Tonight, I'm going to be Matthew (May 2002)

Tonight, I'm going to be Matthew

From the Northern Echo, first published Sunday 12th May 2002.

SOME actors want to be remembered for their performances, others for their hairdoes. Steve Pratt meets coiffeur man, Matthew Macfadyen

FUNNY people actors. You can praise them to high heaven for a performance and give them countless awards, only for one of them to describe a hairstyle as his finest achievement.

Step forward Matthew Macfadyen, who stars in BBC1's major new drama series Spooks, beginning next week. He may be hailed as one of Britain's finest hopes, but he reckons the crowning glory of his career so far was a hairstyle. "I have very straight hair but, on The Way We Live Now, it was bouffed and curled to within an inch of its life. That made me very happy indeed," he says.

That classic serial may have garnered praise but Spooks - which is about spies not ghosts - looks set to bring Macfadyen to a mainstream audience. The series is created and written by David Wolstencroft, writer and creator of Psychos. The writing team also includes playwright Howard Brenton, who was tempted by the idea to return to TV after a 15-year absence. Ex-MI5 officers helped cast and writers create the drama which aims to give a glimpse into how spies operate and the way their job affects personal relationships.

Macfadyen plays Tom Quinn, one of MI5's brightest officers and a senior case officer. His passion for his job leaves little time for a personal life, until he falls in love with restaurant owner Ellie Simm while on surveillance. But there's a problem. She knows him only as his alias Matthew Archer.

The actor recalls one particular scene, a dinner party in which Tom/Matthew is introduced to his new love's friends. "During the scene one guy turns to me and asks, 'So, Matthew, what do you do?'," recalls Macfadyen. "That's my real name, of course, and it completely threw me. I was Matthew playing Tom playing Matthew. I couldn't get my head round it at all. I was all over the place."

Apart from the confusion, he found the role fascinating, especially as a self-confessed "John Le Carre-style spy buff". What he hadn't reckoned on was the unglamorous minutiae of real life MI5 work. "On TV, every episode is full of action," he says. "But real life spooks are playing the long game. It can take six months or more to recruit an agent you think is ripe for turning. It must take incredible patience."

Bizarrely, the team behind Spooks were way ahead of world events. The scripts were written, and the project green-lit, well before September 11 last year. Perversely, the events of that day gave an extra dimension to the show.

"It really pushed the boundaries of what was credible," explains series producer Jane Featherstone. "We had to up the ante in some of the storylines in response to the audacity of the al Qaida attacks."

As Featherstone points out, popular notions of what makes a spy, from James Bond to Austin Powers via George Smiley, have long been due an update. Under MI5's modern remit, its officers deal with anything from terrorist plots and immigration rings to arms smuggling and the drugs trade. Their job is to outwit the world's smartest criminal minds using their powers of perception and deception. Quinn mixes clinical intelligence with arrogance and ruthlessness, the right blend for a spy. As the actor puts it: "You have to set a thief to catch a thief".

He begins to question his commitment to his job when he can't tell his girlfriend who he really is. This may sound implausible but the actor discovered otherwise from Mike Baker, the ex-MI5 man who acted as a consultant on the show. He revealed that, for the first six months that he dated his wife, she thought he was someone else entirely. "There's the added complication that your job could put your loved ones at risk," says Macfadyen. "It must be a complete nightmare for real spies." That often leads to MI5 officers having relationships with one another, something he can relate to.

His last girlfriend, with whom he split last year, was an actress. And he admits that he doesn't know many people outside of the business. "Most of my friends are actors, directors and writers. My best friend is an actor and it's great because we can console each other when we don't get parts," he says.

Unemployment isn't something of which he has too much experience. Since leaving drama school in 1995, his career has gone from strength to strength. He spent three years in the theatre before his screen break in 1999 in Peter Kosminsky's Warriors. That was followed by roles in Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers and the Anthony Trollope adaptation The Way We Live Now. Soon he'll be working again with Kosminsky on a drama about New Labour's 1997 election campaign.

He thinks that a childhood spent moving around gave him a certain "nous before my years". All the same, he admits that not all his career decisions have been successful. He was horrified by his performance in the Ben Elton written and directed film Maybe Baby. "I was rubbish. I saw myself up on screen and nearly died," he says.