Line of Duty has made her primetime royalty and one of the UK’s most watched actors. Now Vicky McClure is paying it forward to a new generation of working-class talent
Last modified on Sat 15 Jan 2022 10.00 GMT
Vicky McClure has just made me a cup of tea and now we’re on to the important business of weighing up just how famous she has become. The Line of Duty and This Is England star reckons she’s a long way from being an A-lister, insisting her fame is “a bit more like a household-ey name? Maybe in the same vein as a soap?” It’s the kind of take you might expect from the grounded Midlander who, despite starring in the most-watched BBC drama since records began, keeps things very real. And she also makes a great cup of tea.
We’re talking in the unflashy front room of her cosy house in Nottingham. An ordinary house on an ordinary suburban street; no thick electronic gate, no hovering publicist or personal assistant. Our only (unseen) company is McClure’s fiance, fellow actor Jonny Owen, who’s pottering around upstairs. Oh, and the builder who knocks on the front door – they’re having work done.
But while McClure might not be quite sure about her level of fame, I am (and not just because she has the bone structure of a woman whose face belongs on billboards). We meet in December, after a year in which her career has entered the stratosphere, thanks to Line of Duty and its record-breaking sixth series. The one that the BBC says was streamed 137m times, and in which she stars as Kate Fleming, the unemotional, straight-as-a-die undercover specialist. “I mean, we didn’t quite expect it to do that,” she says of the show, as we sit, brews on our knees. “I don’t know how you describe it – those kinds of figures just don’t happen any more; we don’t watch telly in that way.” McClure shakes her head. But last year, we did.
The show about corrupt coppers, created by Jed Mercurio, actually began life on BBC Two in 2012, with a respectable few million viewers, before being bumped up to BBC One for its fourth series in 2017, gaining a bigger audience as each series aired, thanks to a growing army of fans who had caught up on streaming. By last year, it was a rare type of cultural phenomenon: a weekly police procedural show on a linear TV channel that stood out in a landscape dominated by on-demand viewing. True event television that people made time to watch, without fail.
Soon, its dialogue and character catchphrases – well, superintendent Ted Hastings’ catchphrases (“Mother of God!”, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey!”) – became memes and merchandise. The anti-corruption unit was even referenced in the Houses of Commons (Keir Starmer said that “Ted Hastings and AC-12 are needed to get to the bottom of this one” over the David Cameron Greensill lobbying scandal).
As the show’s profile grew, its lead actors’ profiles rocketed. For them it was a decidedly surreal experience that only the three of them – McClure, Martin Compston (DI Steve Arnott), Adrian Dunbar (Hastings) – as well as Mercurio, could truly understand. Every Friday night, during the weeks when the show was airing, they’d meet on Zoom, McClure says, “just to discuss how our weeks had been, because it was a lot”. Especially for an actor who prides herself on a normal existence, on keeping a tight hold on her privacy. “Yeah, it is getting weird,” she admits, concluding that “as long as I can live in this way” – in Nottingham – “I’m happy. I don’t know what’s coming next. You know, me and Jonny are just normal people with extraordinary jobs.”
I’s been a life-changing time for McClure, who at an early stage in her career gave up on acting and got a job in retail. “I’ve never been so solid until last year,” she says. “It was the craziest year of my career.” It’s had an impact off-screen, of course. McClure lists on two fingers the times she went on a night out last year, most recently in Nottingham with her sister, something she hadn’t done in years. “We just said sod it,” she says, then takes a beat as she looks disappointed. “And it was hard work. We were home by 10 o’clock, and that was because people were approaching, taking pictures. And I don’t mind, I will give the selfie, I will chat. But I’m cautious at the moment: we’re in the middle of a shoot [for the ITV thriller Without Sin] and I don’t want to get Covid. So I don’t want to be hugging anyone. It got to the point where I was not enjoying myself as much as I would have done had nobody known me.”
McClure’s authenticity has always been her superpower. She made her name in almost exclusively homegrown films and TV shows, and in her work with the visionary, working-class film-maker Shane Meadows, who first cast her when she was just 15. She’s never even been to Los Angeles (and it doesn’t sound as if she wants to: “I’m all right!”). And, apart from a brief stint in London a decade ago, she has always lived near where she grew up. She fiercely loves her home town and her life there.
Of London, she says: “You’re all kind of living on top of each other and you don’t really get to know the community in the same way that you would in suburbia. I know everyone around here. I love my neighbours and everybody’s very normal to me, because I’m normal to them.” It’s a quality her collaborators love in her. Dominic Savage, who co-created I Am Nicola with McClure – an astonishing, largely improvised drama for Channel 4 about coercive control – tells me he loves her “remarkable instinct for truth, deep understanding and empathy for ordinary life and human nature. She just can’t fake it. She has to feel it, has to believe in it. She is immersed in honesty and saying things as they really are. Everything she does comes from being utterly grounded.” Essentially, he adds: “Working with Vicky was therefore a real joy because there’s no bullshit.”
This year has the potential to make Vicky McClure’s life even weirder. For I’m actually here, on her settee, to talk about her new show, Trigger Point (which I accidentally keep calling Tipping Point, just like the makeup artist on Line of Duty who exclaimed to McClure of the quizshow, “I didn’t know you presented!”). McClure is starring in ITV’s big new primetime thriller as ex-military bomb disposal operative (otherwise known as an “expo”) Lana Washington. This time, she’s not sharing top billing three ways; while there’s a sterling cast (including Adrian Lester), this is McClure’s show – and has been all along. The part was written with her in mind, by first-time screenwriter Daniel Brierley who offered it to her without an audition. Mercurio is executive producer. It will provoke inevitable but wide of the mark comparisons with Line of Duty. And from the one episode I’ve seen, it’s clear that although they’re both women who work in law enforcement, they have very different backstories and lives. “Oh my God, Lana and Kate are worlds apart. But I’d imagine they’d have a great time in the pub,” McClure says. “In Line of Duty, I kind of dip my toe into my personal life, but we don’t tend to go down that road too much with Kate. So it was lovely: we really get to see Lana outside the expo world. And I’m always up for anything that’s emotionally challenging.”
Mercurio’s involvement runs deep. He mentored Brierley as part of a TV bursary scheme when the show was simply an idea, and has been with him every step of the way since. The mentoring Mercurio isn’t perhaps the Mercurio the public are most familiar with, I suggest to McClure. He’s more commonly known as, well, a tough cookie (Mercurio has had public run-ins with journalists and Twitter users).
“Jed’s my friend now, I’ve worked with him for over 10 years,” McClure says, with warmth but firmness. “I see Jed as a tough cookie in so much as he’s got real moral standards, and he’s not afraid to be heard. He’s an extremely intelligent man, so you can learn a lot from him. And I think he speaks on behalf of people in a really direct way, in a world in which people are a bit afraid to do that. So I’ve got the utmost respect for him. He’s willing to put himself out there and very generous with his time. He wants to share what he’s learned, and his passion for what he does. So fair play to him.”
Steadfast loyalty is actually the least surprising thing about McClure, but one of the most revealing. She will defend those she cares about (politely). Her relationships are everything: whether with family, friends, her fiance or her colleagues, who seem to inevitably become mates.
Mercurio tells me that McClure “was the absolute top of our wishlist to play the leading role in Trigger Point because she’s got an amazing gift for bringing authenticity and naturalism to any part. It’s been a privilege to witness Vicky grow as an actor over the past decade to the point where she was a real leader on set.”
McClure has been a performer pretty much all her life. She joined a dance school on her third birthday and then the renowned Nottingham drama school, the Television Workshop, at the age of 11 (“I was very focused,” she says of her childhood). But, unlike many of her fellow actors, she’s from a working-class family – her dad was a joiner and butcher, her mother a hairdresser and stay-at-home mum – and had to rely on free drama training. She auditioned for the prestigious Italia Conti School in London aged 14, but the fees were beyond their reach, and pleas to local council and arts organisations (and even family and friends) were unsuccessful.
“My mum and dad worked very hard to see me through lots of things,” McClure says. “It also meant that, financially, we couldn’t do certain things like Italia Conti and schools that require a large amount of money for people to be given a shot.” McClure got her shot anyway: she was able to stay at the TV Workshop, where “whether you were rich or poor or different, it was fully funded and you were all on a level playing field”.
Within a year of the Conti disappointment, Meadows, then a young director, turned up at the workshop to audition students for his third feature, a coming-of-age story, set in a Nottingham village, called A Room for Romeo Brass. McClure, after improvising with Paddy Considine, who’d already been cast, landed the role of Romeo’s sister, Ladine. She was just 15. McClure thought she’d made it, and waited for Hollywood to come calling – until she discovered the film had played in just six cinemas across the UK. And then: nothing.
So, instead, she went to college and studied drama, leaving after just four months, skint and despondent. She worked in retail – H Samuel, Dorothy Perkins and a tanning shop – before taking office jobs. “I didn’t have this little pot of money that had been saved for me for years and all of a sudden you hit 18 and it’s like, you’ve hit the jackpot,” she says matter-of-factly. “So that didn’t happen and that’s fine. I just worked instead. I don’t remember having a bad time. I loved the Christmas parties. I loved my mates. I loved not having to bring my work home. I loved sick pay, holiday pay!” It taught her a valuable lesson. “I love my job, but I don’t put it on a pedestal like it’s the most important thing in my life.”
In the early 2000s, McClure gave up her agent and did hardly any acting for six years – something she’s now grateful for. “It kept me grounded,” she says, “though if you’d asked me that when I was in that [situation], I’d have been, like, ‘Just give me the work!’” – until, once again, Meadows appeared, this time with the role of a lifetime on offer: Lol in This Is England.
Those who now know Vicky McClure as Kate Fleming – by-the-book, middle-class, career-driven – may not recognise her as Lol, the young, big-hearted skinhead who, pre-Line of Duty, was McClure’s most famous role, one that won her a TV Bafta in 2010. She first played her in the 2006 award-winning film, then the three acclaimed series for Channel 4 that followed. McClure says Lol is “probably the only character I’ve played that I felt like was a real person. Because I immersed my head and heart into her.” McClure and Meadows summoned her together (he works largely with improvisation) as a three-dimensional, working-class woman who was also a child sexual abuse survivor. McClure’s acclaimed performance – taking in events of supreme darkness and hard-fought-for joy – was full of naturalism, believability and heart, and Lol arguably one of the greatest female characters in British film and TV history.
Meadows changed McClure’s life – and is still a big part of it. “Shane lives down the road, his wife is my best friend and he’s my mate. We’ve known each other for so long, and the majority of time we spend together is as friends, rather than as director and actor. But [with This Is England] he trusted me with something. I didn’t know where that was gonna lead, none of us did, really.”
Meadows knows how lucky he was to find McClure. “Working with Vicky is akin to working with Julie Walters, Alison Steadman and Twiggy at the same time,” he tells me over email. “She’s not only one of the greatest actors this country has produced, she works harder than most, hasn’t changed one iota and is annoyingly handsome to boot. From the first time I met her at an audition for Romeo Brass in 1998, up until the present day, I’ve never once seen her lay anything unauthentic down. Truth just seems to ooze out of every pore.”
Meadows’ This Is England saga told the story of a group of working-class kids growing up together on a Midlands estate – and their messy, painful, joyful lives over almost a decade. It’s on the subject of class and opportunity that McClure lights up, though she’s insistent that she doesn’t “want to wave a flag that makes people think I’ve come from poverty. That’s disrespectful to people that have had a much harder start. Nobody needs to feel sorry for me. I don’t, I had a great upbringing.”
Given the decimation of arts funding in this country over the last decade – public funding per person has dropped by 35% since 2008 – does she think the next Vicky McClure could actually make it today, when it’s harder than ever to be a working-class creative? She seems at a loss. “Yeah,” she sighs, running her hands through her hair. “Whenever anybody asks me for advice or says, ‘What tips can you give me because I don’t have much money and I need to get into the industry?’, I don’t know what the answers are. And I feel awful.”
Many people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have to be exceptional, I say: willing to work harder, be more ambitious, push harder, just to get a toe inside the same worlds that money provides an open door to. “I’m just always going to be one of those who feels like, why should anybody have to do any more than someone else just because of what they’ve got in their account?” she says. “There’s certain people that get to see the world or buy into an opportunity that can propel them somewhere, and that’s good for them. But if you don’t have that financial gain, you’re locked into what you’ve got. In the same breath, [those people] get a completely different experience of life, rooted in a different understanding of the world, and there’s a different authenticity there. I don’t want to bash people because of their beginnings. It’s not anybody’s fault. I’d rather people just own it.”
These beliefs, this passion, inspired McClure’s next big move: one that she’s sharing with Owen (who she’s been engaged to since 2017), a fellow working-class kid from Merthyr Tydfil, an ex-mining community in Wales. In October last year, the couple launched BYO (Build Your Own) Films, a production company that will tell working-class stories and give jobs to those not traditionally offered opportunities in TV and film. They are already shooting their first project, Without Sin, in which McClure stars and executive produces (she was adamant that it was to film in Nottingham), and using plenty of talent from the TV Workshop.
“I feel like it put me in very good stead,” McClure says of her decade at the Workshop. “It makes you ambitious, it gives you that kind of feeling of, just go for it. You know, nothing’s guaranteed, is it? You’ve just got to have a shot. I had a shot, I started with nothing. It’s not like anything’s been handed to me on a plate … I’m in a position now where I can share a bit of what I’ve learned – and giving people work is an amazing feeling.”
That’s not to say that she’s no longer going to be in front of the camera. We’re discussing whether there’s a connecting thread in her career and her characters, and McClure lands on “relatability”: women she can share ground with. That’s why, she says, she will never play the Doctor in Doctor Who, despite the semi-regular Twitter campaigns calling for it (and, for the record, she would make an excellent Doctor).
“It’s lovely,” she says of the social media love, while emphasising that she hasn’t been offered the role. “It’s a real compliment. It’s an iconic piece of telly that’s been going for ever and ever, and I’m sure will continue to, and I wish it well, but it’s not for me.” Well, yes, if relatability’s your kick, then playing an alien with two hearts will understandably be a stretch. “It’s not even something I watch,” she continues. “You know, the TV I make is usually the TV I will enjoy myself. So what I tend to do is go for parts I feel can stretch my imagination – like, even bomb disposal is so far from my world, but the understanding of fear, we all have. Once we start moving to sci-fi, that’s where I start to lose interest.”
So if not Doctor Who, what’s ahead? There is, tantalisingly, the promise of a future Meadows collaboration, though exactly what still seems to be undecided. “We speak about working together a lot,” she smiles. “And we’ve had a few little things that have come our way where we’ve thought, oooh, there we go, maybe that’s it? And it will happen, that’s very much a dream of mine. Shane shares the same interests and likes, and [we] have a similar vision. So I think when we do get to do something again, it will be a major moment.”
And, of course, there’s the other big thing the world wants to know … will there be a seventh series of Line of Duty? “I don’t know!” McClure insists. “I don’t know, there’s no word of it. I think we’ve all been really honest and said should that happen, we’re all game.”
McClure says that she’ll be there with Mercurio, Compston and Dunbar, as long as they want in, too. “I’ll just stick with the guys. I think when it comes to a close, it will be a natural close for us all. And we’re very close with Jed, so it’s not a business transaction, do you know what I mean? This isn’t business, this is our lives and we’ve all created careers from it, and we’ve all got a lot out of it. Not only that, I can’t imagine my life without Adey [Adrian Dunbar] and Martin in that acting capacity where it’s like, well, at least I get to be with my mates for four months of the year.” But end it will, eventually, I say, as I hand over my drained mug and begin to head to the door. “And that will be a big blow,” she says. “But, you know, everything comes to an end, and everything’s got a shelf life. So when that natural end is, is when it is. I’m just loyal to that. I can’t see me going” – and she puts on a posh voice – “‘I’m done, I’ve got a better job, I’m off’, because what’s better than Line of Duty?”
Trigger Point airs this month on ITV.