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Martin Compston: it drives me up the wall when you’ve got these angry, angry people shouting, “Tax dodger.” It’s not true.

·10-min read
 (Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE)
(Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE)

Much like DI Steve Arnott, the character with whom he will in all likelihood forever be most closely associated, Martin Compston does not, it seems, do much other than work.

Our conversation takes place the morning after a night shoot for a new Amazon Prime production, The Rig, and he will be making his way back to its Edinburgh set as soon as we finish. There is the submarine-set BBC show Vigil, featuring the natural Scottish accent in which he talks to me today, already filmed and set to appear in the coming weeks. And of course there is that other series he was in, the concluding episode of which aired just over 48 hours before we speak. 

‘Obviously finales are always hard,’ he begins, barely a minute in to our conversation, recognising that the climax of the sixth series of Line Of Duty — and the reaction it has received — is the chase that needs to be cut to right now. ‘You’ve got to respect people have invested so much in this thing and everybody has a different version of their ending, but yes… it’s been a pretty wild few days.’ 

Watch: Martin Compston shares Line of Duty pranks with co-star Vicky McClure

Compston, like principal castmates Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar, along with series writer and creator Jed Mercurio, is not someone who pretends that he doesn’t read reviews or look at what people are saying online. So they’ve all seen that, yes, a not-insignificant percentage of the 12.8 million people — twelve point eight million! — who tuned in were dissatisfied with the subdued-rather-than-bombastic conclusion. They all knew that, as he puts it, ‘there were going to be riots in the streets if we didn’t reveal who H was’, and that, when you are dealing with an audience of that size, and with that level of hype, said reveal was never going to please everyone. 

But Compston also stands by the ending and what Mercurio was going for. ‘I think he felt it would have been a bit of a cop-out to have — and he’s right — some sort of cat-stroking mastermind and then a crazy gun shoot-out. I think he felt that would have been the easy option.’ Plus, he says, he’s ‘seen a lot of people reach out and say, “Look, after a second viewing and walking away from it, and coming back to it later, I really enjoyed it.”’ 

There were going to be riots in the streets if we didn’t reveal who H was

Ultimately, while ‘genuinely relieved when it was over’, he is just happy to been part of a show that brought people together at a time when people really needed bringing together. Covid-19 restrictions have meant that Compston has been spared having ‘Bent copper!’ endlessly screeched at him in every restaurant and pub that he might otherwise have visited. But the level of attention that comes with being on a show the size of Line Of Duty has nonetheless been intense. He has witnessed quotes from interviews get lifted and twisted and turned into ‘some ridiculous story about me and my wife’, and has been forced to fire back on Twitter at a number of them. Most recently, for example, there was one that took umbrage with his voicing support for Scottish independence while supposedly being a tax-dodging Las Vegas resident (his wife is a Nevadan, and yes, he does keep a home there). To be clear: this is not true. ‘There’s no way to say this and not sound like a prick,’ he says, ‘but I kind of see our home in Scotland as our home and Vegas as a holiday home. My wife would probably say it’s the opposite.’

Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE
Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE

‘But the thing is,’ he continues, ‘even if I wasn’t living here, or wasn’t paying tax here, I’d still be entitled to an opinion. That’s called free speech. I pay top-rate tax in Scotland and I always have. There are a lot of actors, which is their right, who get paid through companies, which reduces their tax. I’ve never done that and I never will. I believe those who earn a bit more should pay a bit more. That’s just my opinion and that’s just something I do. So it does really drive me up the wall when you’ve got these angry, angry people just shouting, “Tax dodger.” It’s just not true. That’s what I find enraging.’ 

His political opinions, anyway, ‘haven’t changed in the last eight, 10 years. My whole adult life.’ Why is he so fervently in favour of independence? ‘I just believe that Scotland should be in charge of its own destiny. I think there’s been several things, but the main thing is Scotland, pretty much by definition, is a centre-left country and England, our biggest partner in the union, is becoming more centre-right. You’re just returning Conservative government after Conservative government in Westminster, which Scotland doesn’t vote for. Also, Brexit has been huge. We had the referendum in 2014 and if Brexit never happened, we wouldn’t be talking about independence [again] for a long time.’ 

In Sweet SixteenAlamy Stock Photo
In Sweet SixteenAlamy Stock Photo

Particularly during the pandemic, he has been impressed by Nicola Sturgeon. ‘I genuinely think, when you look at the leaders, Nicola Sturgeon has been the most competent. I mean, you’ve got Boris Johnson who has gone out saying, ‘Shake people’s hands,’ at the start of all this with coronavirus. I don’t want to get into it, but all these sorts of things. I think she’s… in terms of Scotland, she is by far the most competent leader to lead Scotland to recovery.’

The youngest of two boys, Compston was born in Greenock, a small coastal town 40km west of Glasgow. His mum worked — works — for the council. His dad is still a welder in the shipping yards. He went to comprehensive school in nearby Gourock, where he was, he says, ‘always a confident wee guy’. But even so, hearing about the pair of opportunities that presented themselves to him at the age of 16 — to use a Ted Hastings-ism — absolutely beggars belief.

First there was a contract to play football with Aberdeen FC. Soon he moved to his local team, Greenock Morton, for which he made his professional debut (‘The atmosphere, the drums, that’s something I’ll never forget,’ he says. ‘I’ll forget we got humped 4-0. But it was a great experience.’) Dreamy enough teenage boy stuff. But also, at pretty much exactly the same time, Ken Loach turned up at his school looking for boys to cast in his film Sweet Sixteen. Confident, wee Compston got the gig, and so found himself with a choice to make. 

Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE
Phil Sharp/INSTITUTE

‘It might sound negative, but knowing your limitations at times isn’t a bad thing,’ he says. ‘I knew my levels. If I’d had the chance to play for Celtic, I’d have kept playing football, no two ways about it. But I knew I wasn’t going to get much higher than the level I was playing at and I kind of instinctively knew I was good at acting. I just felt at home.’ In his head, the choice was made. ‘So I did the film and then went pro, played the season in the reserves and made a couple of first team appearances. When the season finished, Sweet Sixteen went to Cannes.’

Just prior to said release came Compston’s first trip to London for an audition: an experience that almost put him off his chosen trade for good. ‘I’m running about with an A to Z, the Tube’s terrifying me,’ he recalls. ‘I went into this audition and they went, “No, no, no, no, sorry. We’ve sent you the wrong stuff.” I remember being enraged: I’d come all the way down, spent money on flights and they couldn’t even send me the right things to learn. And the new pages they gave me was a four-page monologue about this suicidal kid having a breakdown. I sort of learnt it out of anger, I was fuming. And then I went in and did the audition and came out really stressed out, really flustered, and just desperate to get home. The agent called and I said, “Look, this isn’t for me. They’re so rude.” And she said, “You got the part. They want to give you it.”’

Compston in Line Of DutyBBC/World Productions/Steffan Hill
Compston in Line Of DutyBBC/World Productions/Steffan Hill

The first series of Line Of Duty aired in 2012, by which time Compston had already amassed an impressive body of work. In 2014, with the second series out, he headed off on what would be a fateful trip to Los Angeles. Ostensibly he was there for pilot season, but he and a Scottish friend of his who lives in California had a tradition of going out together to ‘whatever happy hour we could find, on our first day’. That particular Monday afternoon they ended up in the Hudson Hotel bar, where ‘the place was dead apart from this lovely hostess with this massive curly hair.’ This turned out to be one Tianna Flynn who, he remembers, ‘was very kind to us, even in our annoying drunken state. She had on a Claddagh ring, which is an Irish promise ring. It turns out her dad was Irish and she went there every year to visit her family and stuff. So yeah, me and my pal started singing some Irish songs we grew up singing back in the day.’ The impromptu performance seemed to go down well, so Compston ‘left her my number on the receipt and said, “Give me a call if you’d like, but I understand if not. I think you could be my Irish charm.” And then she called me later that night.’ 

The idea that I would never work with all the guys again together would be heartbreaking

The pair married two years later in Greenock, with Compston’s fellow AC-12 lifers in attendance, and last year welcomed their first child (a large part of the reason for buying a home in Las Vegas is to be close to her family), whose name and identity they are choosing to not make public and about whom he politely tells me they have decided not to talk. ‘All I will say is being a new parent is exhilarating and exhausting and I think, as most people know, it’s tough enough on its own without having to do it in the public eye. So it’s just a part of my life I’ve decided to keep private.’

In the background now I hear a voice telling Compston it is time to head back on to set. There is time for one more question, so I ask whether we have seen the last of Line Of Duty, or whether there might be a seventh season. ‘The genuine answer is that we don’t know,’ he tells me, sounding genuine. ‘But that’s nothing new. Jed always takes time away from it. I think what I would say, the two things I would say, is that the idea that I would never work with all the guys again together would be heartbreaking. But also with everything that’s just gone on this week, I think everybody, including the audience, needs a bit of time away from it. So we’ll see.’ 

Interview terminated. Fingers tightly crossed. 

Watch: Vicky McClure and Martin Compston to get AC-12 tattoos after Line of Duty finale

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