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Line of Duty's 'Steely Keeley' gets the nation talking

After stunning critics in BBC2's 'Line of Duty' Keeley Hawes speaks ahead of the finale

Is she innocent or guilty? It’s the question on the lips of anyone who has been watching Line of Duty. Over the past five weeks, BBC2’s cop thriller has enjoyed ever-rising viewing figures and critical superlatives – and the fact that the nation is nail-destroyingly gripped is largely down to Keeley Hawes and her captivating portrayal of DI Lindsay Denton, the lone survivor of the ambush on a police convoy under investigation for double-dealing. Is Denton an inscrutable, evil genius – or a deeply unfortunate victim of an elaborate set-up? This Wednesday’s final episode will reveal all – we bloody well hope.

It’s a testament to scriptwriter Jed Mercurio’s skill that, during her audition for the role, Hawes was asking the same question, with equal desperation. “I said, ‘I don’t care if I get [the part], just please tell me, is she guilty or not?’.” But Mercurio was noncommittal: at that point, even he genuinely didn’t know what the outcome was to be. Which might explain why Hawes’s character is so brilliantly ambiguous.

Hawes has such a stony stare, an unflinching glower, that’s she’s been dubbed “Steely Keeley”. But the character has also been put through the wringer: boiling water poured on her hands, kidnapped and bundled into a car boot, waterboarded … and her mum died. Guilty or not, we can’t help but empathise.

The reviews have been as effusive as they come. “[Hawes] will probably get every award going,” opined Clive James in The Telegraph; “Denton might be the best character to emerge from a British drama in years,” said The Guardian. Hawes laughs loudly, but not without a smidgen of pride, at such rave notices. “You can’t take them too seriously. But I won’t deny, it has put a smile on my face!”

All the accolades may partly be due to Hawes playing against type. It seems we love an actor willing to “do ugly”: in shapeless suits or prison scrubs, with lank hair and bags under her eyes, it’s fair to say Denton is a far cry from the glamorous copper Hawes played in Ashes to Ashes, the pearls-and-furs aristo of Upstairs Downstairs, or even the tangerine-hued Essex girl of the disastrous recent West End show, Barking in Essex. And Hawes is quite candid about the fact that her career has been rooted in image. “Quite a lot of the characters I’ve played have been glamorous in one way or another, or have used their sexuality to get what they want – this could not be further removed.”

But Denton is unusual not just in terms of Hawes’ previous roles, but female roles on TV, full-stop. She never tries to be likeable, but nor is she a powerful ball-breaking bitch. And she is neither an unflinching maverick like The Killing’s Sarah Lund or The Fall’s Stella Gibson nor a weepy, girly victim. One minute Denton is scarily smart and tough, but the next she’s downtrodden and vulnerable.

Hawes herself is unconvinced by the “we need more strong women on TV” argument: “This isn’t going to make me popular, but people are always talking about the need for “strong women” and I don’t think all women are strong, and it wouldn’t be a great interpretation of all the sorts of women that I know [if all those on TV were]. And Lindsay is just a normal woman.”

But she does acknowledge that a female character being put through what Denton suffers and surviving it – and also committing her own acts of violence – is highly unusual: “If it was a man in that role, I don’t think there would have been any fuss made about it. It seems wrong to say it’s a brilliant role for a woman. It’s just a great role.”

She was relieved that the Line of Duty team were able to see past the feminine charm of her previous parts to the darkness of Denton: “My main worry is people not having the imagination to think that I could go there, or that I’d be prepared to go there.” Prepared she certainly was: Hawes threw herself into the physically icky bits, whether that was having her head flushed down the loo, or being thrown around in the back of a van.

“They’re the fun bits!” she says with glee, before confessing that some scenes – such as last week’s waterboarding – were supposed to be even more grim. “In the first script, the towel was put over her face and then one of the guys urinates on her. I think it was just a step too far for the BBC ....”

It’s clear that, with Hawes, casting directors have been missing a trick all these years – though last week’s news that she will play a Doctor Who villain inspires hope. Is she generally seeing a shift in the roles she’s being sent? “I’m waiting for the offers … Lindsay is a one-off, I’d be surprised if somebody like her came up again. But bring it on if it does!”

‘Line of Duty’ concludes on Wednesday at 9pm, BBC 2