Barnsley-born It's A Sin actor Shaun Dooley on his role in new series of ITV's Innocent

Shaun Dooley is a familiar face on our TV screens. Phil Penfold talks to the Barnsley-born actor as he returns in a new series of an ITV drama.

Shaun Dooley (centre) as DCI Mike Braithwaite in Innocent.
Shaun Dooley (centre) as DCI Mike Braithwaite in Innocent.

A performer will often reveal interesting ways how he – or she – prepares for a role. The late, great Beryl Reid used to say that she had to hunt for the right pair of shoes before she felt at home, and ready to inhabit a new character. Others will say that in a period drama it’s the corsets that help. Or a wig. Shaun Dooley has a unique slant on the process. “It’s the smell,” he reveals with a rather embarrassed chuckle.

“Every person that I play has their own distinct smell, the aroma that they carry with them. Don’t laugh, it’s true. I have to hunt down that specific perfume, and when I find it, it definitely informs the way that I play the part.”

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Though Dooley admits that over the years this research has caused a few odd looks. “I can remember one time when I was in a shop in London, after landing a part, and I was going down a shelf of aftershaves, having a sniff, and then standing there, thinking if it was ‘right’ or not.

“I became aware that I was being watched by this teenage lad, who clearly thought that I was either absolutely off my rocker, or possibly just about to do a bit of shoplifting.

“He eventually plucked up the nerve to ask what it was all about, and I told him. He must have thought that I was even more daft than he first thought, but then he seemed to warm to the explanation, and he entered into the spirit of the thing and even asked about the man I was trying to ‘pin down’. He went off, did a bit of sniffing himself, and came back with a bottle of something or other and, unbelievably, he was spot on. He’d found exactly what I was looking for, and he was as pleased as Punch. And, of course, so was I!”

The Barnsley-born actor is back on our screens this month as DCI Mike Braithwaite in the new series of Innocent, and, once again, the search was on to track down the fitting fragrance.

“Not easy when we were in lockdown and wearing masks, but I managed it and it’s Versace. The other strange thing is that, if I’m ever asked to return to a role for another series, or a play I’ve done before, I know exactly where to go and what to wear. For some strange reason, for me it identifies the man precisely.”

He found DCI Braithwaite a compelling character. “I knew where the man had come from, what made him what he is as we see him, and all of his multi-layered ‘back story’.” And he’s full of praise for the script and the team. “The icing on the cake for me was that Katherine Kelly is also in it – who is also proud to come from Barnsley.”

Dooley feels this is probably the best role he’s played thus far. So which is the worst? “Oh, please don’t put me on the spot,” he laughs, “do you really want to know? Well, when they revived Crossroads about 20 years ago, I was briefly involved with that, and it was every bit as awful as it looked on screen. Even thinking about it makes me wince, even after all this time.”

The son of a Grimethorpe miner, Dooley (who turned 47 just a few weeks ago) is proud of his heritage, but cannot pin down why it was that as a teenager he became interested in acting.

“It really wasn’t what any youngster from Barnsley did,” he admits. “But I was encouraged by some teachers at school after some pretty disastrous GCSE results. I had dreams of becoming a vet, but it was pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen,” he says.

“I did wonder what my dad would say when I raised the subject of a potential career on stage. It was the time when all the pits were slowly closing down, and that industry clearly had no future at all. I plucked up the courage, and he said something that remains with me to this day, probably the best bit of advice I ever had. He was very pragmatic, and he knew how few jobs there were in our area. He said, ‘Son, you’re more than likely to be unemployed anyway, so you may as well be unemployed while you are chasing your dream.’”

After a successful audition, he joined Barnsley Youth Theatre, which led on to a drama course in Manchester, and from there he has built up an enviable body of work that includes major roles in TV series such as the Red Riding trilogy, Broadchurch and Gentleman Jack. He’s been in both Coronation Street and EastEnders, in Benidorm and the star-studded TV version of Great Expectations.

Most recently he was the homophobic father in the ratings-busting Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin. “Another brilliant script,” he says. “The sort of role where your agent rings up and says: ‘I’ve got a script here from Russell T Davies’, and, before they say another word, you say, ‘I’ll do it, no matter how big the part is.’”

It struck a chord with viewers. “When that went out earlier in the year, I was stopped in the street over and over again, and everyone asked me the same question – was it truly as bad as that? And I had to answer that yes, it was – and worse. There were some sufferers who were, effectively ‘air-brushed’ out of their family history. Clive Tozer was an awful specimen of humanity – but I had to play him.”

As well as acting, Dooley has carved out a successful career doing voice-overs and commentaries on all sorts of documentaries. “I am – at the moment – in the extremely fortunate position of being able to say ‘no’ to something if it doesn’t interest me.”

He’s been married to his wife, Polly, (a top casting director) for over 20 years and they have four children. “Family life means the world to me, and when I’m away from them all, filming on location somewhere, I miss them terribly. But – in ‘normal’ times, I can at least get back to see them at weekends.”

Filming Innocent, though, was very different. “We rehearsed it all intensely on Zoom and then made it in Dublin and in the Lake District, in and around Keswick. Before we started filming, we all had to observe a strict two-week quarantine. The only thing we were allowed to do was to go for a little walk around the hotel. Alone. If we’d gone back home, for whatever reason, it would have been another fortnight of isolation when we returned to the set. So yes, it was very intense.”

Dooley says he enjoyed playing Braithwaite. “He’s someone who I admire very much indeed, and he’s been shaped by the events he’s been through. I liked him a lot. But I shall let you into a little secret. I am far happier playing total, unredeemable baddies. Sinister, nasty people, men with not a decent bone in their bodies.”

How about that arch-villain, Captain Hook, in Peter Pan? “Wonderful. What a brilliant idea! The nastiest nasty of them all. Could you put a word in at The Crucible in Sheffield? I’m well up for that...”

Innocent is on ITV this month.