Paterson Joseph interview: Good Omens, Doctor Who, Neil Gaiman

Paterson Joseph chats to us about Good Omens, Peep Show, being cut from Paddington, and why he'd "never say never" to playing the Doctor...

Where do you begin with Paterson Joseph? Be it on stage or the small screen, he’s popped up everywhere from Shakespeare to Survivors, from Casualty to Green Wing. To some, he’s the suave, sharply dressed and, latterly, lapsed alcoholic Alan Johnson in Peep Show. But to others, this writer included, he’ll always be the mysterious, flamboyant swashbuckler, the Marquis de Carabas, from Neil Gaiman’s rich sub-London fantasy Neverwhere.

Now, he’s appearing on BBC Radio 4 in a festive double bill of prestige productions. First, he’s giving voice to fast-food mogul and horseman of the apocalypse Famine in Good Omens, adapted from the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Then, on New Year’s Day, he’s Pierre, the passionate protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace, in an epic 10-hour adaptation alongside John Hurt, Lesley Manville and Simon Russell Beale.

In the run up to broadcast, we had a chat with Paterson Joseph about the magic of radio, the experience of being in the running for Doctor Who, and the difference between British and American telly…

I was doing a bit of research, and there are clips from Good Omens on the BBC website, and your clip is labelled ‘Paterson Joseph – Dark And Brooding’. Is that a taster of what’s to come, or is that your bio?

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I hope it’s describing Famine – and not the way I was throughout the recording! It’s the nature of the character, somebody who brings death and destruction and relishes it. So maybe that’s what it’s describing – I certainly hope so. You’ve made me paranoid: ‘he was dark and brooding throughout the recording; no idea what his character’s like!’.

I’m looking forward to hearing Good Omens, as I’m a bit of a Neil Gaiman nut, and that dates all the way back nearly 20 years to the Neverwhere TV series, which of course featured you as the Marquis de Carabas. Do you remember that series fondly?

Yeah, I do. I was stunned by how fresh the memories were when I met Neil. I hadn’t seen Neil for some time, and we immediately started talking about whatever happened to the Marquis’s coat, and he worked up a story and we’re hopefully going to try and make it. It’s a beautiful thing to have something you did 18-odd years ago be so fresh in your mind. So I immediately started reading the novel again, then I remembered what it was like reading that script. I’d never read a script like it, it was so evocative. Most scripts you need to stretch your imagination just to see what it would look like on screen; Neverwhere was not like that, you picked up the script and immediately you were plunged into it.

The writing was something I’d never come across before, I’d never heard things described in the way that he described them, I’d never heard a playwright – or a screenwriter – describe something around the character, or what the character was thinking, in such a way that you felt like you were inside their brains. He was an original, really, and I was so pleased to get that role. It was such an unusual role for me to have been up for, and to get, and I loved every second of that character. And it was a great costume! I hope that it has another life somewhere, because Neverwhere is a great story, and there’s a lot of room in there for more.

It’s no secret that Neverwhere faced a few problems in production, but the casting certainly isn’t one of them. You would be up for reprising the role, then, if there was a remake or a continuation?

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Oh gosh, yeah, like a shot. I wouldn’t think about it twice. I think the thing was – we’ve all said it one time or another – if it had happened post-Doctor Who, the Chris Eccleston era, if it had been done post that, then I think it would have had all the budget that it would have needed to make it brilliant. But the fact was that it was done at a time, 1996, when sci-fi and fantasy were seen as either for children or comedy. So you could have Red Dwarf or you could have My Parents Are Aliens or similar, but you couldn’t have a serious drama that was based on a fantastical concept. But it’s amazing, really, in just 20 years, how our palates have become more sophisticated.

And I remember just before the turn of the millennium, there were all these scare stories about how planes were going to fall out of the sky and we were going to die, and somebody, I think it was a critic, predicted that in the new century, we would have stories of aspiration, fantastical stories and mythological stories. We would be able to tell those stories again. That’s what’s happened, stories that we’re telling are much more magical than they were in the 90s and the 80s, which were much more practical and about the real world, and prided themselves on being down-to-earth. Now, we’re in the realms of the imagination.

Neil Gaiman’s called the Marquis his vision of a ‘perfect Doctor’. What was it like being in the rumour mill when they were casting a new Doctor in 2008?

It was kind of extraordinary. I felt very special to be touched a little bit by the Doctor Who stardust. I was in South Africa when I heard about it, so it felt even more removed, and then friends started texting me that I was in the running. Do you know what I felt more than anything? I just felt like, well, what a great day we’re living in, because 20 years ago, if that had come up it would have been seen as a terrible gimmick that a black actor could be playing Doctor Who. But nobody batted an eyelid about my ethnicity, and it was just a matter of whether I’d be the right guy for it or not. And I thought, that is really beautiful, where we’ve come to, that we’re no longer fixated on colour. Having said that, I really am glad that I was up for it, because it’s had a lovely effect on me and on my career – it put me in a place where I feel like I’m respected by enough people who think ‘he could’ve been him’. And that can be a lovely pat on the back.

And, as we’ve seen with Peter Capaldi, who said that he was initially in the running for the Doctor in the mid-90s before finally taking on the role two decades later, you could always come up again.

Well, I’ll never say never!

Alongside your work on British TV and stage, you’ve recently appeared in the HBO series The Leftovers. There are many talented black British actors who have gone on record voicing their frustration about having to go to the States for juicy roles, while over here Lenny Henry is campaigning for more diversity on UK television. Is that a frustration and a fight that you recognise?

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The fact of the matter is that everybody, all actors who are desiring a bigger career, more choice, are all going to America. And British actors are doing well in America for the most part because we’ve been trained very well. They don’t really have the formal drama schools that we have. And if you haven’t been to drama school, it’s because our theatre is still steeped in the classics, like Shakespeare and the restoration dramas and comedy and Jacobean dramas that we do. They consider that we’ve been through a rite of passage, they respect the actor who comes from the British theatre.

So it is partly to do with the desire to get more work,. The ethnicity issue is there, but it isn’t as massive as all that. Lenny is quite right to say that there should be more diversity on television, that’s true. On the other hand, that’s very separate from actors working in America. I hear black actors bellyache and say ‘well, I had to go to America in order to get work’, and I think surely that’s not true. You didn’t have to go to America, you wanted to go to America. And there are loads of white actors who could say the same, but they’re not going to, because it’s not a card that you need to play. You work in America because it’s great money, loads of people see it, and it’s a really big pond. That’s why we do it.

So I’d say the two things are separate: do we have enough diversity on television in England? No. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t lead to us all to run away to another country entirely. It doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

How has your experience been, going over to the States and working in the big HBO machine?

Oh, wow! They are… They’re the enthusiasts par excellence. The Americans show the Brits how to be enthusiastic about stuff, including ourselves. They really do give you a sense of pride in what you’re doing – you just have to be careful not to believe it too much. And then you remember, when you come back to earth, when you’re working on a cold roof somewhere in Croydon, that’s what the real world is like. But it is nice going over there. It’s a bit Disneyland, and I enjoyed it enormously, but it’s not a place I could live, as such. I’m way too Euro-centric for that.

It seems that another way that the business has changed is that where, in the past, television might be seen as a launch pad to a career in film, it’s now just as rewarding, respected and well-paid to be on the small screen than on the big screen. Your career has sent you all over the place, but you haven’t been in many films – is that down to your own decisions or the offers you were getting?

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Well, I think, really, it’s to do with opportunities. I live in France, I don’t live in the States and I don’t live in London, so I’m not immersed in the profession. I come in, do my work, and then I go home again, to a place where nobody knows me. So it makes it trickier to pursue a film career, or even any kind of structured career, not living in the places where it’s happening.

Although, I’ve said before, there’s much more work going on in America than there is in England, particularly in film, and the films that are being made here, if there are diverse, ethnic characters in it, they tend to be gangster films. And if they’re not, then they’ve got Colin Firth in them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but he and I are unlikely to be up for the same roles. It’s a small pool of people who are making films in this country, so no wonder it’s hard for us to get film jobs, most of us.

With that in mind, it’s fascinating that you’re doing this radio adaptation of War And Peace, in which you play Pierre – a role quite famously filled by Henry Fonda in the classic Hollywood version. Is that a case of radio allowing you to fill a role that you wouldn’t be given in TV or film?

I wasn’t going mention that, I was thinking I’d keep off that subject, but since you’ve mentioned it, it’s true. A very funny thing happened – well, it wasn’t funny at the time – when I was at drama school, we were doing accent training. [Slips into a perfect Devonshire drawl] And I’d done my Devon, and one of my friends who was from Devon said ‘aw, that was really great!’ And the teacher then turned around and said ‘of course, you’re never going to be playing a character from Devon’. And I wanted to prove them wrong.

You know, only on radio, really, would I be – I was going to say ‘allowed’, but it’s terrible, isn’t it, in 2014? – allowed to play this character. Even though [influential Russian poet Alexander] Pushkin was mixed race. I think radio’s a beautiful thing, because it’s all about the imagination, and it’s all about the capability of the performer being able to convince you of what and who they are. And that’s what radio asks for, it’s a very distilled version of the craft. It isn’t about how you’re physically moving and coming across, it’s how you convey all of that in your voice.

Your career has taken you from LAMDA and the RSC to television drama, soaps and finally, in the likes of Peep Show and Green Wing, to comedy. Coming from a Shakespearean stage background, was that shift a challenge at first? Or was that funny bone always there?

Oh god, it was always there. I’ve always been a bit of a clown, but I never really got a chance to do anything like that. Our profession is very compartmentalised. But I was very lucky, because I was introduced to a casting director by a friend of mine, because I was doing improv classes with my mates, and she knew that I did that. She advised this casting director to see me, and when I came in this casting director was like ‘really?’, because I’d done loads of Shakespeare. But they’re just characters, aren’t they, and you either get the characters or you don’t, and Johnson was so easy to get. I could hear his voice in my head the minute I read those amazing lines of Sam and Jesse’s writing. It was always really clear who that character is.

Will we be seeing Johnson in Peep Show Series 9?

I hope so! We’ve talked about all sorts of scenarios with him. I’m still keen, and they refuse to do it because they like the character so much, for him to commit suicide over his love of Mark. But I’m not sure if they’re going to be brave enough to take him out like that.

I’ve seen you credited online as ‘Dapper Young Hatter’ in Paddington, but I couldn’t spot you in the finished film. Is that an out-of-date credit? Or was your scene cut?

It was definitely cut. And Paul King was very nice about it, but his email went into my junk mail. So I’d gone to see it in high hopes, by myself like an old man with all these children, and I didn’t have a child with me. And… I wasn’t there. And in my junk mail a couple of days later, I found the email of him apologising that they just didn’t have time to put it in. That was my second disappointment of Christmas. My first one is, I was in the wonderful Esio Trot, with Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench, and I was cut from that as well! The actor’s life, you know, it’s swings and roundabouts. You have to run with it, or you’ll give up. But there we are!

Paterson Joseph, thank you very much!

Good Omens starts on Monday the 22nd of December at 11pm and War And Peace airs on New Year’s Day on BBC Radio 4.

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