TV

John Simm: “I wish women ran the whole world, don't you?"

Actor John Simm on equal pay for women, the death of his father – and how his two new TV dramas show a deeply divided nation

“Equal pay for women. Absolutely. That.”

This is actor John Simm when asked about his big issue for 2018. “It is absolutely insane. I cannot even begin to get my head around it. I had no idea it was so bad.

“But the tide is turning. If something good is to come out of this whole Weinstein thing, then at least there is this huge sea change that feels like it is happening right now.” Before long, he’s echoing Beyoncé: “My God, I wish women ran the whole world, don’t you? Please let that happen one day.”

Every day I am expecting the end of the world. It is terrifying

John Simm, a youthful 47, is sitting in a busy hotel cafe in Soho. His big break came in 1999 in Human Traffic and at the peak of his popularity – from the peerless State of Play in 2003 through Life on Mars (below) and his original run as The Master in Doctor Who (2007-10) – Simm was arguably the biggest name in British television drama.

Alongside Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake and David Morrissey, he is part of a ‘northern powerhouse’ of actors that were involved in most of what was good about British TV drama for a decade and a half from the ­­mid-Nineties. They shone in the pre-golden age era, before the rise of HBO, Netflix and Old Etonians.

John Simm and Philip Glenister in Life On Mars
John Simm with Philip Glenister in Life On Mars

Simm’s presence still guarantees a certain quality  and integrity. He simply doesn’t do bad television. But we’ve seen less of him on the small screen in recent years. “I thought maybe I should disappear for a little bit,” he says.

The critical response to his role alongside Peake in The Village hastened his retreat. “I thought it was really good. It was Antonia Bird’s last ever drama and she is wonderful,” he says of the 2013 series. “And people just went for it about it being grim and depressing. I was a bit disappointed by that. It was about post-traumatic stress disorder in World War I – it was not Dad’s Army.”

Simm needed little encouragement to explore his love of the theatre. His role in Patrick Marber’s Three Days in the Country at the National is cited as a career high and the offer of a Pinter winter and the chance to star in The Homecoming extended his screen break – but also included a life-changing event.

“As I was doing The Homecoming, my dad died. So that was a shock. That was a toughie,” he says, puffing his cheeks out, steeling himself. “I knew it was going to happen. He was ill for a while, he had cancer, but still that was a real blow.

“I only missed four shows, weirdly. Because my dad was the one that first put me on stage. After three days away, I could literally hear him saying, ‘Get back on that stage. That is your part. What are you doing sat here mourning and moaning with all these people crying?’

“It was weird, because the play is about a father and son. But it was actually great to disappear for two hours every night. I could pretend to be someone completely different.”

The actor recalls his early stage appearances alongside his dad. “He was a club artist. He taught me guitar and we were a club act together for about seven years.

“Being in a band with your dad – weird in a way, a real eye-opener – the early-Eighties northern clubland circuit? That would toughen anyone up. I was working every weekend so I had more money than the rest of the kids but I never went out anywhere.

I knew it was going to happen, but that was a real blow

“It is one of those things, ever since you are born you are waiting for a parent to die. But no matter how ready you think you are… I don’t know.”

After grafting through his grief, Simm was offered a part in the US show The Catch, which he describes as a light-hearted crime caper. “For some strange reason I thought it would be a great idea to take myself away from my family and go to LA. On my own. For a year,” he says, rolling his eyes.

So was it a good idea? “No. Not really. I mean, the work was great. I went out with [co-star and ex-Six Feet Under actor] Peter Krause to see the Dodgers a few times. I got to drive down Sunset Boulevard every day to go to work.

“But I ended up being in LA, on my own, listening to Leonard Cohen on days off, hoping the time would go quicker. You think: ‘Oh God, I really should have thought this through a little more.’”

John Simm in Collateral (BBC2)
John Simm plays David Mars MP in new drama Collateral

After two seasons, and just as he and his wife, actress Kate Magowan, were looking at LA schools for their two children, the show was cancelled.

It was time to come home. To London. To British television. And to two of the best new shows this year – preceded by a surprise return as The Master.

He had great fun acting with Peter Capaldi for the first time and it turns out Doctor and Master have more than travel through space and time in common. “I saw Peter this morning,” grins Simm. “We share the same trainer – he was coming out as I was going in!”

This month sees Simm debut in two heavyweight dramas, both written by renowned playwrights, both showing a deeply divided nation.

First up is BBC2’s Collateral (above), written by David Hare and also starring Carey Mulligan. It’s ambitious, compelling, deeply political – in many ways a successor to State Of Play.

“I think the director SJ Clarkson and David Hare are a match made in heaven,” says Simm. “She is such a dynamic, exciting director. And he is such a brilliant writer about very serious issues. They have come together and made this fantastic state-of- the-nation thriller.”

Labour are standing in front of an open goal and no one is really putting it in the net

So what does Collateral say about the state of the nation? “It says we’re fucked. It has all gone to hell in a handcart. Everything is all fucked. And until Trump leaves the Oval Office, I will not think we are not fucked. Every day I am expecting the end of the world. It is terrifying.

“I despair. Like most people, I am horrified by all of it at the moment. This government is in disarray, I can’t see any immediate challenge from Labour, really. They are standing in front of an open goal and no one is really putting it in the net.”

John Simm with The Big Issue magazine

Simm plays a Labour MP, who becomes embroiled in what at first seems the random murder of a pizza delivery man, in a tale that takes in issues around immigration, poverty, and deeply divided communities.

“It really is a divided country,” says Simm. “After Grenfell you really see it. And my character’s constituency is very much typical of London in that way. He’s trying to ride the divide. He tries to balance it all. He is essentially a good man, trying to do his best but his hands are tied.

“I’m sure a lot of MPs will recognise themselves in that position,” says Simm. “I have met a lot of MPs, see them a lot, listen to them every fucking morning on the Today programme. It seems very now.”

For Simm’s other role, opposite Adrian Lester in Mike Bartlett’s Trauma, he plays the father of a teenager who is stabbed. It is tough to watch but brilliantly played, and involved the actor going to some dark places.

“He is an everyday, decent, very astute, bright, working-class guy who is trying his very, very best to keep his family afloat,” says Simm. “And then this terrible thing happens and his world is thrown into chaos.

“When you are in that personal hell – and it is every parent’s nightmare – you expect the world to be different. But it is not. It is just different for you. The world carries on.

John Simm in Human Traffic
John Simm in Human Traffic

“He really is a man alone. My character is completely powerless. That sense of powerlessness pervades him, engulfs him at all times. It is about the trust we put into institutions.

“I am a sucker for a good script,” Simm continues. “If it knocks me out I just have to do it otherwise someone else will. Suddenly I am in LA or Hong Kong thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”

When you are in that personal hell, you expect the world to be different

So, if we were to imagine what the young John Simm, as he took his first steps on stage alongside his dad, would make of the career he will go on to have, what would he say?

“I think he would be pleased,” Simm answers. “He would probably wonder why I haven’t played a cowboy or an astronaut yet. But I have sort of made it in a way. You are not Steve Austin the Six Million Dollar Man, but you have done OK.”

Collateral begins at 9pm on BBC Two on February 12. Trauma begins at 9pm on the same day on ITV

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