Jim Broadbent: the role of his life

Jim Broadbent is playing the campaigning peer who forgave the Moors murderers. James Rampton reports from the set of 'Longford'

Lord Longford thought that his epitaph should be "the outcast's outcast". And by the end of his long and controversial life, he had certainly attained that goal. For, try as he might, the crusading, yet unworldly, politician just couldn't keep out of the headlines. In 1971, the eccentric former cabinet minister published a report on the pornography industry. Having toured many of the country's seedier sex clubs for the purposes of research, he was given the derisive tabloid sobriquet of "Lord Porn".

But Longford invited even greater red-top contempt when for the next three decades - until his death in 2001 at the age of 95 - he waged a campaign for the parole of the notorious Moors Murderer Myra Hindley. His crusade led the tabloids to dub him "Lord Wrongford". But he would not be swayed by public opprobrium. A committed Catholic, he believed passionately in the power of forgiveness; he thought no one was beyond redemption.

Longford, a compelling one-off Channel 4 drama penned by Peter Morgan, the writer of The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Deal, zeroes in on the liberal peer's vociferous support for Hindley (played by Samantha Morton). Did he sell his good name in pursuit of a lost cause? Was he taken in by a manipulative and heartless killer?

In a beautifully nuanced performance, Jim Broadbent brings a rare humanity to the title role. Even though you often despair of Longford's gullibility, you never once doubt his good intentions. In the very first scene of the drama, he is seen blinking back the tears as he is attacked on a radio phone-in for his naivety in backing the infamous killer. "I want to know how your esteemed guest can look himself in the mirror every morning," rages one caller. "How could you rub salt into the wounds of the family like that? A man in your position, fraternising and campaigning on behalf of that monster."

It is a chilly winter's morning, and I am standing watching the filming of Longford. We are on College Green, the rectangle of lawn outside the Houses of Parliament. Broadbent, in his guise as Frank Pakenham, Seventh Earl of Longford, is explaining to a reporter why he is campaigning for Hindley. As he puts it: "No human being is beyond forgiveness. Condemn people from our armchairs and what have we become?" The director Tom Hooper shouts, "Cut. Very good, Jim," and a runner rushes forward to throw a puffa jacket around the shoulders of the lead actor who, now the cameras have stopped rolling, is visibly shivering.

Back at the unit base in a nearby car park, the actor invites me into his caravan for lunch. Sporting Longford's bald pate, aquiline prosthetic nose and standard-issue "ageing aristo" ensemble of battle-scarred green cardie and frayed checked shirt, Broadbent in person is as gentle and warm as his screen alter ego. He starts by emphasising that the drama - which also features Lindsay Duncan as Elizabeth, Frank's loyal wife, and Andy Serkis as a disturbingly charismatic Ian Brady - is aiming to help rescue Longford's reputation, which has become as battered as his old green cardigan. "The film is an attempt to rehabilitate Longford," observes Broadbent, who won an Oscar for his poignant portrayal of an equally resolute elderly man, John Bayley, in Iris.

"At first, Peter Morgan had this stereotyped image of him in his head. But the more he researched Frank, the more he became a huge admirer of him. At the end of it, Peter thought, 'How we miss this type of politician in this day and age!' Frank was dogged and prepared to be vilified for standing up for what he believed in. He was utterly unafraid to be unpopular.

"Because [Myra Hindley] was a woman, she aroused enormously strong emotions," comments the 57-year-old actor. "The idea of a woman killing children in the way that she did is beyond the pale. So in trying to help her win parole, Frank really was taking on the most difficult area imaginable. Why did he do it? Because he absolutely believed in the possibility of redemption and forgiveness. Having met Hindley, he liked her and thought she was a reformed character."

But wasn't Longford, whom Harold Wilson once said had the judgement of a 12-year-old, naive to believe that she had really undergone such a radical transformation? "I hesitate to say that Frank was naive," Broadbent replies. "I want viewers to make up their own minds. He thought that everyone should be given the chance of being reconciled with the community. He always wanted to see the best in people and found Hindley utterly plausible. He was not alone in that - many other people found her just as plausible."

Like Longford himself, the biopic may raise red-top hackles. That, however, is not a prospect that unduly concerns Broadbent. "There might be controversy from the press, if it means they can get Myra Hindley on their front pages. There's a Longford line - in fact, it was one of the tenets of his life - 'Hate the sin and love the sinner'. My version is that the tabloids flip it round: they love the sin and hate the sinner."

The 33-year-old director Hooper, who recently picked up an Emmy for Elizabeth I, agrees. "If the tabloids do attack us, they'll only be helping to make the point that the film makes about how the media fuels public opinion and tries to interfere with the judiciary. But people now trust the judiciary more than politicians. We don't think politicians can make objective judgements anymore. If the invasion of Iraq had gone through a legal process, for instance, we'd have had a very different result."

Broadbent goes on to underline how courageous Longford was. The actor lists some of the many unfashionable causes that the peer promoted. "In 1942, he helped put together the pioneering Beveridge Report, which paved the way for the welfare state. And after the war, he was a prime mover in the campaign to forgive the Germans and put them back on their feet - another line that did not win him many friends. On prison reform, he was also way ahead of his time. His vision was on a par with Scandinavia, where they have always been more liberal about these things. He'd go to different jails three times a week and was still visiting in his nineties. He didn't drive, so he was hacking by public transport to places as far apart as Durham, the Isle of Wight and Dartmoor."

Hooper thinks the drama has many contemporary echoes. "The central theme is, 'is any human being beyond forgiveness? Can someone's crimes be so bad that it is impossible to rehabilitate him or her into society?' Longford highlights the balance between retributive and restorative justice. That theme now has tremendous, broader resonance about the politics of forgiveness. Look at the way that the US and the UK are executing foreign policy. Their stance is not forgiveness but preemptive retaliation. It's an aggressive approach where you neutralise potential problems in advance. But the question remains: what happens in the aftermath?"

Broadbent is being called away to make-up. It requires four hours each morning to make the actor resemble Longford as an aged man, but he isn't moaning. "Why should I complain? I've found Frank a truly inspiring character. If people take one thing from this drama, I hope they hark back to a better era when politicians still had some idealism. A friend of Frank's once asked him, 'Does it trouble you that you'll be remembered principally as the friend of Myra Hindley?' Frank replied: 'The friend of the friendless? No, that'll do me.'"

Longford is on Channel 4 on Thursday at 9pm

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit