Nice 'n' sleazy does it

Trevor Eve plays the part of a handsome, philandering MP in The Politician's Wife with great gusto. The Tory party would be proud of him. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
Commentators from all points of the compass will be pontificating on The Politician's Wife. Paula Milne's thrilling morality tale concerns a minister's other half who furtively seeks vengeance for his adulteries. Blairites will hymn its honesty; right-leaning columnists will dismiss it as black and white and red all over; agony aunts will analyse its analysis of Tory matrimony.

As for the loyal blue wives, they will regret that their fictional representative is played by Juliet Stevenson, a socialist who publicly deplores the meekness of their kind. But what of the ugly ducklings in the Government? Won't they be rather flattered that they are collectively portrayed in the near perfect 43-year-old physical specimen known as Trevor Eve?

Channel 4 has all but admitted that having Eve as Duncan Matlock, the Minister for the Family who couldn't spend less time with his own brood, is the result of a glitch at central casting. The series' promotional poster went up only on the Friday morning after the night the Conservative Party found out just how unpopular an administration can be. Large public displays of Eve, a blue rosette on his lapel and a semi-smirk playing roguishly on his lips, could only have served to help dig the party out of a hole.

This ideal of Tory manhood has just been chauffeured up to town from the heart of Michael Mates's Hampshire constituency, where he and his wife Sharon Maughan recently moved from Los Angeles in pursuit of a solid English education for their three children. "It's a life experiment," he says, one which got off to a damp wintry start but, by the look of his South Downs tan, is improving.

Dressed in a white collarless linen shirt, tan cotton trousers and Hungarian khaki sandals, with freshly cropped grey-flecked hair replacing the old rakish oilslick, Eve couldn't look less like the rising politician trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of ego and libido. His conversation is relaxed and temperate, the voice a golden blend of treacle and sandpaper that Michael Howard would happily exchange for any number of escaped convicts. He's here to field questions about his role as a man so slippery the ordure glides off him like water off a duck's back.

"I particularly liked the piece because of the development of the wife, and that, believe it or not, is the selfless reason that I was interested. I liked the fact that it wasn't a traditional story about the dominant male. It actually approached it from the female side."

That's what the politician would say. It may well also be that the press intrusions suffered by the Matlocks struck a chord with Eve, who after playing opposite Francesca Annis in the BBC's Parnell and the Englishwoman four years ago endured newspaper reports that a fictional love affair had become fact. "It's something I remember," is all he will say now. "But it's a different area, isn't it? If you're working in politics then you're a representative of the people and it puts you in a slightly different position from being an actor, who doesn't take on those promises and vows. The intrusion that one experiences as an actor is in a slightly more dubious area."

He's done slimebags before, of course. Hypocrisy and the cruelty that it inflicts on others is a speciality of the house: his Torvald for the BBC's A Doll's House, also opposite Stevenson, was a study in arid pomposity. Taking on Felix in Andrea Newman's A Sense of Guilt, who cheats on his wife by impregnating his best friend's stepdaughter, he was just right as the remorseless sexual survivor. ("I liked him by the end," he says.) Parnell wasn't exactly a honeybun either. Macbeth, or Trigorin, can't be far round the corner.

As for Matlock, ministers taking a closer look will pall at the accuracy of an exhilarating performance that captures the brutal coldness of the liar and the seething heat of the adulterer. The politician and his mistress don't actually have a filmed scene together, but there are moments of tense eroticism as Stevenson plays back recordings of their phone sex. Eve gives these scenes all he's got: you can't see him, but you know what he's doing.

"I don't think while I'm playing them, 'Oh this person is a shit'," he says. "I'm not the judge and jury of the people that I play... I don't look for audience sympathy. I'll play something to the hilt and let them make their judgement."

And yet Eve hasn't forgotten how to occupy the moral high ground. He does a German variation on his maverick cop in Screen Two's forthcoming Black Easter, a startling Mittel-European thriller by David Pirie set in a plausibly fraught near future. Taken in tandem, the roles form another peak in a graph whose wild oscillations are consistent with a career that has casually flitted between the classical stage, American sitcom and all stations in between.

Since Eve threw in his architecture studies in the late 1960s and applied to Rada without any previous acting experience, the peaks have come with moderate frequency in Willie Russell's John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert at the Liverpool Everyman, in Filumena directed by Zeffirelli, in Children of a Lesser God, for which he won awards by the sackload, Leontes at the Young Vic, and Bill Maitland in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence at the National.

And yet the stage roles were seen by a minute proportion of the television audience who would still happily word associate the name Trevor Eve with Eddie Shoestring. With these two superlative new scripts, this year brings his best chance so far to banish the memory of the prototype regional detective with personal problems.

In June there will also be a short run of a BFI film written by a dbutant director Arthur Ellis called Don't Get Me Started, in which Eve plays "an extremely disturbed man" who eventually commits himself to a mental institution.

"It's been in the can for a while, but its star hasn't seen it yet. The problem with the film was that it was extremely violent. The writer lost confidence in the humour that he put in it and cut it all out on day one. What was received was this rather relentlessly disturbing film, which they pieced together and showed, and then they decided to cut the violence out, and then they changed the title etc etc. It's less disturbing now. I can't imagine what it's like because most of it's disturbing so if you took out the disturbing bits it must be a very short film." It sounds a bit like Eve's CV: cut out the disturbing roles and not much remains.

He too has dabbled in scriptwriting, so he has first-hand knowledge of the solitary confinement that yields great roles for his profession. But it was a brief affair and he's keen to cover his tracks. "No don't mention that I've tried writing. Don't put that in. I never tried writing. I made a complete mistake by mentioning that I tried writing. I disown that statement." He'd never make a politician.

n 'The Politician's Wife', Channel 4, Tues 16 May; 'Black Easter', BBC2, Sun 4 June; 'Don't Get Me Started', NFT, London SE1, June 2 - 8, then touring