Roger Allam Interview: Endeavour’s No-Drama Detective
Roger Allam, the actor behind Endeavour’s DI Fred Thursday, talks about his character, his costars, the inevitable Thursday-less future, and making more Endeavour!
What do you like most about Fred Thursday?
As an ordinary working class man who went through the Second World War and whose parents went through the First World War, just as my parents…and grandparents did, he reminds me very much of that generation of my own family, and when I play him, I feel somehow that I’m hopefully honoring them. And I like his down-to-earthness. I like the fact that he survived the war, and the war gave him his moral foundation, if you like. There’s a limitation to that, of course, but there’s also something in which he knows who he is. In a scene, I think in Fugue, he says something about how he’s looked into the eyes of people far worse, doesn’t he? When you read about what soldiers went through in the Italian campaign, what it’s like to be standing next to someone who’s your comrade and your friend, and then they’re blown to bits, and bits of them are over you and how you sort of get through that and survive that—he’s someone who’s seen that, and he’s someone who has survived that somehow, and got through it with his humanity intact. Although, I think it’s one of the reasons why he’s relatively free with his fists.
A particularly powerful moment comes in the first episode of Season 7, Oracle, when Thursday brings home the canaries. Can you talk about that scene?
Well, I was always a bit resistant to the canaries, worried because I didn’t want it to be sentimental. But, actually, when they were there, I was remembering my family. I remember a great uncle and great aunt who lived in the back room of my grandfather and grandmother’s place, a very little house, and they had a budgerigar [parakeet], a budgie, and whenever I visited them as a small boy, they’d just be sitting there with this budgie.
It’s a strange thing, because you look at a bird and it’s in a cage, and you don’t feel great. But on the other hand, it’s something to look after. It is a sort of replacement for the kids, I suppose, to a degree—although of course Thursday wouldn’t be aware of that. He’d just want something, as he says, something that’s just perhaps sort of nice and beautiful and natural, and isn’t killing and death and all the awful things that he sees.
In Season 7’s second episode, Raga, your son, William Allam, plays Gary Rogers, and your wife, Rebecca Saire, plays his mother, Mrs. Radowicz. What was it like for you to play the scene in the morgue where Gary’s mother breaks down when identifying his body? Was it personally harrowing to see your son on the table like that, and have your wife inconsolable, or do all your years of training and inhabiting characters allow you distance from it?
It’s a strange double thing, because of course I thought I’d be really upset. But we’d traveled in together, and I’d seen William in makeup and everything, so there’s a part of you that knows—I knew he wasn’t dead. It’s a very strange kind of double reality. It is undeniable that it is very powerful to go in and see your son on a slab and your wife being very, very upset, and you’re not. I wasn’t his father—my character isn’t his father, so it’s a very strange situation. And of course, it was also the first scene that either of them did, so Rebecca had to sort of leap in at, probably, the most difficult thing to do.
Did your your television wife, Caroline O’Neill, and your actual wife, Rebecca Saire, ever gang up against you and compare notes?
No. No, they didn’t. [laughs] I don’t even think they were in filming at the same time actually, because it all depends on which setting we’re using—one day you do all the morgue scenes and on another day, you do all the Thursday household scenes. So I don’t think they even met. Or perhaps I arranged that so that they wouldn’t…
Thursday’s friendship with Bright seems so British from my perspective, with so much unspoken respect and even tenderness, but always disciplined by restraint. Can you talk about their relationship?
Yes, they don’t hug a lot, do they? No, you’re quite right [laughs]. Well I think it’s also very classic kind of officer and noncommissioned officer relationship, in which the noncommissioned officer, Thursday, is trying to manage the officer, but also help the officer. I think that over the years, over the series, they’ve developed an awful lot of love and respect for each other, and in these often really quite brief scenes, as the story gets unfolded, and as news about Bright’s wife gets released, there’s something very touching about it. I always look forward to a scene with Anton [Lesser]. I remember seeing Anton when I was just starting out as an actor—he started out, I think, just a few years before me, and I’ve always admired his work. We’ve only ever worked [together], I think, before, on the radio, so it’s been very nice to work together over a long period like this.
What did the two of you get up to between takes?
Gossip. Endless gossip. Did you know, that is supposedly the collective noun for actors, a gossip of actors?
Can you talk about Thursday and Morse’s father/son relationship and its fraying that we see this season?
In lots of situations between men, if there’s an age gap like between Thursday and Endeavour, inevitably somewhere hovering in the background, conscious or not, is a father/son relationship. There is a ghost of a father/son kind of thing hanging around—the father that Endeavour didn’t get on with, and a kind of a son that I think Thursday would have liked, although he loves his own son. So that’s always there, something that can be tapped into and resented, and also loved and sometimes used. But there are plenty of occasions that can be reversed, when Endeavour, fathers, or looks after, Thursday; occasions when perhaps they’re like an older and younger brother, or like a teacher and a pupil. They both teach and learn from each other.
So, I think all those things are there in a relationship like theirs that goes on for some years. And when I say—me personally, Roger—that one of the things I really look forward to about Endeavour is just simply seeing everyone, of course in all these long gaps that we have when we’re not doing it, if Thursday and Endeavour were real, they’d be seeing each other all the time. So they have had plenty of opportunity to get bored with each other, and you can feel the irritation. You can feel the irritation when their basic approach to things, and to crime, and to life, is somewhat different. Although having said that, Endeavour’s constantly throwing himself at the nearest beautiful woman, and not using his great intellect on these occasions. So he’s got plenty of feelings, too.
There’s a scene from Fugue, in Season 1, that really resonates in light of their deteriorating relationship this season. It’s where Thursday tells Endeavour to go home and put his best record on as loud as it will play, “to remember that’s something that darkness couldn’t take away from you.” Is the darkness winning in one or both of them?
I remember very well that scene up on top of that gorgeous building. And that was very much Thursday then, I think, still connecting to the experience of the war. But things have become more bitter now, and we’ve been through a stage in which, actually, work did come home, and we’ve been through a stage where, now, the family has gone. So the contrast between a lonely Endeavour and the Thursday household that was sort of filled with a Dickensian kind of warmth has gone, or it’s changed, has moved on. I suppose putting work to one side is not really possible for Endeavour and Thursday. Although they’ve had some spectacular triumphs and although they’ve saved each other on many an occasion, it feels at the moment like there will be no getting back to how it was. That’s how it feels.
As we get closer to the intersection of prequel Endeavour Morse with the Inspector Morse of that series, Morse completists have been pointing out that Thursday wasn’t in the books or the TV series. I’m worried that this won’t end well. Can’t we just depart from canon, here?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t see how you can really, because there’s a whole other rightly beloved TV series that starts in the future where, indeed, Thursday is never mentioned. So I don’t think it can end well. But I don’t know how it does end. I don’t know.
What are you most looking forward to once you are able to start making Endeavour again?
First of all, seeing everyone. Over all these years, we’ve got a wonderful team. I’d never done a really long-running series like this before, and indeed I was very resistant to doing it, and never signed up at the beginning for years and years and years—I think I signed up for two years and then we just took it year by year…What I was looking forward to about going back and what one looks forward to, hugely, is just seeing everyone and doing scenes with them and acting with them, and it becomes strangely … “easy” is the wrong word—It becomes in its way full of ease. But it’s also very satisfying because, for me, I’ve never known a character this well, because it’s been such a long time. So I look forward, hugely, to reacquainting myself with Fred Thursday and also all my fellow actors who have been in it from the beginning.