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Adrian Dunbar: the beat goes on

27 July 2022

Ahead of his new cop show, Adrian Dunbar talks about finding fame later in life and why he ‘needs’ a new series of Line of Duty. By Louise Gannon.

Adrian Dunbar
Adrian Dunbar photographed by Mark Harrison

In the rather plain office of an East London studio, Adrian Dunbar leans across a wooden table, his pale blue eyes narrowed and fully focused. He has something important to say. He takes a breath. ‘It’s not that I would just want to do another series of Line of Duty, he says, his Northern Irish inflection accenting each word slowly and precisely for maximum effect. ‘I think we need to do another series. We need to go back just one more time.’

He is, of course, talking about the police investigation series in which he – as Superintendent Ted Hastings – starred alongside Vicky McClure and Martin Compston. The show, written and directed by Jed Mercurio and launched in 2012, became a multi-award-winning television phenomenon. It turned its three main stars into household names, gripped viewers with its twists, turns and forensic attention to police terminology and acronyms, and created a frenzy of social media memes, gifs and viral videos (largely made up of Adrian’s semi-improvised expressions, including the unforgettable ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey’). Line of Duty drew an audience of more than 12.8 million for the final episode of the sixth series, which was screened last May.

But now, even as he is about to be launched in the British viewing public as a very different police detective in a compelling new ITV series, Ridley, Adrian acknowledges that his most famous alter ego, Hastings, and his anti-corruption team have unfinished business.

He nods his head as we discuss the fact that Mercurio was criticised for the show’s ‘big reveal’ in the final climactic episode in which the force’s super villain ‘H’ was unmasked as the bumbling Detective Superintendent Ian Buckells.

‘I added “and the wee donkey” once the cameras started rolling. Everyone was silent for a moment’

‘A lot of people were disappointed,’ he says. ‘But, as Jed said, it is more realistic to have someone no one suspects than a big Bond-style villain.’ It is not the reason, however, that he believes the series should resume one more time. ‘Covid robbed us of the experience of filming in the last series,’ he says.

‘Everyone in that crew has become a family, and filming has always been incredibly tough but an absolute joy. All three of us would like to go again.’ He gives that infamous lopsided grin. ‘But we’re just the actors. The only man who can make this happen is Jed. We’ll have to wait and see.’

Given that a few days before we meet, Adrian, Martin, Vicky and Jed were snapped meeting up for a low-key pub dinner, fans could have every reason to believe series seven is on the cards. Adrian is stunned when I ask him about what he thought was a secret meeting – until I tell him it was posted on Martin’s social media. ‘That explains it,’ he says. ‘Not that I’d ever know as I have no social media at all – it’s all too much for me.’

In person, Adrian is everything you would hope him to be. He arrives at our photoshoot bang on time, no fuss, no entourage. All he wants is a coffee (milk, one sugar) and to get straight down to business. Adrian is pure old school. Good manners (shakes hands, holds open doors, introduces himself to everyone in the room) and a great conversationalist. As he talks, it is clear there is true depth and complexity to this man. Born a Catholic in Enniskillen, he spent his teenage years working in a pig abattoir before, aged 21, winning a place – and a government grant – to study drama at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London where he met his great friend, the actor Neil Morrissey. ‘My life changed,’ he says. ‘I found what I loved.’

Ten years ago, his life changed again thanks to the success of the BBC’s Line of Duty. Now at 63, after a lifetime of solid good work, including films such as Hear My Song and My Left Foot and TV’s Cracker, it is Line of Duty that turned him into a bona fide A-list British star, last year’s Television Actor of the Year at the GQ Men of the Year awards and even – if you dare mention it – a sex symbol.

Adrian, who has been married to actor Anna Nygh for 36 years, flushes. ‘I don’t know about that. I’m a grandad with three grandchildren [Amalia, four, Akiro, two, and Zephyr, aged six months] for God’s sake. It’s all a bit ridiculous. My wife thinks it’s very funny. There’s no reason for anyone to be jealous. It’s not anything I’d ever get carried away with.’

He is, however, much in demand. The first major television role he has taken on post-LoD is in Ridley in which he plays a retired detective, Alex Ridley, broken by personal circumstances of losing both his wife and daughter. Ridley is coaxed back to the force by his former deputy DI Carol Farman (played by Unforgotten actor Bronagh Waugh) to help solve a complex murder.

The series is set in the Lancashire countryside and will be shown in four two-hour parts. It’s the classic prime-time murder mystery combination of cosy rural teatime viewing with a dark edge and a lot of twists. Ridley also features another side of Adrian. Three decades on from his tenor performances in Hear My Song, the actor (who fronts his own band, Adie Dunbar and The Jonahs) sings several rather beautifully bleak covers of Richard Hawley songs.

It is, however, a police drama. Given that he is now burned on to the nation’s collective consciousness as Hastings, moral compass of the force, why did he choose to play another copper?

He pauses for a moment then grins and says, ‘Well, I’ve had eight years of police training and I wouldn’t want that to go to waste now, would I?’ He adds, ‘I liked the idea of doing this style of a more gentle whodunnit. My main aim was to make Ridley darker, more interesting – a bit of a grumpy git who you don’t immediately warm to but who has a lot of personal integrity.’

Adrian is an actor who wants to breathe more than just life into his characters. Hastings – like Adrian, a Catholic raised in Northern Ireland to tough beginnings – became a conduit for many of the phrases used by his own father, Sean, a joiner and dad of seven (Adrian is the eldest) who died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 47.

‘Mother of God’ was his father’s most-used phrase and when he read in the final script the line, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ he says, ‘I added “and the wee donkey” once the cameras started rolling. Everyone was silent for a moment but it stayed in.’ It also became the most giffed moment from the series, emblazoned on mugs, T-shirts, even Christmas cards. ‘If I’m walking down the road, chances are someone will shout at me: “How’s the wee donkey?”’ he smiles. ‘And that’s a good thing because whatever else it shows you’ve touched people somehow and that is what this is about.’

Adrian rarely does interviews. The last time I met him was 22 years ago. He was 41 and two years sober. He told me then that he had a problem with alcohol and was attending AA meetings to help keep him teetotal. Drink was interfering with his work. He nods at the memory. ‘I was never an alcoholic,’ he explains. ‘But the drinking was not in control.

‘I thought to be an actor you had to go out, be seen, go drinking with people. I didn’t have focus. Drinking really was stopping me focus, so I just stopped.’

It wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he landed the role that has propelled him into being named as ‘one of the hottest stars on British television’. ‘I’m glad it took time,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t have handled fame well when I was younger. It happened when I knew myself well enough and when I was old enough to take it all with a pinch of salt.’

‘She looked like someone I would like to know. She had these beautiful green eyes which really got me’

Has he remained teetotal? He shakes his head: ‘I didn’t touch a drop for 14 years and then I took my wife, my daughter [35-year-old actor and songwriter Madeleine] and my mum to a restaurant in Salzburg [Austria]. We had a set menu which began with a glass of prosecco. I was there with the three women in my life who mean the most to me, and I said, “I’m going to drink this prosecco” because I wanted to celebrate that day. I knew I was past drink being a problem and I knew I would be fine. I will have a drink every now and again but there’s no hold over me. I can take it or leave it.’

When he received his GQ Men of the Year award he dedicated it to his mother, Pauline, who was in a care home in Ireland and had just recovered from Covid. Three months later she passed away at the age of 89. His grief did not come from her death last year but from the fact that she suffered from symptoms of Alzheimer’s for almost a decade.

‘I have four sisters living in Ireland and for the first six years they looked after her. But it’s such a cruel illness and after a while it was too much to cope with – the disappearing, the falls, the upsets. She needed 24-hour care and luckily we found her a great home. She was happy. Losing her was incredibly sad but also a blessed relief, as it is for anyone who suffers from Alzheimer’s.’

Family is hugely important to Adrian whether it is his actual family or his LoD family. ‘Martin and Vicky are like my children,’ he says. ‘I’m the cook when we film. I make the fry-ups. Vicky is terrible, she loves winding me up. She put that dance we did on TikTok up without telling me!’

His own private world remains with his wife, daughter Madeleine and stepson, Ted, 40. He lives in North London and his marriage has remained fulfilling and happy. Adrian and Anna were introduced by his friend, the actor Joanne Whalley. It was 1984 and Joanne was performing alongside Adrian in a play called Saved at London’s Royal Court.

‘Joanne told me she had a friend she’d like me to meet,’ he says. ‘Anna came backstage, and she had these beautiful green eyes which really got me. We went on a few dates. Then we went on holiday to Portugal. We laughed, we talked, we got on and, after that, I pretty much moved in straight away.’ They married in 1986, and within two years she was pregnant with Madeleine. ‘We are totally compatible,’ he says. ‘We love gardening, watching documentaries and shows like Ozark and being with the kids and our grandchildren.’

He pulls out his phone to scroll through images of his grandchildren, including six-month-old Zephyr, Madeleine’s first child. ‘Aren’t they beautiful,’ he says proudly. ‘I’m a very lucky man.’

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