Maxine Peake is a great actress. I’d go as far as to say she’s one of the greatest working in British television.
One testament to her greatness is how often she’s cast. It would be unfair to say she’s on our screens all the time, but she’s never far away from them, either.
You can take it that, in any given year, you’ll see an awful lot of Maxine Peake on TV. This week alone you could see her twice: playing the mother of a Hillsborough victim in Anne (on Virgin Media One and, a week earlier, ITV), and also as a HR manager in BBC One’s Rules of the Game, a rather over-the-top thriller with a #MeToo slant.
She’s predictably great, although in very different ways, in both series. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-Maxine Peake piece or an anti-anyone else piece for that matter.
As I said, I think Maxine Peake is great, and great talent should be rewarded. But you can still get too much of a great thing.
She’s been in so many dramas — not just this year, but every year going all the way back to her big breakthrough in Shameless in 2004 — that there’s a danger we’ll grow weary of seeing her. And that’s something I really don’t want to see happening. But I fear we might have reached peak Maxine Peak. She’s not in a club of one, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, because I think Stephen Graham is a terrific actor, one of the very best you’ll ever see, the same is true of him.
In 2019 alone he was in Line of Duty, The Virtues and A Christmas Carol, where he played Jacob Marley. In 2020 he was in White House Farm and Code 404, a third season of which is in the pipeline.
Last year he notched up another hat-trick with Time, The North Water and Help, three of 2021’s outstanding dramas, and he was marvellous in all of them.
He’ll soon be seen in the final season of Peaky Blinders — although rumours that he’ll be playing Al Capone, a role he’s already played quite brilliantly in Boardwalk Empire, are apparently unfounded.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I love watching Stephen Graham. Everything he appears in is automatically improved simply by him being in it.
But here’s the thing, I don’t want to grow tired of watching him, no more than I want to grow tired of watching Maxine Peake.
Over-exposure is one of the worst things that can happen to an actor. Other familiar faces dicing with this danger include Suranne Jones, James Nesbitt, Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey, Nicola Walker and John Simm.
It’s very easy to quickly go from being flavour of the month to “Oh no, not her/him AGAIN!” status.
You can understand why these actors are cast in so many things. They’re talented, experienced and generally liked by viewers. There comes a point, though, when you begin to wonder if they’re being cast because they’re the right person for the role, or in the expectation that their popularity alone will be enough to attract a big audience.
Take the case of David Jason, who for a long time was the biggest television star in Britain.
At one point he had three hit series on the go at the same time: Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours and The Darling Buds of May.
When he made the switch to crime drama as the world-weary detective in A Touch of Frost, that too was enormously popular.
Nobody would begrudge Jason his success, which came after years of plugging away in one sitcom after another, without landing the big hit his talent deserved.
But his pulling power couldn’t save the painfully unfunny stinker that was The Royal Bodyguard. Here was an embarrassing example of everything that can go wrong when a broadcaster — in this case the BBC — cynically puts its faith in a star name and expects people to tune in, even if the series is rubbish.
Most actors are out of work a lot of the time, so you can’t expect them to just turn down good parts. But perhaps fewer would be unemployed if broadcasters didn’t keep sharing all the juiciest roles between the same few faces.
Also, from the public’s point of view, the more times we see the same actor on TV, the harder it becomes to suspend our disbelief. An occasional absence would make the heart grow fonder.