The Daily Telegraph
3 Sep 2020
John Simm as Arthur Fried in Britbox’s Cold Courage | Photo: Bernard Walsh
As a teenager growing up in the small Lancashire town of Nelson, John Simm witnessed racist thuggery on a terrifying scale.
“The level of fear and ignorance directed towards the local immigrants was just terrible. To the extent that it felt like gang warfare at school. It was very bad and very ugly and I’m glad I got out to go to drama school at 16.”
We’re talking about this now because it put Simm in mind of his latest character, Arthur Fried, a fictional far-right political leader in new Finnish thriller Cold Courage. He describes Fried as
“by far the most repellent character I’ve ever inhabited. Playing him felt horrible, dirty to the point of wanting a shower afterwards.”
Of course, Simm has chilled audiences with several small-screen baddies over the years. He was a snarky-sweaty Raskolnikov in the BBC’S 2002 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, and peroxide punk sci-fi villain “The Master” in the David Tennant era of Doctor Who (2016-17).
“I’ve been able to find some redeeming quality or sense of fun to grasp in all of them. We’ve seen Fried’s kind of racism on the rise in recent years, so the series feels frighteningly prescient.”
The actor, now 50, is speaking from the north-london home he shares with his wife (actress Kate Mcgowan) and children (Ryan, 19, and 13 year-old Molly). Our conversation about the tensions he witnessed at school leads us to talk more about his early life. For a shy man who has spent “the past 25 years pulling on a baseball cap, plugging in earphones and staring at the pavement” to avoid being recognised, it’s intriguing to note that he has been performing since he was 11.
Then, he played guitar for his crooner dad at working men’s clubs all over the North.
“My dad had great taste,” he says, “and I loved what he loved. When my classmates were into The Jam, I was listening to the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran. I was ridiculously obsessed with Elvis – I had pictures of him all over my walls, even on the ceiling.”
The first time he saw his dad cry was when Elvis died in 1977.
Simm’s parents divorced when he was 13, only to remarry five years later. The boy continued to perform with his dad while living with his mum. He dreamed of becoming a rock star, but he knew that would mean leaving his dad behind and couldn’t bear the hurt that would cause. So he chose “a completely different path”, as an actor. Teenage parts in Blackpool productions of Guys and Dolls and West Side Story scored him his first review as a “Rick Astley lookalike”, but he preferred Shakespeare and Pinter to musicals.
“Still snobby about scripts”, Simm has worked for TV’s best writers from the beginning. He got his small-screen break playing a troubled runaway in Jimmy Mcgovern’s Cracker, co-written by Paul Abbott. That led to the role as philandering, gambling hotel porter Danny in Mcgovern’s The Lakes. His next big role was as investigative journalist Cal Mccaffrey in Abbott’s political thriller State of Play (2003).
However, music remained important to Simm. He formed his own band, Magic Alex in his 20s, but found he had the same anxieties about recognition.
“We did tours supporting Echo and the Bunnymen, playing huge venues, and I was incredibly self-conscious. People who recognised me from the television would stare and I found it very hard to handle.”
Of course in the mid-noughties (due to Doctor Who and time-travelling drama Life on Mars, perhaps his greatest success), Simm became a household name. He says he had “enormous fun” making both shows, but there were clearly drawbacks. Simm was frightened by the obsessive attention of some Whovians. One spotted him on the Tube and tried to follow him home. He lost her after ducking off a train and hiding on the escalators at Euston station. He also says that “slogging through every scene, every day” on Life on Mars left him exhausted and “numb, because I barely had time to learn the lines”.
After the show ended in 2007 – with his character taking a leap of faith back into the Seventies – Simm returned to the theatre. He got rave reviews for his first West End performance, Elling (about an anxious mummy’s boy) and has appeared on stage almost every year since. He’s done Hamlet (“which felt like being in a washing machine”) and, last year, Macbeth (“my favourite role”).
But performing live – often to front rows filled with Doctor Who fans – also raised Simm’s stress levels. While appearing in Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues in the West End in 2009, he tells me he
“seriously considered faking a heart attack so I wouldn’t have to go on. I had thought it all through. They would have to send the audience home. In the ambulance I could apologise for the fuss and say I felt better. Then the green light went on and as soon as I threw myself forward on to that stage and the lights came up I thought: yeah, fine, this is my job, this is what I’m good at. On some level you’re forcing yourself to prove yourself wrong. I feel sorry for people who don’t have the nerves because you need some adrenalin.”
Today he admits he can’t watch himself on screen and has to ask me if Cold Courage is any good. The Scandi-noir mystery – in which two Finnish women turn vigilante to solve the murder of a Latvian prostitute – was filmed in Dublin and Brussels and Simm says that
“though I normally hate travel, I look back on the experience differently after lockdown. It was all very international, I didn’t understand half of what was said on set. But it was great to be a guest artist, just dropping in. I watched people doing that when I was in Life on Mars and really envied them.”
There have been rumours of Life on Mars returning for a last hurrah. Simm – who once bluntly refused to reprise his role – explains
“there was a Tweetalong thing … and the writers had an idea about how to finish Sam Tyler’s story. It’s a four-parter, and I think I’m up for it. I think we all would be, we’ve got so much affection for the show. Apparently they’re going to take me and Philip Glenister out for lunch to give us the details. But there’s nothing official yet.”
After a lockdown spent “picking up dog poo bags, emptying the dishwasher and turning into a teenage gamer with the PS4 at the top of the house”, Simm says he is frightened for the future of theatre.
“The arts have been left in the lurch. You walk through the West End and it’s all gone dark. Regional theatres will close and that’s a disaster because they’re the lifeblood. It’s really sad and terrifying. I feel so sorry for the kids at drama school now. What’s going to happen to them?”
Simm is grateful to be established and finally getting back to work; he is to start filming new ITV crime drama, Grace. Based on the Peter James novels about Detective Roy Grace, the series is scripted by Russell Lewis, who created Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour.
“Peter wrote 15 novels,” says Simm. “So if it takes off I’ll get to play a detective in Brighton for the rest of my life. I’ll be happy with that.”