DAVID Morrissey is telling a story. One that explains everything you need to know about why he is an actor. “When I was doing The Walking Dead, I remember being in a forest in Georgia,” he begins. “There were snakes everywhere. Spiders and ticks. It was so hot. The heat was hitting you like a baseball bat in the face. It was just awful.”

As is the nature of things these days, we are talking on Zoom. I’m in central Scotland, he’s in Suffolk. But for a moment we’re both in that forest in Georgia.

“It was really tough, and we had tough scenes to do,” he continues. “It was Andrew Lincoln and I doing this mad scene. And he turned round to me at one point and said, ‘Isn’t this great, David?’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s great. This right here is my dream. This is what I always wanted to do. I never wanted to do anything else. I wanted to be here in this field right here, right now doing this. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.’”

In short, despite spiders and snakes and ticks (and the odd zombie presumably) – or maybe because of them – David Morrissey loves his job. He always has. That was true of the teenage Morrissey working in a youth theatre group in the Everyman Theatre in his hometown of Liverpool and it’s true now of the 56-year-old veteran of stage and screen (big and small).

Which means, of course, that this year 2020 has frankly been a bit of a bummer. “I’ve actually found lockdown really hard,” Morrissey admits, “because I love work. I love what it asks of me. I love the challenges. So not having it has been tough. I have found not being able to work very challenging.”

Still, he knows he’s in a privileged position. He knows, unlike others, he can take some time off, can mess around in his garden without worrying too much about the mortgage.

And there has been the odd upside. Like getting to hang out with his son, one of his three children from his marriage to novelist Esther Freud (Lucian’s daughter).

“I’ve just come up to Suffolk for a bit,” he says when we speak in late July. “I’ve been in London for most of it. I was in my home in London and I was with my son who’s 25. I felt very lucky to have this time with him really. I wouldn’t normally have such a concentrated time with him. He’d be off somewhere else. We just cooked and watched TV and read. I was very blessed.”

Since he made his TV debut with Willy Russell’s Channel 4 drama One Summer in 1985, Morrissey has been one of the most familiar and reliable screen presences in British TV and film, appearing in everything from State of Play to Blackpool, and The Deal (in which he played Gordon Brown) to the Jason Statham thriller Blitz (playing a sleazy journo; as if such a thing existed). He even has the Basic Instinct sequel on his filmography.

More recently, he has been starring in Sky’s Druids v Romans drama, Britannia. Indeed, by the time you read this he might have returned to shooting the third series. “We were about five weeks in. We could see lockdown coming at us. But now we’ve been told we’ll probably go back to work at the beginning of September with a lot of new rules and a lot of new things we’ll have to adhere to.”

And then there’s the reason we are talking today. A new ITV drama, The Singapore Grip, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of JG Farrell’s 1978 novel about the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in the Second World War.

The Singapore Grip is itself an ambitious piece of television with a prestige cast that tries to encompass a huge historical moment while being true to the comedy of the novel. It also gives you a chance to see Charles Dance topless, a vision that will put more than a few middle-aged men to shame when we remember that Dance is 73. (Or is that just me?)

The story it tells is one of British military incompetence. Perhaps no real surprise that it’s a historical moment that tends to get written out of the national story.

“It does,” agrees Morrissey, “and to my shame I didn’t know much about it either. Churchill did say it was the biggest military capitulation in British history. So, it’s not something we wish to examine, which is true of our colonial past in general.”

Read More: George MacKay on 1917 and Oscar parties

The Singapore Grip is a story of empire and the imperial mindset; its sense of belief and its ridiculousness. The Christopher Hampton script was, Morrissey is happy to admit, a big part of the draw. But so was the character he was asked to play, Walter Blackett, something of a fabulous monster.

Morrissey has played a few of those in his time. Blackett, though, offers a different flavour. He is a businessman with an eye for the main chance, someone desperate to make a deal even when the Japanese are knocking at the door.


David Morrissey as Walter Blackett in The Singapore Grip

“He’s a very complex character, but also very simple in his greed,” Morrissey suggests. “It’s quite interesting to play that. He’s all about profit, he’s all about money, he’s all about power and control. He won’t accept that the world is changing. And I found that fascinating. The pig-headedness of him.

“I don’t get to play that class that often. And, also, it’s funny. I thought of it as satirical. There’s something about the life of those people, that upper-class world and that colonial world which is absurd. I mean, it’s absolutely absurd what they are trying to do, the system they are trying to impose; the idea of having a little bit of England in the middle of Malaysia, or Singapore or India or wherever they are. I mean it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Walter, he says, is a man who is driven by profit. “He’s a racist. That’s a given. He’s a warped capitalist, I would suggest. He’s somebody who feels he has this entitlement of being where he is, even though what he’s doing is stripping the country of its own minerals. He’s somebody who feels very strongly that the more money he makes that there will be this trickle down effect, that he is doing good. And, actually, that’s total bollocks.

“In his blindness of what he is doing and his surety of empire, there is something outrageously funny about it. Because he is so sort of sure of himself. There’s an element we see of that all the time particularly, I hate to say, in Trump. We look at him and we laugh at him, but, also, we are absolutely appalled by him.

“There’s something about Walter that makes us laugh, but I think his world view is not one to be consigned to the annals of history. I think it’s alive and well amongst us right now.”

All of which rather begs the question, how do you play an entitled, unapologetic racist?

“I don’t have to like him, but I have to understand him. I have to have empathy for him. This is a man who grew up in an education system, he grew up in a family, he grew up in a world that told him these values were absolutely true.

“He’s not going to question it. He has no conscience. His morals are set in stone. That’s what his racism is. He has a view of the world that he is right, the way the world is built is for him. Even as the Japanese are walking into Singapore, he’s trying to do deals to make sure he is all right.”

Shooting the series on location in Malaysia was the usual mess of bad weather and worse weather. Schedules were tight, sets were washed away. The cast were all beautifully costumed, “but, God, you’re hot,” Morrissey admits. “But I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. I loved it.”

With four decades of experience behind him you would presume Morrissey knows what he’s doing when he steps onto a new set these days. “Well, no. The minute you think you know what you’re doing something will come along and knock you over.

“I like to research and sometimes that can trip me up. I will get to a job, I’ve done all the research and I’ll say to the director or the writer, ‘That didn’t happen.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not the story we’re telling.’

“And I’ll be so fixated on the fact that I’ve found out this bit of research. I’m grabbing hold of something because that’s my only bit of control in the job, whereas what I need to do to be truly creative is let go of it all and show my arse.

“What I really love I think is when I’m slightly flailing and I’m going, ‘Ooh, I don’t have the tools to deal with this and I’m just going to have to jump in here.’ Those type of things really excite me.”

The question Morrissey sometimes asks himself is what would have happened to him if he hadn’t found his way to acting. “I’ve often thought this and been very angry about it. My educational life was determined for me when I was 11 because I failed my 11 plus. I haven’t got lots of O Levels but I’ve got a curiosity and a desire to learn and I still have that.

“But that wasn’t really tapped into in my secondary education. I went to a secondary modern school, and the word secondary is an interesting one. It was tough because I got to believe things about myself that weren’t necessarily true. And then I found myself in an environment which was drama, a youth theatre in Liverpool.

“Suddenly, I had a voice. I had an ability to do something. I was with a group of people where there was no such thing as failure. You could be in an improvisation and it could just die a death, but nobody condemned you for that. It was an encouraging place. It was a place where I was able to find an emotional intelligence in my life and explore that.

“I had found my tribe. It really gave me something to focus on and explore selfhood. ‘Who am I? Where am I in the world? What are my values?’

“I’m saying this in a retrospective way, looking back at that boy. At the time I was just on a ride. I was meeting guys who I fell in love with, who were culturally different from me, sexually different from me as well. It was a whole world of difference that was opening up. I think at that time I thought, ‘I’m just going to take this ride. These are my people. I know it instinctively This is going to save my life.’ And it did. It made my life.”

How close does he still feel to that teenager who found himself at the Everyman in Liverpool? The teenager who made his TV debut in One Summer a few years later.

“He feels very close. Sometimes it’s very distant. Sometimes it’s like somebody else. But at the moment he’s quite close. He comes and goes. And not just him, but the five-year-old me. They come at different times. I welcome that. I used to push that away because it’s tinged with a nostalgic sadness. But now I see them as me. It’s all me.

“Obviously, we all have a battle with time and what time means. But today I can look at One Summer and think, ‘God, that’s the start of that journey.’”

We talk about some of his stops along the way. State of Play is the one that got him known in LA, he says. “Blackpool is the one where I sort of got a chance to be funny. And I remember reading it and thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ But the minute I think it’s too embarrassing then you go, ‘That means I’ve got to do it.’ Singing and dancing. He was a monstrous part. But he was just outrageously funny and then every so often he bursts into Ooh La La La by the Faces.”

Talking about embarrassment, umm, David, about Basic Instinct 2. Here’s the thing. Can we really hate a film that saw Sharon Stone and Stan Collymore in the same scene?

“Stan,” he says, laughing. ”I remember seeing Stan on the first day and he was very, very nervous and he said, ‘Do you have any advice?’ I said, ‘No, just get on with it.’

“He was such a magnificent specimen of a man. He had a watch on that Elton John would have been embarrassed to wear, it was so blingy.

“Actually, I used to be, ‘Basic Instinct 2, oh my God.’ But I learnt so much on that job – how to duck and dive, how to protect yourself, how to have fun in the middle of madness.”

The Walking Dead, of course, is the part David Morrissey says he’s most recognised for. “It was a huge show. It was the number one show in the world for a bit. Game of Thrones and then us. The amount of people who saw that show is mega and when I go around the world people see me for that.

“And sometimes people come up to me and say they think I was brilliant in Our Friends in the North and I wasn’t in it, but I say thanks very much. I’ll take any praise. If they think I’m Gina McKee, that’s fine.”

The Singapore Grip begins on ITV on Sunday, September 13 at 9pm