This year’s Norwich Film Festival kicked off in style with a screening of Danny Boyle’s deliciously dark 1994 debut film Shallow Grave, followed by star Christopher Eccleston in conversation with The Guardian’s chief film critic Peter Bradshaw. The first actor to step into the role when the series was rebooted in 2005, a certain percentage of the audience undoubtedly attended to hear him speak about his experience in Doctor Who. Preceding the event with Shallow Grave was a stroke of inspiration as it introduced a completely different side to this extraordinary actor to those who might only know him as the Doctor. A noir-ish tale of greed and jealousy with no-one you can trust and everything to lose, Shallow Grave is wonderfully nasty. Eccleston shines as the comparatively moral David who soon becomes trapped in a downward spiral of murder and madness.
Eccleston spoke about his working-class upbringing in Salford, his parents’ love of literature, and their support of his ambition to attend drama school. As a young actor he was inspired by the greats of the British social realist movement – particularly Albert Finney’s performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He was most passionate when speaking about how it’s actually become harder for young working-class actors to break into an industry dominated by Oxbridge as costs increase and prejudice prevents them being offered classical roles. He lamented that working-class actors like himself, Sean Bean and Maxine Peake won’t emerge as they are excluded by lack of opportunity, and acknowledged that it’s even harder for working class women and people of colour.
He highlighted some of the projects he’s proudest of, including Hillsborough, The Leftovers and The A Word, as well as the challenges of playing Macbeth on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also discussed with remarkable candour his time in Hollywood and unashamedly taking roles for the money, such as villains in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Thor: The Dark World. ‘I was a whore,’ he admitted, with a smile. While his experience playing the Doctor sadly seemed to be negative overall due to disputes with the BBC, he responded to questions about Doctor Who appreciatively and expressed enthusiasm for Jodie Whittaker taking on the role. In one of the more poignant moments, he described one of his young children asking him ‘My friend says you’re the best Doctor, does that mean you make people feel better?’.