Martin Freeman is looking dapper when he joins The Big Issue at the Soho Hotel in London. Hair neat as ever, jacket well appointed, slacks and desert boots separated by some daring bright green statement socks to offset the beige and brown look he’s sporting. He’s stylish, smart, affable and very happy to be talking to The Big Issue – a magazine he’s followed since the very beginning.
“I remember it starting up in Richmond,” says Freeman. “I lived around there and a girl I was seeing was working in the office at the time. And I remember a very early interview with Rufus Sewell when he was this up-and-coming actor who had just left Central [drama school].”
A few hours before the interview, we were watching Freeman in a role that takes him further from his everyday personality and look than ever before. In The Responder he plays Liverpudlian frontline police officer Chris – clothes functional, accent an impressive Scouse, hair shorn, brow furrowed.
After years as a 999 emergency response officer, Chris’s mental health has taken a serious downturn. In episode one, he might just be in the early stages of a breakdown – a good police officer worn down by the job, exhausted by constant night shifts, numbed by the things he has seen and corrupted by the company he has been keeping.
Accompanying Freeman to talk about The Responder is the writer responsible for this transformational role. Tony Schumacher, whose debut TV script draws on his own life experience as a police responder, knows the story only too well.
“I’ve never been a copper, but it felt authentic to me,” says Freeman.
“Things happen in it that didn’t feel familiar to me through television but felt familiar to me through being human. I haven’t specifically been through the shit that Chris is going through, but Tony painted a person and cast of characters who were recognisable as people.
“If you’re alive in the world for more than 20 minutes, you’re going to have some tribulations, right? You’re going to be trying to pull things together. What I read very clearly was a lot of people who were fighting their own mini war – and occasionally those wars intersect. So it is authentic – but also has a bit of passion and spark in it.
“And if I had found out three months in that Tony had actually been blagging and had never been a copper, I would have gone: ‘Oh, fair play, that just means his imagination is even better than I’d thought!’”
Schumacher laughs. But there’s some serious trauma he has revisited in the creation of this drama.
“The job just fucks you up,” he says. “I’m still affected by it all these years later. I suppose we call it PTSD. But it’s still in me, you know?
“Policing is the longest job I ever had – 11 or 12 years. I have been a roofer, I sold cars, I sold jewellery. I have done warehouse work, cruise ships, I was a bouncer. But policing profoundly changed me. It made me a better person.
“It gave me greater empathy. You can’t help it. You are immersed in people’s misery, you know? It helped me understand and read people, which helps me write.”
This empathy comes out in The Responder’s depiction of people on the margins, people struggling – with their mental health, with poverty, with addiction, and with homelessness.
Chris knows most of them by name, having policed his beat for so long. There’s Casey, played by brilliant newcomer Emily Fairn, who fizzes off the screen – all frenetic energy and darting eyes. Marco (Josh Finan) is “ducking and diving and trying to get through to the next morning”. And there are the feuding neighbours, living in poverty, who Chris is called out to visit almost daily.
“I wanted everyone to be able to carry their own show,” says Schumacher.
“I found joy in being with those people – I used to enjoy their company, because I’m also a bit of a scally. So I enjoy writing them.”
Freeman agrees. “The thing that excites me about the job, even at my grand old age, is getting to work with people who are going to surprise you,” he says. “They’re new to me, it’s not like, ‘Oh, here is Ian McKellen.’ They’re new to us as an audience, and they have this spirit – so you just don’t know what those actors, or those characters are going to do next.
“Just from a real human behavioural point of view, again it rung a few bells with me. I’ve not lived that life, but it was written with heart for those people. It’s not to my taste to harshly judge people on the rough side of life but you also don’t want to sanctify them.
“It’s easy, when you’re 18, just to go ‘he’s a bad person’ or ‘she’s a good person’. Once you get your arse kicked by life a little bit, you realise most people are trying their best and failing sometimes.”
Chris fails a lot. He’s trying to be a good copper but failing more and more. This is no ordinary police drama precisely because it focuses on an ‘ordinary’ police officer. Chris could not be further away from the maverick genius detective solving high-end crime we are used to seeing on the small screen.
“I’ve been in one of those shows,” deadpans Freeman. “This thing called Sherlock. You wouldn’t have seen it, don’t worry about it.”
A key early scene involves Chris and his mother, played by Rita Tushingham, the iconic star of Shelagh Delaney’s classic kitchen sink drama A Taste of Honey. Fittingly, in her kitchen, she reminds her son that “everyone matters”. The jaded frontline police officer replies quickly: “They don’t. Not really.”
“I think 20 years ago, everyone mattered to Chris. Absolutely everyone he met,” says Schumacher.
“And his mum is trying to remind him. We were talking on Tottenham Court Road earlier today. God almighty, so many people sleeping rough. If you look into everybody’s eyes as you walk down there, how do you cope? And that is Chris’s problem – he can’t look into everyone’s eyes because he can’t fix everything.”
“I think Chris absolutely knows that everyone matters,” says Freeman. “But life has beaten it out of him. And in the moment he is feeling more cynical. Because they both know it is not really true, because if everyone mattered to the people in power as much as everyone else, there wouldn’t be people sleeping on pavements.”
The Responder is on BBC One Mondays at 9pm, and iPlayer
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