Frank Harper: A prime cut of beef

When UK casting directors want a tough guy, the name of Frank Harper looms large. It's all a long way from his days at the meat market, he tells Ben Thompson
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The Independent Culture

There's a feeling British films can sometimes give you which is unlike any other. It's a form of disorientation which is almost chemical in its intensity. Not quite the same as entering a time warp – because a time warp takes you to a period that either has already existed, or will do at some point in the future – more like being in a cinematic limbo. You're not quite in the present, not quite in the future and not quite in the past, but lost somewhere in between.

Two different portals give access to this state of temporal confusion. The first is the sort of domestic production which is so in thrall to a past cinematic golden moment that its modern setting becomes a kind of hallucination. The second strives so hard to keep in touch with the zeitgeist that it comes back around the other way into a bizarre BBC Newsround netherworld of forced contemporaneity.

This autumn has already brought us extreme examples of both these home-grown celluloid tendencies, in the form of Shiner – a hackneyed ringside melodrama which even the grandstanding presence of Michael Caine couldn't save – and now Richard Parry's frenetic Brixtonian farrago South West 9 (see Anthony Quinn's review). While in many ways inhabiting opposite ends of the spectrum of artistic underachievement, these two films share a single redeeming feature – the fulcrum to their see-saw – in the burly form of actor Frank Harper.

As Caine's right-hand man in Shiner (a former unlicensed boxer who "once fought three rounds with a pitbull"), Harper does not seem to have all that much to work with. Yet his sheer screen presence somehow overcomes the script's determination to load him down with half-assed braggadocio and unconvincing character baggage (his house is remorselessly tasteful, he reads Nietzsche in his spare time).

While the screenplay staggers and weaves like an aged welterweight on his 15th comeback, Harper alone has access to the magic sponge. His head cocked slightly to one side, his face projecting quizzical dignity in a manner reminiscent of De Niro's Jake La Motta in the latter stages of Raging Bull, Frank Harper is Shiner's representative on earth: a constant reminder of what the film could have been. He does the same thing again in South West 9, only this time concealed behind a small mask of dubious facial hair a la John Thomson in Cold Feet. His scenes with tiny but imposingly foul-mouthed EastEnders veteran Nicola Stapleton slice through the miasma of unreality and overstatement that engulf almost every other aspect of the film (especially the club scenes in a church where someone washes their dreadlocks in the font).

These aren't the first occasions on which Harper has done this, and they probably won't be the last. One of the busiest of UK film actors, his name is constantly cropping up on the cast-lists of films which aren't quite good enough for him – Lucky Break, Goodbye Charlie Bright, Kevin & Perry Go Large – and sometimes, joyously, in those (most notably Shane Meadows' twentyfourseven and A Room For Romeo Brass) which are.

In its ever intensifying desperation for a shot of proletarian adrenalin, the British film industry sometimes suggests a junkie struggling to find a vein, so how is it that Frank Harper comes to supply such an intense and reliable fix?

In person, Harper leans – just as you'd hope – toward the imposing side of bulky. As he makes an affable entrance at a favoured Blackheath watering hole (a halfway house between his home in the Kentish green belt and the industry playground of Soho which he "can't stand"), he's an instantly recognisable figure, with a distinguished touch of grey in his short hair and a small scar under his left eye.

He originally hails from Downham; a rough-and-tumble south east London enclave which, while it lacks the brand recognition of Rotherhithe or Deptford, can still boast more than its fair share of genuine hard cases. Leaving school in 1978, Harper worked for nine years at Smithfield meat market, while keeping up acting as a hobby at the Albany Empire's youth theatre.

He'd always thought being a film actor would be a nice way to earn a living, and when his Albany Empire mentor Trix Worrell (writer of Channel 4's Desmond's) got him a small part – "a spit and a cough" – in a film he was making, Frank Harper was hooked. He did "a job a year" for the next five years – a bit in The Bill, a bit in Birds Of A Feather – making ends meet by driving minicabs and labouring on building sites.

On the verge of turning 30, just as things were starting to get embarrassing, he got his first big break; a meeting with director Jim Sheridan, at that time casting In the Name of the Father. Harper arrived to find Daniel Day-Lewis waiting for him, "which threw me a bit". "Jim asked me where I trained, and I said 'SMADA – the Smithfield academy of dramatic art' – and that sort of broke the ice...Then he said 'Do you want to do some improvisations with Daniel?'" Harper grimaces, remembering the mixture of delight and alarm this invitation induced, but he got the part, and things began to look up.

His next turning point came in February 1997, with calls from Shane Meadows and Guy Ritchie. While it was the latter's Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that would do all the damage at the box office (and subsequently come to exert a malign influence on British cinematic mores that is still all too evident in both Shiner and South West 9), it was the former's twentyfourseven which turned Frank Harper properly loose in front of the camera for the first time.

Improvised dialogue established the perfect equilibrium of compassion and cruelty (at one point his character reassures his overweight son "You can't go through life being fat and stupid") which is one of his trademarks as an actor. Harper sidestepped the post Lock, Stock boom in pseudo-lowlife posturing to shine on the small screen as Nigel, the villainous but deeply sympathetic manager in Richard Osman's prophetic Channel 4 pop mockumentary series Boyz Unlimited. He then reunited with the silver-tongued Meadows ("Every time I work with him, he sells me a watch") to do his most powerful work to date, in last year's brilliant East Midlands Western A Room For Romeo Brass.

Harper offers a way forward into something that looks very like the 21st century. The man himself, though, is humble. "When I hear people moaning about having to get up early and go on a film set when it's cold," Frank Harper says cheerfully, "I always think 'Well, it's better than getting up at 3am to lump a quarter of beef around'."