Vicky McClure and Martin Compston are the beating heart of Line of Duty, perhaps the biggest, most talked-about show on British TV. And now it’s back for an eagerly awaited sixth season.
What began in 2012 as a solid BBC Two police procedural series has grown into a twisting, turning, shocking and monstrously successful look at the way the police are policed. While their AC-12 boss, Ted Hastings (played by the majestic Adrian Dunbar), is spouting his unique words of encouragement or getting himself arrested, Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott produce the proper police work that bent coppers fear the most.
The duo have quizzed guest lead actors Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, Daniel Mays, Thandie Newton and Stephen Graham in the iconic glass interview room – with Kelly Macdonald lined up to face them in the new series. But McClure and Compston have never interrogated each other. Until now.
For the benefit of the tape, the people in the room are: Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and The Big Issue’s TV Editor Adrian Lobb. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP
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Martin Compston: I’ve got a good question already. What’s the most I’ve ever pissed you off?
Vicky McClure: Oh, God, Martin, what a question! I’ll be able to think of something, don’t worry. Do you know what really pisses me off? I can’t make you jump. We have a thing where we’re constantly trying to make each other jump. But he is always either watching and knows I’m there or is trying to act so friggin’ cool.
MC: You got me once. Vick plans it out too much. The best description I ever heard of Vicky is from her partner Jonny [Owen, filmmaker], who says: She’s almost funny, which makes her absolutely hilarious. She will try and tell a joke and then over-explain it or fuck it up and keep going.
VM: I can’t tell a joke. It’s true.
MC: And it becomes funnier the more you try.
‘Martin’s a bit of a scally like me’
MC: It was 10 years ago when we started Line of Duty, wasn’t it? When I knew Vicky got the job it was massive for me because it let me know what direction they were moving in. Obviously I was a big fan.
VM: You’ve never said that to me ever before. This is so weird!
MC: I was a bit intimidated. Readthroughs are awkward when you’re meeting people for the first time. But I was like, Holy shit, that’s Vicky McClure! But because we come from similar backgrounds and are both from independent film, when I heard Vicky got it, that put me at ease. After the readthrough, did me, you and Craig [Parkinson] go straight to the pub? Did you know him already?
VM: The only person I knew was Adie [Adrian Dunbar], because he played my dad in Tough Love [in 2002]. Me, you, Craig and Neil [Morrissey] went out. During filming, Adie was back and forth to London whereas we were all living in Birmingham. So we were out a lot on series one.
MC: There were a lot of nights at Gatecrasher.
VM: I vaguely remember that first readthrough. You and me were number one and two on the call sheet – which means nothing to anybody but actors – so you go: right, me and Martin are being paired as the Mulder and Scully of the show. I was a fan of yours as well – because Sweet Sixteen is one of those films that will go down in history and last for ever, and you were amazing in it. I knew we would get on because Martin’s a bit of a scally like me.
‘Are you really hanging off a lorry with a machine gun?’
MC: You were a show kid, you started off doing a lot of the old dancing and stuff, didn’t you?
VM: I danced from my third birthday, when I was allowed to, because I loved it so much. I craved a lot of attention. I’m not afraid to admit it. It doesn’t make me overly confident. It just means I’m comfortable performing. I enjoy making people laugh… even though I’m not funny.
MC: You are almost funny.
VM: I know. So I did that, there was a drama class in my dance school, which was literally ‘pretend to be a tree’. And I’ve spoken to The Big Issue before about the [Television] Workshop, which was a big part of my life. It changed the game for me. It turned my head away from dancing. It was pure fucking luck that Shane [Meadows] came into my world and carved me into the type of actor that I wanted to be.
MC: There is definitely a similar thing. Shane has been such an influence in your career and Ken Loach has been a huge influence on me. So I’ve got Ken and Jed and you’ve got Shane and Jed, who took us to these two different audiences. We were really lucky at such a young age that Shane believed in you and Ken took a chance on me. Then Jed took a chance on both of us. I never thought anybody would let me lead a prime-time BBC show. It never came into my mind that my career could go that way. So I think, to those two people, we sort of owe our careers.
VM: It’s mad to think of all the scenes that we’ve shot. Because we’re asking these questions now, I’m reliving certain episodes – scenes are flashing by.
MC: Series three is my favourite. And I was reading lines with Vicky saying, ‘Are you really hanging off a lorry with a machine gun?’
MC: That’s when it all changed. That ‘urgent exit required’ – the show changed. All of a sudden, there’s machine guns in the office and you don’t know how people are gonna react.
‘Vicky loves her stationery’
MC: One reason Jed responds to us is that we piss about, as you see here, but we’ve got a strong work ethic. Vicky’s got a fucking rainbow binder set – I’ve never seen Vicky more giddy than when she has to break down a script. She loves her stationery. If I could be arsed to do it, it would be a great thing. She even does it for Adrian [Dunbar].
VM: I offer it to you, Martin…
MC: But it’s so that you are uber prepared. Even though we both come from an improvising background. You can’t improvise with these interview scenes. It’s evidence. It’s information. You have to be on it. So when Jed writes these big scenes, he’s not worried about us. It’s about our talent hopefully, but also because of our backgrounds. The time from working in an office to winning the Bafta [for Best Actress for This Is England ’86 in 2011] can’t have been that long at all?
VM: Oh, no, it was less than a year.
MC: You must have been working in that office when you were on jets with Madonna.
VM: We went on her private jet to some festival in Berlin [to a screening of 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, directed by Madonna] then I got put in a car, sent home, and had to go to work the next day. At that point in time I was managing the vending machines as well as other things like fire warden etc etc…
VM: Somebody said, Vicky, I just ordered a mocha chocca but it’s given me a latte. And I was like, what’s going on in my life? I was just on a private jet with Madonna. It was bonkers. For This Is England the film, I just took six weeks unpaid leave then turned up to work with a shaved head. But it’s no wonder I love stationery, is it?
‘I prefer Scottish Martin’
VM: I spend most of my time with Martin in an English accent. Because he stays in the accent throughout the whole thing. But every now and then we’ll have a night out and he’ll just go, I’m having a bit of time off. And it’s like a completely different guy.
MC: So who do you like better?
VM: I prefer Scottish Martin. Because the show’s become what it’s become – if it’s me, you and Adie in a scene, I get really giddy.
MC: When it’s you and me together, I really struggle. Because we carry on so much.
VM: Shall we talk about our best moments making the show? I know what you’re gonna say.
MC: My favourite moment was the first series when we had one weekend where we all stayed in Birmingham [where series one was filmed]. We hired a bus – me, Vicky, Craig, Lennie [James] and Neil – and we went to a Specials gig. We stopped at Vicky’s on the way to meet her family. And it just went on. We partied most of the night, went bowling the next day, had pizza. It felt like a moment in time.
MC: But then it was similar this year just before the pandemic hit. Myself, Vicky, Adrian and Jed went out for a fancy dinner. And that’s the most I’ve laughed in years. I don’t laugh as much on any job as doing this.
VM: Remember that night when we weren’t dressed up or anything and went past this really shit night club and the music was just doof, doof, doof? We went in, both wearing joggers and hoodies. I just remember having a really good time.
MC: I think it may have been series four. We’ve done it a couple times. We went to that really shit comedy night as well.
VM: Oh, that was brilliant. And you got up and spoke on the mic? We have really random nights. And I’m not very good at being spontaneous – as you know, I like my stationery, I like to plan, make a list, put it in the diary. But when I’m in Belfast, I’m more free-spirited. It’s a different way of living. I love living with the guys, knowing I can knock on their door and have a cup of tea or learn lines. It is a bit like The Waltons.
‘She’s the best partner on TV’
MC: I remember throwing one particular after-work party in my flat that got out of hand. Vicky phoned me, telling me to get to bed. And the next day she came down, cleaned my flat, got me pizza and put me to bed. And that’s why she’s the best partner on TV.
VM: We have to live with each other pretty much literally – we eat together every night. We’re learning lines all the time. And we’re working together. And there’s such a genuine friendship there.
MC: Me and Vicky are of similar ages and have got the same birthday [May 8, McClure is a year older at 37], so we are sort of weirdly close and in sync.
VM: We were really looking forward to sharing our birthday together this year, weren’t we? We normally shoot September to December in the freezing cold. But for one reason or another, we were going to start in February. Me and Martin looked at the schedule and were like, Oh, my god, this is it! This is the one we’re gonna have a massive party – a load of booze behind the bar.
MC: And it was a Friday night!
VM: It couldn’t have been more perfect. But four weeks in we could we could hear the murmurings. We were sent home for three weeks, which turned into seven months. And we came back to a very different shoot. The PPE was all in place and Jed being a doctor meant he was going to run a very tight ship.
MC: It was very strange. In practical terms, the way we had to shoot was dictated by locations. We usually film episode one and two, then three and four, then five and six in blocks. But we filmed stuff from episodes one, two, three, four, five and six at the same location if we were there. So you can be working with three directors on one day. And that was a head wrecker. We were having to jump to all these different rhythms all the time.
VM: Everyone was really conscious to keep each other safe. No one’s taking the piss. The thought of costing everybody that job was just too big a deal.
MC: It was a strange atmosphere because we had this hanging over us the whole time. You are getting tested twice a week and waiting on that test coming back. Is it all clear? Is this the time one of us gets it? I was scared of being stranded for months away from my family. The producers are friends as well as our bosses. You can tell them your fears. I said, if they shut down flights to America [where he lives], I have to go. So it was a strange year. So although Jed always says we will only come back if the audience is still responding to it, it would be sad to end it the way we did.
Line of Duty returns to BBC One on Sunday March 21