Tales of the unexpected
Freeman’s role as the everyman must, surely, encourage citizens to approach him in the supermarket. In the flesh, he is more self-confident than Tim Canterbury and more relaxed than Dr John Watson (and taller than Bilbo, obviously). But he does, indeed, come across as an ordinary fellow with few obvious pretensions.
“Yeah. I think they are more likely to approach somebody like me and assume that I’m their mate,” he says “And that can be frightening. It can be frustrating. People talk to me like they know all about me. They know nothing about me. And that’s how I like it. It’s a kind of madness.”
Having been told how much he wants to keep his private life private, let’s ask him a little more about his private life. He was born in Aldershot and raised in outer London as the son of a naval officer and a hard-working, inspirational mum. His parents split up when he was a child and dad died just a few years later. Left with five kids – of which Martin is the youngest – his mother must have had a real struggle.
“Well. yeah. My parents had already split up by the time he died. So she wasn’t suddenly left with us. But it must have been hard. And I was a sickly child.”
Really? But I had read that he became a top-flight squash player as a teenager.
“I did. Yes. Ha ha! Who’s laughing now? Sometimes, I speak to my missus and say: ‘Yeah, my childhood does sound very Dickensian.’ But we were very loved. My parents were civil with each other and those things are the most important.”
Like so many successful actors, Freeman credits his career to one important mentor. A drama teacher named Eric Yardley lured him towards a youth theatre in Teddington and taught him all the rudiments of acting.
“He died recently and I am always happy to give him credit when I can,” Freeman remarks.
Though he didn’t achieve any class of fame until the new century, Martin was never out of work for long. Following training at Central College of Speech and Drama, he was rapidly propelled into the National Theatre and has ploughed away ever since. He claims – somewhat apologetically – that he has only ever been out of work through his own choice.
The Office was a strange beast. Whatever else you might say about it, you couldn’t reasonably claim it was a creation of the hype machine. Launched with no fanfare on BBC2 in 2001, the slippery comedy slowly evolved into a word-of-mouth phenomenon. One wonders if the cast and crew knew they had something special.
“You can’t guess those things,” he says. “As your own worst critic, if you please yourself that’s a very good place to start. I have done things I’ve loved that only 300 people have seen. With The Office, I loved it from the start. I saw it as being among the closest thing to my taste that I had done. I felt the same about Sherlock. But you never know if these things will find an audience.”
To be in one series that changes television is impressive. To appear in two such beasts constitutes a minor miracle. Sherlock could easily have turned out as a roaring disaster. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss re-imagined Sherlock Holmes – played with mad energy by Benedict Cumberbatch – as a 21st-century neurotic with a whole host of fresh eccentricities. Freeman offers us a sensible, shy Watson.
As things worked out, the series’ very first image made an impact and it has gone on to become one of the BBC’s biggest hits in recent years.