A maths teacher at Lee Ingleby’s state school warned him he’d never make it as an actor. For the past couple of decades, Ingleby has been busily proving him wrong.
With a string of television credits to his name, including the critically acclaimed family drama The A Word (in which he played the father of an autistic boy), Inspector George Gently (as George Bacchus) and Line of Duty (playing Nick Huntley), there’s no doubt the lad from Burnley has made good. There’s also been film work, including roles in Master and Commander and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and stage performances in National Theatre productions.
All this week he has been starring alongside Hermione Norris in a four-part ITV drama, Innocent, playing a father released from prison on an apparent technicality after being convicted of murdering his wife. It’s been described as a “suspenseful thriller”, the sort of dark, gritty stuff that Ingleby, 42, seems drawn to. That said, he also does the voice of Bob the Builder, so there’s no typecasting this one.
We meet near the top of the ITV building on London’s South Bank in a room offering dizzying views of the city Ingleby settled in back in the mid-nineties, knowing not a single soul there.
“It was a culture shock because I’d never lived in a big city,” he recalls, in an accent that has not lost its Lancashire edges. “I didn’t know how it worked and couldn’t understand why no one would give me the time of day on the Tube. It’s a thing you very quickly adapt to, I suppose.”
Living in a small shared bedsit in Chiswick, he trained at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art courtesy of a grant from Lancashire County Council, without which he could never have afforded to go. Although he’d seldom been happy behind a school desk with a textbook before him, a career in acting had never occurred to him until his drama teacher handed him the prospectus for a local drama college and urged him to apply.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I just couldn’t concentrate as a kid. I hadn’t even entertained the thought [of becoming an actor].”
This, despite his enjoyment of amateur dramatics, which he did as a hobby with his father and one of his two older sisters. “I was 11 and they said ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, alright then,’” he says, slipping into a moody teenage voice.
“I was totally shy but weirdly able to get up on stage and perform. I was a bit spotty, wore specs and had greasy curtains to hide my face. I wasn’t the ideal candidate for drama school.”
Fortunately for him, his drama teacher thought otherwise. “When my teacher said ‘You should think about doing acting,’ I said: ‘Oh God, yeah! What do I do?’ And it just all fell into place, really.”
Growing up in an end-of-terrace house, the youngest of three children to a mother who worked as an auxiliary nurse on a geriatric ward and an engineer father, it could quite easily not have done so. The last few years have seen the meteoric rise of British actors from public school backgrounds: from Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston (all Old Etonians), to Benedict Cumberbatch and Laurence Fox (both Old Harrovians), our acting establishment, it’s been noted, is currently not a little upper-crust.
Working class actors, meanwhile, are feared by some to be a disappearing breed. So is it genuinely harder to make it in acting if you don’t have the old school tie? In Ingleby’s view, it’s more about money than connections.
“It’s just affording to go [to drama school]. Living in London is not cheap,” he points out.
“A friend of mine I was at college with got into the same drama school as me a year later and the council didn’t give out any grants that year so he couldn’t go. He was talented but didn’t get the opportunity, so I was lucky there. It’s not a class war, it’s just about opportunity. That’s where it’s hard. There’s talk of how there aren’t enough working class roles, but I think they are there.”
He’s snapped up a fair few himself, after all. Brought up on a television diet of Bread and Brookside, Alan Bleasdale drama serials and Our Friends in the North, he describes his own work as “not glitzy at all” and prefers “to sit in front of the telly with my girlfriend and my cat and have a night in” than to hang out at showbiz parties.
He’s on strict orders not to speak about his girlfriend, though. “She’ll kill me for talking about it,” he admits. All I can extract on the subject is she works in the City, they’ve been together several years and he hopes to start a family one day. “She’s very anonymous,” he says mysteriously. “I can’t name names.”
He’s evidently more comfortable talking about fictional relationships — those in the dramas he has starred in — than his own. Especially those in The A Word, a show described in a Telegraph review as “an unalloyed triumph.”
“I was really affected by it,” he says. “I loved the family I was playing and loved talking to families that influenced what we were doing, to the point that I reached out to the National Autistic Society and asked if there was anything I could do. I just wanted to say I care.”
He is still involved with the charity now. “Pete [Bowker, the writer of the series] must have felt immensely proud because if you can change someone’s view [of autism] just for a second, it’s really worthwhile.”
Ingleby has had a stab at writing himself — but “unsuccessfully”, he says. “I’ve got a few stories in my head, but when you give it a go you realise how brilliant writers are and how things are meticulously planned. It gives you an appreciation of how hard it is.”
Since we’ve covered the thorny topic of class, I probe him for this thoughts on the gender pay gap in acting. He immediately highlights the reported difference in remuneration between The Crown actors Claire Foy and Matt Smith. A producer revealed in March that Foy, who starred as the Queen in the hugely popular Netflix series, had been paid less than Smith, who played Prince Philip, because Smith was better known.
“It’s a funny one because she was the out-and-out lead by a long way so she should have been a tier above really, but [Smith] was banking on the fact he’d done as much as he’d done and I suppose his fee was at a certain price,” reflects Ingleby. “What they should have done was gone: ‘Ok, well we’ll match that with Claire.’”
Perhaps they should bring him in to sort out future pay negotiations between his fellow TV stars. Except that clearly he’s happiest in front of the camera, doing the only job he’s ever wanted to do. Not that it comes without its moments of worry, of course.
“You get bouts of time off and your insecurity gets the better of you,” he says. “You think, ‘What if I never work again, what do I do then? [The insecurity] is horrible. I don’t think it ever goes away. You’ve got to have a suit of armour.”
• Innocent concludes tonight on ITV and is available on the ITV Player