Vicky McClure

Vicky McClure is talking to Weekend in the place she feels happiest: at her home in a small village on the edge of her native Nottingham. It’s the day of the England-Wales Euro 2016 clash, and she’s wearing her England shirt. Her boyfriend, the Welsh actor and filmmaker Jonny Owen, is not.

It isn’t the sort of place you normally expect to find one of Britain’s most in-demand screen actors. But then, McClure doesn’t often do what’s expected.

‘I’ve never believed actors have to live in London,’ says the 33-year-old. ‘There are trains! Yes, there are opportunities in London there aren’t in other places, and it’s where the action’s at. But it’s never made me happy, so I’ve never chosen to do it.’

McClure has had quite a year. Last autumn, she revived her BAFTA-winning role as earthy ex-skinhead Lol Jenkins in the final (for now) series of Shane Meadows’ This Is England. Then there was the third run of Line of Duty – a bona fide piece of Event TV. And she can currently be seen making her costume drama debut in BBC One’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

Despite this, she’s not taking anything for granted – and is more determined than ever to keep her feet on the ground.

‘You have to try to stay grounded, because it could all go to pot,’ she reasons. ‘But it’s not even that – I just enjoy real life. I enjoy my family and my friends. The industry I work in is a bit crazy sometimes, and you can find yourself in situations that don’t feel very normal. That can be great fun, but it can also be a bit frustrating. So when I’m not working, I’m happy to be at home and getting on with life like everyone else does.’

In The Secret Agent, McClure plays Winnie Verloc, whose life is turned upside down by a terrorist atrocity carried out by her agent provocateur husband, played by Toby Jones. It is, by her own admission, ‘another dark drama’. ‘I tend to be drawn to things that are quite intense, and give me something to get my teeth into,’ she admits. ‘That said, if people were sending me loads of comedy scripts, I’m sure there’d be something there I’d like. But they’re not!’

Period drama, she adds, is just like any other: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing different clothes – all you need to do is find the truth. But it’s lovely I’ve got a bit of variety out there now. People can see me edging away from Lol a bit, because obviously she was such a defining character for me.’

McClure met Meadows – another London refusenik who lives close by – as a 15-year-old member of The Television Workshop, the Midlands performing arts charity that also helped launch the careers of Samantha Morton, Felicity Jones and Jack O’Connell. She successfully auditioned for a role in his debut feature, A Room for Romeo Brass, and he later propositioned her to play Lol in a pub.

‘When he told me she was a skinhead, I thought, that will be a good wig,’ she recalls. ‘Then I was in the chair and all my hair was on the floor.’

Her mum was not best pleased. ‘I had really long hair, down to my bum,’ she says. ‘Because I was a dancer as a young kid, my hair was my crown and my mum used to do amazing plaits and buns. It was her thing, really. Then I came home with a skinhead.’

Lol’s brutal experiences in This Is England ’86 – which led to her killing her abusive father – delivered McClure the 2011 Leading Actress BAFTA. She’s still slightly mortified by her excitable winners’ speech (“I was basically just shouting down the microphone”), but it remains one of the proudest days of her life.

Another career-defining moment came a few months ago when the explosive finale to the most recent series of Line of Duty – BBC2’s highest-rated drama for 15 years – became a national talking point. After 90 minutes largely confined to a police interview room, all hell suddenly broke loose as armed gunmen moved in to extract Craig Parkinson’s corrupt copper, ‘The Caddy’, leading to a lengthy chase in which McClure’s DC Kate Fleming pursued him halfway across the city. And halfway back again.

‘We just ran and ran and ran,’ she says. ‘It was exhausting. I’m not a gym bunny. I was absolutely shattered. That line “I’m too knackered to run” was in the script, but it was very easy to deliver.’

For all the series’ acclaim, some thought the sequence was out of place in a show feted for its realism. ‘It was a dramatic ending,’ she says. ‘The majority of the nation thoroughly enjoyed it. There were some who said, “too far, too far”. But I thought it was gripping, it went out with a bang. I always wonder how Jed [writer Jed Mercurio] is going to top it, and he always does.’

The dense, jargon-heavy interrogation scenes – some clocking in at over 20 minutes – are achieved in a single take. ‘We all have flats next door to each other in Belfast, so we take it in turns to host homework nights,’ McClure reveals. ‘You have to work hard, ‘cos you don’t want to be the one who messes it up for everyone else. Once those scenes are done, we’re in the pub, having a pint.’

As a working class kid from Nottingham, McClure acknowledges the debt she owes to the Television Workshop. ‘I do have opinions on the cost of drama schools,’ she says. ‘The idea of denying people an opportunity that someone else has just because of money… I find that frightening, really. The Workshop is an incredible example of what you can get out of people when you open the doors to everybody. 

‘I auditioned for the Italia Conti school in London when I was about 14, and the reason I didn’t go was purely down to money – we had a year to find the funds. We went to the council, friends, family, charities… you name it. But it’s just too much. Now I look back and think, thank God I didn’t go there, because it would have completely changed my life and my career, and where I am now.’

She’s still careful with her money. ‘I know where it’s all come from and I look after it,’ she says. ‘I’m not a millionaire, I’m not a Hollywood A-lister – I have to make sure I’ve got work coming up, to earn money. Because if I don’t, I’ll have to find a different job to do. That’s just the reality.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 28, 2016

(c) Waitrose Weekend