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Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure talks social media dangers and the healing power of music

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Helen Bownass
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As the Season 5 finale of Line of Duty looms, Stylist chats to Vicky McClure about loneliness, balancing work with family life and her incredibly personal upcoming project on how music can be used to help dementia sufferers. 

“I’m too knackered to run.”

It was a throwaway line in series three of Line Of Duty said by DI Kate Fleming to ‘bent copper’ ‘Dot’ Cottan (one of many snakes in the force). But it’s a line I’ve always remembered fondly, establishing Fleming, played by Vicky McClure, as relatable and real in a world where no one is who you think they are. 

It’s a line I could easily imagine McClure uttering too. Not because she’s lazy – far from it, as her current body of work attests – but because she too is relatable, real and savvy (her only request at our cover shoot is copious amounts of tea) and lives the life she wants to live, not the one she might be expected to as one of the UK’s most talented TV actors.

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The 35-year-old, who was born and still lives in Nottingham, made her name – and won a Bafta in 2011 – for her role as Lol in the peerless This Is England. Roles in Broadchurch and The Replacement followed, but it’s as Fleming she’s captured the nation’s attention every Sunday night. 

DS Arnott with DI Fleming aka the dream team

Episode one of the fifth series, which is written by Jed Mercurio (he of Bodyguard fame), broke its own record with 7.8 million viewers tuning in for the premiere last month, and series six has already been commissioned.

The drama, which launched in 2012 – about fictional police anti-corruption unit AC-12, which employs Fleming as a specialist in undercover work who’s risen up through the ranks – is one of the few that sits in the Venn diagram of things me, my mum and the Stylist office must watch and must dissect in forensic detail. 

It is thrilling, smart, manipulative, detail-driven TV. You never quite know what’s going to come next – or often what’s even going on – making it the sort of drama you can’t, and won’t, scroll through Instagram while watching. To do so leads to the likelihood of missing a vital clue in the case you are trying to solve on your sofa before the professionals. And let it be put on record that McClure is adept at not revealing spoilers about who can be trusted and who is secretly corrupt, and how this series will climax, despite our efforts. 

McClure’s next project is a documentary about dementia and music

An utter contrast to Line Of Duty is McClure’s upcoming passion project My Dementia Choir. The two-part documentary sees McClure, whose grandmother, Iris, lived with dementia and died in 2015, form a choir of singers aged 31-87 who all live with dementia.

It’s an incredibly emotional watch – I was sobbing within the first five minutes – that shows without question how music can improve sufferer’s lives neurologically, socially and personally.

Giving people a chance is something McClure believes in passionately, and she has set up a production company with the aim of improving the representation of working- class people on screen.

Further investigation is required, so it’s time to stick the kettle on and take her in for questioning… 

Line Of Duty is hardly the first police drama on TV, yet its appeal is boundless. What do you attribute that to?

Jed’s writing is unique. Some of the dialogue is so dense, there are acronyms and codes, yet that is what people love. Alongside that you’ve got Adrian Dunbar’s [who plays Superintendent Ted Hastings] absolute corker one-liners. And you’ve got such a variety of people – all different ages, ethnicities, lots of regional accents. It’s not a middle-class show and it’s watched by lots of different people from all walks of life. It’s very real. 

Do you watch the show every week? What about your parents?

Of course! And my parents do, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t.

Who’s been your favourite baddie in the show’s history?

I think Lennie [James, who played Tony Gates, another bent copper, in series one]. He paved the way. Obviously Stephen Graham [who plays John Corbett and starred as Combo in This Is England] is one of my best mates, so it’s really hard [to choose]. It’s also been great having Keeley [Hawes] and Thandie [Newton], two massively powerful women with brilliant roles. We’ve been really lucky.

Jed Mercurio writes powerful and flawed women. Is that becoming more commonplace?

I think it is. Ultimately, I think we just need to make sure it’s fair. And I love men – which is a silly thing to say – so I’m not saying men can’t head up a drama either but I’m all for making sure it’s fair. 

You sat next to Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Met Police at Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards in March. Did she give you any policing advice?

I’m so glad you sat me next to her. On the day of the awards she’d been on the radio, Theresa May was talking about the current knife crime epidemic and Cressida hit back and said, “No, it is to do with the fact that we don’t have enough police on the streets.” I thought, Yes! You’re not mincing your words. [That night] she said to me, “What do you think about knife crime?” She’s asking anybody she can because she wants to get to the bottom of it. She has the same concerns we all have.

Is she a fan of the show?

She’s not fully up to date, but I did say to her, “You’ve got a lot on. Maybe when you’ve got a bit of a break, you can enjoy it, but don’t worry about catching up.”

When I watched My Dementia Choir, I was struck – even though I know you’re acting on Line Of Duty – by the contrasting emotional side you showed.

I had an opportunity where I could help give something a platform, and it meant that I had to be me. It’s much harder to act as yourself, so you just are yourself. There were times when I was biting my lip to keep the emotion in, and times when I just couldn’t – it’s real life and it’s really tough. I thought I’d be more tearful than I was, but the reason I wasn’t is because those who are living with dementia, and those who are living with people who have dementia, they’re not crying. They’re getting on with life. 

You have a personal connection to dementia, but what compelled you to make it public?

My Nonna is the reason I have taken it as far as I have. I got involved with the Alzheimer’s Society before she was even diagnosed, then when she was I thought, ‘Oh, this is horrible.’ As an actor I get to portray lots of different people and it’s a really fulfilling job, but this took me away from that and gave me purpose. It’s something that’s going to have a real impact on people.

The documentary shows the importance of music. Particularly its power to sustain us through hard times…

Sometimes you can’t cry because you’re so tangled up in something, you know if you put a certain song on it’ll get straight to your soul, and you’ll burst into tears. Music is as powerful as a drug. That euphoria, that massive emotion will hit you in your soul. As Bob Marley said: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Which song soothes you during difficult times?

Rainy Days And Mondays by the Carpenters. If you’re having a bit of a shit day, the lyrics are like, yeah, that’s me right now. I love The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, that album was really important to me at school, going through turbulent times of boys and being a teenager. I loved Missy Elliott, I was into all my R&B and hip-hop and Motown. Jonny, my fiancé, he’s been in a band, so he’s got a deeper connection in some ways. When we first met he introduced me to music I’d never heard, so as I’ve got older, it’s not that my music taste changes, it just gets bigger.

Do you go to gigs?

I’m not an avid gig-goer. But I have got tickets to the Spice Girls! I’m going with my sister, her best friend and my best friend. I can’t wait. At home there’s a radio in every room – I’ve even got a waterproof radio in the shower and sing along. I’m not good with silence. When I’m staying in a hotel I need background telly or music on.

Do you like time on your own?

I’d always prefer to be with my loved ones. If Jonny’s away for the night, I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t like it.’ I’ve had to get used to dealing with being on my own because of my job and sometimes there’s nothing nicer than thinking, I can just eat what I like, put what I like on the telly. But I really feel for people who are lonely. I think because of things like social media we are more internal; it’s easier to sit in your room and obsess on a phone. I think it’s getting a bit dangerous.

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There is a loneliness epidemic, yet people aren’t ‘allowed’ to admit they’re lonely.

There’s an irony that in a connected world, so many people feel disconnected… I think there’s going to be a turnaround. I’m hearing too many people saying, “I’m coming off social media.” It’s on my mind. My followers are really nice people, but I can be as bad as the next person. You think, ‘I’ve just lost an hour of my life looking at stuff that hasn’t made me feel any better, or obsessing over what that person’s doing.’ It’s really unhealthy and we’re all aware of it, it’s just growing the balls to actually [quit]. 

As I was reading through your old interviews, there was often surprise expressed that you’d ‘made it’ despite being working- class. Is that frustrating?

People will say things like, “You didn’t go to Italia Conti [drama school] because your parents couldn’t afford it.” But I didn’t feel poor as a child because we weren’t, we were working-class. I have people around me who are not far off poverty in some ways, and people who are multimillionaires. Ultimately, things are easier if you’ve got money. I know that money creates problems but if we lose the NHS what are people who haven’t got money going to do? And why does it seem as if those kind of people are any less important than somebody who’s born into money, or has become very successful and earned a lot of money? I haven’t got a problem with anybody in terms of their wealth. It’s about it being fair. Sometimes it’s not fair, and I wonder why as a nation that’s not so obvious. 

Do you think surprise at what you’ve achieved is because many people expect so little of those from working-class backgrounds, or because we don’t see enough representation of working-class people?

I don’t really know. I think it’s hard to get into this industry and money certainly helps. If you’re auditioning, you need to be in London. And that’s expensive: to get a train, to print out a script. Little things that people would not think about if they’ve got money. In some ways people question you: “Well, you don’t look very working-class.” And you go, “Does it matter?” We are what we are. My family worked hard and still work hard. If I was rich enough to retire everybody, I would. I work hard because I want to earn well for myself and for other people. We need to make sure everybody’s got a fair crack at the whip.

At Stylist, we talk a lot about the difficulty we feel discussing money. Can you relate?

I’m not secretive about what I earn, especially with Jonny – everything’s out on the table. I think it can be a sore subject, because you don’t know what others are earning, and that’s the point. You think, if I say I’m earning this much, and that person thinks that’s a lot or not enough, then you’re being judged. I’m lucky now. There have been times where you do jobs for practically nothing. I’ve earned a place in my career to be able to earn money that I couldn’t back in my office days. 

McClure with co-stars Adrian Dunbar (left) and Martin Compston (centre)

What do you love most about living in Nottingham?

It’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s the people. Wherever you’re born, you’re going to have a certain connection to that place and those people. It’s unique and you feel quite protective of it. I love nothing more than being in town, nipping into a pub and talking to randoms, yet you feel like you’re best mates because you’re born and bred.

A lot of people who have moved to a big city can relate to the idea of being torn between work and community.

My job will always come second. When I’m on my deathbed, I’m not going to go, “I wish I’d worked more.” I’ll think I wish I’d spent more time with people I love. I get so much out of my job, but I’m never as happy as I am when I’m at home, and I’m with Jonny, I can nip to my parents for a Sunday roast, and I can nip to see my sister and my nephew and brother-in-law. Everybody’s close by. It’s all real. 

What’s the key to a good roast?

My mum makes a mean gravy; it’s the most important bit. My grandad used to own a butchers, so meat is important in our house: there are no vegans or vegetarians around our parts. I’ve started to think, “Maybe I should make the roast now, I am 35.” But they’re such hard work, and the poor woman’s been doing them for years.

Do you get any pleasure from cooking yourself?

I do now. I wasn’t a very good cook at all, then when we moved back to Nottingham, I thought, right, I’ve got to get my act together. When we bought our first house, my dad and brother-in-law did the kitchen, so I’m really proud of it. It was the first time I’d owned my own cooker. I enjoy getting the telly or music on in the kitchen and throwing a few bits together.

What TV shows do you put on?

I was obsessed with MasterChef, I was really pleased Irini won. I can just sit and watch people cook and really enjoy myself. There have been a lot of dark documentaries recently, like the Michael Jackson and Madeleine McCann ones. I’m like everybody else, you’re curious as everyone’s talking about it. Fleabag was great. I didn’t really know what all the fuss was about, so I did both series back to back. There’s lots of things I’ve never watched, like Harry Potter or Game Of Thrones. I’m clear that they are both absolutely top of the game but it has gone too far; I’ve missed that boat.

You used to work as an ear piercer at H Samuel. Could you still pierce someone’s ears now?

I’d happily give it a go. It’s quite easy. If kids came in and got scared I’d just go in the back and pierce my own. 

Line Of Duty continues on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm; My Dementia Choir starts on BBC One on 2 May at 8pm

Images: Jonty Davies, BBC Pictures, Instagram