'You should never ever cast Robert Lindsay as an ordinary man'

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The Independent Culture
The new Bleasdale is upon us. As with the new Bowie or the new Martin Amis, the statutory multitude of column inches has paved its way. A nation prepares to divide and bicker. Is Jake's Progress any good? Who's he offended this time? An early diagnosis would suggest that the great man has come down with Roseanne's Syndrome, a condition normally confined to US sitcoms, in which the star plays a character with the same name. See also Ellen, starring Ellen DeGeneres, and the forthcoming Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd.

In the new Bleasdale, Julie Walters plays a working mother called Julie. A fellow nurse called Moreen is played by Moreen Kershaw. But this strain of Roseanne's Syndrome has nothing to do with magnetising audiences, but everything to do with the rare bond between actors and writer. Bleasdale is the only scriptwriter in British TV with clout enough to attend his own shoots as an auxiliary producer/director. No writer hires the same actors in quite such a flagrant impersonation of a theatre troupe. In some cases, the symbiosis is such that he will write a part for X and not bother to rename them Y.

As in GBH, his male lead is Robert Lindsay. Before the cameras rolled, Lindsay decided that he didn't want his character to be called Robert. His discomfort with the idea - he says he found it "all a bit confusing" - may stem from the fact that, while Bleasdale and Walters go back more than 20 years to their artistic infancy at the Liverpool Everyman, Bleasdale and Lindsay only met in 1990. They do, though, have a much longer history of not meeting. "I wanted to write for Robert Lindsay before I was a writer," says Bleasdale, who first saw him on television in the early 1970s. "It was a series about the RAF, and he just stood out."

Their careers advanced on parallel lines: the radical Boys from the Blackstuff was Bleasdale's first big hit; the mock-radical Citizen Smith was Lindsay's. A collision looked improbable until Walters, playing a cross between Bacchus and Cupid, disturbed Lindsay's slumber one night in the early 1980s. "It was about two in the morning," Lindsay recalls. "She had been drinking and the first thing she said was, 'You've got to meet Alan Bleasdale. He's such a big fan of yours.'"

In the way that tortured artists do, neither could quite believe the admiration of the other. When Bleasdale embarked on GBH, he wrote the part of the loonie-left council chief Michael Murray for Lindsay, "but I didn't have the confidence to ask him to be in it. The executive producer was Verity Lambert, who said 'Don't be so stupid. Ring him up.' I rang him up and he said, 'This is the phone call I've been waiting for for years, but I've just signed to do the Count of Monte Cristo at the Royal Exchange which is transferring to the West End'." In the end it didn't transfer, and they got him. But for Jake's Progress Bleasdale took no chances. He sent the first 300 pages of the script to his two leads in 1992. In GBH, Walters and Lindsay were mother and son, now they're husband and wife, but the distribution of moral fibre is still the same: she's still the pillar; he's still the charismatic weakling.

Jamie Diadoni, who used to be in a band, used to have a job, plays mother to their almost satanically dysfunctional six-year-old, Jake, while Julie goes out to work. He confronts the reality of their straitened finances by binning the letters from the bank. He's attractive to the young mothers in the playground because he doesn't know he is. Lindsay flatly denies that he and Jamie, who is criminally irresponsible, have anything in common, but the open, unquestioning, almost childlike face of the actor can't help but leave its mark on the character.

An earlier version of Jake laid far more stress on Jamie's rock career, and opened with him performing at the closing-down party of the mine where he is a surface worker. But that's all gone. "I've come out of it pretty badly actually," Lindsay says. "What I'm getting now from the edit is that Jamie is a bit of waster. I voiced my opinions to both the producer and Alan, who've been very sympathetic, but in the end the series is about a boy growing up, and that's right. What it makes me realise is that I'll never ever be satisfied with the final cut, and when you start reaching that point, it's time to think about doing something else."

That something else is still in the planning stage: he wants to direct a film about the forgotten life of Rachel Roberts, one of the Mrs Rex Harrisons who was briefly an actress. The script, adapted from her diaries, is in place; the money very nearly was, but backers have twice withdrawn. He will persevere in this mid-life gear switch, possibly motivated by the fact that as Jamie he is propositioned by a mother played by Samantha Beckinsale, who was born when he and her late father, Richard, were pals at Rada.

Since emerging from drama school 25 years ago, his flat Ilkeston vowels freshly rounded, he has been white-hot three times, after distinctly different performances in a sitcom, a stage musical and a television drama. It is difficult to pick up the narrative thread in his career, but with hindsight, the hopping between disciplines looks strategic.

After Wolfie in Citizen Smith, he surprised us all in those BBC Shakespeares, then again with Me and My Girl, which took him to Broadway for two years, won him a Tony, and persuaded a Hollywood producer to cast him in a film called Bert Bigby, You're a Fool. Based loosely on his own career, its salient inaccuracy as biography was that it was a flop. Enter Bleasdale, who he says "does recognise in you something that you're capable of doing that perhaps other people don't see".

What he saw was the current that electrifies all Lindsay's work, from Wolfie to his swashbuckling West End Cyrano. "I am, I think, a physical clown," says Lindsay. "I like being physically funny, but I've never had a chance to do it. All the business in Citizen Smith I used to invent, gags such as when they're raiding the factory, and I'm saying 'Over the gates!' and we run at the gates and they're open and we swing in. It's still a very funny joke."

"He is an actor who can make farce truthful," says Bleasdale. "You should never ever cast Robert Lindsay as an ordinary man." This is presumably why Granada saw Lindsay as the man to play Fitz in Cracker. He was playing in Becket in the West End when the offer came, and turned it down. "I'm sort of frightened of big TV hits because of that thing that comes with it," he says now. "'Hi Cracker, how you doing, son?' Wolfie's sort of died, but I don't want to do that again."

He once found himself on the pavement behind two blokes who were impersonating Michael Murray's involuntary Fascist salute. If fame at street level has subsided, he's still public property. The tabloids proved that before shooting for Jake's Progress began, by flambeeing him over his private life.

Jamie fends off the advances of Samantha Beckinsale's character with a story about how all male members of his family are genetically programmed to turn boring in their 40s. Robert Lindsay is 45. The condition hasn't struck yet.

'Jake's Progress', Thursdays 10pm C4 (See review, p39)