Interview / Print / Stage / Theatre

The Man Who Fell To Earth

The Sunday Telegraph
Charlotte Williamson
5 Aug 2007

John Simm: A National Treasure in the Making © Spencer Murphy

John Simm: A National Treasure in the Making © Spencer Murphy

In ‘Life on Mars’ John Simm played a detective stuck in a 1970s time warp. Now he’s moved on and is wowing them in the West End. But, as he tells Charlotte Williamson, ‘I still can’t believe it’s not 1999’

A few Fridays ago, one corner of central London was quite brilliantly surreal. Outside, under the setting sun, Lemar, a reality-po¦p-star-turned-real-life-almost-star, was performing to a smattering of fans as cyclists on the Tour de France whizzed past. Meanwhile, inside a nearby theatre, an audience watched a Norwegian comedy about the ‘normality’ of mental health, its dramatic pauses losing their punch as the strains of If There’s Any Justice wafted through.

Elling, the play in question, is the summer’s surprise West End hit, thanks in part to the fact that John Simm plays the title role. Simm is best known as Sam Tyler from the BBC series Life on Mars, in which he played a policeman hit by a car who ends up in 1973 with a talking Test Card girl for company. The series was the definition of watercooler TV, adored by the public and critics alike: its finale, screened earlier this year, attracted seven million viewers.

‘Oh God, you saw the play’s preview?’ Simm groans several days later, sitting in a now-empty theatre.

‘We could hear Lemar on stage. If I’d been in the audience, I would have left.’

John Simm: 'When I came to London, the whole Manchester Stone Roses thing was massive. I was so proud to be from the north-west.'

John Simm: When I came to London, the whole Manchester Stone Roses thing was massive. I was so proud to be from the north-west.

The audience didn’t leave, however; instead they stayed to the end, when they applauded wildly. The comedy, adapted by Simon Brent from a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, follows two oddball characters – Elling, an agoraphobic who obsesses over his dead mother and periodically hides in wardrobes when life gets too much, and his 40-year-old virgin friend Kjell Bjarne, played by Adrian Bower (another television star, this time from Teachers) – as they move from a clinic into the big, bad world.

It has been 12 years since Simm was last on stage. ‘I already knew the director and writer so I thought if I was going to go back to the theatre, it would be nice to have a comfort zone.’ Part of the lure, he admits, was to remind people that he Doesn’t Just Do Telly.

‘This is very different [to Life on Mars],’ he says. ‘Some people saw it the other night and told me afterwards they didn’t recognise me for the first 20 minutes. They thought I was coming on in the second act.’

Simm had arrived to meet me half an hour late, with the swaggering gait of a Gallagher and a face like thunder, looking less cheeky chappy, more ageing street urchin (he is now 37). So far, so tricky. He has a reputation as a difficult interviewee: moody, taciturn. But he turns out to be quite the opposite. It’s surprising how quiet his voice is, and how nervous he sounds at the beginning. The swagger, you sense, is bravado. The black cloud floating above his head is arguably easier to pinpoint: the result of a BBC Breakfast interview he’d done earlier in the day.

‘We were interviewed on stage, and the guy was like, “You don’t like fan mail, do you? And you don’t like that red carpet thing? And you’re shy?” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” And the interview became about me not liking being famous – and it was supposed to be about the play. And so now people think I’m a moaning old bastard! It’s just I’m not great with banks of photographers and sound bites.’

Simm is conscious that all his interviews sound the same. ‘Sometimes I hate the way I come across. But I only have one background, you know, one story, so it’s always going to be the same: “He did the clubs with his dad and then he was in a band and then he re-educated himself at drama school…” ?There’s nothing else I can say!’

Fair enough, but it’s an interesting background, none the less. Simm grew up in Nelson, a former mill town now lying forgotten in a valley in Lancashire. Nelson was once known as ‘Little Moscow’, such were the extreme Left-wing politics of its council; nowadays, the problem is the BNP. ?’It’s embarrassing, pure ignorance. When Nelson was on the News at Ten a few years ago when the BNP got in, or almost got in, people were like, “Didn’t you go to school there?” ‘

Despite the fact that Nelson is pretty grim, Simm had a happy childhood. ‘It was nicer then,’ he says, ‘because the world was a nicer, safer place for a kid. You could play out.’ Although you sense it might also have been solitary: there is a five-year gap between Simm and his twin sisters (‘They were 11 when I left home, so unfortunately I didn’t get to know them that much’); his parents also separated for a few years. ‘When I was at school. That was a bit weird.’

At school, he was into football and long-distance running. ‘I wasn’t a bad kid or rebellious or anything. I was shy.’ He flirted with the idea of becoming a journalist – ‘because I really liked reading and stories and I was quite good at English. I went to a newspaper office when I did that work experience thing’ – but after seeing Rebel Without a Cause, he decided that an actor’s life seemed more fun.

A showbiz ambition might have seemed incongruous in industrial Lancashire if it hadn’t been for his father’s job. He was a musician who played the working men’s club circuit. Simm joined him at weekends, playing guitar to Everly Brothers and Beatles songs, and leading a double life which he managed to keep quiet from his schoolmates. The clubs were ‘eye-opening’ and made Simm even more determined to leave his Lancashire valley. ‘Nelson,’ he says, ‘wasn’t the greatest place to follow any kind of dream.’

At 16 he left home to study at a drama college in Blackpool. ‘Three fantastic years, just shagging and drinking. Blackpool wasn’t that far away geographically but it was new to me.’ He then went down to London to the Drama Centre, which was another eye-opener – ‘a classical theatre drama school, so I had to educate myself and read up on the classics.’ His favourite book became Crime and Punishment.

Simm was keen to hang on to his roots, however. ‘When I came to London, the whole Manchester Stone Roses thing was massive. And I was so proud to be from the North-West. I’d go back up there at the weekends. It was full-on then and I was determined to be really northern. Not lose my accent and all that. It was popular coming from the North back then,’ he says, laughing.

Honing his inner, parka-wearing northerner proved a smart move: after drama school, he picked up good roles almost immediately, first in Cracker as a psychotic teenager, and then in The Lakes, the series that made his name. Simm brought the right dose of vulnerability to the part of an intense Liverpudlian stuck in the middle of the Lake District, and won rave reviews.

The Lakes was 10 years ago, and Simm has rarely made a dud move since. He has worked with the top writers in television: Jimmy McGovern (The Lakes); Tony Marchant (State of Play); Paul Abbott (Clocking Off); and, most recently, Russell T. Davies (a frankly terrifying Simm played The Master in Doctor Who). ‘I’m so lucky – I’ve ticked them all off. I go for the writing – always the writing. But as I get older, I realise you need good directors and producers too, so it’s the whole thing I look for now.’

He has also done films, most notably 1999’s Human Traffic, a pill-popping extravaganza following the lost weekend of a group of friends. Critically panned at the time, it has since become a cult classic, not least because it summed up the late 1990s rave generation, something Simm was very much a part of.

This decade has zoomed by for Simm, too. ‘Time’s gone really quickly – I’m still trying to get over the fact it’s not 1999. What happened to the Nineties? As soon as I turned 30, things just went oomph!’

Because he’s been working so much? ‘I guess so. And kids, and being married, and that kind of thing.’

Has he changed much? ‘Loads. I was really cocky in the Nineties and I was clubbing all the time and getting wasted a lot. But thankfully Human Traffic put a stop to the clubbing because I was recognised so much by people who were off their faces. And that’s not good when you’re wasted. It was a real pain – but ended up being great, being perfect. Because it coincided with Ryan [his son] being born and you just realise you don’t want to die anymore.’

For a while, he says, he was frustrated that Human Traffic wasn’t quite?Trainspotting; that his career trajectory wasn’t going in the same direction as Ewan McGregor’s. He tried playing the romantic lead – to Christina Ricci in Miranda – but his looks don’t fit. In 2003, after the success of State of Play, he relocated to Hollywood – for all of a month.

‘I was promised the Moon on a stick, and then suddenly it was like, “Yeah, we’re making State of Play into a movie with Brad Pitt. We’re so excited – we got Brad.’ And I was like, “What are you telling me that for?” I then found myself with 500 people with scripts queuing up to audition, and was like, “Wait a minute. I’m not prepared to do this.” It was for a TV series and I’ve done TV and I don’t think the TV there is better than here.’

Simm now seems more content with his status as a predominantly television actor. ‘The first episode of the first series of Life on Mars and the last episode of the last series – I can’t think of two hours of TV I’ve seen that were better, and not just because I was in it. Because of the scripts. I was very proud of it.’ He insisted the scripts remain dark, that his character should have felt trapped in 1973 instead of feeling ‘Weyhey! Time travel!’ It’s this humility, this honesty, that goes some way to explaining why Simm is so popular with the public – a quick search on Google reveals a mass of John Simm appreciation societies – and, quite probably, a national treasure in the making.

Despite living quietly in north London these days with his actress wife, Kate, and their two children – Ryan, now five, and baby Molly – he becomes an enthusiastic teenager when the subject turns to music. ‘Music’s always been a huge part of my life – still is. Huge, huge.’

Until recently he had his own band, Magic Alex, which toured with Echo and the Bunnymen. He was at Glastonbury this year, loves the fact he’s lived through ‘two massive youth explosions with the Manchester thing and then with Britpop, or whatever it was’, and now loves the Coral – ‘the greatest band in the world. They’ve just got that psychedelic Scouse thing. They’re just great, just brilliant. Every time I see them live they blow me away.’

After Elling, ‘a holiday would be nice. Every time we go away it rains. We just booked a weekend away to a country manor place and it just rained non-stop.’ Then it’s back to work: forthcoming projects include Michael Winterbottom’s daunting ‘real-time’ prison drama 7 Days, which won’t be finished until 2012. ‘I’ll maybe stay away from TV for a while,’ he says, ‘I’ve maybe overdone TV a bit.’

We get up to go and I compliment him on his shirt – a natty number with just the right amount of floral-infused femininity – and ask him where it’s from. ‘I don’t know. It’s old. Have a look in the back.’

River Island. He’s mortified. ‘Don’t put that! Don’t put I’m wearing a River Island shirt! Seriously, don’t!’

‘Elling’ is at the Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 until 6 October; 0870 06 0 6632

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