Adrian Bower does not look like your average West End star. His shoulder-length hair is unkempt, unruly and a little on the greasy side, like if John Lennon had worked at McDonalds. His chin is covered in stubble, but not of the George Michael designer look, more the just got out of bed after a three day bender and can’t find a razor ilk. He won’t mind this being pointed out, as it is all part of the characterisation for the role he is currently playing in Elling. Matthew Amer met the dubious looking Bower on a rare sunny day in St James’s Park.
Bower has had a busy day. He has just recorded a voiceover for the Dog’s Trust and is running late having been engulfed by traffic. The thought of chatting in his warm, muggy, oppressive dressing room is enough to drive him to coffee and a patch of grass in St James’s Park. Interviewing outside also gives Bower the chance to indulge in a quick fag in these days of smoking bans.
St James’s Park is only five minutes walk from the Trafalgar Studios, where Bower is currently starring opposite John Simm in Elling, the tale of two psychiatric patients who are given the chance to reintegrate into society but have to prove that they are capable of being ‘normal’.
Bower plays Kjell Bjarne, whose name is pronounced entirely differently to how it is spelt. “I think one of my first impressions when I read [Elling] was that he had to have that child-like quality, an innocent quality,” Bower says of his wide-eyed character with a passion for food and sex. “There was just this deep need for love. He’s just got an amazing wonder at things around him and doesn’t quite get it. He’s constantly interested in trying to find out more. I think the overwhelming thing for him is he just wants to love someone and be loved; it’s not something he’s had. That, maybe, is as much, really, as is wrong with him.”
The production was originally only intended to run for four weeks at the Bush, but was so successful at the West London venue that it extended before announcing a transfer. Had Bower known at the start of the run that it would dominate much of his year, he may have had second thoughts about committing to it, as he was always worried that long runs would bore him. Instead, he is discovering new things about the show with every performance, but is finding the variability of live performance slightly frustrating.
“You have some nights when [the performance] just flies and it’s amazing,” he confides, “and other nights when it isn’t quite like that. I suppose magic in theatre is just not something that happens every night of the week.”
Magic may not happen every night of the week, but, for the performers in Elling, some things are nailed-on certainties. Much of Elling revolves around food – a struggle leaving the flat to eat for the first time, ordering pizza and having to answer the door – all of which has to be eaten on a nightly basis, twice on matinee days. “I’m sick of hotdogs and pizza, and I don’t care if I don’t see either one again in my entire life,” Bower laughs. “God knows what it’s doing to our insides eating those things every night.”
"I suppose magic in theatre is just not something that happens every night of the week"
It could have been worse, there is a scene in which the pair goes out for pork and gravy; initially both Bower and Simm would have had to have devoured that too, but the scene was too long so the eating was cut. “God knows what size I’d be now,” says Bower, groaning at the thought.
Bower talks with real warmth about the earlier run at the Bush, though after four weeks in the intimate venue, the week’s extension was a little uncomfortable as the walls started to close in around the performers: “You feel so under scrutiny, so close and in your face that you start feeling a little claustrophobic.” The Trafalgar Studio 1 has reinvigorated the production, as it is “very intimate, but at the same time there’s space to play”.
Though he had regularly appeared on stage and on television previously, Bower became a recognisable face as PE teacher Brian Steadman in Channel 4’s mildly controversial comic drama Teachers. When it was first aired, there was a murmur of discomfort from some areas of the education community that it portrayed teachers in an unprofessional light – drinking after work, smoking around the back of the building, generally not being the purest of the pure – a horrendous accusation. There were other reports that suggested the uptake in teacher training applications increased when it hit the screens.
Either way, the show was one that caught the imagination, making it an almost instant hit. The downside of such success is that, though Teachers is no longer being made, it is still being shown on numerous channels and Bower can’t leave the character behind. “I don’t think we actually realised that would be the case when we were doing it,” he says, having talked to fellow ‘Teacher’ Navin Chowdhry about just this topic earlier in the day, “but that’s the way it’s gone. Things can be shown now many times, and in a way you can’t get away from it as easily as you used to. I’ll be associated with that tracksuit for God knows how long!”
Teachers was filmed when Bower, along with many of the show’s cast, was in his late 20s. Filming in Bristol, with a few like-minded colleagues, made it a particularly enjoyable experience, but it is the more serious work that really seems to interest the actor.
In David Thacker’s film Faith, Bower played Paul, a policeman working at the heart of the miners’ strikes. It was a project that saw the production team working with the local South Yorkshire ex-mining community in workshops and as extras to create the most authentic piece of work possible. Bower describes it as “the kind of job that leaves you scarred afterwards, but in a good way. It’s something you’ll just never forget.”
"I’ll be associated with that tracksuit for God knows how long"
“That is kind of why you get into this job,” he continues, “to be able to delve so deeply into something and then produce something that you hope is authentic and will make people sit up and take notice. It has to be said, I don’t think that many people actually watched [Faith]; maybe the climate now is that people aren’t so interested in things with a political edge.” His voice, usually buoyant and, like Kjell Bjarne, optimistic, is noticeably coloured with regret.
The accusation of slipping under the radar could not be aimed at another of Bower’s projects, the Michael Sheen-led drama Dirty Filthy Love, which followed the life of a man struggling to deal with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s syndrome that made such an impact when it was screened in 2004. “It was one of those jobs,” says Bower, “that as soon as it started you could tell it was going to be good. On the first day filming with Michael, and with Adrian Shergold’s direction, you could tell there was something going to be a bit special.”
The same could be said for the 2005 BBC Four remake of The Quatermass Experiment, which starred a host of theatre names – Adrian Dunbar, David Tennant and Isla Blair also appeared – in 100 minutes of totally live televised drama. “It was like the actors’ Grand Prix,” laughs Bower, “people were tuning in just to watch the car crashes, and there were some. Combining doing theatre with screen is quite an amazing thing, and the adrenalin buzz that day was something else, I have to say; it was incredible. Not quite so good when I dried on a line. All I saw was millions of people sitting in front of their television sets all over the country!”
Bower is a friendly, laid back guy. As we chat he lights and relights a rolled up fag and never seems to get to the cappuccino that slowly goes cold by his side. While his CV boasts real quality, both on stage and screen, it also has a few of the less taxing roles that you expect to see. Bower, though always striving for the interesting work, is philosophical in his approach to the industry. “You try and do the stuff you want to do, obviously, but acting is a tough business and obviously there are times when you just have to pay the rent. Of course, there are times that jobs pass you by that you want, and someone else gets it, but that’s the way it goes. I was always in it for the long haul and I want to be proud of the work I’ve done at the end.”
Elling, with its universally glowing reviews and its West End transfer, is one of those pieces of work that he will undoubtedly look back on with pride. Whether his body will view it favourably is another matter. As we part he is off to a sandwich bar to grab a salad. Hopefully it will counteract the effect of that night’s hotdog and pizza.