Recently, Adrian Dunbar was surprised to learn that people have started naming their dogs in his honour.
Not Adrian, you understand. And not even Ted, after Superintendent Ted Hastings, the steadfast police anti-corruption officer he’s played on BBC mega-hit Line of Duty since 2012. No, the pups in question go by the proud name of Fella.
‘Apparently there’s also a drinking game, where if I say “fella”, or various other phrases, you’ve got to drink half a pint of bitter,’ the actor tells Weekend. ‘Or something like that. I don’t know the exact rules.’
While the genial Northern Irishman greets all this with a wry bemusement, it’s a measure of just how fervently viewers have clutched Super Ted – and his dogged pursuit of ‘bent coppers’ – to their hearts over the last few years.
‘I have been surprised how much people have taken to him,’ admits Dunbar. ‘I think people like the idea of someone who’s solid, who’s in charge, but who’s also human. They can see he’s got flaws, that he’s under pressure like everyone else, but he strives to do the right thing.’
Or does he? At the end of the last series, writer Jed Mercurio sowed a major seed of doubt in fans’ minds by hinting that Hastings might have something to hide; that he might, in fact, be the mysterious ‘H’ at the heart of the conspiracy his AC-12 unit has spent four series trying to blow open.
This, surely, would be too much for the embattled British people to take. Haven’t we got enough problems right now, without Ted, of all people, going rogue on us as well? Weekend is keen to know if Dunbar appreciates the level of public anxiety over this.
‘I do, I do,’ he assures us. ‘I can tell we’re in the nation’s consciousness and, you know, with everything else being so shaky at the moment… But you’re dealing with Jed Mercurio here. He thrives on the unexpected.’
Dunbar has flown in from Australia (his wife Anna’s home country) to talk up the imminent Line of Duty series 5. Except, of course, there’s not much he’s allowed to say beyond what we already know, which is that Stephen Graham (‘a fantastic actor’), returning as the mysterious ‘Balaclava Man’, is this year’s Person Of Interest, in a story that will focus on a corrupt police officer’s involvement with organised crime.
For Dunbar, 60, the role of Hastings (‘like the battle’) has been a game-changer. ‘This is the first returning series I’ve ever done,’ he says. ‘And I feel really lucky that it came at a point in my career when I was old and wise enough to make the right choices for the character.’
Indeed, Mercurio had originally envisaged Hastings as more of a shambling, Columbo-style figure, until Dunbar put his own stamp on it, taking inspiration from football generals Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly. ‘I like that kind of man management style, you know: people who can inspire loyalty, because they’ll do anything for the team when things are going well, but are also strong people able to deal with situations that go wrong. Strict but fair.
‘I brought those qualities to it, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that had Jed not created the character the way he did. That’s what you do as an actor: look for those bits within the character that are close to yourself, and build on that.’
For Dunbar, the show’s trademark lengthy, single-take interrogation scenes – some clocking in at over 20 minutes – pose a particular challenge as, off-screen, he wears reading glasses.
‘I can’t cheat,’ he sighs. ‘And it’s not even cheating, really, because you wouldn’t expect any officer to sit for an hour-and-a-half in an interrogation and not refer to their notes. Sadly, I don’t have the luxury. I have to learn the whole lot. It’s a bit like learning a play.’
Much of this homework is done with his AC-12 colleagues Vicky McClure and Martin Compston in the adjoining flats they share while filming the series in Belfast. ‘Vicky’s is the learning lines flat,’ he reveals. ‘Mine’s the cooking and watching telly flat. Martin’s is the party flat.’
Rewind 30 years, and you’d almost certainly have found the party going on at Dunbar’s flat – not least because he shared it with his fellow Guildhall School of Music and Drama chum Neil Morrissey (still one of his best friends today; shortly after we speak, they’re heading down to Cardiff to watch the rugby together). So exactly how like Men Behaving Badly was it?
‘It was worse than that, really,’ he confesses. ‘Men Behaving Badly could even be a pale shadow of what really went on.’
The eldest of seven children, Dunbar recalls a happy childhood, fishing and messing about by the lake in the ‘beautiful’ town of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.
‘My dad was a carpenter and my mother worked where she could. Sadly, my dad died quite young, which left my mother to bring up four or five of the kids on her own. That, if you like, coloured what happened to the family beyond that.’
Grief knocked him sideways, and he turned to drink for a while. But as a family, he says ‘we’re all still very, very close. We all look after my mother.’
Growing up during the Troubles also left an indelible mark. ‘It has shaped everybody who was in Northern Ireland at the time,’ he says. ‘The legacy of the Troubles is still with us. There are loads of people who will never recover from it, because their loved ones are dead. It’s a very, very brutalised and crushed society in many ways. And we’re very anxious about what Brexit, and the return to a hard border, might do.’
As a youngster, he played and sang in bands (he still occasionally fronts his own country-jazz ensemble, Ade and the Jonahs), before gravitating towards drama. Not long out of college, he co-wrote and starred in the hit 1991 film Hear My Song, earning a Batfa nomination for Best Original Screenplay into the bargain. It was quite the calling card…
‘It was,’ he says. ‘But like a lot of these things, nothing happened afterwards. It’s amazing the number of actors who will tell you this story: yeah, it was fantastic. What happened after that? Not a lot. So you just have to keep going, keep doing your stuff.’
That stuff included memorable turns in everything from Cracker and Morse to Neil Jordan’s Oscar-winning The Crying Game. On stage, he’s performed at the RSC and the Royal Court, and won acclaim both as an actor and director in Belfast and Dublin. He’s also about to film a second series of Blood, a well-received Irish thriller described by The Guardian as ‘Channel 5’s first piece of prestige TV’.
To many, though, Adrian Dunbar will forever be Ted Hastings, tireless scourge of bent coppers everywhere. But anyone expecting hints and spoilers about the new series is going to be disappointed – and that includes his wife.
‘Anna goes, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen?”. But I keep schtum. I say, “Darling, I really can’t tell you.” But you can expect a few surprises and twists and turns along the way.’
Of that, at least, there can surely be no doubt. Now go get ’em, fella.
- Dunbar has been married to actress Anna Nygh since 1986. They have a daughter, Madeleine, also an actress, and he is stepfather to Nygh’s son Ted.
- Earlier this month he appeared as Ted Hastings in a Comic Relief crossover with Jed Mercurio’s other smash hit, Bodyguard. He says he’s not jealous of the new kid on the block: ‘Line of Duty didn’t happen last year, and I think Bodyguard picked that audience up. They wanted to see where Jed was going with it. It was thrilling.’
- Dunbar filmed an appearance as Bail Organa, adoptive father to Princess Leia, in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but the scene was cut, and the role recast with Jimmy Smits for later instalments. Given that it is widely renowned as one of the worst films of all time, perhaps it was actually a lucky break? ‘Yes,’ agrees Dunbar. ‘I think “dodged a bullet” is the phrase…’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 28 March, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend