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Roger Allam has looked into the heart of darkness many times during his 46-year career. The actor has played every villain from Adolf Hitler and Javert – nemesis of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables – to Robert Maxwell in the forthcoming film Tetris.
The consummate chameleon, he has also bedded Gillian Anderson six times a week in one West End play, played a vicious, fork-tongued politician alongside Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed spin doctor in The Thick Of It and earned a whole new female following for his womanising author in the film of Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe.
Like John Thaw and Alan Rickman before him, Allam has become the discerning woman’s crush with that youthful mane of hair and a distinctively silky baritone that makes him recognisable even under a ton of make-up. Like Thaw and Rickman, he also seems uncomfortable with adulation and sets out to live as normal a life as possible. You won’t get flouncy stardom from him.
Now 67, he started his career in the 1970s, after Manchester University, as one of the few men in the radical feminist theatre troupe Monstrous Regiment, named for John Knox’s notorious denunciation of uppity women; their office and rehearsal rooms were based in a London squat. “I had a whale of a time,” he says. “You could live cheaply in London then.” The grit of that experience seems to have given him the necessary ballast to survive all the celebrity hoopla and to travel below the radar (including on public transport whenever he can).
But it’s the essential decency of the battle-hardened, trilby-wearing detective chief inspector Fred Thursday in ITV’s Endeavour that has finally made Allam a household name and which seems to resonate with him most of all. Actors can relish playing detectives, those hawk-like observers of human nature – as thespians themselves have to be. And Allam sees Thursday, the seen-it-all-before mentor to the young Endeavour Morse in this Inspector Morse prequel, as a homage to his parents’ hard-pressed, hard-working generation that had been through immense poverty and two world wars.
The eighth and latest season of Endeavour begins on Sunday September 12 and is set in 1971 to a soundtrack of Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who, which ushers in a subversive new decade. At that time, Allam was in his last year at school, Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex, which he has described as “strange” and “odd” and an “Eton for paupers” where the pupils wore (and still wear) Tudor uniforms. Born in the East End of London, where his father was vicar of the Hawksmoor church St Mary Woolnoth in Bow, Allam would play on bomb sites before becoming a scholarship boy at 10, thanks to its charitable foundation. His parents were “education-obsessed”, seeing it as the way to better yourself.
There he enjoyed “a great tradition of music – I was in the choir - and remarkable facilities”, though the events of the world outside only seeped through in newspapers in the school library, with no television allowed.
He first fell in love with theatre, he says, when he saw a Christ’s Hospital house production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “The play seemed just like the school itself then: strange rules and always the potential for violence, so it made perfect sense to me,” as he puts it. From 1970, he started going to see Laurence Olivier at London’s Old Vic in the school holidays for 15p – “the price of a Tube ticket,” recalls Allam, who himself has now won three Olivier Awards.
There were, he recalls, “good sides as well as bad sides to the school, like everywhere. And the atmosphere seemed to relax and change in the 1960s. But if you didn’t address a senior boy as Sir, they hit you – that was the punishment. I was terrified when one boy got hit on the head with a wooden boot brush by another. It was culturally allowed, if you like.
“We used to get caned by the teachers as punishment; your housemaster could make you change into your pyjamas so that it hurt more.” Yet such corporal punishment was rife in many, if not most, boarding and day schools then, memorably captured in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If.
I ask him if he was surprised by the convictions – between 2018 and 2020 – of six former Christ’s Hospital teachers for historic indecent assault against pupils from the 1960s to the early 1990s after complaints from 22 former students.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” he replies, calmly. “Nothing like that happened to me, I’m very glad to say, although one of the teachers who was put away I remember well and I remember liking very much,” he adds, preferring not to name names. “I remember him getting to know my parents – and now he’s in prison. I [also] remember a feeling about him alongside all of that, a feeling that maybe he would go too far and do something, one of those feelings you have when you’re a child: a feeling of wanting to get away from them – as well as them being very nice.”
It sounds like a classic grooming technique that he managed to avoid, thanks to a stable family background with loving parents and two older sisters that gave him a sixth sense for danger and what was not right. Which is where the solid values of the Fred Thursdays of this world come in: a copper who can sniff out a wrong ‘un at 20 paces while the Sherlockian genius of the young Endeavour Morse works out the intricacies of the crime.
As for Endeavour, how long can it continue its fruitful exploration of all our yesterdays? Shaun Evans, who plays Endeavour, is currently hiding in plain sight under a ginger beard in BBC One’s Vigil, while Allam is about to jet off to the South of France to film exterior shots as a French examining judge in Murder In Provence for BritBox – based on M L Longworth’s crime novels.
“I don’t think we can do loads more Endeavours, but I think there will be more,” says Allam, whose wife – actress Rebecca Saire – and older son William both appeared in last year’s seventh series; they also have another son Thomas.
He still has an unfulfilled yearning to do a Western, so the Endeavour writer Russell Lewis wrote scenes in a previous series where he could “access that longing – such as firing an enormous pistol in the air in an OK Corral scene as I burst out of a bank after the baddies.”
Because of lockdown, several projects were cancelled or postponed. “I hardly did any work last year. It was nice to have a rest, but only of course because of Endeavour – which means I’ve got money to live on and wasn’t worried about bills.”
But Allam was still keen to get back in the saddle again, as it were. He admits: “I just want to go on and on like Maggie, Judi, Ian, Derek and Eileen – getting good parts until I drop dead. I would be bored rigid with retirement.”
Endeavour returns to ITV on Sunday at 8pm