Ciarán Hinds left North of Ireland in the mid-Seventies but hsi feet still dance to Irish music ."
In her 20 years writing for television, Lynda La Plante has asked viewers to stomach some fairly assertive female protagonists – think Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, Amanda Burton in The Commander or Janet McTeer in The Governor. And though the most recent, Above Suspicion’s fiery DI Anna Travis (played by Kelly Reilly) can stomp and snarl with the best of them, its latest series sees the trousers returned to their traditional (if not rightful) male owners in the form of Ciarán Hinds’s DCS James Langton, a detective whose personality has dents in all the wrong places.
Above Suspicion: Silent Scream, the fourth of La Plante’s bestselling novels featuring detectives Travis and Langton to be adapted for television, sees the pair investigating the brutal murder of a promiscuous film star, while as usual attempting to deal with their own fraught, sexually-charged relationship.
Meanwhile since 2011’s third series, Deadly Intent, Langton has been passed over for promotion, and must answer to a younger former underling. “Langton is coming to the end of his life,” explains Hinds. “He’s tired and he wants the last secure job as commander. And he feels cheated. He is a man with chips on his shoulder and flawed.”
But by the end of part one, his new boss can make no headway with the murder on a film set of a stroppy actress, so Langton is invited back to centre stage, bashing heads together more or less literally to solve the case.
What does Hinds see in Langton when a new script plops on the mat? “I see somebody I wouldn’t like to have a drink with,” he says. “He is sort of unbending. He is very set in his ways, unreconstructed. But down in there is some little bit of soul.”
Hinds looks the part: breeze-block cheekbones, an air of heft, eyes which can turn reptilian. You know why he once needed only a week to take over as Richard III when Simon Russell Beale did his back in. You could believe him when his Julius Caesar declared himself emperor in Rome. And yet the soft centre is rather nearer the surface. “You have a certain look – [mine is] a grumpy old bollix. I’m not really, but I have the body of a bruiser.” And once more he finds himself using that thuggish aura to powerful effect.
It’s all a very long way from The Mahabharata, the epic theatre production by Peter Brook on which Hinds met his partner Hélène Patarot and which has made a Parisian of him since 1987. “It sure as hell is. I never saw myself as being a cop on TV. I come from theatre and I always go back every couple of years.”
To that end he is currently giving a towering performance as Sean O’Casey’s rambunctious sot opposite Sinead Cusack in Juno and the Paycock at the National Theatre in London, where it transferred from Dublin's Abbey Theatre,. “It’s a thorny old role,” says Hinds.
So established and revered is the Irish play that, according to Hinds, one wag warned Cusack, “The thing about opening nights of Juno and the Paycock is that half the audience will have been in it at some stage and the other half will have believed they wrote it.”
The evidence has faded in his accent, but Hinds himself comes from Belfast, and goes back twice a year to see his mother, “still dancing with us at 91”. How Irish did he feel as a young man? “My feet always danced to Irish traditional music but I was very glad to get out of the North of Ireland in the mid-Seventies when it was really closed and tight and relentlessly unforgiving.”
He has since passed himself off as a native in many a citadel of Englishness. Among other brooding literary heroes – Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Rochester in Jane Eyre - he played the diffidently romantic Captain Wentworth in Roger Michell’s television version of Persuasion (1995), probably the finest Austen adaptation of the past 20 years. Most recently he played one of the inner circle of MI6 spooks in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, who convene in a sort of orange eggbox to play out a series of thrillingly tense scenes.
“I had an idea that it was going to be very special. They said, ‘Gary Oldman’s going to do it. And Tomas Alfredson is going to direct it.’ All right, you’re more than three quarters of the way there. It truly felt like a collaboration. You knew everybody was committed and enjoyed sitting around a room with each other.”
If Above Suspicion’s latest murder victim – the young film star – is anything to go by, actors are not always such harmonious company. Has Hinds ever worked with somone so frightful? “Just once. Quite a while ago … This actress was very good, very young, but totally demanding. It was all about ‘me, me, me’. When you find somebody who doesn’t give and take, you go, ‘Remind me never to work with you again.’”
Hinds prefers the unimpressed attitude of an armourer who once came up to him on the set of one of his sword-and-sandal epics. “He said, ‘Do you know what we call you guys? Talking props.’ That made me laugh so much. Bring on the talking props. That’s what we are. There’s a bit more to it. But sometimes not that much more.”