Noel Clarke: ‘Anger gets in the way of getting things done’

The actor on his Notting Hill childhood, his role in Fisherman’s Friends – and the best advice he’s ever been given

Noel Clarke has grown up at Uli in Notting Hill. The actor first came to Michael Lim’s restaurant 20 years ago, along with his girlfriend, at the invitation of director Rikki Beadle-Blair who had taken a chance on casting the unknown Clarke in his debut TV role. The Szechuan chilli prawns and perfect calamari seemed good portents and he and that girlfriend – Iris Da-Silva, now his wife and mother of his three boys – have kept coming back.

During the years that Clarke was writing and starring in his landmark film Kidulthood and its sequel Adulthood – more than a decade ago, before his boys were born – he would sit in Uli with friends and collaborators until the early hours (“Michael never minded,” he says. “He just sat at the next table with a glass of wine and let us get on with it.”). And as Clarke, now 43, has developed to become a director and producer as well as an actor and writer, the restaurant has matured into sleeker middle age with him. Its original incarnation was on All Saints Road in North Kensington, a few streets away from the council block in the shadow of Grenfell Tower in which Clarke grew up. A few years ago, like Clarke, the restaurant migrated to the leafier south of the borough, nearer Holland Park. We met there for lunch on one of those freakishly warm February days.

Clarke had come from Dagenham, over in east London, where he had been on set all morning (“working with a female actor and an ‘intimacy coach’”) for the second series of Bulletproof, the buddy cop drama on Sky in which he co-stars with the show’s co-creator Ashley Walters. He was early and smiling, a self-contained presence in a designer T-shirt. Before he was an actor Clarke was a personal trainer and he still works out three or four times a week and also does boxing and jujitsu sessions. He’s never drunk alcohol except for a glass of champagne when his sons were born, or smoked – but he knows his way around the menu here, and orders dumplings and fried rice and seaweed as well as the old favourite prawns and squid.

Lunch with Noel Clarke
Noel and Tim shared Clockwise from top left: Szechuan chilli prawns £15; Thai lobster crackers £4; edamame £4.50; crispy seaweed £7; crispy calamari £10; egg fried rice £5.50; sweet and sour pork £13; wok-fried daikon cakes with bean sprouts £8; prawn and chive dumplings £7; Chinese broccoli £10.50 Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

We chat about his role in Fisherman’s Friends, a feelgood film based on the true story of the eponymous singing group, Cornish lifeboatmen who found a degree of fame after they signed a deal with Universal Records (think Local Hero in Port Isaac). Clarke is cast as the music executive who turns the group down, an American in a slick suit. Seeing him as a character actor is something of a departure for those who know him best for the moody ex-con Sam Peel in his “urban noir” London trilogy that concluded with Brotherhood, three years ago – but as he points out he’s better known to other audiences from the 2002-2004 revival of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet or Doctor Who (in which he played Mickey Smith, the boyfriend of Billie Piper’s Rose, for five years).

“When we were making Bulletproof I got a lot of messages saying, ‘Seeing you as a policeman is going to be weird,’” he says. “But I often think of some advice Tim Spall gave me when we were on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: ‘Always remember – it’s not you.’”

That was a useful nugget for someone like Clarke who hadn’t gone to drama school. Though he won an Olivier award in his stage debut back in 2003, he still feels he only “got good as an actor” about three years ago, with Brotherhood. “I was cool in Kidulthood and Adulthood. In Brotherhood, I wasn’t.” He smiles. “There is a big temptation when you are writing a script to make yourself cool. But I deliberately wrote myself as the guy who the kids laugh at, who is losing his hair and still saying ‘blud’.”

When Clarke started writing the first of the trilogy, Kidulthood, which offered a raw vantage on British youth, one of his inspirations was Spike Lee. The pair met for the first time at the Baftas a couple of weeks ago, which had been a thrill. “Spike Lee proved to me that it was possible to write about the place you grew up in,” Clarke says. “I grew up in Notting Hill and I thought people only wanted to see the other [Richard Curtis] version of it. I watched that film and I liked it but I remember the camera panning across at one point and waiting for my council block to appear. It stopped before it got to me. I lived maybe a five-minute walk from Hugh Grant’s blue door.”

The character he created for himself in Kidulthood – who ends up killing a schoolmate in a street fight – was a kind of shadow life for him, he says. “He is 100% a life that could have been mine. A lot of my good friends went to jail. I was always around it, but never involved in it.”

When I ask Clarke what made him different, he suggests that he was always self-sufficient emotionally so peer pressure “couldn’t threaten me”. An only child, from about the age of six he let himself in and out at home, got his meals, walked the mile to school and back while his mother worked long shifts as a nurse: “Stuff that would get you into trouble with social services now, but which was a necessity so we could eat.” On those nights alone he became hooked on films on TV, started handwriting scripts in his teens. He was making notes on The Vagina Monologues, he says, “when my friends were still laughing at the word vagina”.

Still, one of the things that struck him when he spent two days helping out after the Grenfell Tower fire – having got his mum, who lived close by, to safety – was that had one or other of his early auditions gone a different way he could well have been living in that block. One old friend was the first fireman who went in; another lost his 12-year-old niece in the blaze.

You know talking to Clarke that he was never going to leave his career to luck, though. The spirit that got him writing the films that he wanted to act in still fires him on. When he was trying to sell the idea of Bulletproof to production companies he would hear stuff that he got used to hearing 20 years ago: “People don’t like me saying this but I literally sat in meetings with people saying to me: ‘We love this idea, but one of the two leads has to be white.’”

It was people that knew him, mostly, who thought they could be honest about how they couldn’t sell “two black guys” in eastern Europe or wherever. Sky, the only bidder for the show, was vindicated when it became the channel’s most-watched drama. “A black middle-class family on TV,” Clarke says. “When did you see that, in a British show, even now? The wife’s a lawyer. Husband a detective. Children well spoken. We are proud of that.”

Does the prejudice make him angry still?

“No, not any more. It is what it is. Anger gets in the way of getting things done. Now someone puts up a wall in front of me and I think, where do I hire a bulldozer?”

His solution to rejection has always been to make the change himself. “How do you get around the gatekeepers? You just become a gatekeeper yourself.”

Does he ever think he takes on too much? He laughs. “A friend summed me up recently,” he says. “She said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you are in 10 rooms at the same time. You always want to know what is in the 11th.’ That’s me.”

To prove the point he checks his phone for the time, apologies for having to run, scoops up the last calamari, and calls to see where his cab is. What does the afternoon hold?

“I have a deadline on a movie script tomorrow so I will finish the draft on that, and then I will go and pick up the kids who are at my mum’s – half term,” he laughs.

“I’m the person if he hasn’t got a list of things to do, will go mad.”

Does he ever stop and smell the roses?

“Only as I’m running past,” he says.

Fisherman’s Friends is in cinemas now


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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