Actor Tim McMullan had worked with author and screenwriter Anthony Horrowitz before, but never on a title as wild as the adaptation of his own Magpie Murders. As Atticus Pünd — a fictional detective who solves murders both real and imaginary — McMullan has great fun gently ribbing the classic whodunnit format.
Both Atticus Pünd And Tim McMullan Are In On The Same Big Secret
Related to: Magpie Murders
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Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Detective Atticus Pünd is not a real person — he’s a character in best-selling author Alan Conway’s series of novels.
Pünd It’s the very nature of a murder investigation. You should have prepared yourself. Everyone lies.
Susan Not Andreas.
Pünd Oh. The more you know someone, the more likely they are to deceive you.
Jace But for Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, it increasingly seems like Pünd is more real than not.
Suan Do you mind getting out?!
Pünd Eh. You want me to leave? I was only putting forward certain possibilities.
Susan Yes! Well, I don’t want to hear them!
Jace And unlike the real investigators looking into Alan Conway’s untimely death, Pünd alone appears to know what really happened.
Locke Now you listen to me, Miss Ryeland. I’m here because Claire’s on her own and she just lost her brother in the worst circumstances, all right? Did you tell her of your suspicions? That Conway didn’t write that letter or that someone forced him to write it?
Locke Yeah, well, I’m glad to hear it. Because this is the real world and I don’t need some fancy…editor from London poncing around pretending to be some sort of private detective! Now you find your chapter if that’s really what you’re here for, but once you’ve done that…you stay out of my way.
Jace Tim McMullan wasn’t quite sure what to make of Pünd when he came on board the adaptation of Magpie Murders. But his quiet work — in murder investigations real and fictional — animate the clever series. The actor joins us to talk Pünd, The Crown, and so much more.
And this week, we are joined by Magpie Murders star Timothy McMullen. Welcome, Tim.
Tim McMullan Thank you. It’s really nice to be here.
Jace So I want to start by getting at your familiarity with Anthony Horowitz. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Anthony. You played Arthur Valentine in Foyle’s War. But I am curious what it was about this script that made you want to sign on to Magpie Murders? What did you make of the sort of meta nature of this project?
Tim Well, I was really surprised and delighted by it, because it’s so different and unusual and witty and dramatic and fun, you know. He’s sort of almost reinvented the genre, it seems to me. And so yeah, it was, I mean, quite aside from the wonderful character of Pünd, you know, the whole concept was really, really appealing to me.
Jace How familiar were you with Magpie Murders as a novel ahead of time? Did you go back to the source material to prep, or did you go in and approach the scripts as their own sort of narrative entity?
Tim Okay, well, I’m going to be quite honest and say that I wasn’t…I was aware of the novel. And I know Anthony and I’ve worked with him before and I have read some of his books, but I, I hadn’t read that one. And I started to read it after I was offered the part. And actually, I just sort of thought, he reworked it brilliantly, he reworked his book so comprehensively. I, kind of thought, I think I need to treat the scripts for the TV treatment as its own individual thing rather than trying to draw comparisons between the two and make links between the two, I feel I’m just going to treat it as its own entity.
Jace I want to turn to Atticus Pünd himself, who I find to be a pretty fascinating character. He is a Holocaust survivor turned detective emigré. He’s an outsider in an incredibly insular world. What do you make of Pünd and his place within the pantheon of great classic literary detectives?
Tim I have to be honest with you, I tried not to think about it because, you know, there are some, you know, notably Poirot, and one and two others, who are just such iconic, giant characters who’ve been interpreted by, you know, multiple people. You know, Sherlock Holmes has been impersonated by everyone from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. I am the only person that has ever played Pünd. And it may be that I’m the only person. Well, it’d actually be nice to think that in a few years he was, you know, 50 years time, some someone else will do, but. So yeah, we talked about this quite a lot and, and, and we signed it just to sort of park it to one side. So there are one or two sort of obvious tropes and the fact that he’s working in a sort of particular time in the 20th Century, the 1950s. He’s an émigré. You know, and Anthony’s obviously, sort of deliberately playing with the tradition. And we did discuss all of this and we decided just to, as I said, park it to one side, not think about it too much and just try and be as fresh as possible in our approach and just play the character and the stories as if it’s being done for the first time, being very careful also, you know, we had all sorts of costume conversations, you know, in in in the book. I think he has a silver-topped cane, if I’m correct. I wanted to have some horn-rimmed glasses, which the director trod on. And we also decided to get rid of the cane because, you know, then it becomes and, you know, too obviously a relative of Poirot or whomever. So we ended up just with this sort of mackintosh, which. You know, is a kind of ‘Universal Detective’ thing. But also there’s something of the kind of refugee about the mackintosh. We chose a design that was kind of could have been, you know, slightly German, East European, and, you know, it could be the Macintosh that he came over to England wearing when he got out of Germany in 1945, 46. And a Homburg hat, which is, you know, was a and I think a popular piece of headwear in pre-war Germany. So there were a few little pieces of the jigsaw that we played with and then other things that we just thought we can’t we can’t afford to think about this otherwise we’ll be going down rabbit holes and panicking ourselves about, you know, ‘Are we getting this right?’ This is a new thing.
Jace I mean, like Hercule Poirot, Pünd is the smartest man in the room, but he has within him this sort of deep sadness to him that comes not only from his life on the continent, but also that the ticking clock element of his mortality and his unfinished life’s work, this book that he’s writing. How do you play that tragic element to and knowing that he is a fictional character in this world, if that makes sense.
Tim Yes. No, it does. And I’m really glad that you brought that up, because he is a kind of rather shy and sad character in a way. Which you know, if anyone was listening to this, not having seen it might be a bit off-putting. But I think and I think there’s something quite attractive about that in him, or at least I hope there is. And so there’s you know, I think there’s three different strands to that question or answer. You know, the first is that he’s been you know, he’s had this terrible experience during the War, which has exposed him to the realities of human cruelty. He’s seen things that, you know, not just during the War, but really mean in the build up to the Second World War. Everything that happened in Germany, to people like him and other minorities. And then, of course, you know, the reality of life in a labor camp or concentration camp. You know, those are things that no one should ever have to witness in his walked away with a, you know, a pretty desperate view of humanity.
Fraser There’s something quite gloomy about it, isn’t there?
Pünd Ah yes, indeed, James. This is where Sam Blakiston died all those years ago and it is, you could say, where all the troubles we are investigating began.
Fraser You think what happened then is relevant to what’s happened now?
Pünd The past and the present. One feeds on the other. The two are inseparable.
Tim But he’s also I think, you know, he’s seen the depths of human behavior, but he’s also seen a great generosity of spirit. He’s seen people help each other. He’s seen people get through things. He’s seen people survive. And so it’s not an entirely negative experience. The the other thing is the course, the first time that we see him in episode one he comes face to face with his own mortality. So, you know, that’s that’s another thing, you know, he has to contend with that. He’s living with the reality of his own impending death. And I think those two things combined or those two things combined with what I think he has innately, which I think is just such a brilliant piece of writing by Anthony. And it’s because it’s so human, is I think that he has a real sense of the feeling for the human condition and a great pity and tenderness towards humanity. And so, you know, he obviously has this drive to solve murders and to solve crimes. That’s his profession. It’s his obsession. But when he. you know, it’s almost as much with sorrow and pity that he uncovers, you know, what someone did and why they did it. There’s no vindictiveness or triumph in it.
Jace I want to just sort of drill down a little more into sort of one aspect of your performance. I mean, you’ve obviously played fictional characters. You’ve played real life figures, such as Stephen Lamport in The Queen or Bernard Jenkin in Brexit or Robin Woods in The Crown. But Atticus Pünd is a fictional character who exists purely as a fictional character, even within the world of Magpie Murders, which is a very strange place, I think. How did you then approach the sort of fictionality of the character? Did you view him at all as a fictional construct, or in order to imbue him with that sort of ‘skull beneath the skin’ sight that he has? Did you have to view him as a human being?
Tim Well, I think I think, first of all, you have to view him as a human being. But I think, you know, another really fun and beguiling thing about Pünd is that, you come to understand after a while that he knows that he’s a fictional character. And that whole thing sort of makes them more human. So, you know, he’s talking at one point with you know, Lesley’s character and and he says he’s he’s explaining about being a detective and he says, ‘The detective will always solve the crime as surely as day will follow the night. In the world in which I exist,’ in other words, in the fictional world, ‘this is an immutable fact.’ And he sort of says it with a kind of love, this is the world that I live in. So he sort of understands the limitation of the world that he’s functioning in, but that overflows into an understanding that there is another world that she exists in, where things are much more chaotic. And he brings his insights to her world and helps her unravel the things that she’s trying to unravel. So that’s that’s the mess up, well, that you alluded to at the beginning of the conversation.
Jace I mean, to me, that’s where Magpie Murders truly sort of clicks into place…
Jace …is the fact that Pünd becomes this character that straddles both worlds within the narrative that while he’s solving the murder of Sir Magnus Pye in Saxby-on-Avon, he’s also helping Susan Ryeland investigate the death of Allen Conway, his own creator.
Tim That’s right. Yes.
Jace Which is a nifty piece of sort of duality in this narrative and does sort of fulfill that sort of meta nature of this text. What do you make of that sort of duality and the role he plays in, as you say, sort of helping to guide Susan in bringing his skills as a detective to her mission?
Tim Well, I. I love it. I think I think it works really, really well. It’s very surprising when it first happens. And, of course, you don’t really know whether or not it’s her imagination. And that’s kind of, you know, she’s obsessively reading the book. And so she starts kind of imaginatively asking him questions because of course, someone can’t really exist outside of a book and suddenly appear in someone’s bedroom or a living room and start talking to them. But ut in in the world of Magpie Murders, it does happen. And I think it’s very witty and I think that, you know, Pünd really enjoys it. He loves being part of this duality. You know, there’s a point at which Susan’s MG — you know, he’s driving along in the 1950s and her MG goes across the road in front. And of course, Fraser doesn’t see it because he can’t see it, but Pünd does and smiles to himself. ‘And there she goes. She’s on her way to try and unravel her bit of business while I’m going on my way to unravel my bit of business.’ You know, it’s sort of….he exists very easily within all of those contradictions, and he kind of enjoys himself within it.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace Many of your Magpie Murder scenes are set in the 1950s, in the fictional Saxby in Avon. But you’re the rare character here who also appears as himself in the present day, where you’re acting opposite Lesley Manville. What was Lesley like as a scene partner?
Tim Well, Lesley, I’ve worked with a couple of times before. Lesley, I worship…she, I think she’s you know, and she’s having the most fantastic time now. You know, she’s always done brilliant work, but suddenly she’s, you know, the last few years she’s become, well, more than a national treasure, you know, a kind of international treasure. And I’m in total awe of her. I think she’s brilliant, and and she’s wonderful to work with. And, you know, but but funnily enough, we actually only had a couple of scenes together that we did together because of. And so the scene at the end where we’re where we’re walking through the so-called Dingle Dell, we filmed that and that was very wonderful. And the denouement where I’m explaining what happened and how it all happened, she was there. But all the other scenes I shot without her because there was a conflict of availability. So she shot the scenes on her own, imagining me. And then I went to the same locations, or once or twice, I think there were two scenes where they had to recreate locations somewhere else. And, and I studied her performance. I watched it over and over and over again on my computer so that so that I was able to get to the point of really having a conversation with with her that was genuine. And then I’d go through it, the whole thing would be set up, I’d get my costume on, the lights and everything. And ad we had a little monitor where her head was. And I and I’d go and I had this conversation with her without her being there And I hope you can’t tell. I don’t…
Jace No! I had no idea. This is mad to me.
Tim This is very unusual. I’ve never come across it, and I hope we’ll do it again and hopefully that won’t happen again. But that was a unique experience for me.
Jace Like something out of a Marvel movie, perhaps?
Tim Yeah, yeah.
Jace No,it doesn’t read that way at all. And I had absolutely no idea until you just said it this moment that you were not in the same place, so.
Tim I mean, actually, it sort of made sense that, you know, if she is imagining me, there’s something to be said for the way that we did it, perhaps.
Jace Oh, yes. No, I mean, sort of a winged angel appearing in a sort of invisible sense to be shot later.
Susan All right…why would he kill him?
Pünd Why does anyone kill anyone?
Susan That’s a very good question. Do you have the answer?
Pünd I can think of four reasons. Fear, envy, anger and desire.
Susan There must be others.
Pünd No. From my experience, the extremes of human behavior, they always come down to those four things.
Susan Fear, envy, an-
Pünd …anger, desire.
Jace You mentioned the beginning of episode one, where we learn that Pünd is terminally ill, a sort of figurative end to match the literal end that Alan Conway has written. He says ‘You might even say that death has been a companion of mine. Always two steps behind. Now he’s caught up.’ Is his somber reaction fitting for Pünd’s character to handle this news with such stoicism?
Tim Well, I think so. I think. I think he’s a very stoic character who is being modest and self-effacing. I don’t think he particularly regards himself as being, whether you’re better than anyone else, and as you recall said, ‘Death has always been a companion, or one or two steps behind,’ and because of his experiences in Germany. And I kind of rather liked his, the wry humor that he greets this news. You know, he sort of says, ‘Well, you know, have I got time for skiing holiday?’
Jace ‘Do you ski?’
Tim And he says, ‘Do you ski?’and ‘Well, no, and now I never will.’ And there’s something rather touching about that, I think.
Jace I mean, I love the gallows humor of that scene as well. It’s so unexpected the way that he turns that scene on its head. I mean, to me, that quirk, that joke does reveal, again, another sort of duality to Pünd, the ability to laugh in the face of death. Even one or especially for one who has seen so much death, I think is telling here. Do you feel that his diagnosis plays a role in his refusal to entertain Joy’s Sanderling’s request that he investigate the death of Mary Blakiston? Is he sort of reluctant because he knows he has limited time?
Tim Yeah. You would think so, wouldn’t you? But I think I think he genuinely turns her down because he can’t see initially that there’s anything in it for him to investigate. When he comes back from seeing the doctor and Fraser says, you know, ‘There’s someone to see you,’ And he says, ‘You know who?’ And he says, ‘Oh, this woman, you know, there’s an appointment’ and, and Pünd say, ‘Well. I think you’ve forgotten to tell me about that.’ But it’s with great reluctance that he agrees to see her. But I think his professional principle, you know, would require him to do whatever he could. But, you know, on the first evidence from what she says, you know, there’s nothing really for him to go on or investigate. And it’s only when he reads in the paper that there’s something else that’s happened. Fraser says, you know, ‘Well, what a coincidence!’ And Pünd says, ‘No, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. You know, this is murder and and murder can be solved.’ So something else comes along which piques his interest and makes him realize that this case of Joy Sanderling’s actually has got something to it and he can do something about it.
Jace In Magpie Murders, the novel Anthony Horowitz poses the question, ‘Why do we have such a need for murder mysteries? And what is it that attracts us? The crime, the solution? A private need for bloodshed?’ Along those lines. In episode five, Pünd says, ‘It’s the very nature of a murder investigation. You should have prepared yourself. Everyone lies.’ Do you feel that that’s perhaps part of the appeal? The unearthing of secrets, the eradication of the lies that we tell, is that what makes us sort of invested in mysteries?
Tim Yes, I think it is. I mean, I’m actually quite a big fan of the Scandinavian sort of Scandi noir, because. And you know, it seems to be what they do particularly well is, you know, you have these awful crimes, and they’re really, really shocking some of them. But it’s the unpeeling of people’s psychology. You know, where you know, you get to see the layers removed from people and then you see them as they really are. You see what they’re and you know why they did what they did because, you know, they were abused as a child or they lost their mother or they kind of they were…
Jace Hurt people, hurt people.
Tim Yeah, you know, they were hurt or they weren’t promoted or whatever. And, you know, whatever front they have, you know, gets peeled back, the layers get taken away, the lies get pulled back. And and they’re shown as, as what they really are. So, yeah, I think that’s I think that’s what it is about. That’s what it’s about for me. And I never really, I guess I’ve occasionally managed to work it out. But it’s the people you know and why they do what they do and how they react to various things. That’s for me, the interesting part.
Jace And know Atticus puns life and Alan Conway’s may have come to an end. But Susan Ryeland’s story continues in Anthony’s sequel to Magpie Murders, Moonflower Murders. Would you be up for reuniting? Hopefully more in person this time with Lesley Manville, and stepping back into Pünd’s Mackintosh for another go around?
Tim Yeah, I would. Of course I would. I would love to. You know, I am not necessarily going to expand too much on that now. But, you know, having had a chance at playing Pünd once and you know, I have all sorts of things that I would like to develop, you know, within him as a character, you know, you but it’s very common, you know, to think, ‘Oh, I wish I could do it again, you know, because I know having done it, I can see all these things that I didn’t see before.’ So, no, I would love to do it again. I’d love to work with Lesley again and, as many of the other cast as in the next story and of course with Anthony and Jill, the producer, because that is such a wonderful team to work for, with.
Jace I am curious, did you always want to become a professional actor, or was there another career that back in you as a child?
Tim No, not really. It took me a long time to pluck up enough courage to be in a play. I wasn’t really in a play at school until I was about 16, I think. But I loved going to the theater when I was a child. My parents took me to the theater. I grew up in London. And I remember I was watching these actors and thinking, ‘I really want to be part of that. I want to do what they’re doing.’ And, you know, I think like quite a few actors, I’m quite shy in some ways. And it took me a while to pluck up enough courage to do it. And I did go to university and read history rather than go to drama school, because I thought, I thought maybe the desire to be an actor and I might grow out of it. And there wasn’t really anyone in my family who was in this world. So I didn’t I didn’t get an awful lot of encouragement. And, you know, people were hostile, but it was just, there weren’t any role models or people didn’t really know how to help me or think about it in a positive way. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go to university,’ and I read medieval history of all things, at university in Scotland, which was wonderful. But then of course, in university, I just carried on doing plays and, and just thought, ‘Yeah, this is it, I’m going to give this a go.’
Jace Did you actually finish? Did you get a degree in medieval history?
Tim Yeah, yeah, no, yeah, yeah, I finished my degree. No, I like to finish things and I enjoyed my degree. I loved my time in university. But then, you know, then I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to try and be an actor.’
Jace Your first screen credits are for 1993’s Stalag Luft and the Anthony Hopkins C.S. Lewis biopic, Shadowlands. Did those productions then sort of cement your desire to act professionally?
Tim Well, a lot of my career actually has been in theater, and I didn’t really have a very strong career in TV until relatively recently, probably sort of the last ten years or so. And I was very involved and still am with a major theater company called, well they used to be called Theatre du Complicité, they’re now called Complicité. In fact, we performed quite a lot in America, as in New York and other places. And I worked at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company and so on and so forth, and that was what I did for many years. So it was really theater that was the thing that made me want to be an actor and my early experiences in theater cemented my ambition. But I’m loving, you know, doing more film and telly work, and in fact I haven’t done much theater at all, recently.
Jace I am curious, is there a role that you’ve never gotten the chance to play that you’d leap at the opportunity to tackle?
Tim Yeah. I think I think I’m a bit old now, unfortunately. I would love to play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and that was something…funnily enough, three or four years ago there was a part that came up that I was offered in a production of not a very well known play that I saw as a teenager. And I loved it. And I always thought, ‘I would not play that character,’ and I was offered it. And then my wife was very ill, and I had to turn it down. But I think, you know, one of the things I really like about this job is that you never know what’s around the corner. And so I’ve never really spent much time thinking, ‘Oh, I’d love to do this, or I’d love to do that.’ It’s more…you know, Atticus Pünd suddenly, you know, came around the corner at me and you suddenly go, ‘That’s what I’m doing now.’ And then after that, there was a Netflix thing, Enola Holmes I don’t know if you have come across that. I got to play a very nice, juicy, nasty character in the second film of that. So, you know, you just don’t know. I’m about to go to Bulgaria to film in a remake of Red Sonja. You know, you just you never know what’s around the corner. I love that about this job. Sometimes nothing’s around the corner for a while. I don’t love that. So, yeah. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. That’s one that I’ve always wanted to do. But, I mean, it’s also because we are careful what you wish for. I always wanted to play Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra and I did four years ago, with Ray Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo at the National Theatre, and I played Enobarbus, and I thought, ‘Here we are!’ And then as I was doing it, I mean, I think I got good reviews and everything and that was fine. But there was something deep inside me that was thinking, ‘Actually, you spent all these years wanting to play this character, and I don’t think you’re quite right for it.’ Oh, and so are you probably best know this in the industry because the director might by come across it and think, ‘Well, why did you ask me if you could play it that case?’ And so, yeah, so I’m happy. I’m happy seeing what comes along.
Jace Well, I’m going to I’m going to put some ‘You as Benedick and maybe Lesley Manville as Beatrice at the National’ energy into the ether and see what happens.
Tim Yeah she would actually, she would be an amazing Beatrice. She’d be brilliant. Yeah.
Jace Timothy McMullen, thank you so very much.
Tim It’s been a very great pleasure. Thank you for asking me. I’ve really enjoyed myself.
Jace Susan Ryeland still isn’t sure who killed her best-selling, bullying author, Alan Conway — but you can rest assured — she’s close to the truth.
Charles She wants to use my title, by the way.
Susan I’m sorry?
Charles Sophie. She likes The Magpie Murders. Not Magpie Murders. I suppose we’ll never know why Alan got so upset.
Jace Magpie Murders creator Anthony Horowitz and star Lesley Manville return to the podcast following the finale November 20.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, produced by Nick Andersen and edited by Robyn Bissette. Elisheba Ittoop is our sound designer. The executive producer of MASTEPRIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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