The Fear: Peter Mullan plays crime boss with Alzheimer's
Peter Mullan has taken on the role of a gangster suffering from an aggressive form of dementia in a new Channel 4 series, The Fear.
As ageing crime boss-turned-entrepreneur Richie Beckett, Mullan is forced to face-off with an aggressive foreign gang trying to muscle in on his Brighton territory while inside his head, another turf war ensues as he struggles to keep control of his own senses.
At a screening of the first episode of the four-part series, Mullan admitted he kept his research on the condition to a minimum, merely watching a half-hour documentary on the illness.
"I'd lost a lot of family to Alzheimer's and I watched a DVD on people coping with Alzheimer's.
"It really just confirmed what I knew on whether there were any physical manifestations of the disease, which there aren't. It's different for everybody."
The Fear was written by Richard Cottan, who scripted Kenneth Branagh's Bafta-winning English-language adaptation of the Swedish detective series Wallander.
"It wasn't essentially my idea," he said. "I was approached with the idea of a gangster-type person who got Alzheimer's and it came to me as a very different story.
End Quote Harry Lloyd on his role as Mullan's son Matty
I think in a way, it's important that I didn't understand the Alzheimer's too much as I tried to get that feeling of looking into my dad's eyes and trying to work out what he's feeling”
"I thought it was a joke at first but then I thought about it as a very different way of treating the disease rather than some quite earnest indictment of the NHS with old people shuffling around in slippers."
Though his condition provides the audience with a degree of empathy for Richie, Mullan is adamant the audience should not confuse the former gangster, who has since assumed airs of respectability, for a sympathetic character.
"He's a nasty guy that has made a living out of people's poverty and addictions and his lovely children have taken the benefits of that so I don't have much time for them either if I'm honest.
"What intrigues me about it, was throwing together an highly unsympathetic character with a disease that obviously one feels for someone suffering from it."
The Alzheimer's Society has praised The Fear, in a statement it said: "It is good to see dementia portrayed in mainstream drama. As is shown in the series, dementia can be very frightening and confusing when you don't know what the cause is.
"The storyline will help us raise much needed awareness amongst new audiences and show that dementia can affect anyone. There are 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK. We would like to see more high profile programmes tackle this important subject."
Rising star Harry Lloyd, seen in the film Iron Lady, the BBC's recent adaptation of Great Expectations and the hit TV series Game of Thrones, plays Richie's son Matty.
He said the darker aspects of the drama actually brought out the actors' lighter sides between takes.
"I had a ball doing it, as dark and horrible as it is, it quite often makes for a jolly set because you have this nervous energy.
"You do an intense scene and afterwards, especially being British, you can laugh it off and stay close to the people around you rather than dive into your little hole of desperation."
As perhaps the most perceptive of Richie's two sons, Lloyd is the first to suspect that there is something wrong with his father, though Lloyd said he deals with the discovery with more pragmatic concerns for the family business.
"For Matty, the Alzheimer's, if anything, is a distraction and a frustration and to begin with he's very cold about it because he's used to being in charge, he's the brains behind the outfit.
- Dementia is a gradual decline in the brain's functioning
- 1 in 3 people in the UK will have dementia by the time they die
- Alzheimer's disease is the most common dementia
Source: BBC Health
"I think in a way, it's important that I didn't understand the Alzheimer's too much as I tried to get that feeling of looking into my dad's eyes and trying to work out what he's feeling."
Mullan, who has carved a niche playing some unpleasant, often violent characters joked that every criminal is a wannabe actor and the the same is probably true of most thespians.
Lloyd agreed: "I think its very attractive to play someone who has a very different life to your own, its not about the darkness or the light or he's sympathetic or he's funny, these are the first adjectives you throw at them but you need more than one word.
"Obviously me being a public schoolboy and running a massive crime business in Brighton, it's a massive turn on, it's very exciting - I could never do that and so you learn and you try and get away with it."
Amongst the heavier dramatic scenes where Richie slowly begins to unravel before his family are moments of grim humour.
Advising his son Cal, played by the former EastEnders star Paul Nicholls, to temporarily store some human remains in the freezer at the family home, Richie adds: "Don't tell your mother, she's always been a fussy eater."
"I was talking with the producer about that, when you see it with an audience for the first time and you hear people laughing and you realise it's one of those shows that people are desperate to laugh," said Lloyd.
"Even the lightest moments, just the little nuances of relationships within a family are something you recognise, and you say: 'Oh yeah, they're humans, I'm safe again'. But it is unsettling because you know it's not a comedy."
Mullan, who won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 for his role as a recovering alcoholic in My Name Is Joe, and has been Bafta-nominated as a director, screen writer and an actor is one of the most respected figures working in the British film industry.
He must be, in short, an intimidating presence on the set, particularly for a young actor playing his son.
"Before I met him , I re-watched all his films and I told myself I need to not be intimidated by this guy because he's my dad," admitted Lloyd.
"But seeing him on screen, he's always pretty intense and I was a bit scared, and then you meet him and straight away he's just the most relaxing man. Its impossible to be nervous acting around him - it's very personal and fun and honest and lively and anecdotal - it was a real pleasure."
Part one of The Fear begins at 2200GMT on Channel 4.