Tomorrow night (Monday 20th April) there’s an intriguing new four-parter on ITV called Safe House. It tells the story of a married couple: Robert (Christopher Eccleston), a former detective; and Katy (Marsha Thomason), a teacher, who are asked by close friend and detective Mark (Paterson Joseph) to turn their remote guest house into a police safe house. Their first ‘guests’ at the safe house in the Lake District are a family in fear for their lives after they are violently attacked by someone who claims to know them. For Robert protecting the family resurrects fears and anxieties bound up in a terrifying night 18 months ago – where he was protecting a star witness who was about to testify against her gangland husband. He was shot, and she was killed. As a consequence of running the safe house, Robert re-questions this incident and uncovers a web of lies. Here’s an interview with Chris…
The Killing Time: Your character, Robert, seeks solace after becoming severely traumatised. Would you have disappeared in the same way if something similar happened to you?
Christopher Eccleston: I think if I was as severely traumatised as this character I would definitely use nature and physical exercise. I’m a runner and physical exercise is a big part of my own mental health. So I would do what Robert does if I had suffered that kind of trauma. I would re-locate and work through it with physical exercise of some sort. I had a real connection with him and his compulsion to swim. I had to wild swim in Coniston Water once or twice and I was in Derwent Water three times…and it was very cold. I was in a wet suit. Everybody who swims in there swims in a wet suit unless it’s the height of summer. I was probably in the water for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes, for each sequence. The swimming scenes were not the greatest thing to contemplate the night before. But to actually do them was wonderful. Exhilarating. So when they put me in the box I can say, ‘Well, I did that.
TKT: Tell us more about your character, Robert, and how he ended up in the Lake District…
CE: Robert’s birthday party reunites him with his former boss and best mate DCI Mark Maxwell (Paterson Joseph). They go back a long time and treated each other with absolute trust. There was a brotherhood between Robert and Mark. Robert was a very serious career policeman with no time in his life for anything other than his job. There was no wife or children. He was very driven. Then about six months before he was shot he met Katy, who basically changed his view of the world. Then after he was shot she immediately became a carer for a deeply traumatised man. Being shot and so close to death, also witnessing the death of another human being who is under your care – not only is there personal humiliation, it’s the brush with mortality that you either learn from or go under. As a protection officer you’re handling very fragile, vulnerable and scared people. And it takes a particular kind of talent to do that. I think Robert has had some form of breakdown and then some form of spiritual re-birth. He’s essentially two different people. It’s opened him up, made him aware of his own mortality. He’s become much more reflective, perhaps more sensitive. He’s joined the human race. Which is perhaps why he’s re-located close to nature. So he’s now an urban policeman running a guest house. Obviously it’s too extreme a change to work for a driven man like that, to suddenly be making teas and coffees. It’s always going to blow up in his face. And, most importantly, he knows that he still doesn’t know the whole story of what happened to him that fateful night.
TKT: So his new life feels like a way out for him. Tell us about the rest of the cast…
CE: Robert leaps at the offer, ill-advisedly in a sense. But we often do things like that and they lead us to what we need. Then through a lot of pain and struggle he finds out some fairly uncomfortable truths. Paterson is one of the finest actors of my generation. He’s a real actor’s actor. I’ve come close to working with him on a couple of occasions. Once in Doctor Who and once in the American series The Leftovers. Finally in Safe House we got eyeball to eyeball and got on famously. A great experience. Marsha is a really strong actress in the role of the Katy, Robert’s wife. She’s the rock for Robert. It’s very much two very strong individuals.
TKT: The actual house itself feels like a character in itself…
CE: The Lake District was a fantastic location. Our director Marc Evans led us into the most extremes of the Lakes and it was great. Because there’s nothing that makes me happier than being out of reach of email and mobiles. The weather was very kind to us, most of the time. The first 10 days it rained but apart from that we had extraordinary good luck with the weather over an eight week shoot. It’s a challenging environment to film in but that’s what you hope ends up on the screen. The house is a central character. We do have the sense the ‘safe house’ is ironic. Because it’s not safe. It’s haunted by Robert. A troubled but very decent man. But as we approach the truth you will see the house brighten and become safer. The main attraction of Safe House for me was the director Marc Evans, who is about the most visually literate director I’ve ever worked with. I worked with him in 1992 on Friday On My Mind and he is a fine director of actors. I’ve previous experience with him shooting in the valleys of Wales so I knew what to expect in terms of the demands he’d make on the cast and crew. He is a brilliant visual storyteller. I feel we’ve created a great visual language for the drama and told it with imagery as much as we possibly could.
TKT: Robert becomes something of a father figure to Joe Blackwell (Max True), the youngest son of the Blackwell family who take shelter in the safe house.
CE: Max was a real gift to the production. Completely unphased by working with all these intense lunatics like myself. He just turned up, stole every scene and went home. He enjoyed doing it and was very good. Robert has an instinctive understanding but he’s no hero. He crosses the line and forgets his responsibility in the pursuit of evidence. Once the policeman in him kicks in and there’s a scent of the truth, all bets are off.
TKT: You’re from the northwest, did you ever visit the Lake District much?
CE: We used to go on holiday to a caravan site in Arnside and went treading in the estuary between there and Grange-Over-Sands. When the tidal bore was out we would walk on the channels, find flat fish, put them in your little string bag and go home and cook them. There’s something very magical and scary about the tidal bore when it comes in. You’ve got to move. And the scale of the Lakes and fells is breathtaking, along with the beauty. Plus the micro-climate and changeability of the weather. Anywhere in nature I feel much safer. Much clearer about everything. I was brought up in a council estate, so maybe it’s natural to yearn for the countryside. The lack of light pollution in the Lake District is unbelievable. The sights we saw. The clarity. Just wonderful. And great beer as well!
Safe House: Monday 20th April, 9pm, ITV