MR BATES LIGHTENS UP
After two series as Downton Abbey’s tortured valet, Brendan Coyle plays it for laughs in Sky1’s new comedy drama
He’s best known as the anguished Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, valet to the Earl of Grantham and now convicted of murdering his embittered and vengeful wife Vera. A man with a permanently tortured expression, a constant limp — thanks to an old war wound — and the victim of unrelentingly cruel and sadistic treatment from maid O’brien and footman Thomas below stairs.
But viewers get to see a different side of Brendan Coyle this week in his new comedy drama Starlings, and it’s little wonder he seized the chance to show he’s game for a good laugh after his traumatic time on Downton. ‘I realised I was getting a bit of a reputation for playing an on-screen grouser after the second series,’ says Brendan, 48, who was born in England to an Irish father and a Scottish mother. He started off his career in Ireland, studying drama in Dublin, then touring as a stage manager before winning acting roles in productions such as Playboy Of The Western World at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Then came Downton. ‘I was offered a couple more period dramas where I could go off and be grumpy in a hat or a cloak, or there was Starlings. I read the first episode and laughed a lot. It was very upbeat, warm and positive, so I said, “Bang! This is good. Where do I sign?”’
Brendan plays electrician Terry Starling in the eight-part series, whose extended family live with him and his loyal wife Jan in a big detached house. Jan is played by Lesley Sharp, also not known for her cheery demeanour as under-pressure cop Janet Scott in Scott & Bailey, ‘It’s a positive piece of television,’ says Lesley, ‘about a very loving extended family who don’t have cash to burn but look out for one another and care about the community in which they live. Normally there’s some kind of terrible secret lurking within a TV family, some broken relationship, something awful going on. But not with Starlings. At its heart is a married couple who aren’t in the first flush of youth but who still love each other. How often do you find that on TV?’ Brendan adds, ‘Not only do they still love each other, they also fancy each other. Which is refreshing.’
The show’s feel-good vibe doesn’t stop there. In the opening episode, the entire Starling family gather around a birthing pool in the lounge for the arrival of daughter Bell’s first child. Gatherings around the kitchen table — featuring Terry and Jan, their children Bell, Charlie and Gravy, their baby grandchild, Granddad, his long-lost son, Loz, Bell’s estranged partner Reuben and Jan’s nomadic nephew Fergie — are regular occurrences and nearly always happy occasions.
The show’s co-writer Steve Edge insists Starlings is positive and warm, rather than sickly sweet. ‘It’s oldfashioned family comedy drama, about four generations living under the same roof with no swearing and no drugs, which we believe will appeal to viewers of all ages,’ he says. ‘It’s non-cynical, but not sentimental and it tackles the issues real families face in their everyday lives. It’s comedy with heart but it’s also got a bite to it.’
Brendan Coyle and Lesley Sharp as Terry and Jan in Starlings