Actor Christopher Eccleston talks about his role as Detective “Nipper” Read in the new film Legend, and the part he played in bringing Britain’s most notorious criminals to book

When I say the name Christopher Eccleston, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? If you’re under 30, it’s probably his acclaimed 2005 portrayal of The Doctor in Doctor Who, which introduced him to a whole new audience. Slightly older viewers may recall the earnest Nicky Hutchinson in the BBC’s era-defining Our Friends in the North. Others, meanwhile, will mention his disturbing turn in the cult-classic thriller Shallow Grave.

Three roles, all acclaimed, all entirely different. It’s fair to say that Eccleston has never been an actor in danger of typecasting.

 

An actor of great talent

Christopher Eccleston

The real seriousness of purpose behind his choices is easy to see—one thinks of Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting Hillsborough. But his career has been diverse enough to encompass everything from John Lennon to Gone in 60 Seconds, and when I tell him I’ve been cast as a zombie in a local stage production, he willingly gives me some pointers. (“You’ll have to locate within yourself and within the zombie some part that’s still human”—thanks, Chris.)

“In terms of the things I’ve felt have been successful and I’ve enjoyed doing, it’s all about the quality of writing,” he says when I ask about the thread that ties his roles together.

“I grew up in an era of British TV where the focus was on the scripts—ones that are alive to the ambiguity of character and the contradictory nature of human beings.”

This is just as well, as it’s hard to imagine a more rich and vibrant movie in terms of character than Legend, a new biopic based on John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins.

 

“The boldness of [Tom Hardy’s] characterisations and their differences are pretty extraordinary,”

 

Eccelston on Nipper Read

Tom Hardy as the Kray twins

Eccleston plays a supporting role in the film, which is very much a showcase for co-star Tom Hardy; he portrays both Kray twins—the crime leaders who terrorised London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s—and you quickly forget that it’s one actor playing two roles.

After all, there’s a world of difference between the violent but reasonably grounded Reggie and the totally unhinged Ronnie, who was declared insane after his imprisonment in 1969 and spent the rest of his life in Broadmoor Hospital.

“The boldness of [Tom Hardy’s] characterisations and their differences are pretty extraordinary,” agrees Eccleston. “I worked with him first as Reggie, and then towards the end I had a scene with Ronnie. Reggie was a pretty conventional, predictable individual, but Ronnie…well, Tom made decisions there about the level of his eccentricity that were fascinating.

“On a psychological level, the Krays were very interesting. I myself have identical twin brothers, eight years older than me, so I know how extraordinary that relationship can be. Fortunately, my siblings were far more positive!”

Eccleston plays the small but pivotal role of Detective Chief Inspector Leonard “Nipper” Read in the film, a man who looms large in the history of the Metropolitan Police.

As well as pursuing gangsters—he titled his autobiography Nipper Read: The Man Who Nicked the Krays—he also targeted rock stars such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

 

Nipper Read's pursuit of rock and roll legends

Christopher Eccleston as Nipper Read in Legend

“I think he was present on the day Marianne Faithful, a Mars Bar and a blanket were first revealed to the world,” says Eccleston with a laugh, referring to an infamous incident in 1966 during which a drug search at Keith Richards’ home uncovered Mick Jagger’s girlfriend naked and draped in a fur rug (the role of the Mars Bar has been a source of fruitful speculation).

Indeed, continues Eccleston, the version of “Nipper” Read portrayed in Legend is someone who feels completely out of step with the Swinging Sixties.

“He’s a man resisting all this excess, fluidity and change with every inch of his will. This is someone formed in the 1930s and 1940s in working-class Nottingham, and wants things to remain that way. When I first read a draft of the script, I told [writer and director] Brian Helgeland that Nipper brought to mind Malvolio from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, who’s a very puritanical and self-righteous figure.”

 

“They were vile criminals...I'm dismayed at the way they're romanticised by some"

 

Working class hero

Nipper on the beat

Despite this, Read comes across sympathetically, with Eccleston successfully channelling a sense of righteous fury. And while it’s easy to mock the old-fashioned values that he represents, there’s been a corresponding tendency in some quarters to glamorise the seedy criminal underworld of 1960s London—and even the Krays themselves. It’s a tendency that Eccleston deplores.

“They were vile criminals, in my view,” he says emphatically. “I’m dismayed at the way they’re romanticised by some. I mean, it’s all just nonsense: ‘They were good to kids and they were good to their mum.’ Yes, and they murdered and slashed and burned. There’s no ambiguity for me, and there’s no ambiguity for Nipper in the film.”

In fact, says Eccleston, Read’s own working-class roots make him even less receptive to the mythology of the twins. “I think Nipper felt—as I would feel—a great deal of shame that they were using their class as justification for their activities. And he expresses his dismay when some of the locals won’t give him any information and cover up for the Krays instead.”

Is this a case of inverted snobbery? “Yes—it’s a class thing, to a certain extent. But I just think it’s b******s whenever anybody starts roman-ticising the other side of the tracks.”

 

Eccleston’s pride in his own working-class identity

He speaks warmly of his early years in Salford and his relation-ship with his parents. “My father was quite a literary man, and both of them encouraged me to read a huge amount. Looking back on my acting career, I notice there are many father-son relationships—Our Friends in the North comes to mind. Lots of men in conflict with their fathers, which I never was in real life; there was a deep love between us.”

Inspired by kitchen-sink dramas such as Kes and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Eccleston trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and made his stage debut at the age of 25. For all that, the path to stardom wasn’t smooth, with a number of years between roles working on building sites and in supermarkets. And—as Eccleston is keen to point out at the end of our discussion—things are far harder for poorer kids today.

“Acting was a huge escape for me. But nowadays, if you’re from my background, the door is almost shut. All the classical roles in London’s West End go to white, middle-class males, and we get a culture that’s resultantly bland. To be honest, I find it very disturbing.

“I like to feel that I’ve given as much to the culture as it has to me, but it’s getting much worse—nobody can argue with that. We have to keep up a dialogue about it and we have to keep up the pressure.”

Legend hits the cinema on the 9th September

Browse Christopher Eccleston's greatest films in our shop

Read more from Tom Browne

 

Related Posts