At least the chimp was well behaved on set...
Christopher Eccleston was a mere boy of 10 when Lord Lucan disappeared without a trace, and now almost four decades on, he’s bringing the mystery to life in a new two-part drama. Keeley Bolger investigates
There’s an unspoken rule among actors, that it’s the challenge of playing a character that’s the biggest draw – and absolutely not, on any level, the hefty pay cheque at the end of the job.
Sometimes though, rules are made to be broken.
When asked about his motivation for playing roles in blockbusters such as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Thor: The Dark World, Christopher Eccleston doesn’t pull any punches.
“Primarily the money,” he says unapologetically.
As one of Britain’s most acclaimed actors, straight-talking certainly hasn’t dented his career prospects, but it does mean he has a reputation as being rather uncompromising.
His reluctance to do interviews is well-known, so it says something that he’s agreed to do press for his latest role, as eccentric club owner John Aspinall in Lucan, ITV’s new two-part drama about the disappearance of the British peer Lord Lucan.
But caring and raving are two very different things; Eccleston’s economical with his words and he’s never really been one to gush. “The drama is not about John Aspinall, the drama is very much about Lucan,” he says.
“Aspinall’s a secondary character in that sense. The focus is Rory [Kinnear] as Lucan.”
It’s little surprise, then, that the no-nonsense star is unfazed by the upper-class circles Lord Lucan mixed in.
“I’ve never been interested in British aristocracy,” admits the 49-year-old. “They hold no allure for me.”
Don’t be fooled though, there was some monkeying around on set... But that came from one of his furry co-stars - Eccleston shares screen-time with a chimp, as the late Aspinall owned a private zoo.
So how did the serious actor cope with that?
“I was very comfortable with the animals,” he says, softening slightly.
“It added a new dimension of unpredictability to the scenes we were playing.
“But fortunately, they all behaved.”
On Aspinall, Eccleston is quick to say he “knew nothing of the man” before accepting the part but was intrigued by the infamous case.
He was only 10 years old when, in November 1974, the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the family’s home, as she made her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
To this day, Lucan is thought to have mistaken Sandra for his wife Veronica, who he blamed for the fractures in his well-to-do family life.
Following an attack on Veronica, he later fled and his whereabouts and eventual fate have remained a mystery for nearly four decades.
“I was familiar with the phrase ‘Lord Lucan’ as it always applied to someone who had gone missing. My dad would say, ‘Where have you been, Lord Lucan?’” says Eccleston, who grew up in Greater Manchester.
“But aside from knowing he was possibly on the run, that was it. I knew very little of the case.”
He was initially sceptical about the drama, he reveals, until he read the script by Jeff Pope and realised it has a “real moral centre”.
“I think a huge motivation for Jeff was to point out that Sandra Rivett lost her life, and that was never given due prominence by the press.
“And Veronica lost the children [custody was awarded to her sister following bouts of illness] and was made a social pariah,” he says.
“Judgement is unavoidable but great writers are aware of their own particular bias, and Jeff has huge respect for his audience’s intelligence.”
Eccleston certainly appreciates this when he sits in front of the box.
“As a viewer, I don’t want to be told what to think. I hate it,” he says. “Life is mysterious and people are ambiguous and paradoxical.”
“I don’t watch a huge amount drama, because I do it,” says the actor, who trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama before his scene-stealing performance as an illiterate adult convicted of murder in 1991’s Let Him Have It, and a TV Bafta nomination for Our Friends In The North six years later.
“I find I’m critical of it and I’m in on the joke,” he notes.
He’s made an exception for one cult American series, though.
“When I fall in love with something, as I did Breaking Bad, for instance, I’m very passionate about it.
“I’m hugely admiring of that series.
“I think it was brilliantly done in every way.”
“I think the excitement of being an actor is that somebody comes up with something like Lucan,” he says.
“Or it’s when someone comes up with Hillsborough, or Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It, or Fred Noonan in Amelia.
“But I’m not [that taken with] anybody.”
Lucan is a two-part drama beginning on ITV on Wednesday, December 11