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Thursday 24 Apr 2014

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Accused – Christopher Eccleston plays Willy Houlihan

Christopher Eccleston as Willy Houlihan

Christopher Eccleston is renowned for the searing and honest way he gets under the skin of the people he plays. Last seen on BBC Four as John Lennon, Eccleston returns to BBC One to star not as a modern icon but as an ordinary, decent man, Willy Houlihan, who is in deep water and in the dock.

Willy does his best – he's a good plumber and a loving father, but he fails to be a faithful husband.

Starring as Willy sees leading actor Christopher Eccleston and acclaimed writer Jimmy McGovern reunited. Arguably, their collaborations have led to some of the most memorable and arresting dramatisations seen on British television. Eccleston outlines what working with McGovern has meant to him over the years.

"I think of Jimmy's projects as the spine of my career because I've worked with him more than any other writer during my 21 years as an actor. Luckily, for me, he came along in my early days.

"Call me old-fashioned, earnest, pompous, or whatever label helps you look away, but I've been brought up on the writer-led socially engaged TV drama of the Seventies and Eighties and wanted to make comparable drama.

"I didn't just want to be 'on the telly', but to be involved in stories that mattered and didn't patronise viewers. Jimmy's stories are all these things.

"Cracker gave me a 'face' on television and Hearts And Minds was my first lead, but Hillsborough and Sunday are the two most important dramas I've been involved with as they portrayed factual miscarriages of justice and were tools in the families' fight for justice and the right to grieve and commemorate their lost loved ones with decency and honour.

"So, this is why – over about a 17-year span – I've appeared in six McGovern projects Cracker, Hearts And Minds, Hillsborough, Sunday, the film Heart and now Accused - a crime and punishment drama.

"Jimmy respects and understands his audience and never talks down – that's why he reaches us. He's popular, commercially successful and never minds the critical plaudits.

To film Willy's Story, revered son of Salford Eccleston returned to his home turf of Manchester. Eccleston's thoughts on the new script are loud and clear.

"I immediately had a grasp of the character's world – the language and atmosphere are perfectly pitched.

"Frankly, scripts like this are 'actor-proof' and 'director-proof' – any actor with half a brain would get it, all us actors have to do is not get in the way of the words!

"Jimmy listens to how people speak. Like all great writing, Jimmy's is a combination of the detachment of hard won technique and a complete commitment to instinct and imagination."

It's clear that McGovern's latest creation meets with Eccleston's approval.

"I like and sympathise with Willy. He loves his wife and family, he works hard, he's never broken the law and he's trying to give his daughter her dream wedding. He's tempted and falls and I don't judge him for it – 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.'

"But Willy's deeply conflicted about his adultery. I was raised with a rudimentary Church of England religious education and am an atheist, so I had to rely on my imagination to understand his relationship with Catholicism.

"In the end, Willy's dilemma is a matter of conscience. We all have a moral code we're answerable to ... well, maybe not in the case of politicians, footballers, and estate agents," muses Eccleston, with a dry aside.

Accused is about crime and punishment, so does Eccleston think Willy should be in the dock?

"By the letter of the law he should be," he replies. "But when we had the read-through there was a vote afterwards – should Willy be found innocent or guilty? The vote was split between those who wanted to send him down and those who wanted set him free.

"Hopefully, the viewers will be just as caught up in the drama as we were hearing it off the page for the first time." And, this is surely a ringing endorsement of Eccleston's conviction that drama should provoke debate and get people engaged.

So, what is next for this marathon running, fiercely intelligent and versatile actor?

His stage, film and television credits are never predictable and encompass modernising the ninth Dr Who for a new generation of viewers, to playing the aristocratic Duke of Norfolk Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, to acting a man who believes he's the Son of God in The Second Coming – not to forget his affecting performance as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have, or being acclaimed as Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Eccleston's legions of fans will be pleased to hear that he's not adverse to playing some comedic roles in the future but, in the meantime, they can look forward to seeing him as Joseph Bede in BBC Two's forthcoming six-part noir thriller, The Shadow Line, written, produced and directed by Hugo Blick.

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