Stephen Tompkinson looks worried, though I can't imagine why. In an office at the BBC in west London he is chatting about his forthcoming drama series, a work of which he is immensely proud. Yet his face is furrowed with a great frown and his wide, watery eyes have a similar solemnity, like a puppy that has just been kicked. It takes a good 10 minutes to realise that this is his natural expression.
It's a look that serves him well in Neil McKay's In Denial of Murder, a two-part drama based on the death of Wendy Sewell in a Derbyshire graveyard in 1973. A young council worker, Stephen Downing, was subsequently jailed for Sewell's murder, but his refusal to plead guilty meant he was ineligible for parole. Tompkinson plays Don Hale, a journalist on a local newspaper who launched a successful campaign to free Downing 27 years after he was convicted. The case is still going on; Downing's conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal, though, with no new evidence, he is still the sole suspect.
Tompkinson plays Hale as a well-intentioned but naive character who, in his pursuit of truth and justice, finds himself out of his depth. In preparation for the role, he spent weeks trawling through the trial notes and old newspaper stories about Downing's conviction. He also visited the cemetery where Sewell died.
"Bakewell is a very small community, and this case scars them to this day," he says. "I met a lot of residents and I would say that opinion is very much split. Some thought that Stephen couldn't possibly have done such a thing, and others decided they'd heard enough about the case and believed the police had got the right man at the time. One man told me it was a waste of the licence fee for the BBC to be making this programme - he said Hale was a fantasist."
Tompkinson, an actor used to playing fictional roles, describes the different approach required when taking on a real-life character. "In fictional drama you make decisions about how the character should be played, but in this case you'd be a cheat if you tried to make it more dramatic," he says. "The boundaries are already set, and there's no room for embellishment. You've also got a responsibility to the people involved. Your duty is just to tell it how it was."
In Denial of Murder is the latest in a long line of productions in which Tompkinson has portrayed a decent soul who is slightly bewildered by the world around him. He is best known for playing Father Peter in Ballykissangel, the series about an English priest who moves to a parish in rural Ireland. Since then, he has played a kindly alien on the lookout for love in Ted and Alice; a sweetly dysfunctional sibling in Grafters, alongside his friend Robson Green; and a debt-ridden miner trying to hold on to his job in Mark Herman's hit film Brassed Off.
Despite his whimsical track record, Tompkinson is keen to point out that he is equally comfortable playing the villain. His first big part was as the dastardly Damien Day in the hit Channel 4 newsroom comedy Drop the Dead Donkey, and more recently he starred as a troubled cop in the drama series In Deep. "It's more interesting to do devilish characters, because they're more removed from yourself and there's more escapism involved," he reflects. "Characters that are close to your own personality are the hardest. The challenge is not revealing the real you."
Still, given his success in the more touchy-feely roles, it's not exactly a surprise to find that Tompkinson is a bit of a softy. In between sips of Guinness, he comes over all misty-eyed when talking about his wife, Nikki, whom he met while she fitted him for a suit in a tailor's shop in London, and his two-year-old daughter, Daisy. A little more than a year ago, the family moved from Hove, in East Sussex, to Datchet, near Windsor, so that Tompkinson could spend more time at home and less time travelling to and from London.
After the success of Brassed Off, Tompkinson considered following his co-stars Pete Postlethwaite and Ewan McGregor to Hollywood. After the film's US release, he even took up an invitation to meet the casting directors of assorted film studios in Los Angeles. "It was all very exciting, but I hated the place with a passion," he recalls gravely. "That cliché of every waitress in LA being an actress turned out to be true. There's no escaping the business over there, and I'm also proud of writers here. I've always preferred to support work that's done in this country. I suppose you say that when you're not getting sent great film parts, but it's true. I've no real desire to pack up my bags and move to LA. I feel established here and would simply like to keep progressing and earn respect. Alan Parker said that if he had set Fame in this country he would have had to change the title to Respected in Your Profession. That's what I want to be: respected in my profession."
His dislike of LA was not the only reason Tompkinson was keen to stay at home. He had recently started work on Ballykissangel, which proved a runaway success. At its peak the series drew 14 million viewers and turned Tompkinson into a heartthrob, albeit a cuddly one whom you could take home to meet your mum.
He also became a fixture in the red-tops when he started a relationship with his comely co-star Dervla Kirwan, who played the local bar owner Assumpta. Tompkinson claims to have been unfazed by the attention, even when the press had parked itself on his doorstep.
"You're an idiot if you don't think it comes with the territory," he says. "We both knew that it was going to happen and we just braced ourselves for the madness. You have to be up-front, or they'll try all the harder to mess you about. If you show that you don't have anything to hide - and we certainly didn't at the time - they soon get bored and disappear." Driven by the desire to begin new projects, he and Kirwan finally left the series in 1998, but they split the following year, citing the pressures of work.
Tompkinson was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1965. His father was a bank manager and his mother a teacher. He became interested in acting at school: his first serious role came in the sixth form in a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. "Then I understood what it was to lose yourself in a role. I wasn't a particularly insecure or unhappy child but I loved the escapism it provided." His parents were supportive and encouraged him to apply to the Central Drama School in London when he left school. Among his early television roles was a guest slot on Casualty, secured by his pal Robson Green, who then played Jimmy the hospital porter.
Tompkinson notes, with discernible grumpiness, that television has changed radically since he began his career. "I've noticed a big cut in the output of drama series and serials. There are more ongoing programmes such as Casualty, Holby City and Heartbeat, but fewer new opportunities. New parts are geared toward younger actors to please the 18-30 audience."
As an avid watcher of EastEnders and Coronation Street, he observes that soaps are now a great stepping stone for actors. "It seems to be, if you're successful in a soap, you're guaranteed a lead role in your own series," he says. Would he consider appearing in one? "I wouldn't rule it out," he replies with a chuckle. "There are far better actors than me in them, though I don't envy their workload."
Since 1990, when he landed the part as Damien in Drop the Dead Donkey, Tompkinson has rarely been off the box. His longest break from acting has been two months, immediately after his daughter was born. In the past decade he has appeared in more than 20 major TV series and a handful of plays, most recently Molière's Tartuffe. Yet while he has never wanted for work, he admits to suffering from the widespread actors' neurosis about where the next job will come from. "You're always aware that it could end tomorrow," he frets. "Then, when you are working, you have this paranoia about how you look, how you performed, how you compare with the rest of the cast. But then you have a family of your own and it throws it all into perspective."
Tompkinson's reluctance to go to Hollywood may preclude him from a glittering big-screen career, but I sense a man with a thirst for fresh adventure. When I ask if he regards himself as ambitious, the frown grows deeper. "You could say I am in terms of my attitude to work," he replies. "I think I've touched only the tip of the iceberg with regard to what I have tried. Doing new things is the only way to stretch and better yourself. On the other hand, I'm pretty contented right now. I've certainly no desire to be anywhere else."
'In Denial of Murder' is at 9pm on Sunday on BBC1Reuse content