.” Bonnar pauses. “I mean, it’s a whirlwind from the moment you get up to the moment they go to bed. But then you cry and have a bottle of wine and watch some Bake Off.”
As Bonnar is about to star in Humans, our thoughts turn to the future. Is he optimistic about it? “I have hope, because there’s people getting on with life – neighbours of all denominations, creeds and colours working together, living together – and they form the vast majority of humanity on the planet.
“There is a minority who are aggrieved, about various different things, and people who aren’t dealing with it very well – Trump, say. And there are also people who are using technology – which should be aiding our evolution – for nefarious purposes.
“But what gives me hope is Time’s Up, #MeToo, ERA [Equal Representation for Actresses] 50:50, Black Lives Matter. It’s the millions of kids marching in the States after the Parkland school massacre in Florida. People are not happy, and they’re galvanised. People are slowly grasping onto the protest movement again. We’ve got to keep fighting the good fight; it starts personal, and then it becomes global.”
Mark Bonnar: a man who clearly knows that great journeys are made up of little steps, be they on stage, on screen or out in the real world.
Humans is on Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4