The last time Andrew Scott made a big impression on the small screen was back in January, playing the fiendishly clever Moriarty in Steven Moffat's equally ingenious Sherlock. In one of the great television talking points of the year, the brain–teasing denouement to series two, The Reichenbach Fall, saw Holmes's nemesis shooting himself on top of St Bart's hospital in order to force Benedict Cumberbatch's detective hero to take an apparently fatal plunge.
For his mesmerising reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's arch villain, by turns camply insouciant, cerebrally intense, disarmingly down–to earth and savagely horrible, the 36–year–old Irishman scooped a Bafta award for Best Supporting Actor. His latest television project, a three–part drama for ITV, is every bit as intricately plotted as Sherlock but casts him in a very different light. Instead of being a criminal mastermind, his starring role in The Town presents him as the victim of unforeseen circumstances: 30–year–old Mark Nicholas, forced to return home by a tragic event and to turn amateur sleuth in the market town of his youth.
Just as Scott is sworn to secrecy about how the cliffhanger in Sherlock gets resolved – he joins filming for series three next year – so he and The Town's creator, Mike Bartlett, are anxious not to give much away about the new drama's shocking premise, the better to let it have its effect on the viewers.
What I can reveal, having watched the first episode, is that Scott's capacity for understatement and withheld emotion gets exhilarating, close–up attention here. He swiftly draws you into a portrait not just of a man struggling to get his bearings but of a town itself that's weirdly out of kilter.
Scott felt a huge sense of identification with this everyman figure who must confront his past. "The thing I related to is that huge sense of longing you can have for your home town – and how it was when you lived there – but knowing you can't be as fulfilled going back home as you were growing up there.
"I have a huge affection for Dublin and I miss my family and friends, but I also now feel very much a Londoner – that was a way in for me."
In person, Scott cuts a broodingly intense and enigmatic figure, softly spoken and apt to trail off mid–sentence as he gropes about for the right word. He's openly evasive about his acting technique, confining himself to an aphoristic aside: "The chief requirement for being an actor is imagination and a sense of humour," he drawls.
By contrast, the taller, cheerier Bartlett, 32, engages in conversation much as if he were a friendly college lecturer at a seminar. He is making his television screenwriting debut after establishing himself as a young playwright of considerable promise with a prolific bunch of dazzling stage plays – including the Olivier–winning Cock, which co–starred Scott and Ben Whishaw, at the Royal Court, as well as Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre. Thoughts about homecoming were at the heart of his initial impulse to write it; the storyline came later.
"I always wanted to write about Abingdon [in Oxfordshire], where I grew up," he says, "because I half enjoyed, half hated growing up there. The Town came from going back having moved to London and feeling a mixture of nostalgia for the late Nineties when I was a teenager there and also seeing it as it is now and all the people who have stayed on there."
Although Bartlett wrote The Town with Abingdon in mind, it could be set anywhere. The more nondescript the side street and the more generic the high street the better for excavating emotion, he reckons. "I always loved the idea that people experience amazing epic moments in ordinary places," he continues. "These incredibly primal scenes in our lives – weddings, funerals, relationships, affairs – they unfold in towns like this one."
For Scott, the departure from the psychopathic Moriarty was deliberate. Choosy about the roles he takes – "I think it's important not to be on TV too much" – he was, he says, "looking to do something more delicate, more human". For him, Bartlett's writing was an instant draw. "One of Mike's great gifts is his dialogue. As an actor you just want to say those words – and that's quite rare to find."
Bartlett didn't write The Town for Scott, but once the actor was on board it helped him to shape the redrafts. Bartlett was also on hand during the filming: "I don't want to be one of those writers who writes something and goes on holiday," he says. "It's interesting to me, for instance, looking at Scandinavian TV drama, that the writers are increasingly at the heart of the production process. I can't think how that doesn't save money."
Bartlett is highly television literate and was inspired to write by what he watched on the box when growing up. "I didn't really go to the theatre as a kid, I watched telly. There were only the main channels in those days and I always loved the idea of millions of people tuning in at the same time while each person had the weird sense of being the only one watching it."
His ideal, he says, is for theatre to carry the same charge as "event television" and for television in turn to offer the same visceral excitement as the most gripping theatre. So far as one can tell, The Town looks set to do just that.
The Town starts on ITV1 at 9pm on Wednesday December 5
I hope he wins all the BAFTAs forever. I love him sfm. Also, I listened to a radio recording of "Cock" recently and I really enjoyed it so I'm looking forward to this a lot! :D