Martin Freeman’s teenage obsessions: ‘I still think that rude-boy skinhead look is hard to beat’

The Hobbit actor, who is back on TV in the sitcom Breeders, recalls sharp dressing on a budget, discovering Public Enemy and how Michael Caine got him into film

The Jam, Public Enemy and the Fall

The first music I latched on to was British punk – the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Jam. I just loved the power, the rawness and the rudeness. You had to turn it down when your dad came in the room; your parents were supposed to hate it. Bob Marley and the Wailers and Linton Kwesi Johnson became a religion alongside the Catholicism I was taught in school. From 17, I was a little hip-hop head, mad on Jungle Brothers, Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. I was obsessed with politics in that way you are as a teenager – when you actually know nothing.

I’m not a particularly knowledgable fan of the Fall, but I loved hearing their early stuff via my older brothers (I’m the youngest of five). I thought this bored Manc with this slightly aggressive snarl was great. I like hearing accents in music. I remember hearing Ian Dury for the first time and thinking: “Jesus Christ!” Not everyone can sound like Rod Stewart. I’m not sure there has to be a template for what a rock’n’roll singer sounds like anyway. You’d want Mark E Smith to like you even though he would really hate you. I have often thought that about John Lydon. I would love to say hello to him, but he’d hate me, just on principle.

Secondhand mod clothes

Like many people, my love of clothes was kickstarted by wanting to emulate my favourite pop stars. I wanted to look like Jerry Dammers from the Specials: a weird early-80s version of late-60s fashion when mods had turned into skinheads. I still think that rude-boy skinhead look is hard to beat. When other people were saving up for sensible things such as driving lessons, I was spending what little money I had on records and clothes.

The Specials in 1979
Sharp dressers … the Specials in 1979. Photograph: Sunshine International/Rex/Shutterstock

There was no way in a million years that my mum was going to buy me a Sergio Tacchini top or a Kappa tracksuit, so I would go around charity shops looking for secondhand mod clothes. There was a certain type of knitwear, corduroys and button-down Fred Perry and Ben Sherman polo shirts that you don’t see a lot in charity shops now because the people they originally belonged to would be so old. Plus, secondhand became vintage in the late 90s when wearing dead people’s clothes wasn’t considered very glamorous any more.

The Style Council

The Style Council in 1985
The Style Council in 1985 (from left): Paul Weller, DC Lee and Mick Talbot. Photograph: Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns

The Style Council came at a crucial time in my development as a little lefty kid. There was something about the band’s sensibility that put them even in front of the Jam. And they looked fantastic. I had been dressing like Terry Hall from the Specials from when I was nine, with a bowl cut and a Fred Perry. Now I was wearing white jeans, a blazer and loafers. I even had a big old wedge haircut.

I saw the Style Council when I was 17, in 1987, at the Hammersmith Odeon. I went with my brother Jamie to their last ever gig at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1989, where they didn’t play any of their hits and just played a funk-based house workout for an hour and a half, because they had fallen in love with Chicago house music. It was a very Paul Weller move: “Just as you like me, I’m going to alienate 85% of you.” The audience were largely discontented, but I thought it was brilliant. As a Weller fan, it’s great to think that I was actually at that last mental Style Council gig.

1960s Manchester United

I was football-mad from the age of seven and played at every opportunity. As a good southern boy from Hampshire, I was Man U obsessed, in spite of living hundreds of miles from Old Trafford. I knew the history of Manchester United from 1878, and I was obsessed with 60s Man U. I would dream up teams and dreamed of playing, even though I was clearly never good enough. I am not exactly a tall man so – as you can imagine – I was a pretty small kid. As an eight-year-old, my oversized Man U shirt and massive shorts made me look like Stanley Matthews.

The romance has never really left me. It was like a way of life. I would buy Shoot! and Match! magazines every week and watch every available game. My son is a teenage Spurs fan and he’s like a kid in a candy store; there’s football on all day, every day. When I was a kid, you were like a thirsty man in a desert, desperately waiting for the next game.

George Best of Manchester United in action in 1969
George Best of Manchester United in action in 1969. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

Michael Caine in Sleuth

I remember really clocking Michael Caine was when I watched Sleuth on video after someone had recorded it off the telly. It was the first time I associated his name with how he looks and sounds. There is something about him that is so reachable and accessible. I thought he was great, so I went back and watched his 60s and 70s films, movies such as Zulu, The Italian Job, Alfie and Get Carter. Educating Rita came out when I was 11 or 12 and I loved that as well.

Michael Caine has obviously had stick over the years, but when he’s good, he’s fantastic. Like the best actors, he makes it look easy. When he moved to Hollywood and wasn’t cast well, he looked – by his own admission – like he didn’t give a shit. But he has always been one of my favourites. He is one of the reasons – however consciously – I became an actor.

Youth theatre

I was really into squash so assumed I was going to become a squash player, but I fell out of love with it. I liked showing off: we definitely had a performance gene in the family. At Catholic school, we did a musical of David and Goliath called The Goliath Jazz. I played David; had I played Goliath, they’d never have found anyone else small enough to play David. I wasn’t Robert De Niro but I knew I could sing and perform, so I joined the Youth Action Theatre on Monday evenings in Hampton in west London. This bloke called Eric Yardley, who was nearly 70, ran it.

My family were very supportive. My mum was quite theatrical; she was one of 14 children, so they were always putting on plays. The theatre group went on tour to all these far-flung places such as the Soviet Union and East Berlin. At 17, I did a play called The Roses of Eyam, where this Derbyshire village quarantines itself during the plague. I played the village idiot. I thought: “I’ve really cracked something here,” although perhaps I was just being typecast at an early age.

• Breeders series 2, starring Martin Freeman, is available on Sky One and Now


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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