Ben Daniels takes the central role of Detective Inspector Matthew Fenton, the police officer who discovers a network of abuse within his own community. The more he delves into this web of corruption, the more he is forced to confront his own past. He says that what drew him to the drama was the sheer complexity of his character.
“Fenton is a deeply moral man, he’s likable and kind,’’ opines Daniels, who has enjoyed starring roles in such outstanding dramas as Cutting It and Conspiracy. “But, best of all for an actor, he really changes during the course of this piece. I love the fact that as the drama progresses, his veneer of perfection cracks. We gradually see that he’s quite arrogant and emotionally stunted.
“At the start, Fenton seems to have the ideal life – a great job and a lovely wife and two children. But the more he delves into the past of these abused children, the more his own past catches up with him. All of a sudden, everything starts to crowd in on him. He can’t compartmentalise his life – everything begins to affect everything
Daniels continues that “as Real Men develops, Fenton gradually gets more in touch with himself, and by the end he has found something to spring-board him into being a more understanding human being.’’
The actor was also fascinated by Fenton’s relationship with Russell, the vulnerable young boy at the centre of this web of abuse. Daniels was particularly moved by the sequences where his character interviews the boy. “If you’re a sentient human being, this sort of police investigation will move you,’’ he declares. “At the beginning, Fenton’s approach is very clinical.
“But he starts to be affected as soon as he interviews this 12-year-old boy. As he looks at the case-notes, he realises that the boy is very similar to how he was as a child. Like Russell, Fenton was bullied, his mother was in hospital and his father was absent.
“When he interviews the child, it becomes apparent that Fenton is interviewing himself as a child. Unwittingly, he starts talking to a younger version of himself – and that begins to rock his world as an adult. This is the moment where he starts to confront his own past, and the ramifications are huge. His whole being starts to crumble.’’
The actor, who has given many acclaimed stage performances in such memorable plays as All My Sons and Tales from Hollywood, knows a good script when he sees one, and he says he was gripped the moment he started reading Frank Deasy’s screenplay for Real Men.
“It’s such fantastic writing,’’ the actors whistles in admiration. “It just knocked me out. It works on so many different levels – and I immediately responded to that. It has a great detective story as an umbrella, and within that it is a riveting account of a man trying to deal with his inner child.’’
The actor expands on the many weighty themes that Real Men throws up. “It isn’t just a series about child abuse – it’s much more complex than that. It’s about how our past affects our present. The past can either support us or strangle us. It doesn’t matter what extreme things you’ve experienced as a child – they always stay with you. Top businessmen and statesmen, for instance, often say that they were driven to succeed because as children their parents put great pressure on them to achieve things.’’
As the title would suggest, the other major theme that Real Men tackles is modernday masculinity. “There are some incredibly strong female characters,’’ Daniels carries on, “but it’s also a very revealing piece about men. It shows that men don’t and can’t deal with their emotions. Especially in Britain, it’s not considered masculine to talk about your feelings.
‘’Even in the acting profession – where we talk about emotions a lot – men don’t really pour themselves forth. We have a fundamental inability to articulate our emotions. It’s a strange thing, which this drama exposes in the most subtle way. There will be lots of different responses to this, but it is a basically a marvellous piece of writing about men.’’
In conclusion, Daniels is optimistic that this sort of thought-provoking TV drama is coming back into fashion. ‘’There are more challenging pieces being written now – look at Murder, and Out of Control. They stand head and shoulders above more run of the mill dramas and we’ll be seeing more of them. American dramas like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos are showing the way. People are getting fed up with formulaic TV. They want meatier drama. Real Men demonstrates that there is hope.’