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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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On Expenses – BBC Four drama reveals hidden story behind MPs' expenses disclosure: Brian Cox plays Michael Martin

Brian Cox in On Expenses

Were you aware of Heather Brooke before taking on the part?

I knew about the expenses scandal and I knew about the whole business with Michael Martin, but I didn't know about Heather Brooke's involvement.

How would you describe Michael Martin?

Clearly he made errors in the way he handled the situation, but I also think there's never been any precedent for that kind of thing and he was totally out of his depth. I think that was the sad thing about it. And, of course, he was an old trade union man and he kind of went back to that model in terms of his handling of the situation, which wasn't quite what it needed – it needed something a little more statesman-like. I think he was a traditionalist and he's a Catholic and he's got all those Catholic values – and I think he is a very good man. I think he was a kind of fall guy. He was quite proud and he made errors but it was a very unusual situation and I think, in the end, his situation was a tragic one.

Did you feel sympathy for him then at the end of the drama?

I think so. I wanted to play his humanitarian side. There's also something very comic about him as a character – in those gowns, which he actually wore rather well. It was a very sad situation, really, and he believed in Parliament, he believed in the process of Parliament and he did believe people did things for the best things. There was a lot of dissolutionment. It must have left its mark on him.

Did you have a sense when playing him about why he responded the way he did?

I think he was genuinely trying to close Pandora's Box and, once that's opened, as you know, it's very difficult to close it. He did say it was a legitimate way of topping up salaries – by claiming legitimate expenses – but, of course, human beings always abuse systems and I think that that's where he was very naive.

What is it like playing a real living person, as opposed to a fictional character?

You feel a big responsibility to get them right – but you're playing a view of the man, it can't be the man himself. And that's the problem with playing anybody real – I've played a lot of historical characters but usually they're dead. But I actually was empathetic towards Michael Martin. I remember that voice he had – "Order, order" – that slightly funny way of speaking, which was kind of self-conscious, and I always found him a touching character. I was out of the country at the time the scandal broke and suddenly they were all turning on him and I remember thinking: "Why?" I started out with great empathy and, in the end, I was quite sympathetic.

What about the accent, you're from Dundee and he's from Glasgow, was that difficult?

The Glasgow accent is an entirely different accent. He has that way of speaking that was difficult to sustain. Sometimes he would sound kind of Edinburgh to me, Edinburgh working-class rather than Glasweigan working-class, so it was quite difficult to get right.

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