Interview: Derek Riddell

At last Derek Riddell has been in something he can watch with his children. We may know the Glaswegian actor best as the creepy army press officer turned driller killer in The Missing and James I in the torture-tastic Gunpowder, or even Rab, the bisexual footballer ned from The Book Group. Then there's the corrupt cop in Undercover and Ashley Jensen's ex-alcoholic husband in Ugly Betty, with medical traumas in Frankie and No Angels thrown in. But now, besides battling corruption and oh, the apocalypse, as a hard-bitten police chief in the BBC's gritty new sci-fi crime series Hard Sun, he's hitting the big screen as Torquil Travers in the kiddie-friendly Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, sequel to the Harry Potter spin-off.
Derek Riddell is in BBC1's Hard Sun. Picture: Debra Hurford BrownDerek Riddell is in BBC1's Hard Sun. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Derek Riddell is in BBC1's Hard Sun. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

“Yeah, they’re really excited about it, because it’s literally the first thing they can watch me in. It’s funny, I was at their school last week doing a Q&A about the life of an actor – there was a variety of questions from how much do you earn to do you like cats or dogs – and when they started to get restless, I talked about Fantastic Beasts. It gave me MUCH more cred. So yeah, my kids are very excited.”

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston and Johnny Depp as wizard Grindelwald, it sees Riddell playing Torquil Travers, a wizard linked to Scamander. Potter obsessives may recognise the name Travers, one of the 28 truly pure-blood wizarding families, with Torquil possibly related to the Death Eater Travers. Much more than that, 50-year-old Riddell can’t say, being sworn to secrecy, so like us, his eight-year-old twins will have to wait till next year to find out.

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“No, I can’t really talk about it much, unfortunately,” he says. “But I really loved the first Fantastic Beasts and the characters who return in this. It was my first experience of a really big film like that, with that amount of money on board. But David Yates the director is very calm and puts you at your ease, so it felt like you could be making some kind of low budget indie thing, it was very collaborative.”

As James 1 in GunpowderAs James 1 in Gunpowder
As James 1 in Gunpowder

Much as Riddell enjoyed making it, he’s not about to move back to LA, where he lived with his partner Frances Carrigan when he was filming Ugly Betty, before they returned to the UK when she was pregnant.

“I’m not under any illusions that this is going to give me a major movie career,” he says, matter-of-fact. “If it leads on to other films that would be great, but I’m at the point now... I think it’s age and experience... where my main thing is working with nice people on good material.”

Riddell is up to speed on witchcraft, having just played James I in Gunpowder, the BBC’s period drama starring Kit Harington up to his elbows in explosives. Apart from dodging assassination attempts as a result of religious schism, he also wrote a book on demonology and was obsessed about ridding the nation of ‘witches’, (usually women, with a working knowledge of herbal remedies, a bit of property their neighbours had designs on, and a cat).

“James was a complicated, intelligent character – a patron of the arts and really anti-smoking – there was so much going on with him, his whole obsession with demonology, witches, the Bible and being responsible for setting up the union of the crowns. But he was also a real pragmatist, and in Gunpowder we were dealing with Spain and religion. Some people thought it was too gory, but we had to explain why the plotters did what they did.

As James 1 in GunpowderAs James 1 in Gunpowder
As James 1 in Gunpowder

“With a period piece everyone has their take on it,” he says, and laughs at some of the attention his spell on the throne garnered for its warts and all treatment. “One of the things that was highlighted in the press was that I actually sat on the toilet. I read that and thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe that’s what they picked up on. That’s really newsworthy.’ What can you do?”

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“But it’s nice when people also pick up on things you do, like the walk. He was quite a frail man and one of his legs was a bit funny, and also he had a tongue that was a bit too big for his mouth, so I tried to get those things in. And obviously they went big on that he liked boys, but he also did love his wife. Even with some of the boys he was very happy for them to get married and famously sat on the bed with one of them on their wedding night, chatting and giving advice.”

Having sat on the throne, what would Riddell do if he were to find himself in a position of power? He laughs at the idea of being in charge but warms to the theme.

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“I think I’d jump in and try and stop a bit of the madness,” he says. “I’m very worried about the whole Brexit thing and think the country is on a track that I find very depressing. I worry for the future of my children and other generations and feel like Britain’s gone from being one of the coolest countries to being one of the uncoolest, very, very quickly. I feel sad my children won’t have the opportunities to travel I’ve had. I also have no idea how it would affect our business – are we all going to need work visas for every job?”

London-based, he didn’t vote in the independence referendum, but is watching post-Brexit developments north of the Border with interest.

“I was up in Scotland not long before the referendum and didn’t like the way it made the country for that time, but you know, I think my views have probably changed a bit depending on how the Brexit thing goes. I think I would be much more optimistic now of Scotland going out on its own to be honest. I think there’s a greater chance of holding on to an identity of being welcoming and generous and kind, which I feel is sadly lacking in the attitude of our negotiators down here at the moment. Yeah, it will be very interesting to see how Scotland reacts depending on the way it pans out,” he says.

“I wouldn’t feel so bad about Brexit if I felt we’d had an honest discussion and everyone got the truthful facts, positives and negatives, but I don’t think that happened. I think referendums are very difficult things.”

It’s been a busy year for Riddell, as in between donning King James’ tights and garters, he was filming as under-pressure detective chief superintendent Roland Bell in Hard Sun.

“It was great to go from Gunpowder to Hard Sun, totally contemporary, and be able to do them both at the same time. I really enjoy just mixing it up, having to throw off your tights and get into your suit.”

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Written by Neil Cross, the creator of Idris Elba cop drama Luther, it stars Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess alongside Riddell as a hard cop boss with a penchant for pithy put-downs. The first of six hour long episodes kicks off tonight and follows Deyn’s good cop DI Elaine Renko and partner Jim Sturgess’s, possibly not so good cop DCI Charlie Hicks, as they make an Earth-shattering discovery while trying to get to the bottom of a hacker’s murder.

“My character is under pressure from the powers above to come up with answers and comes across as quite hard at times, unflinching, uncompromising in his methods. He’s seen it all, done it all, been around the block, and I’ve been given some very nice, acerbic, witty lines, which were great fun to do.”

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Visually powerful, there’s a lot going on in Hard Sun: intrigue, dynamics between the characters and Riddell is full of praise for the leads, particularly Agyness Deyn, who packs a punch with a physical delivery not normally associated with one who formerly made her living as a model.

“The fight sequences are so good. I totally believed she was tough enough to beat those people up, which is often not the case,” he says. “We were going for a graphic novel type feel and in the later episodes there’s quite a lot of weird, dark stuff that’s full on. The final episode, I remember going wow…”

As well as Fantastic Beasts and Hard Sun, Riddell has been working on Action Team, a spoof spy action-thriller series about a dysfunctional team of special agents working for the British government. From the Murder in Successville team, the six-parter will be shown in the spring.

“It’s Naked Gun meets Bourne,” says Riddell. “It’s very funny and if it’s half as good as I think it is, people are in for a real treat. It’s comedy, but shot a bit like a Bond movie, very glossy and with spy tropes and shots stolen from well known spy movies. I play someone who works in a slightly rubbish government agency team, but the character’s not as they first appear. That’s all I can say, apart from it’s actually the most fun I’ve ever had on a TV set. It was a joy. I hope there are more. I love being able to get in between comedy and heavy drama, which I’ve been able to do this year, with W1A as well, which was good because I hadn’t done comedy for a while.”

Born in Glasgow, the child of an actor mother, Hope Ross, and footballer Ian Riddell, he did amateur dramatics as a child, including evening classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland but opted to study business at Strathclyde University.

“I thought I was going to keep the acting as a hobby and go into advertising or marketing. I don’t know… I look back on my life and I played things quite safe really. I was quite a shy child. If I had one regret it’s that I didn’t go and do English at university, or something I was good 
at and had a real interest in. In my final year I thought maybe I could 
do the acting for a living, so I auditioned for drama school and 
got into LAMDA and that was it, really.”

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After London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art he landed a part in the BBC Scotland rural drama Strathblair, but it wasn’t the big break he hoped.

“I remember walking down Queen Margaret Drive after the first time it was on telly and this wee woman was walking past and she stopped and said, ‘oh, you’re the guy off that Strathblair aren’t you’ and I went ‘oh yeah’, thinking I was going to have my first taste of celebrity, and she went ‘oh, you’re no’ as tall as I thought you were’ and walked off.” He laughs. “So I learnt my lesson very quickly, don’t get too big for your boots.” He laughs again.

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“The best advice I ever had was at drama school and it was take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. And I think in life that’s a very good way to be.”

A year as a waiter followed Strathblair, but soon his career took off, particularly after Channel 4’s 2002 cult hit The Book Group in which he caused a flurry as bisexual ned Rab, and roles in everything from Coronation Street, The Bill, Taggart and Silent Witness, to No Angels, Happy Valley, Ripper Street and The Missing followed.

“I always say being cast against type in Book Group is responsible for the career I have now and I’m eternally grateful. It was a special show in many ways.

“I love going to work, I love what I do, I feel very lucky that I don’t get up in the morning and think ‘God, I’ve got to go and do this again!’ which a lot of people have to. It would be good if Hard Sun goes again, or more films.

“I’ve had my fair share of unemployment like every actor, but if I look back at my CV I can say ‘yeah, you’ve done all right’. You see family and friends going through tough times and you really have to appreciate the good times, and that’s exactly where I am at the moment.

As for reviews “I think ‘och, I’m really not that bothered too much about what people think about me any more’. You get to a point where you go, I’m just going to do my job to the best of my ability and if people like it, or don’t like it, then so be it. I’m sure it’ll be OK, something will come up,” he says.

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And with the PR telling us time’s up, there’s only room for a last question so how much does he earn and does he like cats and dogs?

He laughs.

“My pay varies from job to job. And I’ve always been more of a cat person but I like both. In fact my neighbour’s cat is scraping its claws up the window to be let in right now.”

Fantastic Beasts, right on cue.

Hard Sun is on BBC1 tonight at 9.35pm. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald is set for release in November.