Cop, psycho, idealist, brain

SHOW PEOPLE: Christopher Eccleston
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The Independent Culture
A POSTER the size of a cinema screen was recently pasted up outside the Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage, north London. Those sites don't come cheap. Nor, increasingly, does the actor whose face, a boney, harmonious hybrid of Jimmy Nail and Jimmy Dean, was plastered there. Christopher Eccleston, the psychotic accountant in Shallow Grave and the idealistic teacher in Hearts and Minds, learnt much of what he knows at the academy for actors next door. If Central had wanted to advertise the excellence of the service it provides, it couldn't have found a better way.

And yet, says the owner of the face on the poster, "I would not get anywhere near the place now. I have no academic qualifications, so I wouldn't get a grant. I got a discretionary grant." Apart from the fact that he no longer lives in his native Manchester, and that he's 31, his lack of A levels is the only titbit about his private life Eccleston is prepared to release under questioning. Thoroughly serious, he generally steers away from interviews because journalists will cross the rubicon from professional into personal. He's that rare interviewee who tapes the conversation.

The show the poster puffed is Hearts and Minds, which ends its perilous, exhilarating journey through the secondary-modern minefield this Thursday. Eccleston's character Drew, a more or less autobiographical portrait of scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern, stands for the paramount need to give kids someone to look up to. It's as if, via the poster, he is paying a debt of thanks for the faith shown to him by those he looked up to as a pupil at drama school.

Shoved into the market-place in 1986, Eccleston entered a morale-sapping period of unemployment. "It took him a remarkably long time to get started," says George Hall, then the director of the acting course at Central. "It was three or four years, literally, before his first job. It mystified me because I thought he was so commercial and exciting. He's got a very rugged regional masculinity which is very powerful, plus a lot of sensitivity and imagination, which don't always go with those qualities."

In fact one director had been bowled over by him at the final audition held for agents and casting directors. "But I was just entering the profession as a director," says Phyllida Lloyd, "and I didn't have much purchasing power as an employer. I was quite smitten by his passion, charm and talent." Eccleston eventually secured his Equity card "through pretty bent means really" taking shows around schools with Theatre in Education, but had all but thrown in the towel when Lloyd, directing at the Bristol Old Vic, gave him his first job, a blink-and-miss-it part in A Streetcar Named Desire. "At that time he had no experience at all. Subsequently he just took off. I've checked his availability for lots of projects since but he was never free." When this is quoted back to Eccleston, he is taken by surprise and says he'll ring her at once.

Gail Stevens is the casting director who put Eccleston up for the TV series Cracker, for the part of DI Bilborough, a young officer tugged two ways by plodding police procedural and high-risk criminal psychology. Her brief was to find the photofit of "somebody who was quite ambitious, and had come into the police force after university". Since playing Derek Bentley in the 1991 film Let Him Have It, about an illiterate teenager wrongly hanged for murder, it is an interesting quirk that, with no certificates from academe, Eccleston has more and more played characters with stacks of qualifications.

Even before Shallow Grave and Hearts and Minds,Eccleston felt confident enough to ask McGovern to write him out of Cracker, the show that first brought him to the king-size television audience he admits he craves. It's the allure of the small screen's deep reach that has kept him away from theatre for three years. That, and the lack of new writing. Thursday's final showdown scene in Hearts and Minds, in which the school production of Julius Caesar is revolutionarily swiped off-stage by planted actors swarming up from the auditorium, is "pretty much my attitude". "A loss," says Phyllida Lloyd.

If Bafta gave an award for best death, this year's would go to Eccleston for Bilborough's lingering, slithering, blood-smeared crawl through the front door of a terraced house in Manchester in the second series of Cracker. "It was terrifically written but Bilborough looks a better part because he died, and I had to leave the series to get that. I knew if I said I'm off I'd get a storyline." As a Catholic writer obsessed with the purity of motive, McGovern could make a story-line out of his reason for quitting. "It was very calculated," Eccleston admits.

Granada were amazed: "They think you're going to be cap in hand for the rest of your life. I quite enjoyed disabusing them of that." In fact McGovern had found in Eccleston the actor to play Drew, the righteous ruffian who bullies and cajoles thought and feeling out of boredom- numbed working- class teenagers. "But he hadn't told me," says Eccleston; the rumour that he hopped straight from one McGovern vehicle to another he dismisses as "a comfortable myth".

You wonder where Eccleston would be without McGovern, but also where McGovern would be without Eccleston. "I'm not too grateful to too many people because that would be a false modesty, but I'm glad that I'm in Jimmy's stuff. I hope I do him as many favours as he does me."

He is currently filming Our Friends in the North, a BBC2 drama series expanded by Peter Flannery from his own play. The role of a Labour activist who becomes a photo-journalist requires Eccleston to age 30 years, and calls for a Geordie accent; he has already diversified into Scouse (Drew), Edinburgh (the nerd turned savage in Shallow Grave) and south London (Derek Bentley). "It was the best thing I'd seen since Jimmy's stuff," says Eccleston. There's a belief in the pair of them about the power of television drama to do more than just send us to sleep."

The main attraction of Our Friends in the North was the promise of 10 months' work, which "is pretty unusual in my game". But after three years of it, unemployment holds no fear for an actor who walked jobless from Cracker. Should he ever sign on again, it will be because he has a remarkably low dross threshold. If you trawl, like McGovern, for impure motive, you'd find in Eccleston's combative no-sellout stance the vanity of an actor who wants to be judged by the company he keeps.

Jasper Rees

! `Shallow Grave' is on general release; `Hearts and Minds' concludes Thursday, 10pm, Channel 4.