Crime and drama – Glass talks whodunnits with actor Gwilym Lee

What makes Britain, Britain? Bacon butties, a cuppa and roast dinners – certainly – but whodunits are my British institution of choice, and none so more than Midsomer Murders and its eerie theremin-based theme tune. More than a year in, stage and screen actor 31-year-old Gwilym Lee (Restless, Fresh Meat, The Tourist) is cementing his name in that institution, now in its 17th season, playing DS Charlie Nelson alongside Neil Dudgeon’s DCI John Barnaby. Gwilym talks about the wonderful eccentrics who live in small villages, going to the Cotswolds without a bodyguard and the role we can see him in next: the boyfriend of Jennifer Nicholson, a victim of the 7/7 bombings, in A Song For Jenny.

Did you grow up watching whodunnits?
My family and I used to watch Cracker or Morse, those sort of programmes that take time to play out – it was a good opportunity to discuss it all. It’s always been a family thing to sit down and watch whodunits, even though we didn’t watch much TV. Whodunits are good, social viewing.

Did you watch Midsomer Murders back then, too?
Yes. It’s almost a television repertory company of British actors. It’s fun to see which faces you recognise.

Gwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van VlietGwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You’ve had a year and a bit now to cut your teeth in acting for telly with Midsomer Murders, has it all been plain sailing?
I had big shoes to fill – my predecessor [Jason Hughes who played DS Ben Jones] had been in the series for seven years – so I was quite wary of being sensitive towards the people who have been in the show longer than me. This year, coming back to it, I’ve felt so much more confident with it and I feel more ownership – that it is my part. It’s been lovely coming back to familiar faces in the cast and crew – some who have been doing the job for five to fifteen years – where it’s a real family feel.

Has the way you’ve tackled your character changed much from last year to this year?
The rapport between my character, DS Charlie Nelson, and Neil’s character, DCI Barnaby, has settled in a little bit. The shows that we filmed last year were about the two characters getting to know each other, working each other out. The characters were doing it as we were doing it as actors in real life. Life’s imitating art this year, too, in that we know each other more and are more aware of the way the other works as an actor and as a character.

That chemistry is playing out in this series. We’re aware of each other’s humour a little bit more and can wind each other up in a friendly way. As characters, we are both aware of what we have to offer: I have admiration for his brains and intellect, and he recognises that I’m more physical and can jump over fences chasing after crooks.

Gwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van VlietGwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

In the beginning DS Nelson was a bit bumbling, calling DCI Barnaby “gov” and not doing things the DCI expects of him. Is it easier to play a confident character, or one who gets things wrong?
It’s fun to play someone who gets things wrong. Playing a confident character has its own challenges because sometimes you, as the actor, don’t feel that confident and you’ve just got to sell it without coming across as arrogant. Maybe bumbling is easier to play because I’m a bit bumbling.

Are you and DS Nelson similar in any way?
In some ways. I realised when I signed up for the role that I could potentially be doing it for quite a while. So I decided not to make any character choices that were too extreme. I didn’t want to get to a stage, a few years down the line, where I would forget who the character is. I wanted to keep him close to me in his experience and his background. But obviously he’s a responsible detective sergeant and I’m an irresponsible actor, so there’s a contrast in that.

Gwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van VlietGwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

I love how you describe Midsomer Murders as “in the vein of Agatha Christie, with lots of those wonderful eccentrics who live in villages”. Have you ever lived in a small village?
No I haven’t actually. I grew up just north of Birmingham in a town called Sutton Coldfield. I never have lived in any of those rural areas, but I think they’re universal and very recognisable. I think the things that define them,  like that small community feel where everyone knows everyone’s business, the fact of going into the village shop as an outsider, as I always was visiting these places, and everyone knows that you’re an outsider. There’s something about being in a city that gives you anonymity.

The beauty of Midsomer Murders is that everyone knows everyone’s business, and yet there’s still these secrets that people carry and that are exposed throughout an episode. All of the characters have their own secrets, whether it’s affairs, financial issues or a familial history they want to hide. It’s that contrast between people thinking they know everything about each other, but actually they don’t, which makes it quite interesting.

Are you recognised more on the street now?
Not particularly. I live in north London and I think that people are used to seeing famous people, not just semi-recognisable people from TV. Maybe if I was in the Cotswolds I would be more hounded – I couldn’t go without a bodyguard [laughs].

Gwilym Lee. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

What can we expect to see you in next year?
I’m currently working on a one-off drama for BBC1 called A Song For Jenny. This year is the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings and this story follows the experience of a family when they find out that their daughter has been killed in the Edgware Road Tube bombing.

It follows their story from the day of the bombings to the day of the funeral, and explores family and friends’ feelings of grief. I play the boyfriend of this character. It’s a real departure from Midsummer Murders, but it’s also a huge responsibility because it’s a real-life story and family. The film is an adaptation of a memoir [by Julie Nicholson, Jenny’s mother].

by Natalie Egling

All images by Justin van Vliet

Watch Midsomer Murders – The Dagger Club    January 28, 2015 at 8pm on ITV
Other episodes from Midsomer Murders, Season 17: Murder By Magic, February 4;  The Ballad Of Midsomer County, Feb 11