David Bamber on What Remains, Steven Moffat, Pride and Prejudice & more…
On the eve of What Remains’ DVD release, we spoke to David Bamber about the BBC drama, working with Steven Moffat on Chalk, and more…
There’s something about talking to old-school RADA-trained actors - you know the ones, glossy-vowelled stalwarts of the stage and screen from whose necks you can always hear the rustle of tissue paper from the backstage make-up chair - that brings out my inner Frasier Crane. French vocab and sycophancy belch out in equal measure. Words like habitué and soupçon have to be swallowed down and replaced by less ostentatious fellows. I say things like ostentatious. And fellows.
There was every chance when speaking to David Bamber - a proper English actor if ever there was one - about his role in recent BBC Two drama What Remains that my sherry-swilling Mr Hyde would emerge to call him ‘my good man’ and wave hankies about. Luckily, Bamber (Rome, The King’s Speech, The Borgias, Chalk…) is no declaiming luvvie. Yes, he was full of customary praise for his director and co-stars, but he was also utterly down-to-earth about his roles, and genuinely enthused about What Remains.
We chatted about Joe Sellers, his character in What Remains, whether modern life really is as rubbish as Tony Basgallop’s script tells us, farting in Psychoville, and why Bamber’s nineties sitcom Chalk, written by Steven Moffat, deserves another airing…
We’ll come to What Remains in a moment, but before we start I hope you don’t mind me saying that your Mr Collins in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice was terrific; he’s the benchmark for all future Mr Collinses.
Thank you [laughs]. It was great fun to do.
I’ve always thought there was something similar between Mr Collins and the character of Eric Slatt in Chalk, something about the self-regard, the comic snobbery…
Yes. I actually think with Mr Collins that a lot of what he does is justified. I mean, the Bennet house is coming to him and that’s a matter of the entailment and somebody’s will, and he really thinks it would be a great honour to marry one of the Bennet daughters. He also has to be nice to [his patron in the novel] Lady Catherine de Bourgh because she pays his wages and provides his living, but if you push these things to the extreme, that’s where the comedy comes from. He really thinks people should listen to Lady Catherine, he really thinks people shouldn’t talk when she’s talking, he really thinks that she’s a very good person to know. I think if you really think that, then although you’re not playing comedy, it’s going to be comedic to other people.
With Eric Slatt, it was another extremity of behaviour, because circumstances were always conspiring to produce that extreme response to things. It would have been nice to have done more of that, but they pulled that after two series and of course Steven Moffat has gone on to Doctor Who and suchlike.
Was there an inkling at the time that Steven Moffat would go on to become this kind of giant for the BBC?
He’d already done something, was it Byker Grove?
Oh yes, and he was glowing hot I think. He did another show after us, Coupling. I think he’s just clearly a very brilliant writer, and had a brilliant gift at plotting, and farce in that instance, but obviously he’s gone on to use it in other things. Alack, he didn’t ask me to play Doctor Who… anyway! [Laughs].
Presumably you’d have said yes?
Oh God yes! I’m not even in that cosmos but no, I love that show, like lots of people my age. Clearly Steven is a very clever man and deserves his success.
It’s something of a surprise to us that you haven’t popped up in Doctor Who over the years [Bamber did in fact record a Big Finish Who audio drama, The Council of Nicaea, in 1995].
I’ve never been asked to do it. It’s a surprise to me as well! [laughs]. That’s just the job, you can only go where you’re wanted!
The campaign starts here then!
Oh, thank you.
It must have been quite an odd experience with Chalk - you mentioned it being pulled after two series - because I gather you had a good response from studio audiences, but then some of the reviews were less than kind so you ended up filming series two after you knew it had been cancelled?
I think there are many sitcoms that you think don’t look good at the time, and then you’re watching them ten years later and… There are examples where they work on things, like Men Behaving Badly in which I think they replaced people, and then it just went on and on.
I just think [Chalk] needed some handling. I still meet people who talk about it and say ‘God, that was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen’ and you think, well, there were some wonderful things in it. I think it should get another airing. I think people would find it very funny if it was on some kind of obscure channel, I think it could attract a very big gathering then.
A lot of it is timing as well, with Pride and Prejudice - even though the BBC had made a wonderful version of it in 1981 - in 1995 the streets really were empty on a Sunday night…
Oh I remember.
It could have been what was happening in politics. People had this desire to believe in… they know with Jane Austen there’s going to be this symmetry of conclusion; that the good people are going to be rewarded and the bad people aren’t. There was just some appetite for Pride and Prejudice which is above and beyond the fact that it was so good and so well-made. I think there was something in the ether at the time.
Other things come just at the wrong time, they just don’t hit the zeitgeist or something. I think probably with a lot of programmes if they tinkered with them and worked on them they could improve. It was sad for Chalk be pulled after two series; I think it could have gone on.
That’s interesting isn’t it, in relation to the zeitgeist and coming to What Remains. I found the series very gripping, but incredibly bleak in tone and conclusion. Nobody’s happy, everyone is lonely, nobody has a good relationship, everyone lies and mistreats everybody else, especially poor Melissa. Is that reflective of today’s zeitgeist would you say, that bleakness?
I absolutely agree with you. I think that Tony Basgallop is writing about how well you know people. The characters were horrible to Melissa and they didn’t get to know her. They despised her - because she was fat it would seem - but then they don’t really seem to know the people they think they know either.
I think though, that it is also strangely moving. I find that whenever Melissa comes in with that music, I get terribly moved. I get very moved by a lot of things in it – watching Steven Mackintosh drinking in episode three. I feel very concerned. I think Tony’s really created a piece of writing where things aren’t just token, they all mean something. You feel desperate when Steven’s character drinks and comes back and his girlfriend’s probably thinking about getting married and having children and then he comes home drunk. It’s painful. It is bleak, it’s bleak and it’s painful and moving at the same time.
It’s enormously compassionate as a drama, I found.
Compassionate, that’s exactly it. When I say moving, that’s what I mean. I find it very compassionate. Everything’s thought about, it’s not careless. Peggy is trying to leave, and she’s living with a maniac and trying to get out of that. It’s awful. It's the casual nature with which nobody seemed to bother about Melissa that gets to you. Even my character Joe who was a busybody said ‘Oh, I wouldn’t know where she’d gone’ when of course he’d have been twitching those blinds. They just all choose to lie really. Of course, Joe’s hiding a secret, so he doesn’t want anyone to know about him.
People do kill each other every day though. People do horrible things to other people so it’s not as melodramatic as it looks. People steal schoolchildren and kill them and stuff them in the attic, there are things like that happening all the time.
Tell us about working with Coky Giedroyc, the director.
Coky has done an amazing job with the performances. They’re not run of the mill is what I feel. You flop down often and put on an episode of so-and-so and it can be good enough but you’re always thinking, ‘oh, wasn’t she in this and wasn’t she in that’ but this feels unique and draws you in. It’s the way she’s used her camera, the way things are given time and the way things are really asked of the actors. I think she’s done a really stunning job, and not just because I’m in it - because obviously one is sometimes in things and then you don’t watch them or you do, and you don’t think they’re that good, but she’s done a stunning job.
Your character, Joe, character starts off as an unlikeable busybody but essentially he’s just lonely isn’t he? He’s actually quite sympathetic by the end don’t you think?
He’s sort of manipulative. I think at first you think, ‘Oh my God, he’s abusing Liz’, but she can, it turns out, really look after herself. He is an an awful teacher isn’t he? Something in his childhood made him like that. Maybe a childhood bout of Polio or something but something’s turned him into that irascible busybody, but then that’s compounded by the fact he has to keep himself to himself because he’s hiding somebody in his flat, which must be terribly difficult. Then he’s actually noble in a way, in the last episode, but he’s a sad character I suppose.
It struck me that David Threlfall’s character Len Harper is a different kind of detective to those we’ve seen recently. We’re used to cold-hearted, rational machines somewhat like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but Len Harper seems to runs almost on pure empathy.
I think you’re absolutely right. What is very en vogue at the moment is that you turn on a cop show and the lead, let’s say he’s called Brown, there’s always a scene where they say ‘Now listen, Brown, you’re a maverick, you don’t play by the rules’, and Brown’s always divorced his wife and has this incredible backstory and he’s an alcoholic and all this, it’s always like that. But in What Remains, as you say, Len comes there and doggedly through compassion and his sense of awed wonderment that people that can be so awful, he tries to get to the bottom of it all. In a way, he becomes Melissa – he sleeps on her couch, he inhabits her flat, he cares about her. You’re right, I think it’s a new kind of character.
In the same way, he’s telling the police force that they, like the rest of us, don’t always do the right thing and none of us cares. You can die alone in your flat and nobody notices. You have the police saying ‘Oh, it wasn’t a murder’, but Len disagrees and says, why are we not taking care of each other? If somebody’s dead up there we should know about it. Len’s the old-style person and he just won’t let it go. David Threlfall’s wonderful of course.
Tell me about the cast. We’re big fans of Russell Tovey’s on the site.
He’s fantastic. I think Coky just cast it brilliantly. People stepped beyond themselves because she’s such a good director and the characterisations are so good and they’re shot so well.
When Steven, who plays Kieron, was waiting to have that pint and you thought, 'Don’t drink it', then he was on the settee and Coky was on the side of him, then she was above his head, behind him. It’s not just two shot, single, two shot, shot of the room, you know bang, bang, bang, she’s so artistic as well, she’s very visual and I think they just did a brilliant job using the right cinematic language to tell the story, not just using the basics. The moving camera and the big close-ups and never seeing the whole of a room, just bits of it and the house became a whole other character, there’s shots of the house where it's lit like the Bates Motel and it was just brilliant, you don’t see any of that coming.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
Russell Tovey has a reputation for being something of a joker…
He is very funny. He brought his dog in – Rocky actually – he was so funny.
Indira [Varma] and I were on Rome together, yet we had no scenes together on it funnily enough. It’s always boring to say it, but we had such a great cast and wonderful actors. Notably, I think all of the cast are extremely accomplished stage actors, which is quite interesting. Not that it looked like a play, but that shared background may have something to do with it. It’s not just other television although they’ve all done a huge amount as you have to now as an actor, but most of the people made their name on the stage.
It’s being called a state-of-the-nation drama - they probably put that on the press release so everybody’s saying it. It’s a bit of a – forgive me for using that word again, but it’s a bit of a bleak representation of the state of the nation isn’t it? Or is it more a call to arms, is Tony Basgallop telling us to go out and care about people?
I think people still do help each other. I don’t think one should think the thesis is that bleak but equally I don’t think when I was growing up – I’m 58, nearly 59 – everybody was neighbourly, they were but there were also grumpy people. That said, if my mother saw a child wandering for instance, she did stop and she didn’t worry that someone was going to call the police on her, or if she saw someone hitting their child really badly, she did intervene and people don’t do that now. They don’t do things for their neighbours and they don’t find out how they are. Some do, of course, but I mean people just wearing their headphones walking around, going into shops and not talking to people, handing over money and pointing to a packet of cigarettes and just walking out again, the connections are eroding.
In What Remains, the characters are all holding secrets, so everyone just wants to open their door a crack and not let anybody in and get involved as little as possible. I still find it amazing when you read things like the murder of an elderly woman and it says ‘a neighbour who asked not to be named’, you think why? Why have you not been named? What’s the problem? Is it a fear of reprisal? I think that people are afraid of sticking their noses in, they are wrapped up in their own stories today in a way that perhaps people once weren’t.
Finally, something I must ask about it because we’re enormous fans of it, are the Psychoville episodes you did.
Why do you say that?
Oh, because someone asked about that yesterday. I did a little bit in the first series that I wasn’t very happy with when I saw what I’d done, I just couldn’t get a handle on it but then I came back and I was so much happier with it. Reece [Shearsmith] was so kind to ask me to do that, and that was before I knew him. After that we did Betty Blue Eyes together, and I was much happier in Psychoville with what I did in the farting scenes.
I admire all those guys from The League of Gentlemen, they all do so many things, and they’re not all Oxbridge, they all came from Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire and started this troupe and they’ve all created work for themselves by writing this amazing material. I think it’s incredible, I can’t do that so I’m in awe.
What’s coming up next for you?
Nothing. Nothing at the moment, but that’s the job, it’s not just me, it’s the same for lots of actors. Something may come out of this, you never know. As an actor unless you’re Judi Dench or a few others you go and read for things, and it’s a buyer’s market out there alas, but I live in hope, I live in hope.
David Bamber, thank you very much!
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.