From Mars to Belfast
As his new drama series shot in Northern Ireland begins on BBC One tonight, Philip Glenister tells |Maureen Coleman why he doesn’t want to play his most famous character, Gene Hunt ever again
As the wise-cracking, tough-talking, politically incorrect DCI Gene Hunt, Philip Glenister found himself the unlikeliest of heart-throbs.
The creators of 70s cop show Life On Mars and its 80s spin-off Ashes to Ashes never figured that the unreconstructed detective would appeal to the fairer sex.
Smelling of whiskey and Brut aftershave, Hunt was a man's man, the emperor of his own testosterone-fuelled environment.
But women fell in love with his humour and his heart, not to mention the twinkle in those piercing blue eyes.
We tuned in every week, hoping he'd finally get the girl — his posh totty sidekick Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), whom he irreverently referred to as ‘Bollyknickers'.
Now I'm sitting opposite him in a tiny shoebox of a trailer on the set of his latest television drama, Hidden.
In the flesh, he's even hunkier — leaner, blonder than his one-time alter-ego and sporting a flattering suntan.
I want to see him curl his lip and snarl a witty one-liner, but Glenister is shier than expected. Or maybe my swooning is making him slightly nervous.
Nevertheless, when he fixes me with those baby blues, I fall in love with DCI Gene Hunt all over again.
But Glenister's here to talk about his role in the BBC drama, Hidden, and is fired up about the conspiracy thriller, which was shot on location around Belfast and parts of Co Down.
Hidden, which co-stars Poirot's David Suchet, Dutch actress Thelka Reuten and local thespians Richard Dormer and Seainin Brennan, was written by Ronan Bennett and centres on Glenister's character Harry.
When a mysterious lawyer Gina Hawkes (Reuten) turns up asking him to find a missing alibi witness for her client, he agrees to take on the job but is unwittingly drawn into investigating the death of his brother over 20 years ago.
Harry quickly finds himself caught up in a much bigger conspiracy that reaches deep into the heart of the British political system. “It's a complex story, quite difficult to sum up,” Glenister explains.
“My character Harry is a high street solicitor with a bit of a past that has lain dormant for years. Gina turns up with a lot of red herrings and information which goes back to his past. What drew me to it was the writing.
“It's a good story, it's fictional but at the same time, it's set against the backdrop of a coalition government which we don't see in the greatest light, funny enough.
“There's a breakdown of democracy and a group of people from different walks of life, who form a collective to try and overthrow the government. Like I said, it's complex, but very clever.”
As the plot unravels, Harry is left wondering about Gina and her motives.
“He doesn't know who she is,” says Glenister. “There's a definite lack of trust there. Harry does not know what side she is batting for and he tries to glean information about her. She knows more about him and she's very evasive,” before adding with a smile, “but in a sexy way.”
Once again Glenister finds himself in a ‘will they/won't they?' scenario as sparks fly between his character and Gina. This makes things tricky for Harry, who already has a girlfriend, played by Belfast actress Seainin Brennan. What does this mean for their relationship, I ask him, pointing out that Seainin is my friend.
“I'm really sorry,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I don't treat her very well. In fact, I have to dump her. But she'll get over it,” he laughs.
“With Harry and Gina, I actually think it's much more interesting if they don't get together. Here you have two people who are having to pull together for the sake of their own lives, getting into something in which they are out of their depth.”
In Hidden, Belfast actor Richard Dormer plays Frank Hanna, a ‘part-time crook' and former client of Glenister's fictional solicitor. Hanna has done time, on several occasions now, and Harry has acted as his solicitor over the years. As Harry finds himself in murky waters he turns to Frank for help.
“Richard plays a Belfast man, funny enough, and he's a bit of a wheeler-dealer,” Glenister explains. “Harry defended him years ago and knows he's pretty wily and could be useful to him. But they both find themselves in very deep, with Frank wondering how he managed to land himself in this.”
Conspiracy theories, complex story lines, sizzling chemistry with a sidekick, it all sounds familiar. Little wonder, after the success of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, that Glenister was offered the role of Harry in this taut new thriller.
DCI Gene Hunt was always going to be a tough act to follow.
“I don't think anyone has written anything in terms of as high a profile a character as Gene Hunt,” he agrees. “There was nowhere for anybody to go. You can't recreate Gene Hunt, he was a force of nature, a one-off. But to be honest, I didn't worry too much about what I would do next, I was just patient for the next script.”
Thankfully Glenister didn't have to wait too long before he was snapped up to play Quinn in the Sky1 drama Mad Dogs.
The drama centres on the reunion of a group of four friends who have known each other since sixth form at school. The fifth member of their gang, Alvo, lives in Majorca, having made his fortune in property. They’ve all been invited to Alvo’s villa. However, their trip doesn’t go as planned and takes a dark turn when the holiday becomes a nightmare of lies, deception and murder.
Mad Dogs saw Glenister team up with Max Beesley, Marc Warren, Ben Chaplin and his Life On Mars co-star John Simm. The pair first worked together in the BBC drama Clocking Off then again in the 2003 thriller, State of Play.
So what it's like being back with his old buddy Simm? “It's in our contracts that we must work together every two years,” he jokes.
“But it's great really, I like working with John. I'm heading back over to Majorca once I'm finished here to begin filming the second series.
It's not a bad gig, getting to go to Majorca with your mates.
“We were in Puerto Pollensa, shooting the first series, and were walking along the street together. People were saying ‘Isn't that your man from Hotel Babylon (Beesley)? And isn't that your man John Simm? And look here, isn't that Gene Hunt?”.
“The great thing is that it's an ensemble piece, So if it went tits up, we all took the flak.”
Brought up in Hatch End, London, Glenister comes from good acting stock. His father John is a director |and his older brother Robert an actor, best known for his roles in Hustle and Spooks. It was Robert's ex-wife, New Trick's Amanda Redman, who encouraged him to pursue his acting career and attend drama school. Glenister himself is married to actress Beth Goddard, with whom he has two children. He made his television acting debut in Minder in the early 1990s, before going on to land parts in Sharpe, Cranford and Demons. Later this year he'll be back on our screens in the Sky1 drama Treasure Island, due for transmission at Christmas.
But despite a plethora of roles, Philip Glenister, to many people, will always be Gene Hunt — the “overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.
When Ashes to Ashes ended last year, fans were left reeling at the revelation that Hunt had always been dead and was simply a
‘ferryman' to guide other dead cops to some sort of policeman's purgatory. In the run-up to the climax, internet forums were buzzing with conspiracy theories about the meaning of this strange kingdom supervised by Hunt. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch the tearful final scenes. Hunt became a cultural phenomenon.
In one newspaper poll he was declared television's top cop, while another described him as a national hero. In the lead up to the 2010 general election campaign in the UK, the ruling Labour Party produced an advert likening opposition David Cameron to the out-of-date detective, claiming the Conservative leader would drag Britain back to the 1980s.
But the campaign backfired. Realising the popularity of Hunt, the Conservatives produced their own advert linking Cameron with the detective under the slogan ‘Fire up the Quattro, it's time for change’.
But according to Glenister, there are no plans to resurrect Gene Hunt.
“He was a great character, he was part of my life for five years and was tremendous fun to play,” he says fondly. “There's a side to me would do it again in a shot, of course there is, but that would be selfish of me. Both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes had great reputations and we wouldn't want to start churning stuff out, just for the sake of it.
“It wouldn't be for the right reasons and the last thing I'd want is for people to say that it shouldn't have come back.
“There's been talk about it being set in the 90s, but what we have to remember about Gene is that he is very much a 70s cop. That is what we loved about him. If we tried to take him out of that environment, it wouldn't work. He has to remain true to his roots.
“We couldn't have him too 80s or too 90s, then we'd lose the essence of the man. Anyway, the 90s are too close. We could look at the 70s nostalgically.
Even the 80s was pushing it a bit, but at least that was a time of political and social unrest, which was a good enough reason for doing it then.”
As the interview comes to an end on this rather sad note, I ask Glenister if he was surprised at how big a sex symbol Hunt had become. The actor leans forward, those blue eyes popping in his sun-tanned face and without any hesitation, says “No”, before throwing his head back in laughter. And there it is, just for a second, the briefest glimpse of the Gene Genie.
The formalities over, Glenister seems more at ease, posing for photographs and signing autographs. He tells me he's not on Twitter — “why would anyone be interested in what I've got to say?” — and how he's looking forward to catching up with his wife and children — “Lady G and the kids are coming out to Majorca, so we're going to have a proper family holiday.”
And that's the thing about Philip Glenister. He's nothing like the delectable detective in real life. He's gentler, less arrogant, more serious than the character he helped bring to life.
I don't know why I'm slightly disappointed, he is an actor after all. But just one sarcastic comment, one hilariously unPC remark, it's not too much to ask for.
As we head back towards the production set Glenister suddenly bangs on his co-star's trailer. Thekla Reuken sticks her head out the window and Glenister, in those all-too-familiar dulcet tones, bellows: “What's taking you so bloody long Reuken? Get a move on, you dozy mare”, smiling at her as he does so. It's good to have you back, Gene Hunt.
Hidden begins on BBC One, tonight, 9pm
Keeley Hawes on Glenister ...
Keeley Hawes who played DCI Drake in Ashes to Ashes, said about her co-star: “When Philip Glenister goes into character and starts shouting his head off, all the women on set go, 'Oooooh!'. Women's lib goes out the window. You just want Philip to come and save you.”
John Simm on Glenister ...
His Life on Mars co-star John Simm said: “I had worked with Philip a couple of times before on State of Play and Clocking Off which helped a lot.We just clicked, it was immediate and I was really glad when he got the part (Gene Hunt). I was so happy.”
... and Glenisteron wife Beth
“There's only one Gene Hunt in our house and it ain't me. I get fourth billing. I have a wife, Beth, and two young daughters, Charlotte and Millie. I'm way down the list.”