Noel Clarke: 'Would I play Doctor Who? There's a conversation to be had'

He has played a pivotal role in bringing black drama to British screens – but Noel Clarke must still battle for recognition. As his hit cop show Bulletproof returns, he talks about fighting prejudice, returning to the Tardis – and saying no to America

“I would love to stay out of the papers,” says Noel Clarke. “I don’t even like speaking to journalists.” It’s not what an interviewer wants to hear, but in this case it is understandable. Whether he’s pointing out his omission from a movie poster, or simply finding himself the subject of an article about how the 45-year-old has maintained his six-pack, Clarke’s name is never out of the headlines for long.

His aversion to the press does perhaps explain why he has embraced social media – despite Clarke’s belief that Twitter contains “the worst of humanity”. “I love all the platforms I have, even if Twitter can be vile,” he says. “I’m older and wiser now. You have to be really offensive or catch me on a bad day to get me to bite back. When I was younger I bit back all the time. People would review stuff and I’d be like, ‘I’m coming in to find you.’” He laughs – although it’s clear that though age might have calmed him, there’s still much that he finds grating about the industry he works in.

The star of hit films Kidulthood and Adulthood and a former Doctor Who companion, Clarke has been a familiar face in British TV and film for two decades. Even so, he has not always got his dues. Take that poster, for the 2019 romcom Fisherman’s Friends. It featured six white co-stars, including James Purefoy and Daniel Mays. Although Clarke’s name was up there, his face was nowhere to be seen. When he raised this, and the fact that none of the cast had spoken up for him, much of the reaction online was condemnatory.

“When you look at the poster, I’m probably one of the people most known, right? So let’s take black out the equation for a second. You just got the name of this person who’s got Baftas and Oliviers. He’s got the No 1 TV show [on Sky] at the time. When you look at that person, if they are white, how are they not on the poster? Everyone would be asking: ‘Where’s so and so?’ People turn it straight into a race thing. Like I’m race-baiting. But no. Just think about it.”

Clarke tweeted about it and several papers picked it up. “I had one [co-star] text me and be like, ‘Take that down, you’ve offended me.’ I just said, ‘Well, you can go fuck yourself.’ So everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” However, says Clarke, many of the other actors called him afterwards with more positive responses, saying it had made them do some thinking. And he’s happy to be the one to teach them, “It’s not blaming them,” he says. “It just sparked conversation.”

It’s a role that Clarke has had to fulfil with weary regularity throughout his career, changing minds, breaking new ground, making space for himself in an industry that boasts few successful black actors who’ve remained working primarily in the UK. Unlike many of his contemporaries who moved to the US, Clarke’s response was to make vehicles for himself to star in – and he’s continued to do that for 15 years.

“For whatever reason, I got lucky,” he says, of the 2006 film Kidulthood. “I got something made when a lot of other people weren’t. And then I got to direct when a lot of other people hadn’t. I’ve been offered American things and I just don’t want to go over there. I’ve never wanted to live there. I love the country to visit on holiday. But, y’know, guns and stuff – it’s just not for me.”

So Clarke has kept working constantly – writing, producing, directing, acting – to maintain his career. “It’s by necessity,” he laughs. “Jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve had to be someone that’s done everything. If I hadn’t, I would not be talking to you right now.”

It’s a lesson he learned early on. His first TV role was in Rikki Beadle-Blair’s groundbreaking Channel 4 series Metrosexuality, which brought a healthy dose of humour and racial diversity to the Queer As Folk formula, but never got the plaudits it deserved. “It was way ahead of its time,” says Clarke, who played the son of two gay men in the series, which launched in 1999. “It was very scary for someone like me, coming from the area I came from” – he was born in Notting Hill in London – “because people weren’t very accepting of shows like that. It was a big deal. But I was like, ‘I need to understand these things if I’m going to progress in this diverse industry.’ I learned a lot from Rikki. He was a mentor to me and still someone I speak to. He was the antithesis of the sort of people I thought I’d be hanging around with growing up where I grew up.”

When I point out that, despite the critical acclaim and cult following generated by Metrosexuality, Beadle-Blair never went on to enjoy the same opportunities or mainstream success as someone like Russell T Davies, Clarke just smiles. “You said it. Here we are 20 years later and Rikki’s not done anything as big since then. That’s not from a lack of talent, I can assure you.”

It’s clear how important Beadle-Blair was to him, and Clarke has taken on a similar mentoring role with young people today. “If not for that man, I’m not where I am today, these kids aren’t here right now,” he says as he gestures behind him to where his children are home-schooling diligently. “If I can give those opportunities to other people, then that’s what I’m going to do, and that’s what I have been doing. It’s so important. I’ve given so many people from similar backgrounds to me opportunities in this business – whether they remember it or not. Go back to their first movie, my name will be involved somewhere. That all comes from the way Rikki was with me. Maybe I’m not here to be Denzel, maybe I’m here to facilitate the next Denzel. Which is sometimes annoying, because maybe I want to be Denzel.” He laughs.

Clarke tends to do much of his work via his own production company, Unstoppable, these days. That includes the hit police action-drama Bulletproof, which has been a ratings smash for Sky, with a record high audience for the first season and more than six million downloads since. He stars alongside Ashley Walters – two black actors playing the lead roles, a rarity in itself, and something he hopes will encourage other networks to take a chance on projects with black British talent at the forefront. The latest edition of the show, shot before the pandemic, is a special, where the two holiday with their families in South Africa.

“It wasn’t on my list of places to go,” he says, and the experience of 10 weeks filming there was clearly a challenge. “I found working over there ... wonderful.” He’s picking his words carefully. “I found the crew that we had amazing. I found the experience of working there delightful. I found the land, the landscape, the things you can see amazing. But the issues with the country were not lost on me, knowing that we were in our apartments, in our gated community, and outside that was a different world for a lot of people.

“It was sad at times just to see the disparity between the haves and have-nots. So we donated to townships and made sure that, when we were in those areas, everyone was treated respectfully and looked after. But I just don’t like it. I don’t see how we can live in a world where there’s such big gaps between people. There shouldn’t be two-year-olds walking half a mile down the street with a bucket to get water in a country that’s got as much money as they do. But that [disparity] is everywhere, not just in South Africa.”

Clarke spent five years on Doctor Who with Billie Piper, and he remembers the show warmly – saying he’d be happy to pop back in again were he asked. But what about the main role? With rumours Jodie Whittaker may be leaving, would he consider being the first black Doctor? “Well, there’s a conversation to be had,” he says, laughing at providing me with some headline-worthy speculation. “There, I said it. ‘Noel Clarke set to return to Doctor Who.’” For someone who doesn’t like talking to the press, he certainly provides good copy.

Bulletproof: South Africa is on Sky One, 20 January, 9pm.

Contributor

Toby Moses

The GuardianTramp

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