INTERVIEW: Harrigan's Stephen Tompkinson and Arthur McKenzie

David Watson speaks to Harrigan star Stephen Tompkinson and writer Arthur McKenzie about their dark UK crime thriller

Arthur McKenzie:  I originally conceived Harrigan about 17 years ago.  I was working with a producer called Geraint Morris in London, I met him on The Bill, and he said: “I’m looking for a new police series and I like some of the things you say, what about coming up with an idea?”  So, I came up with the idea for Harrigan, it was called Harrigan’s Nick then, and he read it and said “I like this, I think this is a series.”  And then, unfortunately he died.  So it sorta laid around in my bottom drawer for a long time and then I was working with Vincent Woods, we were setting up a film company in the North East called Tall Tree Pictures, I’d been working with him for about 10 years on other stuff, and we did a little pilot film called The Bait Room, and then he said: “Why the Hell don’t we do Harrigan?  Why don’t we give it a go?”  That was about three years ago.  I’d liked Stephen Tompkinson right from the start and thought he’d fit the bill perfectly.  Fortunately he liked the script and it’s on the screen now.

Stephen Tompkinson: Like most actors I find that collecting a different set of acting “muscles” keeps you a lot sharper.  I’ve been very lucky over my career to do such differing roles and to mix and match the mediums.  I haven’t done as many cinema films as I would like so when this opportunity came along I was more than happy to grab it with both hands. I was from Stockton-on-Tees originally and I’d been in Newcastle doing a play the year before written by my friend Shaun Prendergast who also has a role in Harrigan.

The play was called Faith and Cold Reading and I played a nasty gangster called Freddy the Suit. Vincent Woods, the film’s director, came along and saw me do that and sent me the script of Harrigan and told me a bit about Arthur’s background and I think, because it was party based on the true exploits of a real policeman, it gave the script an extra frisson and I was very happy and eager to attach my name to it. 

I knew that Tall Trees, the producers of the film, were a first time film company and that Vincent was a first time director so I was amazed and delighted that they got the money together so quickly and within a year we were shooting.  The icing on the cake was that I got to film on location in the North East.

McKenzie was a policeman for more than 30 years and drew on his own experiences when writing Harrigan.

AM: I was a cop from ’55 right through and it’s based on my experiences, experiences of colleagues.  It isn’t me, Harrigan isn’t me, but there’s a basis of me…the way he talks and the things he says and the way he says them.  But the characters are really a compendium of characters I’ve known and villains I’ve known.  I’m a dramatist, you pull all the best bits together hopefully and put them together as a big picture.

ST: Arthur is such a wonderful, larger than life character. Not only is he a multi-decorated policeman but he represented Great Britain at shot putt and discus at the Commonwealth Games and is now an award-winning writer.  He’s taller than me, so his were definitely big shoes to fill. But he was incredibly helpful throughout and I’ve remained in contact with him and consider him a true friend. I said at the wrap party that if we only make one person happy with Harrigan I hope it’s Arthur.

The film feels less like a traditional British crime film and more like an urban Western; the good sheriff coming back to clean up the bad town.

ST: I absolutely agree it does have those Western elements in there and it was very exciting to don that mantle.

AM: It is a Western. Harrigan is almost a mythical figure, he’s almost the conscience. He’s really Clint Eastwood.  He does all the things people wish they could do and say.

Harrigan’s style of policing is very far from politically correct but he’s no cartoonish Gene Hunt.

AM: Policing in that period was like that.  The problem is as a policeman, you go out and you’re suddenly faced with everybody’s ills.  You see the iniquities of life, you see things happen…  It does something to you.  It makes you realise that you want to do the best you can for the people that you’re trying to protect.  It’s that innate thing that generally drives police officers on and I suppose it still does but it’s in a different form now because the police operate in a different way, their communications are better but then when you went out on the street you had to live by your wits, you had to know how to talk to people, you had to understand that you cant just be one thing, you’ve gotta be flexible…You had to be fair to people.  Now, I don’t know, I just don’t understand the police now.  Every time they go out they’re wearing stab-proof vests, carrying CS gas canisters, extended truncheons.  Every time they deal with someone they put handcuffs on them, it doesn’t matter what its for.  To me that’s anathema.”
ST: Well, Arthur really was my inspiration. When he started his police career, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he was a bobby on the beat but when he came back from secondment to Hong Kong he saw that the bobby on the beat was being replaced by the patrolling Panda car.  He realised that the actual presence of the policeman on the street and the sight of the uniform was always a useful tool for people to see and feel safe.  If a policeman was visible it was a deterrent against many crimes but by taking that off the street it left the public unprotected.  People became more vulnerable and villains became more prominent. So it was totally Arthur’s experiences that I drew on.

AM: When I joined the job in 1955, the guys I was working with had just come back from the war, they’d seen active service, been blown up on ships on the North Atlantic Crossings, these were men who were like colossal guys, their experience was boundless.  And what they used to say to me was: “Listen son, just remember, these people out there are human beings.”  And it’s a funny thing, it’s a simple thing to say but if you remember you’re dealing with a human being, it puts everyone on a level pegging.  Whether they’re a tramp, whether they’re a judge, they’re all just human beings.

The film’s set during the economic crisis of 1973-74, the winter of discontent with power cuts, strikes, mass unemployment, civil unrest and there’s obvious parallels that can be drawn between then and now with Broken Britain and the failure of Call-Me-Dave’s Big Society.

ST: Yes, very much.  There had been riots on the streets the year before we started filming Harrigan and also having lived through the Seventies myself it was very easy to recall what was going on at that time.

AM: You see signs and symptoms of things happening now which you’ve experienced before. The wheel turns…

Between Harrigan and DCI Banks you’re carving out something of a niche as a tortured cop Stephen.  Any chance you’re going to do something lighter and return to the comedy of Drop The Dead Donkey or Spamalot?

ST: The role that I play in the new BBC1 series ‘Truckers’ (due on screen in October) is pretty comedic and my first love is comedy so if any opportunities came along I’d certainly investigate them!  With regard to Harrigan, Arthur’s toying with a sequel and prequel if the film proves popular so fingers crossed.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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