Press and Journal Interview (Oct 2008)

Matthew was interviewed by Press and Journal. You can read the full interview here.

Oct 23, 2008

Matthew’s debt to the past
Spooks actor Matthew Macfadyen tells Sarah O’Meara why the new BBC1 adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Little Dorrit is so relevant today
Matthew Macfadyen as Arthur Clennam

DEBTORS’ prisons are back. Not, sadly, for City bankers, but as the setting for BBC1’s latest period drama, Little Dorrit.

When adaptation master Andrew Davies decided to tackle the lesser-known Charles Dickens novel about bad investments, he couldn’t have foreseen the poignant irony.

The 14-part series from the scriptwriter of Bleak House stars Spooks’ Matthew Macfadyen and the critically acclaimed Tom Courtenay.

Focusing on the hollow rewards of pursuing wealth, Little Dorrit is likely to touch a few nerves.

Last adapted for television in 1988, this rags to riches tale about a family who lose their money and end up inside the walls of Marshalsea debtors prison is ready to be revisited.

Matthew says the 1850s story is uncannily relevant to today’s world.

“This is a subject which is obviously very pertinent now,” he said.

“Often with the classics, you imagine other people are going to say: ‘How is he going to make it different?’ With this one, there wasn’t any of that.”

The actor, who made his name in BBC spy drama Spooks and is married to Ashes To Ashes star Keeley Hawes, is one of the few to have never personally experienced debt. After a seamless rise from theatre to television and film – his latest film, Frost/Nixon, with Kevin Bacon, premiered recently in London – the 33-year-old admits to being luckier than most.

“I have a friend who is an actor, who recently declared herself bankrupt,” he said, frowning.

Thankfully, it seems unlikely his Little Dorrit co-stars will suffer the same fate. The glittering cast includes James Fleet (Vicar of Dibley), Amanda Redman (New Tricks), Ruth Jones (Gavin and Stacey), Pam Ferris (Rosemary and Thyme) and Judy Parfitt (Girl With a Pearl Earring).

“It was amazing to have such an extraordinary and varied cast,” said Matthew.

“In the wedding scene, we laughed that if a bomb went off in the chapel, many big projects would go down. Looking around, you could see Andy Serkis talking to Annette Crosbie. You’d be thinking: ‘There’s that guy from Lord of The Rings talking to the woman from One Foot in the Grave.”’

Matthew may be hot property in the acting world, but he insists he’s still not complacent about his career.

“As an actor, you have the jubilation of getting the job and then the terror of making a mess of it,” he said.

“Luckily, that feeling goes as you get on with it. You can’t really operate effectively when you’re scared.”

Matthew wasn’t familiar with the Little Dorrit story, but as soon as he read the script he was eager to get on board.

“I had no preconceptions. But I got a call about it, read the script and adored the story. I thought it was really funny. Because it is like a thriller, a real potboiler, the idea of serialising it is brilliant. And it’s great that it will be following EastEnders.”

Matthew plays Arthur Clennam, a wealthy businessman who returns to England after his father’s death, entrusted with a mysterious watch, and a last request.

“I felt sympathetic towards Arthur. He’s very good, not snobbish in any way, and is able to talk to anyone on their level. But I think he’s a bit lonely. He’s had an awfully strict, loveless upbringing, with a terrifying mother and a bit of a diffident father. And when he comes back from China, where he was working for the family firm, he feels a bit lost.”

Playing one of the central characters in the series, Matthew had his work cut out.

“I had 65 days of filming. But the filming does jump around a lot, so it was never relentless. I have incredible respect for the crew, who were there for five months every single day from the crack of dawn to when we finished. I can’t believe they did it, really. But I think everyone involved thought they were producing something brilliant and so they wanted to work really hard.”

While he’s used to making television, Matthew says acting for the camera is a strange art.

“It’s such a peculiar thing. You have to be in character so you can play the scene truthfully. And yet you also have to know where the camera is so you’re not walking into someone else’s light. That’s the battle, the perennial struggle.”