Richard Armitage on his latest Dickensian venture – EXCLUSIVE | UK | News

December 25, 2023
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Richard Armitage

‘Dickens loved home, hearth and Christmas’ says Richard Armitage. (Image: Getty)

Having played Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s smash-hit Hobbit trilogy with a powerful northern accent, it’s slightly surprising to hear Richard Armitage’s deep, rich baritone minus the strong inflections of the dwarf lord. But then, the Leicester-born star is a sought-after voice actor, having been a go-to narrator for audiobooks and video games almost as long as he’s been a familiar face on stage and screen.

“My accent in the Hobbit was a hybrid of my dad and his northern side of the family,” he admits with a smile. “I don’t know why my ear tuned into that, but they [the filmmakers] liked it so much Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman [who played Thorin’s nephews Fili and Kili] had to do it too. I remember poor old Aidan with his Irish accent trying to do my hybrid!”

The blockbuster fantasy films, of which more later, were released over the three Christmases between 2012 and 2014 and made a billion dollars each, sending their stars soaring into the stratosphere.

But back to Armitage’s fabulous voice, because we’re talking today about his smaller but no less perfectly formed role in a brilliant new spoken-word adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield for Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook and podcast app. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Rwandan-Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa – due to become the 14th Doctor Who on Christmas Day – as Copperfield, the stunning ensemble production of the coming-of-age story also features Helena Bonham Carter, Jessie Buckley and Toby Jones. And it’s perfectly-timed too for the festive season when England’s greatest storyteller – A Christmas Carol has just celebrated its 180th anniversary – inevitably comes to the fore, and we gather with our families to hear and tell stories.

Armitage, 52, who plays Copperfield’s bullying stepfather Edward Murdstone and, it must be said, is also known for being kind on the camera looks-wise, says: “I think Dickens was a little bit obsessed with Christmas. He loved hearth and home and Christmas. And they’re all so quintessentially English, a good touchstone at this time of year.”

There’s something about his big stories, often extended family sagas, that speaks to that idea of getting together as well, I suggest. “Exactly, no matter how far you travel, around Christmas time you go home and then you repeat all of the rituals you’ve always done since you were a kid. I think that’s why we repeat things, and Dickens seems to understand why.”

Armitage, who lives between London and New York, where he’s spending Christmas, graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before joining the RSC. He enjoyed his first lead as John Thornton in the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of North And South.

Since then, the parts have come thick and fast, with successful spells in Spooks, as spy Lucas North; Robin Hood; and US TV series Hannibal, as well as roles in The Hobbit and Ocean’s 8 among other films.

As mill owner John Thorton in North and South.

As mill owner John Thorton in North and South. (Image: BBC One)

A Christmas Carol aside, David Copperfield must be Dickens’ most adapted novel. So what can a new production bring? “Copperfield is probably my favourite Dickens, actually,” Armitage replies. “It’s a timeless story and any new adaptation is going to be more accessible. It feels fresh and modern.”

“It’s so close to the book, but it’s not stodgy – it’s sparkling. I think Dickens would have approved. A multi-voice version is as close as you can get to a staged production that feels like you’re in the room.

“And they really work hard on that, so you feel like you’re walking into Dickens’ world. I love that immersion.”

In the old days, this sort of lavish production would have been the bread and butter of Radio 4 but, as with most things, technology has changed the world. “You had to get all of the cast together in one room and you recorded for a week – I did [Samuel Richardson’s] Clarissa once with Alison Steadman and Miriam Margolyes and it was fantastic – but getting people scheduled at the same time is quite an ordeal.”

“Now technology means you drop in remotely and don’t necessarily meet the people you’re working with. They work their technical magic and it sounds fantastic.”

But doing voice-work, causes one particular issue for a physical actor like Armitage. “My difficulty is I can’t not move around,” he chuckles. “And they tell me, ‘We can hear your clothes moving. You’ve got to stand still.’ But I embody the character. In a scene where Murdstone is whipping David, they want a little bit of movement, but I’m like ‘Give me a stick!’”

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“But it’s brilliant fun – you close your eyes and you’re in his world. There’s that moment David loses his first wife. I don’t want to spoil the book but it’s one of the most heartbreaking observations of grief and death.”

“That’s why Copperfield is my favourite, because it tracks this man’s entire life from a very small child to a coming of age.”

Talking of growing up in the public eye, having enjoyed huge success in some of the biggest movies of the 21st century with The Hobbit – filming in New Zealand took three years – isn’t everything else a bit of a, well, anticlimax? “I sort of knew it at the time, it was one of those moments where I was so present and realised when I got there, ‘Nothing is ever going to come up to this level. If this is the last piece of work you ever do, you can be happy about that’,” he smiles.

“I didn’t dream in a million years it would happen to me. I’d read The Hobbit as an 11-year-old and remembered every detail.”

“But when you’re on the other side of the world, you walk onto the soundstage and think, ‘I’m about to step into this story I’ve known and loved my entire life’. It’s surreal.”

“It was really difficult, complicated, uncomfortable and tiring too – but every single day, I checked in with myself: ‘Don’t waste a second of this because it’s never gonna happen to you again’.”

It also introduced Armitage to the major leagues as an actor, not a place the modest, unassuming Englishman admits being especially comfortable.

“I turned 40 when I did it so I wasn’t a newcomer, but I still felt like a fish out of water. I remember stepping onto the set of Ocean’s 8 and there was Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock and Rihanna. And I’m like, ‘I don’t really belong here’. I feel like I’m happier back home in good quality British TV where I have a bit of a voice. I was a bit cowardly in the big pond. It’s seductive and brilliant, but there’s a lot of ‘BS’.”

Starring in The Hobbit did have some other unexpected benefits, though.

“The people from Lego came at the end of the shoot and they give you your model. It’s obviously in a tiny little box, but it’s very cool. I cannot believe I’m a piece of Lego.”

Storytelling is clearly ingrained in Armitage, who writes short biographies of the characters he plays.

“Whenever I’m sitting down to do an audio book or write myself, I always think, ‘This is basically what we’re all about’,” he continues. “Whether it’s through song or dance or on stage, it’s all storytelling. Everybody’s got a story to tell.”

It’s a technique that has led to another recent triumph: an acclaimed Switzerland-set thriller, Geneva. It came about, like many things, because of his voice.

While recording for Audible, it was suggested he create an original story for the app. The resulting book sat exclusively on the audiobook platform for a year before, to Armitage’s obvious delight, coming out in hardback form via publisher Faber & Faber.

Confident and pacy, it features Sarah Collier, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist facing the same tell-tale signs of early-onset dementia, memory loss, blackouts and confusion, as her Alzheimer’s suffering father.

Armitage with Michelle Keegan in Fool Me Once

Armitage with Michelle Keegan in Fool Me Once, (Image: Netflix)

Persuaded by her husband to accept an invitation as guest of honour at a biotech conference, the neural implant being unveiled could revolutionise medical science – and possibly save her life. But as her symptoms worsen, is anything quite as it seems?

“Yes, I’ve written biographies for characters. But I didn’t know whether I could form the ideas in a way that was in that thriller genre,” Armitage admits. In the event, he drew upon his experiences of long-form television and mined his collaborator and friend, Harlan Coben, for inspiration, having starred in three of the US crime writer’s adaptations.

“Ultimately, my passion is going to be character because that’s what I do for a living. I’m inside the character,” he says. “I always think the plot is none of my business, I just kind of walk and talk the character inside the plot. You write a biography for each of your characters and they go away and busy themselves and come back and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve changed’.”

His heroine, it turns out, was based on the real-life Dame Sarah Gilbert, 61, who came to attention during the pandemic co-developing the UK’s AstraZeneca vaccine.

“I should probably send her a copy as I’ve banged on about her for so long,” he smiles.

“She was the one person I was paying attention to during the pandemic, she seemed very level headed.”

Placing his fictional equivalent in a story where they begin doubting their sanity became Geneva. He’s now writing a follow-up and will be starring in his third Harlan Coben adaptation on Netflix, Fool Me Once, streaming in January. “It’s eight episodes for January so with your New Year’s Day hangover, you can box set it,” he jokes. “I started writing Geneva while we were making Stay Close and finished it on Fool Me Once so Harlan became a mentor without realising it. He was amazing.”

Uniquely, all three adaptations are standalones. In the latest, Armitage plays the husband of military veteran Maya Stern (Michelle Keegan), who gets a nanny cam and sees her husband playing with their little girl despite him having been murdered three weeks before.

“I’m dead in the first few seconds,” Armitage smiles. “I’ve always wanted to be part of an anthology series where you do have an extended ensemble, and they turn up in different roles. I love the idea of that. It’s like repertory theatre.”

You can’t voice it any better than that.

David Copperfield is available on Audible now. Geneva by Richard Armitage (Faber, £16.99) is out now. Visit express bookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25.



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