“It is a huge moment in any actor’s career, when he gets to play the titular character.” Adrian Dunbar is back on television playing a police officer. He has done this before, of course. But similarities between his new role – as DI Alex Ridley in major new ITV Sunday night detective drama Ridley – and his iconic turn as Superintendent Ted Hastings in BBC1’s ratings smash Line of Duty are hard to find.
Sure, there are a few. A keen sense of mission, a dedication to justice, some heartbreak lurking behind the eyes. But the differences are far more intriguing. Rather than Hastings’ interest in one thing and one thing only… bent coppers, Ridley has a keen ear for jazz (as well as an eye for injustice), as the series foregrounds grief, loneliness and the healing power of music.
This gives ITV’s big new Sunday Night Hope a nicely discordant edge, even as it sticks to many of the classic detective show structural standards.
There are big shoes to fill. Any Sunday Night series of this ilk must live up to the greats of the genre – Morse, A Touch of Frost, Cracker, Prime Suspect. But Dunbar is confident he has a head start with viewers, who already trust him implicitly following Line of Duty.
“I’m on safe territory for a while with the audience – they are comfortable with me as a central character,” he says. “And people see me as a cop.
“I’m realistic – for these shows you have to be either a cop or a doctor for new storylines to appear every week. I didn’t feel like I suddenly wanted to be someone completely different. Maybe that’s the next step in my career. But the opportunity to create another if not iconic, at least interesting character who can carry a series is a huge challenge.
“And because I am out of uniform, you will very quickly forget about Ted. The baggage I bring with me from Line of Duty is very quickly left behind.”
More on Line of Duty (and its possible return) later – because, yes, the gaffer has some news – but there is much to discuss as Dunbar calls in from the north-west of Ireland, 40 miles from his hometown of Enniskillen.
He is in fine spirits. Happy Days are here again – in the form of the tenth annual Samuel Beckett festival in his hometown. The actor is directing Ohio Impromptu on Devenish Island. Beckett has been a passion since he was a drama student and first watched Waiting For Godot. “I was so moved. And didn’t know why I was moved,” he says, wonder in his voice still, four decades later.
Another great passion is music. And, working with the series producer Jonathan Fisher from very early in the process on Ridley, Dunbar was able to weave this into the character they created. Because DI Ridley is not just a detective. He sings. Dennis Potter would be delighted.
“I was able to bring the musical element into the series,” says Dunbar. Ridley and his friend (played by Julie Graham) co-own a jazz club. And this is where we get to know another side to the detective.
“I played in bands, I know the music scene reasonably well. But I’ve never had a platform on TV to show that I can sing,” continues Dunbar. “I’m not the world’s best singer, but these songs really suit me.”
It’s true. In Ridley, Dunbar’s detective is slowly coming back to life after being enveloped in crippling, crushing grief following the deaths of his wife and daughter. His grief is compounded by his retirement from the job he has devoted much of his life to. Losing his planned retirement companions means a return to work – as a consultant working with his former understudy (Bronagh Waugh) – at least gives him something familiar to cling to.
“He starts off in a very curmudgeonly, depressive place,” says Dunbar. “Gradually, over the series, he starts to loosen up. But he has a special connection with those people who are, like himself, going through some kind of grief.”
A scene at the end of the first episode highlights this journey. As Ridley walks into the jazz club, something changes in him. It is as though he is allowing life to happen again. Then he steps on stage, shares a nod and a wink with the pianist, and starts to sing.
If the scene itself isn’t enough to floor viewers, add in Dunbar’s interpretation of Richard Hawley’s beautiful Coles Corner and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
“His songs seem to fit. Not just me and my voice but the show,” says Dunbar.
“I didn’t know about him, I’m ashamed to say. I was looking online – ‘jazz, Yorkshire, blah, blah, blah’. But when I heard him I sent it straight to our producer. ‘This is it’. Richard’s songs are wonderful, and they deal with grief as well.”
Dunbar hopes the show sparks renewed interest in the Sheffield singer, just as Stranger Things took Kate Bush back to the top of the charts.
“It would just give me such pleasure,” he says. “He’s got a huge cult following, but it would be amazing if he got really big after this. He’s a nice guy. We spoke a lot, then I met up with him at a documentary festival in Sheffield. Richard is very politically active, and he is concerned about his own community as well.”
Producer Jonathan Fisher previously worked with Dunbar on Irish thriller Blood.
“ITV has a fine tradition of producing enduring Sunday detective dramas, from Morse and Frost to Vera and Endeavour,” Fisher tells us. “Adrian carries such gravitas with his performances and is so well-loved by the public, I felt he was a perfect fit for this kind of role.
“Adrian has brought great depth to the character and was particularly passionate about incorporating the jazz elements into the piece.”
Dunbar’s connection to music goes way back.
“There was always music in our house,” continues the actor.
“My mother was a fabulous singer. She loved all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, we had a lot of tenors from my father – like Joseph Ward, Gigli and Caruso. There was a lot of Irish music as well, of course, then throw in The Beatles and The Kinks, who were my bands.
“I started a three-piece country band when I was 16, doing Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash – back in the days when none of those people were trendy. Then I got a gig with an Elvis Presley impersonator playing bass and travelled all over the place. I actually went to New York in 1979 with him. I did that for a couple of years and in between gigs I started helping out with the local amateur dramatics.
“I played a couple of parts and someone said: ‘You’re really not too bad at this’. So I left the band, went to England, did one audition for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and luckily for me, forever and ever, I got in. That was my big break.”
Happily, acting’s gain was not music’s loss. Dunbar has form for mixing the two. His next big break was co-writing and starring in Hear My Song (for which he was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Bafta). In this, he played another club owner looking to revive his prospects – this time by searching for legendary Irish Tenor Joseph Locke.
“The club scenes in Ridley really did remind me of Hear My Song,” he says. “It’s an environment I’m really comfortable in. I sent some pictures to my friend Peter Chelsom, who I wrote the film with, and it reminded him of those days as well. Very much, actually.
“So it is nice to be back on familiar territory but hopefully putting together something that is unique.”
And next? More Ridley, he hopes. And more Line of Duty too?
“I saw them [Vicky McClure and Martin Compston] a few weeks ago. We had a bite to eat with Jed [Mercurio] and it was lovely being together for lager and curries. So hopefully we might do something else. Plans are being hatched. Fingers crossed.
“We weren’t able to go out during the last series. That’s why we would really like to do something again – to get back to Belfast and have some fun.”
While delighting in directing Beckett, enjoying singing in his new Sunday night detective drama, and teasing millions of fans with the idea that AC12 might be getting the band back together, Dunbar is also looking ahead… to the next election.
Asked for his own, personal big issue, it is not bringing Beckett and Hawley to wider audiences (though this would be nice). Nor is it building on his acting success. Nope. Like many, he is impatient for political change.
“The big issue for everybody is to get rid of the Tories, isn’t it?” he says.
“Vote for change. Because we’ve had, I don’t know how many Tory PMs now, none of them elected. And it doesn’t seem like any of them have been good for the country. Brexit’s a disaster. We’re making a mockery of democracy.
“This leadership election just feels like another mockery of democracy. They really should be going for an election at this point.”
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