From child star to TV spymaster... an actor whose talents are no state secret

Peter Firth as Harry Pearce. Picture: BBC

Peter Firth as Harry Pearce. Picture: BBC

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Yorkshire-born actor Peter Firth is back on our TV screens in Spooks. He talks to Chris Bond about growing up as a child actor and playing Harry Pearce.

HARRY Pearce is up there with the likes of DI Gene Hunt and Jack Bauer as one of the best TV characters to have graced our screens over the past decade.

The fictional head of MI5’s counter-terrorism unit in the BBC’s award-winning drama Spooks, he heads a team of undercover officers in their seemingly tireless bid to keep the country safe from terrorists, rogue states and double-crossing agents.

Peter Firth, the actor who plays Pearce, has been in the show since it was first aired in 2002, but now Spooks is coming to an end in a final six-part series. “Everything has its natural lifespan and everything gets old, so it’s perhaps better to go out on a high while it’s still really popular. The world is changing and perhaps the old-school spy format that we’ve stuck with essentially has come to and end.”

Over the years, the show has been notable for its slick, contemporary style and the fact that its leading characters tend to have two things in common – a short shelf-life and a grisly end. So far, Harry has evaded such a demise and Firth, not surprisingly, isn’t about to give the game away.

Spooks has developed a cult following over the years, although only the BBC schedulers can explain why they pitted this final series against ITV’s monster hit Downton Abbey in a ratings battle it was never going to win. Nevertheless the show – now in its 10th series – has proved a big hit with TV audiences, pulling in 7.5 million viewers in its opening run.

For Firth, it was the first time he had committed himself to a long-running series. “I didn’t want to get stuck in something, but with Spooks they kept raising the bar and I always felt it was a worthwhile production, hence the reason I stuck with it,” he says. Not that he, or anyone else for that matter, realised they were on to such a winner. “Nobody ever really knows, if people knew what was going to be successful they would be running BBC TV.”

Despite becoming the programme’s fulcrum, to begin with the enigmatic Pearce was more of a background role.

“The part was very small in the first series, much smaller than it became. But espionage was something I hadn’t done before and had always been interested in so it seemed a good opportunity.” It was a role that was difficult to prepare for. “You can’t do much research on MI5; you can try, but you won’t get very far, and this gave us the license to make it up, which is what we did. We just made it more sexier and dramatic.”

Firth believes this is a key part of the show’s appeal. “You tend to get a glossy version of events in the media and it’s the stories behind the news that appeal to people’s natural curiosity.”

So how much of Harry was based on himself? “As an actor it’s inevitable that you will utilise your own personality traits, but I’m not the centre of the universe that Harry Pearce is and I have that northern moral compass that wouldn’t let me do some of the things he does.”

As well as managing to successfully replace its popular characters, the storylines of Spooks have appeared prescient at times, with the fictional plots having a habit of predicting real-life events. “That was down to having clever writers,” says Firth. “They looked at what might happen and then what was likely to happen, and dramatised it.”

While the fast-moving world of Spooks revolves around London, Firth grew up in the more tranquil surroundings of West Yorkshire. “I have very happy memories growing up there, it was a wonderful semi-rural place although it probably didn’t prepare me for the big bad world out there,” he says.

As a youngster he joined the Saturday morning drama club at Bradford’s Civic Playhouse. “I wasn’t desperate to act, it was just that’s where the prettiest girls seemed to go,” he says. Through this he picked up bits of work as an extra on YTV programmes before getting a leading role in The Flaxton Boys, a children’s TV drama created by Sid Waddell, alongside fellow child actor Dai Bradley. “It became a Sunday afternoon classic and that’s where it all started for me.”

His next role as Alan Strang in the National Theatre’s stage version of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, made him a household name. He spent the next three years during the mid-70s working with the National Theatre while Sir Laurence Olivier was at the helm. “Instead of going to drama school, I learned from the best,” he says. But working under the watchful eye of one of the greatest actors of the 20th century must have been a daunting prospect? “I was 19 and fearless, and I took it all in my stride, although I wouldn’t be so fearless now.” In fact he has nothing but praise for Olivier. “He was running the place back then and he was so paternal and kind to me, he made it very easy.”

Firth also has fond memories of another acting legend, Richard Burton, who he starred alongside in the film version of Equus. “He was on his very best behaviour. He had some difficulties in his life but he was very kind and generous. He brought a whole new view of the world to me. He was one of the last great movie stars and he impressed me greatly.”

He followed Equus by starring alongside Malcolm McDowell in the World War I drama Aces High and Roman Polanksi’s film Tess with Nastassja Kinski. A career in Hollywood beckoned, but Firth resisted. “A lot of film offers came in but I felt they wanted to Americanise me, so I turned a lot of stuff down, perhaps to my cost.”

It must have been tempting though? “If you’re from Yorkshire, as I am, you are not easily lured by Hollywood. I could see through the veneer and I never really believed all its hype.” He says he doesn’t regret not heading to LA. “It has contributed to me being able to sustain a long career because a lot of child stars don’t make the step up to being an adult actor and they fall by the wayside.”

Despite not moving to Hollywood Firth has a string of impressive film credits to his name including Letter to Brezhnev, The Hunt for Red October and Amistad. As well as appearing alongside many A-list actors he has also worked with some of cinema’s greatest directors, including Steven Spielberg, Sir Richard Attenborough, Sidney Lumet and Polanski. “Most great directors share one thing in common, they understand actors and their sensitivities and know how to bring out the best in them.”

Firth likens a career in acting to doing a “high wire act” and admits there have been lean times in the past, when he’s taken smaller parts he wouldn’t have chosen. But his career is in fine fettle right now, and he is about to start work on a TV version of Ken Follett’s novel A World Without End in the US and feels ready for life after Spooks. “It’s been fun and I’ve worked with some great actors and writers, but it’s a good time to move on.”

Spooks is on BBC 1, Sundays at 9pm.

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