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Monday 21 Apr 2014

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Accused – Mackenzie Crook plays Corporal Buckley

Mackenzie Crook as Corporal Buckley

Mackenzie Crook plays Corporal Buckley, a dedicated, straight-down-the-line career soldier, a soldier's soldier and a man you need on your side if you are to survive. While Buckley does not find himself in the dock, there are those who may feel he should be on trial.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mackenzie Crook is one of the most versatile creative talents around. He has succeeded as a stand-up comedian, writing his own material, scooped awards for his excruciatingly cringe-worthy Gareth Keenan in seminal hit The Office and has delighted fans around the globe as the boggle-eyed Ragetti in Pirates Of The Caribbean.

But, until now, television audiences have not seen him in a serious acting role, whereas on the stage he has been critically acclaimed as Konstantin in the Chekhov classic The Seagull and in Jez Butterworth's take on modern England in Jerusalem.

So, what made him want to take on Corporal Buckley, a maverick and a bully who has carved out a career as a professional soldier?

Mackenzie's quietly spoken, thoughtful response is unequivocal: "The writing is all important in every project and you can tell from the first page whether it's going to be a good story. And when it's a Jimmy McGovern script you can tell it's going to make great drama from the first sentence.

"In all honestly, I was really surprised to even be considered for Buckley – which immediately made my ears prick up. Initially, my instinct was that the part was so far away from anything I've ever done and so far from me as a person, that I wasn't sure I could take it on.

"But I've been longing to do some serious drama on television for ages and I realised this was an amazing opportunity and I could really stretch myself."

So, how did Mackenzie, an active conservationist, artist and keen gardener, prepare to get under the skin of Buckley? He modestly says all the hard work was done and his nemesis was right there living and breathing in the script, and laughs as he says:

"Luckily, I came on board about two weeks before filming started, which meant I didn't do boot camp or need to as Buckley is never out of uniform. He doesn't do downtime, strip off his top and play football with his men. He never chills out – he's always ready for action.

"Buckley's a very serious character and is never humorous. His purpose in life never wavers. He's been steadily climbing the ranks of the army and I reckon could make it to the top. Personal friendships are not his thing and don't enter his mindset.

"The army is his life – looking out for his men and protecting them from the enemy is his vocation. I can't imagine him in civilian life. He's a completely dedicated soldier with several tours under his belt. He takes his job very, very seriously and knows his decisions can mean life or death.

"He knows there's problem when the new recruits, Frankie and Peter, arrive – a right pair of Jack-the-lads from Manchester, who are full of bravado and confidence but have no real idea about active service. When they don't measure up to his exacting standards the consequences are disastrous. He's compelled to come down very hard. And you don't want to be on the wrong side of Buckley."

Mackenzie praises the input of the RSJ Films military consultant, Adnan Sarwar, a 33-year-old former Corporal with the Royal Engineers who experienced two Iraq tours during his eight years service in helping him understand modern military life.

"Adnan is the first person I've met who's been a serving soldier and he was an incredible help to all of us on set – working with him was a real eye-opener.

"Adnan knocked down a lot of pre-conceived ideas we had about how the army hierarchy works – mine are probably based on Second World War films. I was imagining you'd get up and polish your boots and buttons and make your bed, but Adnan said: 'No way. Once you get out there it's not as strict and regimented as you might imagine – the guys have to a find a way of living together that works for them.'

"For example, their sleeping quarters are tents and usually a mess – think teenager's bedroom. There'd be pants hanging up drying and personal pictures everywhere and other mementos from home.

"Some of our extras were ex-soldiers and they said our camp at Montcliffe Quarry, Bolton, which doubled as Afghanistan, was really authentic."

Mackenzie continues: "Adnan also told us that you don't necessarily defer to a senior officer by his rank, you'd just call him 'mate' when you're out in the field, and the script was changed to reflect this.

"I did have my hair cut for the part but Buckley's hair is quite long. The regulation short back and sides has long gone – the reason we see soldiers on the news with their heads shaved is because of the extreme heat, so it's practical.

"It seems like it's a more democratic way of living these days, although once they're out on manoeuvres the discipline and professionalism kicks in as it must."

Mackenzie speaks of his feelings when putting on his uniform for the first time: "I felt it was a very serious matter and I didn't have the right to wear it. I can't begin to comprehend what these guys go through – it's a job that takes guts and courage. I feel lucky that I was never in any real danger and just doing make believe.

"We had very strict training in the use of firearms but, even so, the blanks we fired smoked and made a terrifying racket and you feel transported into a war zone. I had to think doubly fast about safety as I'm left-handed, and there's no such thing as a left-handed rifle, and the empty cartridges fire out the left side, which was a bit disorientating. "

This brings Mackenzie to the moral orientation of Buckley. "To my way of thinking, Buckley's moral compass gets warped and what he does is reprehensible, but he's pragmatist and doing his duty. He truly believes his actions are necessary for the greater good.

"All of Jimmy's writing tells powerful personal and emotional journeys that grip us. So I didn't take this film as a political story, but a contemporary morally ambiguous tragedy.

"The idea behind the Accused series is such a simple concept – not guilty or guilty as charged. It allows for wonderful, challenging storytelling. The fact that the fate of everyone in the dock can go either way is a testimony to how Jimmy tells each story from all sides.

"I think audiences are going to be very affected and split right down the middle about whether or not the final outcome is right and just."

Other projects Mackenzie has been busy with this year include writing a children's book, which he is also illustrating, and developing a script about the life and times of Dick Turpin. A man Mackenzie says was "much darker than the figure we've been handed down. He was a ruthless, vicious 18th century gangster – a real product of his time, who makes a fascinating character to dramatise."

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