By David Hennessy
It was only after he had landed the role of John Doherty that Dublin actor Aidan McArdle realised his character in Channel 4’s gritty period drama The Mill John Doherty was an actual trade unionist from the period: “I didn’t have a clue. He was much more interesting than I expected just because he had those layers of depth to draw on and I could find out what he actually managed to achieve and what happened to him in the end. It was good.”
Aidan is well known for playing real life characters such as Dudley Moore and Albert Einstein in biopics. Was playing the real life trade unionist similar to these roles as he was another true figure? “I think it makes a big difference if they’re in the public consciousness, they know his mannerisms. I did a radio play recently where I played Ronnie Corbett: People will know immediately if you have failed. It just takes two minutes into the performance and they are going: ‘That’s not it’. It’s not the same pressure as playing Dudley Moore where people can immediately say that’s crap. Nobody knows what John Doherty sounds like so I got a free pass on that one, I think.”
Filming the drama, Aidan was hit by how tough life was back in the 1830s but also how some things haven’t changed: “Everyone gives out about austerity now but people really didn’t have an identity. People could be completely disenfranchised from their own name. I suppose it was sort of a similar situation to the Magdalene laundries in a way: You had no rights. People who were put to work in places like that, that job becomes what they are as opposed to an individual. You see some of the characters bravely hitting back against that and trying to establish their own place in the world.
“What’s amazing is the more things change, the more they stay the same. If you hear the arguments that the mill owners make: Raising the wage is going to destroy the factory and then people lose their jobs because it’s not sustainable. It’s the same stuff that’s always heard whenever there’s a debate on minimum wage or workers’ rights. It’s incredible to see those arguments being made so long ago and almost word for word.”
Aidan’s previous work includes Garrow’s Law and Casualty 1909. Is he drawn to period work? “I think it’s just the way it goes. As an actor, you’re sort of like a boat that is taken along a tide and sometimes you get the choice of what port you’re going to dock in but an awful lot of the time, it’s whatever port arrives. Don’t worry: It’s not some sort of grand plan where I tell my agent: ‘Unless it’s at least a hundred years ago, I’m not doing it’.”
Having said that, Aidan will appear on another loved period piece when the new series of Mr Selfridge hits ITV: “I am playing Kate Kelly’s husband. She plays Lady Mae Loxley and I play her husband who moves back into the London house really much to her chagrin. He finds himself in a little bit of financial difficulties, he has to make a little bit of money to resurrect his fortunes and he doesn’t care who he clears out of his way in order to do that.” Aidan can also be seen in Quirke, the 1950s set police drama based on John Banville’s books that has been shot in Dublin with Gabriel Byrne.
The Irish World played a part in giving Aidan a helping hand early on in his career. Whilst raising money to attend RADA in 1992, this publication featured the aspiring thespian on our front page: “I’ve never forgotten it actually. I’ve always been very grateful to the newspaper. It’s always had a very high regard in my heart.
“There’s no actors in my family at all. My cousin is Steve Coogan but even at that stage he was a stand-up comedian, he wasn’t really acting an awful lot. It was like landing on the moon.
“Normally the principal of RADA rings you up and all he hears is laughing or crying on the other end. He rang me up offering me the place. I said: ‘(unenthusiastically) that’s great’. He said: ‘You don’t sound very happy’. I said: ‘I don’t know if I can afford it’. There was no whooping or hollering. I was just going: ‘Okay, I’ve got in. Now the hard bit. How do you get £10,000 a year for three years?’ Luckily my mother was on hand to make sure I didn’t stick my head in the sand. I’ve never forgotten the people who helped me along the way.”
Aidan mentions his well known cousin Steve Coogan. When could we see Aidan and his famous relative on screen together? “We did a film called Ella Enchanted where he was the voice of the snake and I was an elf. That’s about as close as we’ve come. He’s always working and he says he has a part lined up for me so I’m waiting with bated breath to see what this part is. I’m sure at some point we’ll work together. He’s very supportive as well. If I’m in a play he comes along, we hang out. It’s all good.”
For the full interview, please see the August 10 print edition of The Irish World.
The Mill continues this Sunday at 8pm on Channel 4. Also available on 4 on demand.