Ben Chaplin has read The Guardian all his life, but says it was “definitely a better laugh” to play the “amoral” tabloid editor Duncan Allen in Press.
Mike Bartlett’s new drama is set in the offices of two fictional, competing newspapers, starring Chaplin as the head of The Post opposite Charlotte Riley as the news editor of The Herald, a broadsheet.
Chaplin reveals that while he was researching for the part, the former editor of The Sun, David Dinsmore, told him the position is “the last true autocracy. If I ask for a pink Chihuahua to be on my desk at 6pm it will be there at 4pm. It’s that kind of thing.”
We caught up with Chaplin to find out what it was like to film Press, which paper he reads, what he thinks of journalists and the encounters (good and bad) he’s had with the media…
What is your character Duncan Allen like?
He’s currently the editor of the bestselling newspaper in the UK which, in this, is called The Post. It’s a thinly disguised Sun red-top type tabloid.
It’s a fun role, he’s a little bit amoral which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me.
I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all, actually.
He’s married and clearly, very early on, not very happily. That’s all down to his immaturity I think, rather than his partner.
Do we see him stray?
Oh 100%, yeah. It happens so early on it doesn’t qualify as a spoiler. All I can say is: some people wouldn’t call it cheating, because he’s paying for it.
What research did you do for the part?
Absolutely none. I like how you brought that up right after prostitution. Yeah, funnily enough I went to Bangkok for three weeks.
But seriously, any research?
I’ve read a paper all my life. I have a look at a tabloid in a café you know, that sort of thing, but I would never buy a tabloid unless it was the only paper.
The irony is this is basically – I can say this because it’s thinly disguised to the point of the font being the same – the papers are basically The Sun and The Guardian, that’s what it looks like anyway. So, I’m the editor of The Sun and Charlotte Riley is the editor of The Guardian which is called The Herald.
It’s so predictable because I’m an actor as well but I’ve read The Guardian all my life, and there’s something about a paper if you’ve read it all your life. I still buy the hard copy, if that’s what you call it, and it’s funny because it becomes a friend. It’s not whether you agree with it or not, it becomes a family member, you’re blind to its smugness and its flaws, it’s just something that comforts you. Even the bits that irritate you about it comfort you because they’re so familiar, that’s how I feel about The Guardian, anyway.
It’s a bit ironic, aesthetically I wanted to be the editor of The Guardian but it was definitely a better laugh to be the editor of The Sun. I could tell from the script that it was boring over there.
Did you speak to any editors as part of your research?
I met, very kindly, David Dinsmore [former editor of The Sun)], who I know Mike Bartlett met before he wrote this. I found him to be absolutely fascinating. Really clever, really charming, he’d been the editor of The Sun for several years and trying to marry certain things that you knew happened at The Sun under him and then the person that you met was really interesting and helpful in terms of the character, because I found him to be really open, really honest, charming and disarming, highly intelligent…
I asked him, ‘When does it get tricky? Would you run with something that you didn’t believe in at all for the sake of the owner?’ And he said, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’ So I said, ‘You’d resign over it?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ I mean, whether you believe that [Dinsmore would resign] or not, I believed him.
Has working on Press changed your attitude towards journalists, and perhaps tabloid journalists, in particular?
I hope I wasn’t so naive to think that everyone who’s a tabloid journalist is not very nice or anything, I didn’t think that… It’s just I don’t know how reporters do certain things they have to do, certain door-stepping type things, I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they sleep knowing what they’ve done to somebody story-wise. Whether it’s in the public interest, that’s always up for debate.
Equally as an actor I don’t know how they do certain things and I am one. By virtue of your job you end up doing things that you didn’t imagine yourself doing as a young person. I never expected when I was doing a play at school I was going to end up simulating sex as a middle-aged man on camera in front of 40 people. Your job does take you places that you don’t expect. But I totally understand the appeal of being a journalist, absolutely I do.
Have you had bad experiences with the press in real life?
Yeah of course, yeah. Obviously I don’t like critics. They just annoy me because why is their opinion so good, what do they know about it? There’s that element to it. But I also understand the purpose of them. I also enjoy a really well-written review. Does it annoy me that they think their opinion is really right and important? Yeah, it does annoy me.
What kind of person thinks their opinion is so awesome that they think it should be printed and be right?
But have I been done by a journalist? Yeah I would say so, yeah. I mean my family has been door-stepped and things like that but that’s part of the job…
From being the subject of some articles and fluff pieces you have nothing to do with, you know that nine times out of ten a lot of it is incorrect. It just is. It just ends up that way. I’ve made it a rule never to worry about that. It’s another form of fiction to a certain degree. As soon as it’s written it becomes something else anyway, doesn’t it?
And you’d think I’d be different from the public, I’m not. If I read an article and I think someone comes across as a bit of a tosser, I totally believe it while I’m reading it. Only at the end do I analyse it like, hang on a second, that might be inaccurate. I’m as guilty as everyone else.
What about any good experiences with the press?
When Apple Tree Yard came out I was in America and there was a double-page spread in the middle of The Sun about me being a 47-year-old heart throb.
Did you welcome that?
Oh course! I mean, yeah, it’s the same as being a 48-year-old heart throb.
Would you star in a sequel to Apple Tree Yard if the BBC adapts the author’s next book?
Oh my god, what would Mark Costley be now? His cover’s blown. He’d be pretty miserable, wouldn’t he? Ten years in prison, I don’t know how he got away with manslaughter, but anyway.
I loved doing that job because it was such a lovely group, the real joy of it is Emily Watson who’s a friend of mine so I don’t know what our relationship would be. If I did that again, the fun stuff is getting to work with her.
But you wouldn’t trust him, would you?
Do you think Press will improve the sometimes battered reputation of journalists?
My fear is it will portray journalists as goodies and baddies, I hope it doesn’t come across as that, that it’s just one side is wrong and the other side is right. I’m hoping it’s two sides of the same coin really, ultimately both papers are trying to sell stories, I’m hoping it’s not too simple.
I don’t know how it will tonally come out, so I don’t know what it will say about journalists in the end any more than Suranne Jones probably knew what Doctor Foster would say about housewives in suburban England.
Have there been any stand-out scenes for Duncan you’ve really enjoyed doing in Press?
Oh Christ, there’s going to be a really tell-tale pause here…
Yeah, there have been there’s been some fun shots. He’s a right scoundrel, there’s been some stuff where your behaviour’s just really poor. Stuff you can’t do in real life, those things are fun.
I’ve never been a boss, a proper boss, where you can say I just really feel like a passionfruit milkshake and it comes. That’s something David said to me, it’s the last true autocracy. If I ask for a pink Chihuahua to be on my desk at 6pm it will be there at 4pm. It’s that kind of thing.
Pretending to be like that is quite good fun. I enjoyed really long steady camera shots of walking through my own office. I didn’t really believe for a second it was mine, but just pretending.
What would you do if you were the editor of a tabloid?
If I was the editor of a tabloid newspaper I wouldn’t last five minutes.
Press begins on Thursday 6th September at 9pm on BBC1