“I’m capable of all Meyer is, but I don’t have his certainty”

So far Holby City’s head honcho, heart surgeon and heart-throb has kept quiet about his private life, but more is revealed in the new series. The man who plays him has also been an enigma, until now . . .

Here comes the latest in a seemingly endless collection of men voted “one of the sexiest on TV”, and a wince crosses his vulpine features when I mention the accolade for his part as workaholic cardiothoracic surgeon Anton Meyer in the medical drama that begins its fourth series this week. “Everyone’s called that, aren’t they? ” he says. “It’s fairly predictable in terms of the nature of Meyer – tough and masterful – combined with the aphrodisiac of power, and the life and death aspects of his
job.”

Here is another reason too, he adds – mystery. “We decided that the less the knows about his personal life the better, so they see him as a strong man on whom they can project whatever they want from their own imagination. Today’s television drama is usually about characters who disclose everything. They sit in their living rooms telling each other exactly how they feel, so it’s clever and a refreshing change to have a man who behaves as characters did in American movies of the forties or fifties, like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy – not that I’d wish to compare myself with them in terms of acting.”

At 51 he’s enigmatic himself, rarely interviewed, eschewing the enticing baubles that TV stardom can bring. “I play interesting characters, but that doesn’t mean people will find me intrinsically fascinating. I’ve been acting for a long time, so I don’t buy into this ‘celebrity’ conflagration. Some people come into the business, at every level, in order to place themselves in the public eye in a way that I find odd. I’d hate to be a young actor suddenly confronted with fame. The celebrity world is driven by fashion and short-term expediency, with tabloids and TV feeding off each other, using actors as the raw material to sell programmes and newspapers. It must be very difficult to resist buying into the myth, but for anyone to believe they’ve become a different kind of person because of that process is ridiculous and potentially harmful.

“I’m one of those who became an actor to hide rather than reveal myself. I don’t like cameras and if someone produces one in real life, I freeze because I know how powerfully it is able to see through you. On TV it’s different, and safe. Then I’m pretending to be someone else and I welcome a camera because I know I can manipulate it. I like the idea that if I have the right thought going through my head, the camera will pick it up, but I don’t want it looking into my personal life. Of course since Holby City, people recognise me in the street and think they know me. I meet intelligent people who say, ‘You’ve pretended to do heart transplants for so long, you must be able to do them for real by now.’

Medicine was one of his vague ambitions growing up, with three younger sisters, in a council flat in South Shields, where his father, George, was a surface worker at the pit. The family was Catholic and he became an altar boy. “I hesitate to compare myself to Laurence Olivier, but he said he discovered acting through ritual in the High Church of England, and I suspect my way was similar. If you find yourself at twelve years old, wearing vestments, carrying a cross in front of a May procession, it’s an enormous high. Being religious, as I was, you feel you have a central role in something very important. You’re one of the players rather than the audience.”

At school he was fascinated by biology. “I spent my lunchtimes looking after locusts and ants in the lab. Even teachers who didn’t know my name referred to me as ‘the biologist’, and I seemed set for some sort of scientific work until, in the middle of the sixth form, stacking supermarket shelves at weekends, a friend told me about the South Shields youth theatre – it had 54 girls and six boys. My hormones got the better of me and I went along, but I didn’t spend my time chasing the girls. I wasn’t particularly sexually active. I was a pious lad, a good boy who did as I was told. Someone at the theatre put Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ into my hand and although I still don’t know what it’s about, it got to me on an emotional level. I knew then I wasn’t going to be a scientist or even a priest, which I’d thought of.

“My parents were very scared of me becoming an actor because of the insecurity. I assumed, with the arrogance of youth, I’d be the exception, and there was something about the frisson of the times – 1966, the summer of love, life was changing. I was part of the sixties meritocracy which said that even though you’re a working-class boy, the world can be yours. It took a while. One of the ‘givens’ of the industry is that creamdoes not always rise to the top. I trained with people more talented than I was, who you’ll never hear of. It’s not fair, so don’t expect it to be. In your early years you have to be a professional dealer with rejection, which will either destroy or make you. It’s therapeutic to say, ‘Those fools have got it wrong again’. Good actors go under regularly and have to find other ways of living with their unrealised dreams.”

He studied at night school for A-levels, supporting himself as an agent for a football pools company, then did a three-year acting course at Birmingham university. His first job required stamina rather than acting ability. He was one of six young men in an advertisement for Worthington E. “We finished the exterior shots by nine in the morning, and the rest of the day was spent inside, filming us drinking. In those days you had to use the real product and because they wanted it to look right on camera they added Alka Seltzer to make the beer froth. At one point the director said, ‘Do you want to throw up and then do the shot, or do the shot and then throw up? ‘ We worked until two the following morning and I was in bed for three days afterwards. I haven’t done ads for a long time.”

He met his wife, director Jan Sergeant, during a year he spent at the repertory theatre in Newcastle, where she was a director. “We recoiled at first because we saw each other as being confrontational and difficult, and then got back together. Everyone is difficult – actors more than most, because we have no set routine.”

After that it was the National Youth Theatre, and then TV, where he was frequently cast as villains. In one year he died on screen five times. “I played bad guys because I don’t have boy-next-door features. The shift to good guy came when I played Jim Robinson in ‘Bad Company’, about the Carl Bridgewater murder.” Robinson was one of four men wrongly convicted, and released after serving 18 years in jail.

“I went along for the job, and the scale of the injustice came as a surprise to me. I didn’t meet Jim at the time – the last person you want to see is someone who has a bigger claim on a character than you, namely the man himself. It only makes you aware of how much you’re failing. We knew it was a good film that might make a difference, and, with the hubris of media people, assumed they’d fling open the gates the day after transmission. In fact it took another four years, until February 1997. The film did shift events dramatically. I’d hate to see television move away from that kind of production. It needs to maintain a social conscience, which it’s on the verge of losing. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but British audiences have, until recently, been brought up on stronger meat.”

Before ‘Holby City’, the longest he was in a series was ‘Dangerfield’ (currently on weekdays on UK Gold), as DI Ken Jackson. “I left when they decided to go into his personal life. Professional work became less important so, as the man who employed Dangerfield, my character had gone as far as I could take him. In my job, regular work is the exception rather than the rule, so I’m used to saying, ‘No, enough.'”

‘Holby City’ has provided him with a nice meal ticket for three years. “I’m aware of the trap. You can become dependent on a lifestyle you give yourself as a result of what you’re earning, and it’s difficult to make sound professional judgements if you become sidetracked by money. The obvious way to avoid it is to regard money as an opportunity to buy time to do other things.”

These things include taking several parts at the small Greenwich theatre in London, browsing for interesting books in the flea market on London’s South Bank, or walking. Later this year he will be spending three weeks hiking in aid of charity. “Nothing much has changed about our life. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not averse to making money, but anyone who becomes an actor in order to be wealthy is a fool.”

There is a plethora of doctors on television, many of whom are walking clich? Sehe agrees. “Television companies can be accused of saying, ‘Viewers love medical drama, so let’s have another.’ Some have three-dimensional characters, some don’t. I’d only want to do one that was distinctive, and there isn’t another like Meyer. I think of him as an individual rather than a character in a medical drama. I’m aware of the clich? s of the genre, and there’s a fine line, difficult to avoid.. It’s easy to get the stock reaction to a stock situation and it would be bad if we went down that route. You can only hope if you put together believable human beings, clich? will be avoided by default.

“ER is consistently watchable, but in the last series it went into the characters’ personal lives, which might be an inevitable part of the process. To some extent that’s happening to ‘Holby City’. Perhaps that’s what the audience wants, but it wouldn’t work for Meyer. Whatever we did would be anticlimactic compared to what viewers imagine goes on in his personal life.”

To prepare for the part, he watched two surgeons working at Papworth and Middlesex hospitals. “I find it difficult to take my eyes off them. There’s a strange beauty about heart operations, the way the body goes together as a piece of engineering. I’m not put off by the blood in any way.”

Although the private Meyer is kept deliberately low-key in the series, he wrote the character’s biography before he began the part. “I had to put someone together who is a peacock ogre – in one of the first episodes he threw scalpels at colleagues, and I needed to know why he treated everyone so appallingly. Unless you can find motives, you’re going to act one step removed. He’s extremely driven, and it’s my job to find out why.

“The character was based loosely on Sir Magdi Yacoub [the heart transplant surgeon], clearly a genius with a large ego – although no-one would accuse him of the kind of behaviour Meyer exhibits. He was an Iranian called Hussein before the producers changed their minds and he became central European.

“I’d learnt English with a Hungarian accent for one film – I’m tasteless enough to have that mimic thing, a chameleon who returns from the USA with an American accent, and whenever I talk to my father my Geordie returns – and just before we started ‘Holby City’ I worked in Budapest again. It’s handy to have physical images of places, and it seemed to me Meyer was temperamentally Hungarian – gloomy with a bit of Mediterranean liveliness.

“We decided he’d been brought out of the country after the 1956 uprising with his parents, who were intellectuals. All we know in the series about his personal life is that he did a heart operation on his sister, and has a daughter who’s now 12. We discover – in an oblique mention in this series – whether he’s married or not.

“It’s not possible to be completely distanced from a character like him, and I get the odd nudge from my daughter [Lucy, aged 21] if she thinks she’s being chastised in a way that is more Meyer than Irving. I suppose I’m capable of all he is, but I don’t have his certainty. I’m faltering and gibbering – a typical actor.”

To his surprise, the part helped him through the death of his mother, Nell, from leukaemia two years ago. “It threw her illness into a strange relief. I was glad of an opportunity to think about it from a professional distance, even if it was only pretend. It gave me a way of being slightly detached and control.

“What struck me when I lost her is that aspect of holding up a mirror to yourself. It’s as if I’d been on the end of an infinitely stretchable piece of elastic, even though she was 300 miles away, and she let go. You pick yourself up and think, ‘How did I get here? ‘ The past couple of years have been quite an intense period of self-examination. You find yourself looking at your life in a completely different light. Your own mortality is more obvious.”

And never more so than following the obscenity of death and destruction in America that has made him further assess his work, although there’s no glib pretence that a medical drama can in any way be considered collateral damage to such atrocities. “But,” he says, “should we even dramatise disasters any more? Why are we doing it? We’re just pretending, while out there the real world will never be the same again. How dramatic is anything compared to those scenes of absolute horror? “

2nd October 2001 – Radio Times