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Fangs and flutters

The Visual CV: Peter Capaldi, best known as a mad spin doctor, is heading for “The Hour”. Matthew Sweet picks his best work...

1983 Danny Oldsen in Local Hero (above)
The world’s first sight of Peter Capaldi: the primped, polyglot creature of Knox Industries, an American oil firm hoping to annex a fogbound stretch of Scotland. He’s not nearly as rapacious as his position demands. He can’t even bring himself to euthanase the rabbit he stuns with the wheels of his company car. (The morning after the accident, he’s feeding her grass and calling her Trudy.) Hugh Grant might easily have played a part like this. Capaldi’s comic discomfort, though, isn’t suffused with a sense of his own cuteness. He really could be as awkward as he looks.

1988 Angus Flint in The Lair of the White Worm
These days Capaldi wears the fangs—in the 1980s his flesh was sufficiently tender to receive them. Ken Russell’s picture, a 1970s Hammer horror fallen through a wormhole to the Thatcher years, requires Capaldi to submit to the jaws of Amanda Donohoe: blue, naked, scaly and Nijinskying around the moorland manor to which his kilted archaeologist has come to torment her sensitive reptile ears with the sound of the bagpipes. There Angus lies, bloodied on the flagstones, as she slithers towards him. Her head sinks below his blue tartan hem-line. His face becomes a bespectacled crease of pain. Not quite a killer blow, but close.

1993 Gavin Bellini in Soft Top Hard Shoulder
He’s not just a long face; Peter Capaldi also writes and directs. His short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” won an Oscar in 1995. Here, for reasons of parsimony as well as pride, he stars in his own screenplay as a deracinated Scot chugging north from London to Glasgow in a knackered Triumph Herald. His uncertainties are as profuse as his hair. Capaldi’s cinematic roots are on proud display—a gag about a bunny on the road is a kiss blown to “Local Hero”—but he seems more ambivalent about cultural baggage: when Gavin returns to his folks in Glasgow, he comes to spurn his inheritance, not to claim it.

2005 Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It
Armando Iannucci’s savage twist on “Yes Minister” needed a spin doctor who was irresistibly vile. Capaldi delivered the greatest monster of our age: a carnivorous seahorse, bobbing around the open-plan rockpools of Millbank, randy for human meat. Like all great screen psychopaths, the Cabinet Enforcer likes to explain himself. “In a quest to make you understand the level of my unhappiness,” he warns, “I’m likely to use an awful lot of what we would call violent sexual imagery.” But it’s the ladylike touches that are the real instruments of terror: the way his eyes half-close and flutter; those little coquettish flurries that precede each bloody feast on human dignity.

2008 King Charles I in The Devil’s Whore
Unlike some of his peers, Capaldi hasn’t made a career of costume parts—unless you count his transvestite turns in “Prime Suspect 3” and “Mr Wakefield’s Crusade”. But gaze upon his doomed monarch in Peter Flannery’s interregnum drama, and you’ll see him perform the preternatural trick of clearing his eyes of everything but damaged Stuart imperiousness. The bloke with the specs from “Local Hero” wears a Van Dyck moustache as if it were his divine right. It’s like watching a 1980s apartment block being stripped back to reveal the underlying 17th-century architecture.

2009 Malcolm Tucker in In The Loop
In his art-school years, Capaldi was a member of a punk band that performed under the name of The Bastards from Hell. Though Tucker is employed to defend the fragile escarpments of the status quo, there’s something of the moshpit about his enthusiasm for spitting, tendon-straining aggro. The cinema version of “The Thick of It” transplants him to America, where his monstrosity seems all the more profound. The TV series, perhaps, would not have asked Capaldi to threaten his latest ministerial victim with an invitation to an “assisted suicide”.

2011 Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers
Capaldi knows his British film history, but in the stage version of Ealing’s murderous comedy he declined to reproduce the mildewed gentility of Alec Guinness. This Professor Marcus, plotting with his gang in the attic of a genteel Victorian survivor, was a twitchy daddy-long-legs defeated by the physical complexities of crime—like carrying a cello case full of cash. Capaldi drew, though, on the same Nosferatu appetites of the original—as if he might, at any moment, dart for the neck of Mrs Wilberforce and sink his incisors into her lavender-scented neck.

2011 Samuel Kent in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Capaldi is a locus of both suspicion and grief in this ITV adaptation of Kate Summerscale’s bestselling tale of a brutal child-murder in 1860s Wiltshire. He gives a masterclass in resistance to those scenery-chewing impulses that overwhelm actors when mutton-chops are gummed to their cheeks. This summer he joins the cast of “The Hour”, the BBC’s rewrite of its own early history as a prime-time serial thriller. But why, you might ask, is an Oscar-winning director who has led two Hollywood-friendly features still supplying support in TV drama? Let’s not inquire too deeply. We are the beneficiaries of his reluctance to conquer the world.

The Hour this summer, The Thick of It this autumn, both BBC2

Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of "The West End Front: the Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels"

Source: The Economist
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