Trevor Eve: Nice but nasty

He's cornered the market in bad-tempered cops and sleazy politicians to become the most bankable star in British TV. So what's his secret? Susie Rushton meets a very clever Trevor

The wolfish gaze and peaked eyebrows are still there, but the hair, it must be said, has been subject to severe cutbacks. Trevor Eve's mane – still as thick as a broom at 56 years old – has been a corollary of his sex appeal, from the tousled mop-top of Seventies sleuth Eddie Shoestring, via the swept-back style of callous Tory minister Duncan Matlock in The Politician's Wife, to the silvery Serie-A-manager style that cold-case cop DS Boyd favours in Waking the Dead.

Tomorrow night, Eve plays the lead role in Hughie Green, Most Sincerely, a classy BBC4 biopic that demanded a series of tonsorial transformations spanning the life of the Opportunity Knocks host over three decades.

Even off screen, Eve's crowning glory has been the subject of column inches and national debate; according to recent newspaper reports, he lost his rag while watching the polo at Cowdray when two female spectators let their cigarette smoke drift under his nose. His wife, the actress Sharon Maughan, complained that Trev's hair was about to catch fire. (Cue gossip-column sneers about his overuse of hairspray.)

Snide diary items such as this – usually documenting the public inflammation of the actor's temper, rather than his hair – must be behind Eve's evident mistrust of the press. Arriving a few minutes early at his office in Soho, my presence seems to be putting him on edge. His famously suave expression is compromised by tension. Wearing a black suit and brown shirt that Boyd might wear, he attempts a naturalistic portrayal of an actor-at-ease. "Glass of water?" he offers, in the silkenly condescending baritone that has helped to establish him as telly's most irresistible bastard. "Fruit tea?" After introducing me to the two attractive women employed by his company, Projector Productions, we sweep next door into an all-beige, sunlit room and sit on two pale sofas. Very far apart. A BBC publicity officer is making her own tape of the interview, presumably to head off any unwelcome hair-related skirmishes.

I lob him an easy one. So, Opportunity Knocks. Was he a fan?

Smash. "Well, you're too young to remember Hughie Green," Eve says testily, shifting in his seat. Perhaps. But, like many, I do remember Paula Yates's very public discovery that Green was her biological father, a revelation that is the crux of Most Sincerely.

Wary he may be of our encounter, but Eve has no cause to fear the critics. For 30 years, he has carved a reputation among programme-makers as the most bankable star in TV drama. His ratings appeal is undoubted. Indeed, there's a pleasing symmetry that, while Opportunity Knocks regularly drew audiences of 24 million, so did Shoestring, the hugely popular detective series that was Eve's breakthrough in the late Seventies. Today, in a vastly more competitive entertainment landscape, Waking the Dead regularly hits figures of eight million.

****

Still his best-loved role, Shoestring took early retirement when Eve refused to sign up for a third series. The ambitious young actor had set his sights higher – on classical theatre and Hollywood.

During the late Eighties he lived in Los Angeles – though he spent most of his time commuting back to the London stage. "I was the only actor living in Beverly Hills working at the National Theatre," he says. Eve raised a family there with Maughan, made a series for US television, and films in Canada and Germany, but not Hollywood. "I enjoyed the lifestyle. I'm not an LA-hater," he says.

By the mid-1990s, according to his own analysis, it was his theatre work that was winning him the plum roles in serious, one-off dramas for the BBC. He moved back to Britain and, as he moved into his forties, Eve's speciality became lying politicians, adulterous husbands and other middle-class miscreants – and women loved him for it. As Felix Kramer (A Sense of Guilt), he has an affair with his friend's teenaged daughter. In An Evil Streak, Eve's character spies on another teenager through a two-way mirror.

But the role that finally cut ties with Eddie Shoestring was Duncan Matlock, the Tory minister in Channel 4's The Politician's Wife, a three-part drama broadcast in the last days of John Major's sleaze-wrecked government. Violent, scheming and repulsively Thatcherite, Eve's slimy character also indulged in the most rampant phone sex ever broadcast on mainstream telly. But he hasn't been typecast against his will; it's been his choice to play the shitbags. "I think a lot of people are afraid of playing characters that aren't likeable. But I like to push it as far as I can, to find out if it's possible to play them as a three-dimensional person. Just because someone is a shitbag, it doesn't mean they don't help old ladies across the street."

As DS Boyd, he is not so much malicious as mixed up, a world-weary copper prone to outbursts that provide Sue Johnston's psychiatrist character with plenty to analyse. About to begin its seventh series, Waking the Dead has steadied from its shaky beginnings to become a reliably well-written crime series. Much of that improvement is down to Eve's own efforts. When it began, back in 2000, he was not impressed. "I didn't think the scripts were good enough," he says. "It was very... confused."

But Daniel Percival, the award-winning director of the Hughie Green film, who worked with Eve on Waking the Dead, says now: "Boyd is a role he created. He's honed it for almost a decade." Lorraine Heggessey, the former controller of BBC1, now chief executive of TalkbackThames, agrees. "He's a very intelligent actor and has always been interested in the scripts he's been asked to perform. He's meticulous."

Though he relishes the challenge of the big BBC dramas, the series seem to be a means to an end for Eve, a platform that allows him to maintain a public profile and land him those juicy roles. The routine of filming Waking the Dead has allowed him to be selective. Time was, he tells me, getting quite misty-eyed, when regular appearances at the National would have the same effect, but those days are gone. "The business has de-eliticised. It's become a democratic event," he says, before adding quickly: "Which is probably fine. But in the Seventies and Eighties, if you did well in the theatre, you would be hand-picked for the juicy three-parter. I did The Politician's Wife when I was in theatre. You did that, you went back to the National Theatre, swanned around..."

Eve is afraid of sounding elitist, but he can't help criticising the contemporary dumbing-down of television schedules. "When I was growing up, that Jean-Paul Sartre series The Roads to Freedom was a big hit. I don't think you'd get that now. I'm not harping on about the golden years, there was certainly a lot of rubbish too, but I think that projects are more accessible to everybody now."

****

It wasn't Eve's parents who fed his theatrical ambitions. "It wasn't supported in northern Birmingham. They thought I was insane," he says. As a child, he didn't take even minor roles in the plays at his hated boarding school, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire.

Born in 1951 to a publican father and a Welsh mother (to whom he has often credited his passionate nature), Eve instead excelled at sport (mainly cricket, though now he prefers tennis and polo) and then studied architecture for three years before realising that theatre and cinema was his calling. He found Rada in the Yellow Pages. "Yes, that sounds like a real slick little story, doesn't it? But I really and truly did. I wanted to be a director."

Instead, he became an actor and, straight after Rada, in 1974, Eve went to the Liverpool Everyman Theatre to play Paul McCartney in Willy Russell's musical John Paul George Ringo... & Bert, a celebration of The Beatles. Anthony Sher was Ringo. "We mimed, wore wigs, it was a romp," says Eve of the first production that got him noticed.

But Eve also owes much to Sir Laurence Olivier. They met in 1976 at an audition for a TV remake of Hindle Wakes that the venerable actor was directing. "I didn't want to be nervous when I first met him, so I got to the audition early. He was wearing salmon-pink trousers," says Eve. He got the part, acting alongside Donald Pleasence.

Olivier turned out be quite the mentor, inviting Eve to intimate thespian dinners, introducing him to Franco Zeffirelli, even sponsoring his Green Card application ("They used to have his letter framed at immigration," Eve claims.) The finest British actor of all time advised Eve to "be bold. He was a hell of a tiger."

It was when Zeffirelli cast him in Filumena that Eve met Maughan, an actress whose credits include Holby City but who is best remembered for flirting her way through the long-running Gold Blend ads with co-star Anthony Head. "You can understand each other's concerns," he says of marriage to another actor: "The anxiety and the sleepless nights you go through, the process of getting work early in your career."

The week before we met, I'd read that the couple had just bought a "£1m countryside bolthole" in Sussex. ("Somebody keeps feeding the Daily Mail useless information," says Eve, with a mirthless laugh.) They divide their time between there and Chelsea. Eve and Maughan have three children, two sons, Jack and George, and a 26-year-old daughter, Alice, who starred in The Rotters' Club and Poirot and is now appearing in Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll on Broadway, opposite her boyfriend, Rufus Sewell. "There is an acting gene that has been passed down to me from my parents," Alice Eve said recently. "It's nature, not nurture." Does he give her advice? "No. Well. Occasionally. It'll be very specific. She's just gone to LA to read for the guys who did Knocked Up and I was giving her some advice on working with comedians..."

****

In his latest role, Eve plays a highly dysfunctional father who yearns pathetically for a relationship with an illegitimate daughter while being unable to manage any affection for his legitimate offspring. Most Sincerely begins with a News of the World hack announcing to the congregation at Green's funeral that the dead man is the real father of Paula Yates. The film then tracks back to Green's unhappy childhood, miserable marriage, hands-off attitude to parenting and scores of affairs, the latter requiring scenes of rough sex that tested even Eve's expertise as the king of small-screen venality, the British answer to Michael Douglas.

A friend once made him a special tape of all his televised couplings. "I have done loads... through the years," he admits. Does he ever read a script and think, "Oh no, not again"? "Yeah. I mean, my question is, 'What's the point to this?' Is it just to put a bit of sex in it, or is it actually telling us something about the person? I think, in Hughie's case, it says quite a lot about him. I hope the sex scenes show the selfish approach he apparently had."

I'd wondered whether the inevitable questions about his sex scenes would make him twitchy. Far from it. "There's a lot of entering from behind in there," he goes on. "A good sex scene should tell you about the character, rather than be something gratuitous we watch before... getting back to the story. You know, I had to think: how does Hughie Green come? I had to make a punt on that."

Eve's attention to detail is a leitmotif of his acting style. On the first day of shooting Shoestring, back in 1979, he had a stand-up row with the director because he believed so strongly that Eddie's tie would be skinny, not kipper-style. (He won the argument.)

How on earth did he, erm, nuance Green's orgasms? "Well, with the implication that he's stayed in his own world," Eve says seriously: "Implying that he's not really given to the pairing. And he was particularly unpleasant to women."

The film is metatelevision – television about television – which is a preoccupation for programme-makers today. As it is based on real events, Eve was obliged to impersonate – territory that (at least since his days in a Beatles wig) marked a departure. At first he didn't want to take the role, so repellent and unsympathetic did he find Green.

It's a good thing he relented, as his portrayal of the man – all surly, curling top lip, syrupy Canadian accent, smug self-regard – is thrilling, bringing together all Eve's talents for the sinister and sadistic charmers of life. One of the best dramatic ironies of the film occurs when Green announces on Wogan that he has a brilliant idea for a television show – a public lottery. His prescience is dismissed by the powers that be, but by the end of the film you feel that Green's flair for light entertainment is his sole redeeming feature.

Eve himself is carving out a second career developing drama. His production company, Projector, has given life to two hefty Channel 4 dramas, starring Kathleen Turner and Kate Beckinsale, and is working on a third project, a romantic comedy by Mike Bullen, who wrote Cold Feet. Eve became a producer, literally, by accident – in 1995, he fell off a polo pony and broke three vertebrae. For six months, he thought he might not walk again. So he set up in business. "I never just wanted to turn up and do my scenes. When I'm on set, I'm looking at the focus guy, thinking, 'I could do focus'." And Eve's expansion into programme making was given further range when Heggessey's TalkbackThames purchased a stake last autumn.

And there's always a chance that Eve could make a Helen Mirren/Tom Wilkinson-style late career break into Hollywood; he notched up roles in Possession and Troy, his part as a warmongering politician in the latter cut short by a studio, he says, fearful of comparisons with the Iraq conflict. He continues his theatre work – in 2003, he won an Olivier award for his Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya – and he plans another, as yet undecided, theatre role for next year.

What's the difference between theatre and film acting? Big pause. "Truth," he booms across the chasm between our two cream sofas: "That's all you have to do. Be real." There's no difference between acting for the camera and for a live audience? Really? "There's endless discussions about stage having to be bigger, but... I think the truth and feeling adapt to the space. But now I'm sensing that your readers will be on the verge of thinking, 'pretentious'." No, not at all. This is The Independent, I say, by way of encouragement, but we get no further. Click. Click. The tapes are switched off.

We're both relieved that it's over. You don't enjoy this, do you, Trevor? He looks crestfallen. "Really?" he says, punching a cream cushion: "I thought I was quite forthcoming."

Too forthcoming, on second thoughts – the next day, we get a call asking for copy approval (politely declined). But for what reason is Trevor Eve so wary of the press? Last year, the Daily Mail did indeed publish unflattering pictures of him on the beach in Barbados. But it can't be that his vanity is wounded – he's far too sane on the subject, saying: "Surgery doesn't interest me. I'd be far too concerned about how it would come out. As they brought the mirror, I'd be thinking, 'What if they've fucked up...?'"

True, there is mild controversy surrounding the Hughie Green film – some of the women involved in his life had objected to certain scenes. But it can't be that which made him twitchy – the offending parts have been changed, he tells me.

So has he ever had a bad experience with the press? "As if I'm gonna tell you!" he yelps. Then he recounts a tale about being stitched up by a journalist a decade ago. During a jolly long lunch, during which Eve had bared all, the dastardly hack pretended to be interested in his work – only for the actor to discover that, in print, the only part that went reported were his comments on a news item concerning his private life.

Still, we part cordially. "Do get in touch if there's anything else you need," he says, and I'm ushered past the production assistants and the wrappers of the salad lunch I'd interrupted, toward the exit. Then, he offers me, a journalist, one of his twinkly-eyed, predatory smiles and a very warm handshake. Now that's what I call acting.



Hughie Green, Most Sincerely is on BBC4 tomorrow at 9pm

Acting mean: the career of a television heart-throb

Shoestring (1979)

Eve's first TV role, and greatest ever haircut. Eddie Shoestring is a former computer programmer, turned mental patient, turned private detective, who solves crimes while spinning his wheels of steel as a West Country radio DJ, while wearing pyjama jackets instead of shirts. A cult hit, it ran for only 21 episodes.

A Sense of Guilt (1990)

Eve is Felix Cramer, a second-rate writer, in this version of Andrea Newman's novel. The vain, beady-eyed character cheats on his wife with a friend's teenage stepdaughter. Eve was so convincing that women wrote to Newman claiming to know the real-life love-rat she based the character on.

The Politician's Wife (1995)

Eve delivered his slimiest performance ever – as sleazy, weak, adulterous Tory MP Duncan Matlock (the Minister for Families, naturally) who boasts Juliet Stevenson as his wife and a pre-Hollywood Minnie Driver as the former escort girl with whom he has an affair. The suspenseful mini-series won an Emmy for Best Drama, a Bafta for Best Drama Serial and Juliet Stevenson was nominated for a Best Actress Bafta.

Waking the Dead 2000-present

This is the Waitrose of prime time: reliable, upmarket and every so often (but not too often)a little bit exciting. Since 2000, Eve has played maverick detective Peter Boyd, head of the Cold Case Squad, which solves ancient crimes using modern techniques. Part-bully, part-inspiration to his team, Boyd delights in bending the rules. WTD has been a staggering, Emmy-winning success.

The Family Man (2006)

It's the very "now" subject of IVF this time rather than suburban sex shenanigans for Eve in his role as Dr Patrick Stowe, the head of a successful private fertility clinic. Despite doing a broadly positive job helping childless couples conceive, Eve 's character still manages to be a right bastard, ignoring his own two TV-gorgeous children and nursing a massive ego.

Heat of the Sun (1998)

Eve gets hot and steamy in this mystery series set in early 1930s Kenya, about a Scotland Yard detective who must choose between relocation to Nairobi and prison. He sets ladies' hearts a pitter-pat in his khaki fatigues and tastefully sweaty neckerchief.

An Evil Streak (1999)

This was Eve's second sinister turn in a three-part adaptation of an Andrea Newman novel. Eve plays the unsavoury Alex Kyle, a kinky, manipulative academic who leads his married niece Gemma astray and into an extra-marital affair with his cleaner. Then he films them doing it. Grim. The Daily Mail loved it, though, calling it "like real life".

Parnell & the Englishwoman (1991)

When Eve starred with the very saucy Francesca Annis in this TV mini-series about the Irish nationalist politician Charles Parnell (Eve) having an affair with the wife of an English MP, Kitty O'Shea (Annis), the press wrongly speculated that they were at it hammer and tongs in real life. Before the series aired it was widely accepted that Eve had been grossly miscast, but he won everyone over in the end with his lush beard and self-confessed "to the hilt" acting.

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