Radio Times

Andrew Duncan interview - 2nd October 2001

Andrew Duncan meets George Irving - page 4

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To prepare for the part, he watched two surgeons working at Papworth and Middlesex hospitals. "I find it difficult to take my eyes off them. There's a strange beauty about heart operations, the way the body goes together as a piece of engineering. I'm not put off by the blood in any way."

Although the private Meyer is kept deliberately low-key in the series, he wrote the character's biography before he began the part. "I had to put someone together who is a peacock ogre - in one of the first episodes he threw scalpels at colleagues, and I needed to know why he treated everyone so appallingly. Unless you can find motives, you're going to act one step removed. He's extremely driven, and it's my job to find out why.

"The character was based loosely on Sir Magdi Yacoub [the heart transplant surgeon], clearly a genius with a large ego - although no-one would accuse him of the kind of behaviour Meyer exhibits. He was an Iranian called Hussein before the producers changed their minds and he became central European.

"I'd learnt English with a Hungarian accent for one film - I'm tasteless enough to have that mimic thing, a chameleon who returns from the USA with an American accent, and whenever I talk to my father my Geordie returns - and just before we started 'Holby City' I worked in Budapest again. It's handy to have physical images of places, and it seemed to me Meyer was temperamentally Hungarian - gloomy with a bit of Mediterranean liveliness.

"We decided he'd been brought out of the country after the 1956 uprising with his parents, who were intellectuals. All we know in the series about his personal life is that he did a heart operation on his sister, and has a daughter who's now 12. We discover - in an oblique mention in this series - whether he's married or not.

"It's not possible to be completely distanced from a character like him, and I get the odd nudge from my daughter [Lucy, aged 21] if she thinks she's being chastised in a way that is more Meyer than Irving. I suppose I'm capable of all he is, but I don't have his certainty. I'm faltering and gibbering - a typical actor."

To his surprise, the part helped him through the death of his mother, Nell, from leukaemia two years ago. "It threw her illness into a strange relief. I was glad of an opportunity to think about it from a professional distance, even if it was only pretend. It gave me a way of being slightly detached and in control.

"What struck me when I lost her is that aspect of holding up a mirror to yourself. It's as if I'd been on the end of an infinitely stretchable piece of elastic, even though she was 300 miles away, and she let go. You pick yourself up and think, 'How did I get here?' The past couple of years have been quite an intense period of self-examination. You find yourself looking at your life in a completely different light. Your own mortality is more obvious."

And never more so than following the obscenity of death and destruction in America that has made him further assess his work, although there's no glib pretence that a medical drama can in any way be considered collateral damage to such atrocities. "But," he says, "should we even dramatise disasters any more? Why are we doing it? We're just pretending, while out there the real world will never be the same again. How dramatic is anything compared to those scenes of absolute horror?"

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