Corruption! Gangs! Bent coppers! It's the TV event we've all been waiting for: yes, Line of Duty is back, with Vicky McClure returning as DI Fleming. But behind the scenes all the actress really wants is a quiet life in Nottingham with her fiancé.
After winning the best actress award at the TV Baftas in 2011, Vicky McClure received an invitation to a post-Bafta event in Hollywood. She had been acting since the age of 11 but had never been to Los Angeles. "I thought, oh my God, this is amazing, I'm going to LA! Tom Hanks and JLo were going to be there. It was going to be incredible." Then she discovered the organisers would pay for only one ticket. "I'd been working in an office just a year earlier. I didn't have big savings. A second ticket was an expense we couldn't cover. So I said, 'Well then, I can't go. You can't expect me to go to LA on my own and walk into a room full of not just people but, like, JLo, and try and work the room. 'Cos I don't know how to work a room! I'm not any good at all that zhuzhy stuff." She starts to laugh. "So that was my one opportunity to go to LA. And since then it has never come up."
It hasn't needed to. Within months of missing out on Hollywood McClure landed the part that would still be keeping her busy — and the rest of us gripped — a decade later. The 37-year-old plays DI Kate Fleming in Line of Duty, the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning juggernaut of a hit show written by Jed Mercurio and co-starring Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston. The last season about the fictional anti-corruption unit AC-12 had a peak audience of more than 13 million, making it one of the most watched dramas on British television in 2019. Series six is due to be released on BBC1 in spring and is set to be the TV event of the year.
The crack cocaine of TV, Line of Duty is so addictive that many fans — myself included — can't bear the suspense of a week between each episode, so have to wait until the whole series is out to binge it all in one sitting. In AC-12's murky world of corruption, nobody is above suspicion, and the identity of the mysterious kingpin, known as "H", inspires so much obsessive speculation all over the press and internet that for the duration of each season superfans like me have to self-impose a full news blackout for fear of spoiler alerts. Others watch with Line of Duty bingo cards, waiting for "the gaffer" (Dunbar) to mutter "Mother of God!", or for suspect coppers to remind AC-12 of their right to be interviewed by an officer "at least one rank senior". Series five ended with McClure's character saving the gaffer from a plot to frame him as H; fans can't wait to see if it will be her turn next to fall under suspicion.
On Zoom McClure looks every inch the star, all flawless, dewy skin and glossy, bouncy hair. Practically the first thing she says, though, is how excited she is to be going home the next day. Like most actors she spent the majority of last year stuck at home in jogging bottoms, but she still can't wait to get back there after just a week filming the new series of Amazon Prime Video's Alex Rider in Bristol. "I hate being away from home, it's the worst part of the job for me."
She lives in her home town of Nottingham with her fiancé, Jonny Owen, an actor, producer, writer and radio host. "And I've got to say, in terms of our relationship, I've loved lockdown. We sound like George and Mildred, but we got into a routine — a coffee at about ten in the morning, we have lunch together, eat tea at five o'clock, watch the news at six o'clock." Like a retired couple? "Yes!" She hates being unable to visit her sister and nephews or parents, all of whom live round the corner. "So that has been the tough part. I like to suffocate myself with my family. But all in all I'll look back and be really glad me and Jonny got to spend six solid months together."
Series six of Line of Duty had only just begun filming late last February before Covid closed down the set. When filming resumed in late August in Belfast they had to shoot their longest season yet — seven episodes — under strict Covid protocols, and for three months McClure couldn't go home. "I've never been away for that long before." Her co-stars teased her mercilessly for carting along three suitcases of home comforts — "Dressing gown, slippers, my cup, a throw for the settee, picture frames with all my family" — but it's plain to see her panic was no joke.
Her face lights up with affection at the mention of her co-stars. "Everything in Belfast was shut, we had nothing to do, but we had each other and it really did get us through." Ensemble casts of long-running shows often fall out, usually over money, but she says: "Me, Martin and Ady are very much on a level playing field, we get paid the same." What if one of them lands a blockbuster role that makes them unavailable for more Line of Duty? "Martin and Ady, all I want is for them to get amazing work, they're my mates. And there's always a way to make schedules work."
The other perennial pitfall every hit show must face is, as McClure says: "How much longer can it keep going? Sometimes you think, has it run its course? Every time we go back, we go, 'What's Jed going to come up with?' But he has always got something up his sleeve." I'm dying to know what, obviously, but all she'll say is that AC-12 has suspicions about a murder investigation led by cast newcomer Kelly Macdonald. "Jed's storylines are just incredible, and the boys and I feel the same, we'll keep going until the audience wants it to end. I'll be devastated the day it ends. To be involved in a job with this much love for it, well, you never expect that."
For a long time she barely dared to expect any acting job at all. The daughter of a joiner and a hairdresser, she grew up with her sister in working-class Nottingham, joined a local drama workshop at 11 and won a place at a prestigious theatre school. But her parents couldn't afford the fees, so at 16 she left school "without much education", did a drama course at a local college and became a shop assistant.
She landed her first part at 15, in the film A Room for Romeo Brass, directed by Shane Meadows, and seven years later he cast her again, in his Bafta-winning film This Is England. Its release in 2006 brought other small parts, including one in a movie directed by Madonna, but she was still working in an office, doing filing, when Meadows cast her in the subsequent TV series, This Is England '86, which won her the Bafta.
Despite now "making a good living" and living in "a nice house — not a mansion, though!", she can still suffer fleeting moments of self-doubt. "Like in this scenario," she volunteers disarmingly, "sometimes I'm fighting for a decent word because I know it's going in The Sunday Times, so I've got to have good vocabulary." Reading long scripts can be "a huge ballache" and learning lines a struggle. "I remember going to auditions and trying to speak with a slightly better accent. But I've got to an age now where I think, no, I'm all right." In an industry dominated by middle-class elites, "I want to show people you don't have to have been to big drama schools. Be yourself and you can create something incredible and unique."
Putting her money where her mouth is, in 2019 McClure and her fiancé co-founded a production company, Build Your Own, specifically to commission new working-class talent and stories. Three projects are currently in development and McClure has big ambitions. "I don't hear enough working-class voices on the telly or behind the camera. If you think about everyone who's watching telly, I just think there should be a more equal balance. There's enough room in television, so give us a shot."
Rather like her Line of Duty character, McClure tends to seesaw between bolshie self-belief and self-deprecating doubt. She comes across as effortlessly relaxed, for example, but at one point looks suddenly anxious and volunteers: "I've never ever been PR trained, so I don't know what the rights and wrongs are of an interview." She always says she's puzzled by other people's surprise at her preference for Nottingham family kitchens over glamorous celebrity circles, and has a stock explanation — that home is simply where she's happiest. But I wonder if there might be more to it. Has she ever considered the possibility that fear of exposure to rejection or failure also plays a part?
Hesitating for a moment, she concedes: "Yeah, I mean, I think we're all scared of failing, aren't we?" She would love to try working in America, she agrees, but isn't confident she could master a plausible American accent. More important, after acting for 26 years, "I've had enough knockbacks to last a lifetime." Having laboured hard to earn her status in Britain, "I just don't want to start all over again out there."
One thing she does definitely want to do is marry Owen. The couple met nine years ago on the set of the British film Svengali and by all accounts it was love at first sight. "I'd dreamt about getting married since I was a kid. I love the concept of marriage, I love the concept of a wedding, I'm a sucker for love. So I'm desperate for it to happen." Her work got in the way in 2019, Covid kiboshed last year and 2021 is looking like a write-off already, so when remains anyone's guess.
"Some days you think let's just sod off to Gretna Green, other days you think let's do it abroad, and then you end up with a full-blown church wedding." McClure seldom misses an opportunity to laugh at herself (even in the middle of an argument with Owen: "If I hear myself and think, yeah, I sound mental, I can't help laughing") and as she concedes she makes a hopeless wedding planner, she dissolves again into giggles. "I'd come up with crazy ideas, then look at the logistics and go absolutely no. But I definitely want a nice white dress."
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London