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Mark Bonnar: ‘The big change for me was Line of Duty’

Mark Bonnar was born in Edinburgh in 1968. His dad was an artist for Scottish New Towns, which saw him move around a fair bit as a youngster, returning to Edinburgh in 1981. On leaving school he became a library assistant, before a lucky break at 21 led to him training to become an actor.

Since then, Bonnar has become something of a national treasure, with a string of high-profile roles in theatre and TV. He won the 2017 Bafta Scotland award for Best Actor in Television for his role as Colin Osborne in Unforgotten, and has also appeared in Line of Duty, Shetland, Catastrophe, Casualty – and has recently been filming series three of the acclaimed Scottish drama Guilt, due to air in 2023.

Bonnar married fellow actor Lucy Gaskell in 2007, and they have two children.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Bonnar explains how got the acting bug and how he ended up becoming one of the UK’s most familiar faces.

My main preoccupation at 16 was leaving school because I really didn’t like it. I was a bit rudderless. I was smoking and drinking and I had quite a long-standing girlfriend. I didn’t really care enough about what I was doing at school. I had one of those sliding doors moments when I went to see my guidance teacher and she said there was a youth training scheme that would pay £33 a week. The two available were a mechanic or a library assistant. I thought, I’ve never even looked under the bonnet of a car but I have read a book, so I’ll be a library assistant. And that was me for the next five years. 

I always loved music. And I was still going to see a lot of bands then. I saw Big Country five times, I loved Stuart Adamson. On TV I was really into The Young Ones. I loved Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. That was probably my introduction to politics as well, through the Alexei Sayle bits, his left-wing take on life. That was a kind of political awakening for me.

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I didn’t have any serious fights with my family but there were a few moments. I remember standing face-to-face with my dad, my fist clenched. He was really pissed off about something I was doing. And he said, “Don’t hit me, you’ll regret it.” So yes, there were times which were difficult but I think that goes for all teenagers. Generally though we’ve always been a loving, supportive family. 

Mark Bonnar as Orsino
2008: Playing Orsino opposite Victoria Hamilton’s Viola in Twelfth Night at Wyndham’s Theatre. Photo: Donald Cooper/Shutterstock

My parents never had a problem with me trying to become an actor. In fact, they were relieved because I’d done so many shit jobs by then. They could see acting was something I enjoyed and was fairly decent at. I’d done a little bit at school; I remember a show which was a medley of different songs and drama scenes. I played a scene from Murder in the Red Barn, which is a very old play I think. I had a massive handlebar moustache, which I really enjoyed twirling. I remember making the drama teachers laugh when we were rehearsing the scene and that gave me a wee frisson. 

I know lots of actors tell this kind of story, about that first moment you become aware that you can affect somebody on an emotional level, whether its laughter or tears. And at that age it’s usually laughter because you don’t have the emotional depth to bring tears from somebody at the drop of a hat when you’re 13.

My move into acting came out of the blue when I was around 21. By this time I’d moved to the planning department because I’d been in libraries for five years, and I wanted a change. Two of the blokes who were planners in the office were members of an amateur dramatics company called Leith Theatre and it’s thanks to those guys that I’m here. They recognised that all the titting about in the office was actually frustration for not being on stage and they thought, we can harness that. So they said, come along and see what you make of it. 

Mark Bonnar with wife Lucy Gaskell
2014: With wife Lucy Gaskell at the Women’s Aid 40th Anniversary event. Photo: Piers Allardyce/Shutterstock

I did four shows with that group over a couple of years – my first role was the back end of a pantomime cow – and I loved it. It felt like somebody had let me off the leash. All that farting about for years making stupid faces and doing different voices – suddenly I was having an absolute ball doing the same thing on a stage, Then somebody mentioned drama school. I’d never thought about it as a job – that was something that somebody else from somewhere else did. But I looked into it and I found out you could go and audition for drama school. So I did, and I got into the RSAMD [now The Conservatoire] in Glasgow. 

I made a decision after my daughter was born to try and get a bit of telly on my CV. Shetland was the very first TV thing I did after being in the theatre for 10 years. But the big change in my career was the second series of Line of Duty. That was quite a seminal TV moment. I remember somebody sent me a picture of the front page of The Times and there was a picture of me and Keeley [Hawes] up beside where it says The Times and I went, fuck, this is quite big. It was such a great show. And Jed [Mercurio, show creator] had really found his feet with that series, adding the big long interview scenes, a couple of which I got to be in. So suddenly I was in this show that everyone was talking about.

And Catastrophe was the other one. Again it was a fantastic character, brilliantly written and something that I hadn’t done much of, which was comedy. I knew I wanted to do it and I knew I could do it. But Rob and Sharon [writers Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan] gave me the chance and put their faith in me. Again, that turned out to be a show that people talked about a lot, and still mention to me to this day. 

I don’t get recognised in the supermarket very often. Do you know what happens? People come up to me and they’re like “Mark! Hi, how are you? You’re at John’s school aren’t you?” And I say, “No, I don’t think so.” Then it’s, “Oh I must know you from the cycling shop then.” So I say, “Yeah, that’s probably what it is.” 

If I could give my younger self advice I’d say, keep your teeth clean. Do your tax on time. And don’t worry so much; I’ve always been a worrier. I don’t have regrets because I’m always looking forward, not looking back, but when I watch myself on TV I always wish I could do it again. Usually I wake up in a cold sweat three months after we finish thinking, I should have done it like that, that would have been much better. But I wouldn’t change anything about my life. It’s the past that led me here, and I wouldn’t change a single sausage of it. 

Mark Bonnar in Shetland.
2018: As Duncan Hunter in Shetland. Photo: ITV/Shutterstock

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my granny. She was lovely and she was great fun. She did yoga. She kept her fags in a big soft purse. She was fun loving and devil-may-care. She was the antithesis of my granddad, who had been in India in the army during the war – he had big chops and was quite stern. She was just the complete opposite of him. She died before I was an actor, and I think she would have been absolutely beside herself to witness all of this. She knew I was at drama college and sort of an actor, but we all know anything can happen to people after drama college. She didn’t see any of my career at all. I would have loved her to have seen me on the telly.

If I could go back and re-live any moments in my life, it would definitely be the birth of both of my children. It was the best, most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed. Also the hardest – not for me, obviously, for my wife. But it’s hard to see your wife going through that. And they were quite difficult births, both babies were back-to-back, so it was agony. We started off in the hypno birthing room with our first baby, but very quickly realised that things weren’t progressing any further so we were carted up to the ward. But that moment of holding your child for the very first time, and looking at them and them looking at you, is incomparable with anything I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m crying now just thinking about it. So I’d love to go back to that – not the 36 hours of labour – but that moment. And slow it down to half speed please.

Mark Bonnar stars in Litvinenko, which airs on ITVX from December 15.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

The new book Letter to My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now, you can order it here.

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