Adrian Dunbar: ‘I just got very lucky’

He thought ‘Line of Duty’ would last just one season. Instead, it propelled him to international success. Ahead of the return of the acclaimed drama ‘Blood’, Adrian Dunbar tells Ed Power why it still feels like a dream

Adrian Dunbar: ‘I just got very lucky’

He thought ‘Line of Duty’ would last just one season. Instead, it propelled him to international success. Ahead of the return of the acclaimed drama ‘Blood’, Adrian Dunbar tells Ed Power why it still feels like a dream

There are still days when Adrian Dunbar thinks he might be dreaming. For most of his career, the County Fermanagh actor was a jobbing thesp.

There were some high-profile roles. A lot of smaller ones. He was cast as Princess Leia’s father in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace only to be removed from the final cut. Such was the way of life.

And then along came Line of Duty and the part of avuncular Superintendent Ted Hastings. Nothing was ever quite the same again.

“It is an incredible thing,” says the now 61-year-old. “You do your bits. You hope that some day a part will come along and you can do your stuff and people will go, ‘oh that’s good’.

“I just got very lucky.”

He has made the most of this upturn in fortune. Dunbar is about to return to Belfast to film the sixth season of Line of Duty, in which Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald will join the cast.

There is also the small matter of the imminent second season of his well-received Virgin TV thriller, Blood.

“There really was an amazing response to the show,” he says. “In Ireland but also in the UK with Channel 5 and in the US on the Acorn platform. I’ve just been there promoting it and they were really excited but it.”

Dunbar is proud of Blood, in which he plays a family doctor with a shadowy past.

Season one was a whodunit in which Dr Jim Hogan’s daughter Cat (Carolina Main) suspected her own father might have killed her mother.

With that story resolved with a devastating twist — we’ll stay mum in case you haven’t yet watched — series two, again written by Sophie Petal, will pan back and bring in new characters and new secrets.

“You think, ‘well why should it work?’” muses Dunbar. “It’s set in the countryside outside Dublin. It’s a lower-middle class family. Who’d be interested?

“But we’re all experts, aren’t we, where families are concerned. That’s what we bring to bear in the show. Everyone can identify.”

Dunbar had no idea Line of Duty would transform his life and career when he arrived for his first day on set in 2012.

The series’ creator Jed Mercurio was an obscure TV dramatist. And Ted Hastings was a minor character.

In the script Dunbar received he didn’t even yet have a name. He was just another copper up the chain of command.

“We imagined we were doing just one series,” says the actor. “We didn’t think it was going any further.”

Adrian Dunbar, who plays the role of a family doctor in ‘Blood'
Adrian Dunbar, who plays the role of a family doctor in ‘Blood'

He thought it was all over when Mercurio killed off Lenny James’s character, DCI Tony Gates, towards the end of that first season. The charismatic James was the de facto star of Line of Duty. With him out of the picture, everyone assumed the series was done.

“He’s a brilliant actor,” says Dunbar. “And suddenly his character is killed at the end of episode six. But Jed Mercurio does this sort of thing all of the time.”

Dunbar made the most of the opportunity after Line of Duty proved a surprise hit.

Soon he was sprinkling Mercurio’s dialogue with ad-libs, referring to people as “fella” or baffling the Brits with phrases such as “now we’re sucking diesel”. By 2016 and season three, suddenly he and Line of Duty were stars.

“By then we had Keeley Hawes on board. It started to snowball. Suddenly you’re trending in twitter. It was interesting to an incredible degree.”

Dunbar was born in Fermanagh in 1958. The eldest of seven, he was educated at the local Christian Brothers before enrolling at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

He had memorable parts in movies such as My Left Foot, The Crying Game and The General and played Sir James Tyrrel in Ian McKellen and Robert Downey Jr’s 1995 adaptation of Richard III. There was also space for a passion project in Hear My Song, about Irish tenor Josef Locke which Dunbar wrote and shepherded into production.

His reputation as a riveting small screen performer was also growing.

He appeared in the first episode of Jimmy McGovern’s unflinching thriller series Cracker , as an innocent murder suspect with memory loss.

Later, there were appearances in A Touch of Frost, Inspector Morse and Ashes to Ashes.

It’s a good time to be in his line of work he says. The quality of TV drama has never been higher.

Line of Duty , for instance, has everyone on tenterhooks.

The internet nearly had a seizure last year when it was hinted that cuddly Ted might in fact be shadowy uber-villain “H” (relax, it was all a misunderstanding). And Blood has demonstrated that even a relatively small television market such as Ireland can produce top-notch drama.

“We’re in a golden age for television,” says Dunbar.

“TV 25 years ago was slow, plodding , boring. The production values were not great. Today it’s so much better. People get really invested it.”

Superintendent Ted Hastings in ‘Line Of Duty’ with co-stars Vicky McClure and Martin Compston.
Superintendent Ted Hastings in ‘Line Of Duty’ with co-stars Vicky McClure and Martin Compston.

With Line of Duty filmed in Belfast and Blood shot in a former school on the outskirts of Maynooth, Co Kildare, Dunbar now spends much of the year in Ireland.

He’s currently in talks about a stage role in Dublin in the autumn, so it’s likely he’ll back back in the old country again by end of year.

“It feels like I’m living here full time,” he says. “We had a fabulous time out in Kildare.

“I’m absolutely over the moon that we’ve found returning drama in Ireland that uses the best of our talent.

“We have all the talent: especially in the areas of directing, editing, lighting, the crews.

“We’ve got some of the best people in the world.

“Virgin have found the template to make a returning series with high production values. It has repositioned Channel 5 in the UK (as a destination for quality drama). It gets so much good numbers for them they were able to drop other stuff.

“They’ve really used Blood to reposition themselves. I’m told that when the powers that be in the UK get together they cite Blood as a case in point (in how to produce prestige TV).

“It has a unique lovely quality that we’re all proud of.”

Having moved to London in the Seventies to study drama, he has seen the reputation of Irish actors in the UK rise steadily over the decades.

“You had people like Ray McNally, and TP McKenna back then. Today the stock of Irish actors has never been higher. You have the most amazing Irish actors. Cillian on Peaky Blinders . And the most amazing actress. Our actresses are now absolutely storming the place.”

With the success of Line of Duty he has had his pick of parts. So it is testament to his commitment to Ireland that he choose Blood. He also using his new found prominence to present a BBC documentary about his hero, Samuel Beckett.

“I felt it was really important for us to understand what Beckett’s actual roots were.

“He was formed long before he arrived in Trinity College — by the hills in Wicklow and by Enniskillen (where he was schooled). It wasn’t an academic piece. It was about who he was as a person. I was delighted to do it.”

‘Blood’ returns to Virgin Media One Monday February 24, 9pm.

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