The Saturday Interview

Paterson Joseph: ‘Racism is a strange mental illness’

The ‘Peep Show’ star won fans as Mark’s sociopath boss before playing a cult leader in ‘The Leftovers’. Now, he takes on the role of a submarine commander in BBC’s submarine crime-drama ‘Vigil’. He talks to Alexandra Pollard about trying to understand racists and why anger can be the most ‘delicious energy’

Saturday 28 August 2021 00:15
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<p>Paterson Joseph will next star opposite Suranne Jones in BBC’s submarine crime-drama ‘Vigil’ </p>

Paterson Joseph will next star opposite Suranne Jones in BBC’s submarine crime-drama ‘Vigil’

Paterson Joseph was sent off to drama school with a warning. As a black person, his older sister said, he’d only be playing slaves and servants. “I realised I was up against it,” says the 57-year-old now. “I thought, ‘Right, OK, I don’t see a lot of black people playing kings and CEOs on TV. And I want to do that. I want to play people who are in charge as well as people who are at the bottom.’”

He’s telling me this story from a hotel room in Geneva, where he’s about to play a chocolatier alongside Timothée Chalamet in the new Willy Wonka film. Probably best known as Alan Johnson, Mark’s suave sociopath of a boss in the sitcom Peep Show, Joseph has run the gamut of kings and CEOs over his 30-year acting career. He’s played Roman heroes (Julius Caesar), IT heartthrobs (Green Wing), a cynical deputy police commissioner (Babylon), the head of a cult (The Leftovers), the home secretary (Noughts + Crosses), and now, in the exhilarating, claustrophobic new BBC drama Vigil, the commander of a nuclear submarine. To all these roles, he has brought the baritone-voiced gravitas that earned him four years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his supple face and enigmatic presence just as effective whether he’s playing a comedy villain, a chilling leader or a plucky hero.

“If you do the work, and you do it well, then there’s very little that anybody can do about it,” continues Joseph. “If they want to stop you, they’re just going to have to be racist about it.” His sister was wrong, then. But she was cynical for a reason – Joseph has had to fight to prove his worth from the very start.

At primary school, he was the only black kid in the class. “I’m growing up above a shop in Willesden Green, and we don’t get to play out because we’re on the high road, so it’s just me, my brother and my sisters, my mum and my dad,” Joseph recalls. “Our cousins would come over, obviously all of them black. The first white people who were my contemporaries that I ever met were these guys. So I stood out. I felt different. Geraldine Dunne wouldn’t let me into the Wendy house.” He shakes his head. “I felt so alien already.”

Joseph’s first day at school was “traumatising”, he says. It was the second term – he was born in June so was deemed too young to join for the first – so all the other children already knew each other. The teacher, in front of the whole class, opened a book, pointed at a tiger and asked him what it was. He knew what it was, and he could already read and write thanks to his older sisters, but he was cripplingly shy. So he panicked, and said it was a lion. The teacher shut the book with a sigh. “And it was that action of going, ‘You’re s*** at this,’” says Joseph, “it couldn’t have been a worse start.” Still, he adds, “I’ve forgiven Miss Derbyshire for her foolishness. It’s 1969 or something – how the hell would she know how to deal with the son of an immigrant? They didn’t understand who we were. We were just West Indians who’d come over. We felt very foreign.”

At about 13, after years of being caned and told he was stupid, Joseph started bunking off, going to the library and reading whatever he could get his hands on: Agatha Christie; Mills & Boon; Oscar Wilde. “My curiosity and my academic side only really came through outside of school life,” he says. A few years later, he discovered acting, first through youth theatre – “that was the first time I met middle-class people, the first time I met people who were protestant” – and then at the drama school Lamda.

There, he says, “I suddenly saw myself in the world that I was entering into, and realised that my education was not the same as a lot of the people, and that I was immigrant class, which is usually the lowest of the rungs. It was realising that you are an outlier within this profession that struck me then. But the great thing about doing a physical art is that the proof is in the doing, and I could do it well. I worked very hard in every aspect of it, because then that is your weapon.”

Armed with inarguable talent, he decided to ignore the glaring inequalities around him. “I knew it was there, but I made it peripheral. I didn’t make it an engine, because anger is quite a delicious energy, and it can get you through a lot of things, but it was quite a negative energy for an artist. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be freer than that. You can’t be that guy from Willesden Green who’s going, ‘Who do you f***ing think you are?’” He drops his received pronunciation and adopts a North London growl. “‘If you’d been down my f***ing end, you wouldn’t be able to say that to me – I’d be f***ing sparking you out.’ You have to find another way. And my way was to articulate what I felt, to dismantle with words, to understand, to read somebody, and then be able to get what I needed from them.”

Joseph stars as submarine commander Neil Newsome in BBC’s high-octave drama Vigil

Anger, he says, is like a drug. “You’ve just got to be careful how you dose yourself with it. Because I’ve got a lot I can be angry about. Tons of stuff I could be angry about – and do get angry about – but I don’t sit on it. I can’t sit on it. Because it sort of sucks you in, and it becomes your own energy.”

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Today, Joseph’s energy could not be more positive. He is a warm and animated interviewee, so vocally expressive that 10 minutes into our conversation, I get a message from my housemate asking who keeps yelling “wahoo!”. He has the same delicious charisma he gives off as Johnson in Peep Show, only with none of that man’s arrogance or unctuousness. Speaking over Zoom, he has fuzzy black lines that look like prison bars in front of his face. “I’m so sorry, I disobeyed the Covid rules and now I’m here, locked up,” he jokes when I join the call. “No, I don’t know what this is.” He’s been into his settings, but he can’t figure it out. It would have been fixed in a jiffy by his character in Green Wing, the head of IT who so beguiles Pippa Haywood’s Joanna that she turns up at his office naked (a lot of Joseph’s characters tend to charm people). But Joseph can’t, so we plough on.

Joseph’s character in Vigil, Neil Newsome, could not be more different from him. Newsome, says Joseph, is the quietest and least animated character he’s ever played. “It was an exercise in stripping down anything extraneous.” He’s as commanding a presence as ever, but he never raises his voice, gesticulates, or panics – not even when a detective (Suranne Jones) is sent onto his submarine to investigate the mysterious death of one his crew members, or when he discovers that an enemy submarine may very well be tracking them. It is high-octane stuff; think Line of Duty underwater.

Joseph won fans for his memorable turn as Alan Johnson, Mark’s suave sociopath of a boss, in the hit sitcom ‘Peep Show’

“It’s obviously drama,” says Joseph, who was told by a former naval officer that in his 35 years, he never experienced any of what occurs even in the first episode. “You never get all that crazy stuff happening on top of each other, but that’s our licence, and it would be quite boring if we did it otherwise. I’m sure the police will say the same thing: it’s never like Line of Duty.” Both Vigil and Line of Duty – the phenomenally successful police procedural with so many twists that M Night Shyamalan would think it was a bit far-fetched – are from the same production company, World Productions.

It was strange for Joseph to play someone so coolly level-headed. In the opening scene, much to certain crew members’ chagrin, he chooses not to save a group of fishermen, because doing so would risk detection. “I probably would take the risk,” muses Joseph when I ask what he’d have done, “but then that’s exactly why I’m an actor and not on a submarine. You can’t have that part of you active in that situation. You have to just go, ‘What is the mission? The mission is to patrol these waters for 90 days and to return home undetected. That’s it.’ So unfortunately, you have to be a particular kind of person to take that job on.”

He mentions a TV drama he did in the Nineties called Soldier Soldier – the show that propelled Robson Green and Jerome Flynn to fame – in which he played a fusilier. “I was asking them, ‘Why are we doing these endless drills?’ We’re constantly told, ‘Pick up your rifle. This is how you walk. This is how you stand. This is how you march. Turn on this word.’ And I asked the officer, ‘Why are we being treated like this?’ He said, ‘Because when they say shoot, you can’t be going, Well, I’m not sure, sir. Is that really the enemy? Or is that a kid? You just have to shoot.’ That’s the mentality of the soldier. You act on order, not on your own cognition.”

Racism is a strange mental illness where you look at somebody and say, ‘I hate you because of the colour of your skin’

It is important for Joseph to understand the mentality of the characters he plays. Well, not so much Johnson – “There’s nothing redeemable about Alan Johnson; he’s thoroughly nasty” – but the rest of them. Last year, he played home secretary Kamal Hadley in the BBC drama Noughts + Crosses. Based on Malorie Blackman’s young-adult novel series, it is set in an alternate history where black people rule over white people. Kamal is ruthlessly racist, advocating for harsher treatment of whites. “What I found extraordinary was that I had to do with him what I do with every character – Kumal had to be human. So how do I play a racist? People who are racist, they love, they laugh, they are committed to their family and their friends. They’re human beings. This is what’s so difficult about it. They’ve got a mental block. They’ve been conditioned.”

Racism, he says, is sort of to do with power – but it’s complicated. “So you won’t get a CEO who’s not hiring black people talking about n*****s and c**** and w**s, but you will have the attitude. And then it’ll be the people below them that will administer the fact that, well, we don’t really have those kinds of people in our organisation.” As for politicians, “it only takes someone who’s never said the N-word going, ‘Well it’s all these foreign people…’ and people go, ‘Yeah, it’s that guy from the corner that’s to blame.’ And then you’ll get the spitting and the abuse. Racism is a strange mental illness where you look at somebody and say, ‘I hate you because of the colour of your skin’.”

In 2018, Joseph performed a one-man play he’d written called Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. Initially written in frustration over the lack of black actors in period dramas, it developed into something even deeper in the wake of the Windrush scandal. It told the story of Charles Ignatius Sancho, who was born on a slave ship in the 18th century and became a composer, actor and anti-slavery campaigner. Joseph’s Zoom name today is Ignatius Sancho – he has a book about him coming out next year.

“History is a funny old thing,” says Joseph. “When the David Starkeys of this world shout, ‘You’re rewriting history!’, I want to say, very softly, ‘Yes. Why? Because there are no women in your history, sir. And because there are no ethnic minorities in your history. And that whole picture of the 18th century in particular, and before, is so monochrome. If you could see the colours that were there, our picture of it would be richer and fuller. So why not have it? Why not have it?’”

Joseph sees himself in Sancho, not least in his “worries about the next generation”. His concern is that just because he managed to avoid his sister’s prediction, that doesn’t mean others managed to do so. “I think: ‘Oh yes, I made it through... am I an exception? There are only five [black] people who’ve played lead characters at the RSC? Wow. OK.’ But I’ve still got to keep doing it. I still want to keep going just in case somebody from the next generation, a Paapa Essiedu, if I may call that exalted name” – Essiedu recently starred in Michaela Coel’s shattering I May Destroy You – “can go and play Hamlet, and people just go, ‘Oh, he’s playing Hamlet, that’s great,’ as opposed to, ‘What? You’ve got a black man playing Hamlet?’ That is progress.” He smiles. “And we make it incrementally, but we make it by relentless persistence, and by putting ourselves about. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Vigil starts on BBC One on Sunday 29 August

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