19 Jun 2010: … but the Shallow Grave actor is considering a move into comedy after primal scream soul-baring of Lennon Naked

Back in 1994, when Christopher Eccleston was playing a psychotic chartered accountant in Shallow Grave, he spent the best part of a day in a working mortuary pretending to be dead. There wasn’t enough money to recreate the mortuary in a studio and, anyway, director Danny Boyle wanted to keep it real. So Eccleston, then 30 and best known for playing Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It three years earlier, was put in a drawer with a Glaswegian member of the crew.

“I was stark bollock naked and the Glaswegian, who was dressed in a parka, Doc Martens and jeans, kept saying, ‘Are we finished? ‘Cos I’m fucking freezing, by the way.’ And all this time, I’m lying not only naked but next to a head that had recently been fished out of the River Clyde.”

It’s not so much the perfect Glaswegian accent, all muscular and heightened, that pleases. It’s not even the idea of a shivering Eccleston keeping a random disembodied head company. It’s the physical intensity with which he tells the story. He tips forward on the edge of his chair – we’re drinking water in the bar in a dreary London hotel – and emotes. Yet his lean, runner’s body barely moves; it’s all in the steady, passionate eye contact. And, best of all, when the story is told he pushes himself back into the chair and roars with laughter. His image as a professional northerner – a chippy one at that – falls away. Eccleston is a funny guy.

Eccleston says his family and friends back home in Salford have, for the last 20 years, been asking why he hasn’t done comedy. “I have always been extroverted; I like the attention. I wasn’t a serious kid. I didn’t stand on my desk at school doing Hamlet soliloquies. My first role was as Bandy Bertha the transvestite in a primary school musical; I played it for laughs.” As for the northern thing? He adds, with mild irritation, that he is “not covered in black puddings”.

The problem is that Eccleston is one of the best when it comes to being dour and northern on screen. In this country at least, he has been typecast as the brooding, frustrated working-class hero, in everything from Michael Winterbottom‘s Jude and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough to one of the most venerated TV dramas of the 90s, Our Friends In The North. He may have modernised Doctor Who in 2005 by insisting on playing him as a resolute northerner in contemporary costume but then, for fear of being typecast (as an alien, one imagines, and not a northerner), walked away after just one series.

Now, after a rather odd spell in Los Angeles in which he appeared in five episodes of Heroes, he’s produced another outstanding performance in his favoured milieu, British television, this time as John Lennon.

It’s not easy to impersonate Lennon: late last year Aaron Johnson played a version of him as a troubled teenager in Sam Taylor-Wood’s conventional biopic Nowhere Boy; until now, Ian Hart offered the most convincing portrayals in the films The Hours And Times and Backbeat. Even Liam Gallagher is making a Beatles movie (although he says the band won’t actually be in it).

In Lennon Naked, a new BBC4 biopic that highlights Lennon’s life between 1967 and 1971, Eccleston plays the Beatle as an imperious joker. His marriage to Cynthia, his first wife, falls apart and he is ready to devour all the love Yoko Ono (a serene Naoko Mori) has to give. Without Yoko, he is by turns sneering and sarcastic, angry and bereft; his mother has been dead for almost a decade and his father, who walked out on him when he was six, shows up and unwittingly forces Lennon to face up to his abandonment issues. With Yoko, he is complete.

‘I’ve had my backside out a few times, in Shallow Grave, in Jude. Lennon thought he was making an artistic statement, but he couldn’t resist filming his arse for the back of the album’

Lennon Naked was shot on a shoestring budget in 18 days (“You almost feel like a criminal achieving that schedule in TV; it shows a very good film can be made in no time at all”), but it has a decent script and Eccleston lights up almost every scene. His accent, which he slips into as he talks about the film, is faultless and the wigs … well, don’t look too hard and you can just about ignore them.

Eccleston had, by chance, been reading obsessively about Lennon before being offered the role. In the three weeks before the shoot, he listened constantly to Lennon’s Rolling Stone interview tapes and worked with a dialect coach. The nude scenes – in the bath; shooting the naked photos with Ono for the infamous cover of Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins – only felt “vaguely unusual”. Eccleston laughs. “I’ve had my backside out a few times, in Shallow Grave, in Jude. Lennon thought he was making an artistic statement, but he couldn’t resist filming his arse for the back of the album.”

More demanding was the scene in which Lennon undergoes primal scream therapy and relives the moment his father left him and his mother when John was just six. “On a technical level it was a real ‘give-me-my-Bafta’ opportunity. How much restraint could I show? It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Am I baring my soul?’ and all that bollocks. I just had to decide how to pitch it.” So he wasn’t mining his own pain? “I don’t think I’ve experienced much pain; I’ve had a fantastic life!” Which suggests he hasn’t had therapy himself? “No, never.”

Eccleston has perhaps forgotten that, back in 2000, he went around saying things like: “I bloody hate my work. I’m not very happy with it. I feel very limited as an actor.” Or perhaps when he talks about his fantastic life he is thinking about his family and upbringing: parents who were manual labourers, who instilled a work ethic and the importance of decency into the young Christopher and his older twin brothers.

He talks romantically about his love of Manchester United, his respect for Paul Scholes – meeting him even topped the time he bumped into Morrissey in Waterstone’s – and how sport “should be about dreaming” and not greed. One of his earliest memories is being told about the 1958 Munich air disaster, in which eight young United players died: “It was only 13 years after the end of the second world war and the crash meant a number of young men had died again. My mum was a trolley dolly at Old Trafford in the 50s and she used to tell stories about seeing Duncan Edwards eating fish and chips at the bus stop after a game.”

Despite his parents’ work ethic, Eccleston didn’t find academic life easy; he was slow to read and failed a series of exams. Finally, after Salford Tech, he got into the Central School Of Speech And Drama and, in 1983, moved to London. Small parts in Casualty and Inspector Morse followed but it wasn’t until Let Him Have It, almost a decade after leaving Central, that regular work came his way.

He has never been a fashionable actor; his parents advised him to build a solid body of work rather than “hitting the main chance”. Still, he was ambitious: “I wanted to change the world with acting.” And has he? “No! Though I was very pleased when there were some questions in the Commons after Hillsborough was on.”

Despite his principled nature, Eccleston has made some questionable choices along the way. He says he’s extremely fussy about television, less so about film. Which may explain his surprising appearance in Gone In Sixty Seconds in 2000. At the time he hoped appearances in blatantly commercial films would result in more work, but the blockbuster parts never came up and he just felt miserable. He had another spell in Los Angeles recently, until the work dried up and he moved back to London. “After the uniformity of LA, I really fell for London again. The first couple of months were a trip. The variety, the seasons, the accessibility. If I’m not running on Hampstead Heath, I’m walking. I’m usually out and about; I’m quite a restless fella.”

Does he listen to music when running? “No. I’m a purist about running. Music is a passion for me, though: Van Morrison, the Smiths. The first album I properly heard was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I was a soul boy.” He’s also an avid reader. He cites My Traitor’s Heart, in which Rian Malan returns to South Africa just before the collapse of apartheid, and If This Is A Man, Primo Levi‘s Holocaust memoir, as books that changed his life. Now he is hooked on biographies – “Peter Ackroyd‘s Dickens is a masterpiece” – and trying to read more fiction.

Never mind his hobbies, what about his work? He is about to start filming Jimmy McGovern’s crime and punishment drama Accused, but how about that move into comic acting? After all, he has had a cameo in The League of Gentlemen, as a fedora-wearing character who owned a cat theatre, and on the Sarah Silverman Program, as Dr Lazer Rage, a kind of crap Doctor Who.

There is a flash in those Eccleston eyes that’s hard to read. “I don’t know … there’s a myth that playing Hamlet, which I’ve done, is harder than doing a comedy. But comedy is the hardest of all because there’s an even greater need for truth. I love Julia Davis: Nighty Night, Human Remains, Lizzie And Sarah. And Caroline Aherne: The Royle Family and Early Doors. There’s a real truth and pain to those comedies.”

He looks serious and then, finally, smiles again. “I’d like to do comedy because of the technical challenge. And because, basically, I like an audience and I’d like to make that audience laugh for a change.”