From the enthralling Line of Duty to an award-winning podcast, Katie Jarvis talks to the multitalented actor and fails to buy him lunch
Ionce accidentally nearly didn’t feed the historian David Starkey. (Honestly not my fault. He requested a lunchtime meeting ‘next Tuesday’ at the very posh London Wolseley. How on earth was I supposed to know you needed to book using a five-year diary?)
Craig Parkinson’s request is much more convivial.
“If it’s nice weather we can meet at the Woolpack (Slad) for lunch and take photos there,” he emails. (“Best pub in England. Every Christmas, we always have this room – there are about 20 of us. When Hannah was the manager – she was incredible – everybody would start singing and it became a great Christmas tradition,” he elaborates, later.)
This time, I’m soooo super-organised. I check that the Woolpack is open on a Monday. (It is!)
What I don’t check is whether or not food is served on a Monday. (It isn’t!) When Craig Parkinson arrives – instantly, tall-y recognisable – I break this desperate news to him gently. (Partly out of courtesy; mainly because images of black Range Rovers, assault rifles, and very cross people shooting each other spring worrying to mind.) “Oh, that’s OK!” he says, cheerfully. “I’ve just come from the gym. Been having protein shakes and stuff.” Crisps? Nuts? Beer?
“I’ll have a fizzy water, thanks.” (Seriously, I cannot begin to explain how much cheaper a date he is than David Starkey.)
And we sit in the room where singing breaks out at Christmas - the rollingdrunk Slad Valley toasting us through the window - as a local drinks by the bar, and a tourist couple wanders in for lunch to discover no food is being served. By the time we leave, the tourists are ensconced with the local, who’s regaling them with Cotswold tales. “And he was the most racist man I ever knew,” he finishes with satisfaction. Don’t know what it is about Northerners. They could tell you to sod off in the strongest possible terms, and you’d still feel they were putting the kettle on to make you a friendly brew.
Salt of the earth. (I should know. I’m from Marple myself.)
There’s something intensely, warmly, ease-making about Craig Parkinson. Something ‘I’ll just put the kettle on’ about him that almost makes you surprised he’s so at home in the slightlymore-standoffish Cotswolds.
Been here eight years now.
“No – it’s totally worked!” he reassures me, Blackpool accent (Tetley out. Warming the pot. Milk in first.) intact. “I go from Kemble station and it’s an hour-and-15 minutes to London. Perfect. And we’ve made great friends here.”
That’s patently true. Everyone I reference he seems to know. He sits, sipping his ascetic fizzy water, such buoyant company it’s easy to forget it’s an interview. (I’m pretty sure he never does.) I know him best as a uniformed, clean-shaven, double-dealing copper not this bearded funny man with the dry wit and self-put-downs. “I’m the least confident person you know,” he says, at one point.
(Height exactly as expected, though. Obvs.)
They’ve lived all over, he and his wife, the actor Susan Lynch. “We’d just got married and she was straight on Broadway [playing Maire in Brian Friel’s Translations]. We were in New York for six months and I loved it. The cat came over and everything.” Then back to Camden.
“Which is always bustling… And just
a bit exhausting. I didn’t want to raise a child in London. I wanted some more space and I wanted some greenery.”
So they moved to Stroud (ish; he understandably won’t say where), had a baby, and proved Susan completely wrong.
“She was a bit worried that I wouldn’t adapt to the countryside. I’m from the seaside and I’m kind of used to cities; I’ve been in London since I was 17. But I wouldn’t live anywhere but here now.”
The Cotswolds weren’t quite so Imdbcentral when they first arrived (Waitrose Stroud: less a deli; more a mass casting session, we muse); but that’s all to the good. He constantly bumps into people such as Charlie Cooper (of This Country fame) on Kemble station; Charlie just happens to be a fan of Craig’s Two Shot Podcast – and recently ended up as one of the guests. Aha!
Bet you thought I was going to go full-on Line of Duty? Well, hold your horses; we’ll get to that.
But it’s hardly surprising Craig Parkinson wants to talk about his podcast. It celebrated its first birthday this summer, and it’s already been lauded by the Guardian (‘a luvviefree chat about acting’), as well as bagging best culture show at this year’s prestigious British Podcast Awards.
It’s his baby – his and producer Tom Griffin’s (“the best producer in the world”). It’s a simple idea. Craig sits down with a guest (used to be just actors; now it’s morphed into all sorts of creatives) and chews the cud for an hour or so.
What’s so rad about that, you ask.
Well… There are surprising elements, which help it work exceedingly well. One is that he does little research on his guests.
“Yeah - on purpose. Because I want to find out what’s going on when the audience finds out. That’s why I don’t have a set of questions – I want the conversation to flow. One [guest] was an actor called Michael Balogun from London. The only thing I knew was that, before he graduated RADA, he was in prison. I didn’t know what for; I didn’t know anything about his life.”
If you don’t listen to any other, then download that podcast. It’s fascinating. Somehow, astonishingly, to Craig Michael opens up for the first time. About his absentee father. His mother jailed for drug-dealing. His own time in care, followed by street-crime and jail. About how acting became the saviour he never thought he’d embrace.
“I met him in a theatre in Manchester and we sat in his dressing-room. An hour-and-a-half later, I’m as shocked as the audience, going, ‘Oh no! I can’t believe you’re back in prison. Why are you selling drugs again? What is going on?’
“And he touches on his mental health. He touches on suicide.”
Craig Parkinson pauses. “I don’t know why people feel they can talk to me.”
But they do. And he’s flattered by it, in a genuine, sincere, appreciative way. Touched by it, too. And by the people who write to say they’ve faced some of their own demons, listening to Two Shot. He does it to entertain – to unleash his own creative streak; but it’s pretty positive when he hears people taking more from it than an hour of relaxation.
It’s not all angst. Everyone from his own wife to author and DJ Dave Haslam has ‘appeared’. He started with Vicky Mcclure, an old friend who starred with him in Line of Duty – partly chose her first to offset his nerves; “But I also realised, as we talked, that I’d never sat down one-on-one with Vicky before. You don’t really have these conversations. It’s all surface level.”
The hardest bit has been switching off.
“How to get these people’s stories out of my head when I’m travelling back home. There was one time when I was on the train and I burst into tears because I was so mentally done in with everything washing around my brain. I didn’t know how to process it.
“A therapist got in contact, saying, ‘Look, if you ever need to talk to somebody, you can contact me.’ Which was amazing.”
Often, it’s incidents from childhood that spark the emotion.
“Interesting,” I say. “So let’s go right back in your life.”
“That’s on my podcasts. I don’t do that in interviews,” he says.
Sod off. No offence.
None taken. Builders’ with a dash of milk, please. It’s not quite true that I know nothing about Craig Parkinson’s childhood. I know bits. That he grew up in Blackpool. That, as a teenager, he worked in a newsagent’s where he served Les Dawson.
“He was lovely. He used to come in and buy his cigars every Saturday and Sunday morning. To this day, Les Dawson playing the piano is one of the funniest things. So smart.”
In fact, it was comedy – Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy – that helped shape Craig’s ambition. He was obsessed with the cinema – his favourite treat is still to binge-watch at the pictures; he honed his talent through school plays before, at the tender age of 17, moving 250 miles away to drama school in London. Fees might have been paid thanks to erstwhile government grants, but he had to feed himself by working in Pizza Hut (tucking into ‘wrong’ orders); and entertain himself working in a West End cinema at weekends.
“I met Princess Diana once. She came to see When A Man Loves a Woman
‘Les Dawson used to come in and buy his cigars every Saturday and Sunday morning’
with Meg Ryan – sneaked in with a friend and I told her she could sit in the back. She was wearing a tracksuit but I recognised her straightaway. I’ve never seen anything like her in my life. She had a glow.”
Right from graduation, the parts seem to have kept on coming - he’s a terrific and versatile actor – from TV drama to film comedy and biopic. But it was his long-running role as (*spoiler alert (though you must be one of only three people who hasn’t watched it)) corrupt copper DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan in the BBC’S Line of Duty series that really caught the public imagination.
It was a role that led people – mainly women of a certain age – to chastise him in supermarkets as ‘that very nasty man’.
“They still do but it’s always done with a bit of love,” he says. He loved it, too. “It was a bit of a plate-spinner because, as an actor, you’ve usually got just one character whereas with him [as a double-dealing, secretly bent officer], there were two. So whatever other character you were talking to reflected back on who you were in that moment. You couldn’t relax at all; you were constantly thinking two steps ahead.”
Was it true he began the role not knowing himself that Cottan was corrupt?
“Correct. In every series, Jed [Mercurio, series creator] will only give you the first three episodes because he’s constantly tinkering and changing and writing as he goes. In fact, it was a gift not to know; otherwise I’d have played those first episodes completely differently, wouldn’t I. It’s good to have the rug pulled from under your feet.”
He can’t yet reveal his latest project; but he has just finished voicing a part for the new animated BBC miniseries, Watership Down, out this Christmas. It’s a stellar cast, which includes James Mcavoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Gemma Arterton and Miles Jupp.
“It’s a brilliant story. Traumatised me, when I was a kid but I think this one is going to be a bit more child-friendly. I play Ben Kingsley’s side-kick, who, as the story progresses, has a bit of a crisis of confidence. He’s quite a tubby, silly rabbit.”
A dream role, playing an overweight, insecure bunny?
“Yeah, that’s it. I can throw the towel in now.”
So we leave the (gloriously idiosyncratic, where the local still holds sway) Woolpack for Craig to pose for photos by Slad church. Incredibly amenably. Despite hating having his photo taken. “I’m just a 6ft4, lanky streak.”
And then he’s off to do more podcasting. Doesn’t make much money from it; but that doesn’t stop it being an all-consuming passion.
Does he fancy stepping into the other Parkinson’s shoes?
He shrugs. He and Tom Griffin have been approached, but the one thing they don’t want to do is shoot the golden goose. To lose control.
“We couldn’t get away with divulging half the stuff we do if it was policed in any way.”
Has he ever had his Meg Ryan moment?
“Now, it’s funny you should say that because I haven’t. But I rewatched that clip and I thought he was out of order. I thought he was a bit shirty and a bit rude and a bit misogynistic, if I’m honest.”
And that’s not just speaking as an interviewer. He fixes me in the eye.
“If that was a journalist doing that to me,” he says, “I’d walk out.”
Quite right. And, yeah – another cuppa would be great.
‘Watership Down is a brilliant story. Traumatised me when I was a kid, but I think this one is going to be a bit more child-friendly’