This is England. Broadchurch. Line of Duty: Vicky McClure has been a core component of three of British drama’s landmark shows in recent years, yet one audition earlier in her career proved to be a challenge too far.
McClure arrived in London “rushed and sweaty” and struggling to find the location for an audition back in the days when the alternative to Google Maps was a printed A-Z. The job? A role as a zombie in the classic romzomcom Shaun of the Dead.
“They said, if you can just stand at the end of the room… this lady here is the other character,” she recalls. “When you’re ready, just walk towards her in a zombie sort of fashion and try to kill her.”
Sounds pretty simple?
“It wasn’t, ‘cos that’s fucking weird!” she laughs. “I got there, probably a bit nervous and then all of a sudden I had to be a zombie. Lo and behold, I didn’t get that job...”
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Over a decade on, and her career has flourished in all of the right ways. The latest chapter comes with a key role in the BBC’s new adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent. McClure plays Winnie, the wife of agent Verloc (played by Toby Jones) who finds himself trapped in the middle of a terrorist plot. It’s a marriage of convenience, with Winnie’s personal aim - to provide a comfortable life for her childlike adult brother - standing in contrast to the revolutionary politics that surrounds her.
“Winnie is one of those people that never really did anything wrong, all she ever wanted to do was please,” she explains. “But she never found the way to please herself. It’s quite a sad existence in some ways. She just wanted her brother to have a good life. She’s had a tough time and she’s quite a frail character in a lot of ways, but she must have a lot of strength in her to deal with her life the way that she does.”
Although The Secret Agent is undeniably a period drama, it echoes Peaky Blinders’ ability to make yesteryear brim with intensity while also drawing parallels with the current day. Issues of terrorism are often presented as a binary war of good versus bad, but The Secret Agent demonstrates the deeper issues that inform such actions: the nuances of each individual’s motivation and some intense personal dilemmas.
“In terms of the language, the characters, the actors and the subject matter, The Secret Agent is a show that feels extremely modern to me,” McClure concurs. “It’s very different in terms of today’s society and how it was back in the day, but people can relate it to the modern day in quite a lot of ways.”
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To me it’s where I can find the truth as much as I can.
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Coercion is a prevalent theme. Verloc is manipulated by the Russians to the extent that he’s forced to attempt to implement a terrorist act on home soil. In turn, he manipulates Stevie for his own means.
“Verloc is pushed into a corner that he can’t get out of, and then he tries to get out of it. He does have a conscience and he knows that he can’t do what he’s being asked to. He takes Stevie with him as a ploy to get around it, and that’s the act of a very selfish and confused man.”
McClure got the bug for acting when she joined The Television Workshop in Nottingham when she was 11-years-old. It’s an obvious destination for casting directors to find new talent, with the likes of Jack O’Connell, Samantha Morton, Toby Kebbell and numerous This is England cast members all graduates of its training. It’s a registered charity, and open to anyone with the potential to succeed. The aim is to seek “truthful, rather than ‘stagey’ performance, remaining rooted in the real world whilst releasing and guiding the imagination, striving for belief in the moment.”
“The Workshop is a completely different type of approach to a drama school,” she states. “It’s improvised and there’s not a whole amount of writing and reading involved – it’s all practical and improvisation is what they do down there. Spending ten years there has definitely established the kind of actor that I am and the kind of actor that I like to be, and I’ll continue to work in those ways. To me it’s where I can find the truth as much as I can.”
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It was here that Shane Meadows first connected with McClure before she was cast (alongside future TIE actor Andrew Shim) in the director’s 1999 film A Room For Romeo Brass. “My impression was, if this is what acting is, I like it!” Her subsequent casting in This is England was a world away from that Shaun of the Dead incident: “It wasn’t really a casting, just a conversation in the pub.”
Meadows’ introduction to a story that would extend to three television series spanning several years was simple: “I’m doing this film, you’re called Lol, you’ve got a skinhead.” McClure’s reaction? “I had really long hair at the time, so I thought he’s get me a nice wig... So the next thing I know, I found myself in a chair getting my hair shaved off.”
Throughout This is England, Meadows has expertly blended knockabout comedy with a collective gang vibe and the kind of social realist horrors that typify the best of the kitchen sink drama tradition. The latter is never far away, most notably for Lol in a harrowing scene in which she kills her father Mick (Johnny Harris) in self-defence.
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If people look hard enough, they can find me doing a bit of everything...
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McClure credits both Meadows and Harris for creating an atmosphere that allowed her to embrace moments of such intensity. “You feel like you’re in a safe place to portray certain feelings and emotions and do what we have to do, which is to make it as real as humanly possible. It was extremely hard, possibly one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to do but I was in the safest hands.”
Broadchurch signalled another highlight as the public’s fascination with the murky whodunit grew dramatically with each episode (“It was a strange scenario because I hadn’t been in something that had that kind of reaction”) and the continuing success of Line of Duty is something McClure is evidently proud of.
“I don’t purposefully go out looking for darker roles, but I do enjoy something that I can get my teeth into. In terms of comedy there are a couple of films – Svengali and Convenience – and they were the most amount of fun, and it’s great to be able to do a bit of both. If people look hard enough, they can find me doing a bit of everything, it just happens that most of what’s up my street is fairly dark...”
During that pause, you can anticipate the disclaimer that will follow. “Although I’m a really happy person in real life!”
The Secret Agent will broadcast on BBC One over the summer.
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Photography: Ash Kingston