For Christopher Eccleston, small is always beautiful, whether it be TV thriller Blackout or Greek tragedy Antigone on the stage. He reveals why making films just doesn't compare
A haunted, devestated place ... MyAnna Buring and Christopher Eccleston in Blackout. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Red Productions
He strides across the polished tiled floor, past imposing columns and heavy, intricately carved doors. Outside, the Manchester winds are furiously buffeting the redbrick walls of this grand, turn-of-the-last-century university hall. There seems nowhere more appropriate to meet Christopher Eccleston: he has a face to fit buildings like this, an on-screen intensity that is the match of the architecture. But even so, his latest TV role looks set to stretch him: an unflinching, uncomfortable, three-hour examination of addiction and corruption, in which Eccleston goes from rock bottom to hero, as Manchester politician Daniel Demoys.
Written by Bill Gallagher, who adapted Lark Rise to Candleford for the small screen, Blackout puts alcoholism under the microscope in the course of its three episodes. The title refers to the lost hours after a particularly heavy night for Demoys – and his gradual, horrifying realisation of what might have happened during them. "He's an idealist," says Eccleston. "But something got stalled along the way and that's curdled in him. He's disappointed about where he is and what he does. There's an element of Macbeth in there."
Muddled in with the politics is a portrait of family life soaked in booze, as those around Demoys – including Dervla Kirwan as his wife – try to negotiate his drinking and attempt to square his destructive behaviour with his once good intentions. "We take him to a haunted, devastated place," says Tom Green, the show's young director, who has brought a highly distinct visual language to Blackout. Although the accents are northern, the setting is never specified: Green has instead taken the great Victorian architecture of Liverpool and Manchester and turned it into a place that seems to have fallen out of a graphic novel: buildings loom from the gloom, huge monuments dwarf the humans scurrying about below. This is definitely not the stuff of recent BBC primetime thrillers.
"The idea has been to create a modern British Gotham city," says Green, who created a similar world for Misfits, the award-winning E4 drama about young offenders with supernatural powers; this he directed just six weeks out of film school. "It's not that the piece is comic-book," he says. "But for me, Demoys felt like a comic-book hero: what happens to him is like the birth of a superhero."
British dramas about local politicians do not tend to look as if they were set in the US; but that's what we get with Blackout through the locations and the carefully un-British details scattered throughout the plot and visuals. The police, for instance, have American-style uniforms; Demoys's flat is dark and industrial; we see rows of parked cars, all black, all the same model; and the rain sheets down with even more force than is usual for the north-west. I'm not at all sure what audiences will make of it, or even if it entirely makes sense, but it's great to see a BBC1 drama that looks so different.
"We could do a social-realism version of these three hours set in Manchester," says Eccleston. "But I don't think that would work, because the politics of the piece are very much the politics of a graphic novel: very broad-stroke, very black and white."
On the long, dark afternoon of my visit, Eccleston is rarely off camera: clattering up and down echoey stone staircases, delivering impassioned political speeches. It is unrelenting and very un-local politics (although, brilliantly, the issue of bin collections is central to the plot). Blackout, says Eccleston, is more a morality tale than a political one, however. "We certainly went into the production with the idea of politicians as loathsome, self-serving animals. We are as a culture preoccupied with politicians' motivation, so he's very much part of the 21st century."
A little later, we meet again. Away from the demands of playing Demoys, Eccleston arrives with a broad grin and a charm that sometimes gets lost behind his brooding screen presence. He is rehearsing for Antigone on the National's main stage, for which he has since received enviable reviews. At 48, the boy from Salford is finally realising a lifelong ambition. "I was an usher at the National," he says. "I ushered Ian McKellen doing Coriolanus, Anthony Hopkins in Pravda. In my dreams, I would one day play a classical role in the Olivier." What's the allure of theatre? "It's what I trained for. Everything we did was for the stage. As a kid growing up on that council estate, I read Gielgud's biography, Olivier's biography, Richardson's biography. And when I read these stories as a 17-year-old, they were amazing figures. They seemed like rock stars to me."
Eccleston didn't grow up watching them, however. The first professional Shakespeare he saw was The Tempest at the Barbican in 1983, with Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi. "Not bad, is it?" he jokes, still struck by their performances. For three years after drama school, he couldn't get an acting job. He was on the bottom rung, playing understudies with one line, he says, when he was cast in Let Him Have It, the 1991 film about British teenager Derek Bentley, who was hanged for the murder of a police officer. "Fluke!" he says now of the film that launched him. "It was a fluke. They needed someone unknown, without any baggage, so that when I appeared the audience would just go, 'It's Derek Bentley', not, 'That's the bloke out of Casualty.' The more you do this job, the more you realise luck is a huge factor."
Last year, Eccleston appeared in The Shadow Line, by Hugo Blick, an almost defiantly challenging BBC2 conspiracy thriller that rather split critics and viewers (many abandoned the show mid-run). "I remember Hugo saying to me as he was in the edit, 'This piece really has its own pace.' And I think that was one of the problems." Eccleston is quite frank about his own on-screen shortcomings, too, later alluding to criticism that he can sometimes semaphore his characters' development.
"I think we're used to kinetic pacing now. If you look at 70s American films that were a huge influence on The Shadow Line, things like All the
Eccleston hopes to do more theatre, having had a career that has been mainly film and TV, most memorably in 1996's Our Friends in the North. He even has plans for a one-man show: a version of Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman that he's hoping writer Frank McGuinness might get involved with. He is so obsessed with the story, at one point typing a section of it out and emailing it to friends.
Despite his current focus on theatre, he still loves the small screen. "There's a snobbishness about TV," he says. "Some film actors, thank God, won't do television. Which is great! I've done feature films, but the best scripts I've ever had have been in television. When you're writing for film, you've got a wider canvas and you can concentrate on the visuals. With television, you really can't get away with that much."
• Blackout starts on BBC1 on 2 July.