Nobody who sees this is england forgets Vicky McClure’s first appearance as Lol in a hurry. In Shane Meadows’ 2006 skinhead drama, set in the hot summer of 1983, Thomas Turgoose’s bullied schoolboy Shaun, whose father has been killed in the Falklands, has fallen in with a gang led by the charismatic young skinhead Woody (Joe Gilgun). They’ve offered him kinship as well as fashion advice. It’s time to shave his head from him. Brandishing the shears is McClure’s Lol, Ella’s Woody’s girlfriend, in a Fred Perry polo shirt, her own strange lid somewhere between Trappist monk and Paul Weller.
Are you ready, Shaun? she asks, the clippers buzzing. “Are you sure? You don’t seem very confident.”
Delivered casually, it is the guiding question of the whole film. Are any of them ready? Are any of them sure? Even among a memorable ensemble, which also included Stephen Graham’s terrifying older skinhead Combo, McClure stood out. She was tough to the point of brittleness, but loving and empathetic too. She started out as a kind of surrogate big sister for Shaun. But as the drama evolved through several TV series, Lol’s haircut became a shock of peroxide blonde, and her story grew to be one of its most poignant, as the childhood abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her father worked its way painfully to the surface. In 2011 she won the Bafta and a Royal Television Society award for best actress for This Is England ’86.
In a 2014 interview, McClure admitted it had been part of a lifetime. Meadows and McClure had worked together since she was 15. Although many of the lines were improvised, Lol had been many years in the building. “It was, and will always be, by far the most in-depth I’ve ever gone with any character,” McClure told The Observer. The performance strapped booster rockets to McClure’s career, introducing millions to a sensitive and subtle actor who could be tender one minute, savagely violent the next, as in Lol’s devastating climatic scene de ella with her father de ella in This is England’ 86. It’s testament to McClure’s performance that the moment had been brewing since we first met Lol. Everyone waited to see what McClure would do next.
Cops, as it turned out. this is england led directly to an even more famous part, as DI Kate Fleming in Jed Mercurio’s line of duty, which has now gone on – we won’t say dragged – for six series since it first appeared a decade ago. Fleming has some of Lol’s tough-soft dynamic, but without the same fragility. The role doesn’t allow it in the same way. This is a program with so many baddies that it needs one or two people we can rely on. Along with Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), Fleming forms a triumvirate of honest cops tasked with investigating police corruption, a handful of trustworthy figures in a sea of snakes and double-crossers. Another series is in the works: it may yet turn out Kate was bent all along. But it seems unlikely.
In the meantime, McClure has been back on our screens in ITV’s bomb-disposal drama trigger point. It has some of Line of Duty’s carefully wrought tension, perhaps because it has been produced by Mercurio’s production company. McClure plays the bomb technician Lana Washington, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who now works for the Met. We hope these fictional cops have to deal with more explosive devices than their real-life counterparts, or they are not being paid nearly enough. In trigger point bombs are absolutely everywhere.
McClure has said she sees Lana and Kate as being completely different, but squint and you might notice one or two similarities. Fleming and Washington are both highly skilled and calm under pressure. They both believe in their work. They both have stressful personal lives that they don’t let interfere with the job, because that would be both unprofessional and imply that women can’t do both. McClure does what she can, but the explosives are the real stars of trigger point. The rest of the cast have to tiptoe around them, often literally. Any character development for Lana has to fit in around the needs of all the tripwires and pressure plates, which are notoriously sensitive.
line of duty has grown into a whale ratings, and made McClure into one of the most recognizable actors on British TV. She must get stopped for selfies in Tesco as much as anyone on EastEnders. Her de ella Fleming de ella is a likeable and layered character, but nobody would mistake it for the new Almodóvar.
McClure is also in the new Alex Rider, as to spymaster. There’s Without Without, another ITV drama currently in production. Aside from that, not only has there been nothing to match this is england, which was a rare feat of writing and direction as well as ensemble performance, but there has been nothing with comparable ambition. There are only so many ways to say “Yes Sarge”.
If this sounds harsh, it’s only because we crave The Real McClure. Nobody begrudges an actor a payday. There are still far fewer decent parts for women in their late thirties and early forties than there are for men. But McClure must have enough dough to start saying no to the cops and giving us more Lols, which is to say detailed work with auteurs, where her character is less beholden to the needs of a tortuous, cliffhanger-driven plot. If you play the same kind of cop for too long, eventually people will only see you as a cop. At 38, McClure ought to slough off the stab vest and spread her wings, just as Cumberbatch stopped doing Sherlock when Hollywood came calling, and Olivia Colman smoothly ceased to be Sophie from peep-show. Actors ought to treat the police with the same caution as the rest of us: be grateful for what they provide, but remain vigilant all the same.