Man of mystery
An interview with Nathaniel Parker
Masterpiece Mystery site
How did the role of Inspector Lynley come about, and how did you prepare for it?
I was approached by the producer, Ruth Baumgarten, before she had a script. I was intrigued, but I was concerned that we not replicate the TV coppers that were already out there. I love John Thaw in Inspector Morse, but we couldn't have Lynley be an old curmudgeon who drinks whisky and dates a different woman every week. I thought he needed a compelling back story of his own that could parallel the investigations. When I read the books, of course, that's exactly what Elizabeth does. She parallels the characters' home lives and work lives very clearly.
I admit that I was slightly nervous when I got to about page 17 of the first book and saw that Lynley had an "aristocratic chin." Being a typical actor, I'm rather worried about my chin, so I put down the book for a week or two before I picked it up again!
You've said that playing Lynley was a "feast." Why?
There were several things I enjoyed about him. He's got a certain amount of wealth, so he has lovely sheets and nice cars to drive. Beyond that, there's a way of life, a way of manners he has, that are close to me and were part of my upbringing — but not a posh upbringing, mind you. A lot of people think that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I wasn't, even though I do sound like it!
As the series went on, the challenge became separating Lynley from myself, recognizing that there were elements of me creeping in, and I had to be sensitive to that. Sometimes it would be a matter of saying to the costume designer, "I would never wear that shirt, but it probably is a Lynley shirt, isn't it?" There were some things I was very careful not to influence — his car, for instance. I personally think it's a ridiculous car for a copper, though — where would you put the criminal?
How did you keep the character fresh over seven years?
One has to be careful when doing a series not to become lackadaisical and take things for granted. I was quite strict with myself about making sure that I didn't get lazy and that there was always a challenge ahead. With Lynley, there were always new actors to work with, new relationships to make, new paths for the character to take. Having three different actresses play Helen, his wife, over the course of the series certainly kept things interesting
Audiences may be surprised by some of Lynley's behavior this season. What was it like to play a character you've known for so long hitting "rock bottom"?
I hope that viewers are slightly shocked. If they're not, I've been doing it wrong all these years! When we first see Lynley, his life is falling apart. He's lost his wife, he's living alone, and he's drowning in the bottle. So, you have sympathy for him straight away. Without giving anything away, that sympathy is short-lived. As an actor, it was great fun to be able to show different and unexpected sides of his character.
Were you surprised by the international success of the The Inspector Lynley Mysteries? Why do you think the series has had such wide appeal?
I am surprised in some ways. As an Englishman reading the books, I thought, "Fair enough — an English copper and his sidekick. That's easy." But, of course, it's not just that. It's an American lady's take on English class and society, and on the sexual tension that can arise from it — rather like a latter-day D.H. Lawrence. There's a lot of sexual tension between Lynley and Havers and it works very well onscreen.
In addition to offering a foreigner's take on the British, Elizabeth's novels are well-researched, so we had compelling, detailed plots. The fact that investigations take Lynley and Havers around the country is another draw, because it lets viewers see the English countryside.
Did you know Sharon Small, your onscreen partner as Sergeant Havers, before you started working together?
No, I'd never seen her work. Early on, she came out to my house for a visit. At the time, she was moving into a small flat, and I had a nice house, having been in the business a good 10 years longer and therefore being more established. She came in and looked at our house and immediately turned into Havers!
We hit it off right away and became good mates. I think of her like my little sister. The worst thing for me about finishing Lynley is not working with Sharon five months a year. She's lovely, and we had a wonderful time together.
Did the two of you discuss how you would have liked the series to end?
We didn't. The ending of the series came as a surprise to us, so we didn't have an opportunity. I would have ended it with Lynley and Havers holding hands and walking off into the sunset, but I don't think Sharon would have let me go anywhere near her. I tried kissing her once, as Lynley, and she ran a mile!
You've said that the final episode, Know Thine Enemy, is one of the best Lynley Mysteries ever. Why?
It deals with the investigation in a very different way. It begins as a whodunit but quickly becomes a why- and which-one-dunit. It's more psychological than previous episodes, and it takes longer to get inside the heads of the characters. It's also a much smaller cast, because we haven't got a lot of possible suspects and there are no real red herrings. It's more a race against time. I don't think that if we had carried on with the series we could have done many more like it, but this one works very well indeed. James D'Arcy (Mansfield Park) and Honeysuckle Weeks (Foyle's War) were fabulous to work with.
Speaking of young actors, James McAvoy made one of his early appearances on Lynley. Did you have a feeling that he would become a star?
Yes, I taught him everything he knows! The initial impression James gave was one of complete confidence and complete enjoyment, the two qualities I've always valued most highly on set. He came in, did the job and did it well. If there's one person in the world who won't be affected by fame and fortune, it'll be James, because he's so level-headed and so good at what he does.
You were quite a scene-stealer in Bleak House, which was a huge hit here in the United States. Can you share any backstage stories?
I was terribly nervous for Bleak House. Skimpole was a role I had no handle on at all. It was the first time in my life I'd ever been on set not knowing what I was about to do. Normally, the costume, the hair, or the makeup gets you in the part and you know what you're going to do. But this time, I didn't know at all, and finally — thankfully — it just sort of came out. I remember people coming up to me in the streets soon after the series aired and quoting my line, "Oh, I am but a child, I am but a child!"
You decided to become an actor when you were nine. What appealed to you then and what do you like about acting now?
The reason I decided at nine to become an actor is the same reason I still do it. It's just a big, fantastically exciting game. As a child, I wanted to be a film star, an astronaut, a doctor, a king and anything else I could think up. Acting allows me to be all of those things and more.