4 May 2011
One of TV’s finest actors, John Simm, was back on our screens this week in BBC psychological thriller Exile. The publicity-shy Nelson star tells us how filming in East Lancashire took him back to his youth.
When Burnley-born Paul Abbott created the plot for Exile it had Nelson-raised John Simm’s name written all over it.
In the programme a moody teenager who left the terrace streets of Lancashire for a new life in London returns home after 15 years.
After making the very same move himself in 1988, aged 18, who else but John would play the role?
“My early life certainly helped me play this part, it wasn’t hard to put the two together,” said John who recently received rave reviews for Sky’s Mad Dogs.
“But my character’s circumstances for leaving are obviously very different from my own experiences.”
Creator Paul Abbott and writer Danny Brocklehurst, who have previously worked together on Clocking Off and Shameless, teamed up for this BBC psychological thriller.
John plays down-on-his-luck journalist Tom Ranstadt, sacked from his job and dumped by his lover, who does something he hasn’t done for 15 years — he returns home to the north.
“This character I play isn’t a very nice man, which you see right from the very beginning.
“But when your life’s a mess and there’s nowhere else to go, you go home and a lot of people will relate to that,” explained the 40-year-old actor.
As it transpires, Tom left home at 17 when his seemingly loving and caring journalist father, played by Jim Broadbent, beat him up, sending him into self-enforced exile.
John, who is married to Kate with children Ryan, nine, and Molly, four, added:
“My character worships his dad, a brilliant journalist full of morals.
“He was a deputy editor for the equivalent of The Lancashire Telegraph today — and Tom wanted to be just like him.
“One day he goes into his dad’s study and finds a top secret file and his father beats him nearly half to death.
“He leaves home immediately and never returns until now.
“But when he comes back to confront his dad he finds he is so far into Alzheimer’s he can’t give him any answers.”
Over the three-parter, we saw Tom become the journalist he has always wanted to be as he pieces together facts in search of the truth.
“He discovers a mindblowing scandal that is so disturbingly dark, it’s shocking,” John added.
Given the subject matter, John said it was important to keep the set jovial and light — something which, with the chosen cast, was never a problem.
“If you’re doing something so heavy, it can get you down, but with Jim and Olivia (Coleman, who plays his sister) it was just a joy.
“Jim is such a lovely man and Olivia is really funny. We had a really great time.
“And my family came over to visit the set too so that was fun.”
John’s parents live in Hapton and his youngest sister still lives in Nelson where the family settled after moving over the pennines from Leeds where John was born.
Filming, which concluded earlier this year, was a trip down memory lane for John, when the cast and crew visited sets in Bolton, Manchester, Bury and Ramsbottom.
In Ramsbottom, film crews closed off Bridge Street and Railway Street and even filmed scenes in the Grant’s Arms pub, Market Place.
“It reminded me of being 17 again,” said John who grew up in Temple Street, Nelson, with his parents, two younger sisters and an outside toilet.
“You forget how lovely the people are. Lancashire is my spiritual home; I spent most of my youth there and it’s always a joy to be back there.”
The former Edge End High School pupil added: “I used to go to Burnley and Manchester for nights out and I have fond memories growing up.
“I had a great childhood, we were very poor, but we played out and we had so much fun.”
After leaving Nelson at 16, John trained in acting at Blackpool and The Fylde College before moving to London to launch his career.
An everyman with a rare talent, it wasn’t long before he was starring in Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes and since then he’s never stopped: films Human Traffic, Clocking Off, 24-Hour Party People, and TV series Crime and Punishment, Sate Of Play, Life on Mars and Doctor Who.
Not to mention his theatre credits which include playing Hamlet last year at The Sheffield Crucible. And in 2012 he’s set to star in Michael Winterbottom’s latest feature film Seven Days, about a prisoner, shot in real time.
But making the trip north for Exile was a particular career highlight, according to John.
“It was fantasic to work with Paul Abbott, and lovely to see him again as he’s a very old friend of mine. Anything with his name on it is quality.
“There’s something about being from the north,” said John, who, as a teenager, toured the working men’s clubs of East Lancashire with his dad playing the guitar.
“So much brilliant art, music, and creativity comes from the north.
“There is something in the water. It’s an incredible place.”
But there is one aspect of Exile John isn’t looking forward to, the same part he always dreads about a new series — watching himself.
“I really don’t like it,” admitted the modest performer.
“I watch through splayed fingers, but you learn from yourself, so you have to see what you’ve done. Only once though!”