Conleth Hill: From Game of Thrones to Holding - taking it all in stride

Acting skill, goodwill towards Cork, and lots more roles to fulfil — Holding star, Conleth Hill, talks about his career to date and his upcoming jobs
Conleth Hill: From Game of Thrones to Holding - taking it all in stride

Conleth Hill: connecting with audiences in ITV's Holding

One morning in May 2019, Irish actor Conleth Hill woke to discover he was a global headline. Hill, who had achieved international fame in his mid-40s playing whisper-voiced courtier Varys in Game of Thrones, had expressed his mild frustration in an interview over the manner in which his character had been sidelined as the fantasy blockbuster hurtled toward the finish line.

The remarks set the internet aflame. People jumped on the comments as proof Hill agreed with the rapidly-forming consensus that Game Of Thrones was making the mother of messes of its big denouement.

“One of the things I said was I felt — which is one of the things about being in a multi-character. piece of work — is that if they chose to go with other characters there is nothing I can do about it. I wasn’t bad-mouthing them,” says Hill.

“I was always satisfied with what I got. I preferred [ Game of Thrones] when it was smaller. That doesn’t mean I hated it when it was bigger. Everyone had invested so much in it. I had no problem with people not being happy about it. I had a problem when they went for the two show runners [David Benioff and DB Weiss]. It was very personal. You’re allowed your opinion. Don’t have a go at them, that’s all.”

Conleth Hill as Varys in Game of Thrones
Conleth Hill as Varys in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones changed Hill’s life. But of course the world keeps spinning even after you’ve appeared in the biggest TV smashes of all time. And for the Co Antrim-raised actor that next chapter has involved crossing the length of Ireland to star in an adaptation of Graham Norton’s 2016 small-town murder mystery, Holding.

Holding comes to Virgin Media One after debuting on ITV to positive reviews. The Guardian hailed its “charm”; the London Times praised the “well drawn” characters. Yet for all that praise Holding doesn't quite reinvent the wheel. Here is a whodunit set in one of those quaint rural idylls where secrets lurk everywhere and nobody is as they appear. And when human remains turn up unexpectedly on abandoned land, years of closely guarded secrets begin to unravel.

The idyll in this case Duneen, a fictional West Cork town that feels like an amalgam of Schull, Drimoleague (where it was filmed) and Norton’s native Bandon. The Cork accents are, it has to be said, occasionally wonky (imagine a Dublin standup comedian 'doing' a Cork accent and then multiply by five). Holding is nonetheless great fun and a showcase for a cast that also includes Brendan Fricker, Cork’s Siobhán McSweeney (from Derry Girls), Peaky Blinders’ Charlene McKenna and theatre actor Olwen Fouéré.

Clinton Liberty and Conleth Hill in Holding. Picture: ITV
Clinton Liberty and Conleth Hill in Holding. Picture: ITV

Yet it is Hill who holds it together, playing a character who could not be more different from Game Of Thrones’ shrewd, manipulative Varys. Eccentric Garda PJ Collins is a cross between Benny Hill and Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown: an outwardly wacky figure whose absurd exterior conceals an undertow of seriousness, even sadness.

“I read the novel when it first came out. I got it for Christmas or something. I remember thinking, 'oh, that's an amazing part'. A real, flawed, ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. I remember at the time commenting on that. I got a phone call from my agent saying, ‘you’ve been offered this — and Kathy Burke’s directing’. I thought about it for a millisecond and said, ‘absolutely, where do I sign?’”

Ballycastle, County Antrim, where Hill grew up, is about as far from West Cork as it is possible to be while still on the island of Ireland. However, Hill has fond memories of Cork and of the childhood holidays he would spend in the county as his family drove south down the coast, through Youghal, into the city and on to Glengariff.

“My dad used to drive from one end of the country to the other during the 1970s. And we'd go down to Cork and Kerry for our summer holidays. Loved the place, love the people. I was familiar with it. I wanted to do more. But [on Holding] you’d be working five days a week and then learning lines for the next week.”

Conleth Hill and Irish screen legend Brenda Fricker in Holding.
Conleth Hill and Irish screen legend Brenda Fricker in Holding.

British TV has a patchy history when it comes to depicting Ireland on the screen. And while a whiff of quaintness hangs over Holding, it avoids the toxic tweeness that was a signature of shows such as Ballykissangel. It isn’t nearly as toe-curling as a similar series might have been 20 years ago.

Quirkiness hasn’t been entirely banished, it is true. Garda Collins spends his spare time eating bread in his car. The village busybody ( Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn) calls the garda to complain that the shop across from hers on the main street is painted an inappropriate dull brown. The local cake-maker (McSweeney) is also a closet alcoholic, who has never come to terms with being jilted at the altar by her unfaithful boyfriend (that’s his body which has just turned up). So far so Father Ted.

Yet people are, drawn with real tenderness. Hill’s Collins, for instance, is less punchline than lost soul. And McSweeney’s character is hitting the bottle because she has never quite come to terms with being left at the altar 20 years ago by her fiancé (the one whose body has just turned up under a house).

So it’s richly drawn, if not entirely free of cliché. And sensitively directed by Burke, better known as an actress, yet with a distinguished career directing for the stage.

“We weren't trying to do to present anything 'Irish'. We were just presenting ourselves and in this instance we were Irish,” says Hill.

“Graham said that was something he kept an eye on in the adaptation stage: ‘don't make it to diddly-dee or plastic paddy’. And so he had a good eye on it. And I just think Karen [Cogan] and Dominic [Treadwell-Collins] are brilliant writers. It wasn’t a trap they were going to go for anyway. You remember The Commitments and how we all felt when we watched that? Or Riverdance? We didn’t want it to be diddly-dee.”

Kilkenny actor Sean Campion, right, with Conleth Hill, on stage at Broadway's Golden Globe Theatre in Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, in 2001.
Kilkenny actor Sean Campion, right, with Conleth Hill, on stage at Broadway's Golden Globe Theatre in Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, in 2001.

West Cork used to be a closely guarded secret. But it has become an obsession for true crime buffs with the release of a number of podcasts and streaming documentaries exploring the unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier.

“I’d seen the Jim Sheridan documentary [ Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie]. And the Netflix one [ Sophie: A Murder in West Cork]. It was very strange when I said I was going to West Cork to work, nine people out of 10 would ask ‘have you heard the podcast’? It’s fascinating. There’s a cosmopolitan-rural mix there that you don’t get everywhere.”

Holding is one of a number of murder mysteries Hill has recently starred in, alongside Vienna Blood and Magpie Murders. It’s part of the arc of many acting careers, he suggests. You get to a certain age — he turned 58 in November — and they start casting you as a latter-day Poirot.

It certainly is nothing like Game of Thrones. That show continues to cast a shadow over TV (a long-awaited prequel is almost here). Several cast members have spoken about the staggering pressure they felt under as Thrones neared its conclusion  — and of needing time away to decompress. Hill seems to have taken it in his stride. It was an adventure — but just one of many. And now he’s on to the next.

“I was probably one of the least hardworking people on it, just in terms of time and things,” he says.

And then he shrugs: “You just go on to the next job.”

  • Holding will premiere on Virgin Media More on Tuesday April 12 at 9pm. Virgin Media More is exclusive to Virgin Media TV subscribers.

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