When Martin Compston discovered he’d been cast in upcoming BBC drama Mayflies, he was partying backstage at Budapest’s Sziget Festival with the Arctic Monkeys. Frontman Alex Turner had asked the Scottish actor, a diehard fan of the band, to interview him for The Big Issue.
“I spent a couple of days with them and it was joyous, man!” beams Compston, remembering his eventful jaunt that included Monkeys bassist Nick O’Malley challenging him to an accent competition.
“I was in heaven. Drinking with the band at 1am – then I get the offer through [on the phone]. I thought: ‘Am I fucking tripping here?’ It was one of those nights where you’re still smiling when the alarm goes off after two hours kip.”
Compston, best known as waist-coat-sporting, acronym-spouting, anti-corruption unit detective inspector Steve Arnott from Line Of Duty, has been an indie aficionado since his early years growing up in Greenock, west Scotland.
“Music was shite then. I’d missed Blur/Oasis and it was all Pop Idol and Hear’Say,” he says, cringing. “I’ll never forget, I had a friend who told me: ‘There’s this band and they’re going to change music.’ I scoffed: ‘Bands don’t change music!’ And then I’m at home putting on MTV and I hear this…” – he imitates the rapidfire opening guitar riff to 2005 single ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ – ‘And everything changed. All of a sudden, all my mates and I did for the next five years was go to gigs.”
“Sharing a flat with The View was a hippy experience”
When he relocated to London in the mid-noughties to pursue acting, Compston admits that all he really wanted “was a high-collar Libertines jacket”. During that period, he shared a flat with Kyle Falconer, frontman of Dundee rockers (and previously-famed Caledonian caners) The View.
“The wee man took years off my life,” jokes Compston.” But then he would say I did the same to him! Back then, he was a holy terror. I’d come back from filming and open the door to utter madness and a flat-full of people and be like: ‘Not again!’”
Compston has old phones squirreled away in bottom drawers full of The View’s tracks in embryonic stages. “He’d say: ‘Marty, I wrote this song, come and listen to it’, and play it in the corner. He’d record them on my phone – because he’d always lose his.” Compston’s friends in West End musicals would swing by and they’d sing Jersey Boys numbers until sunrise. “It was a very hippy existence for a while – although our neighbours didn’t enjoy it as much as we did!”
Speaking via Zoom from his home in Las Vegas – his wife is American and the couple split their time between Sin City and the UK – Compston is friendly and filled with the kind of enthusiasm that makes him such a good part-time podcast presenter. He talks openly about his past, and the twist-y turn-y route he’s taken to get where he is today.
Raised in a working-class background, it was Harrison Ford that first made Compston want to be an actor. “I had my little fedora and my dad’s old leather jacket and a whip and I’d run around calling myself Indy.” His lightning-bolt moment, though, came when he saw Loach’s 1998 Glasgow-set romance My Name Is Joe.
“It changed my view of what cinema could be,” he says. “As much as I wanted to be an actor, I didn’t see it as a viable career move but My Name Is Joe showed me: you could talk like I did [with a Scottish accent] and be in films.”
Fatefully, a teenage Compston would later be plucked out of obscurity to land the starring role in Loach’s Sweet Sixteen. Such was his assured, convincing portrayal in the locally-filmed drug drama that people couldn’t believe he wasn’t a delinquent. “For a while afterwards, it felt like an anchor around my neck,” he says. “I spent the next few years trying to prove that I wasn’t that kid – that I could actually act.”
Around the same time, Compston decided to turn down a professional footballing contract – convinced he should focus on film and TV instead. He was immediately proved right and other roles followed thick and fast (most notably in BBC soap Monarch of the Glen and Andrea Arnold’s psychological thriller Red Road). But it was as AC-12’s bent-copper-bashing Steve Arnott that Compston experienced what it’s like to be at the centre of a phenomenon.
The Line of Duty cast are famously close; exemplified by a bonding weekend to see The Specials play in Nottingham while shooting the first season. “We took a minibus there and it was like a stag weekend,” he says. “We basically went on a two day bender together. But I missed ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ because I was the youngest so I got sent to the bar. I was fuming!”
“The ‘Line Of Duty’ cast took a minibus to see The Specials”
It wasn’t just the close-knit nature of the cast that marked Line of Duty out. It was how it became a rare case of appointment television in the age of streaming, attracting fans as diverse as author Stephen King and Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler. Moving from BBC Two to One, by the culmination of its latest, sixth series last year, it broke records as the corporation’s most-viewed drama.
Though clearly and justifiably proud of the show, Compston admits the attention became overwhelming, exacerbated by a locked-down country watching it together as a distraction from pandemic life. He’s still wrapping his head around it. “I think that’s one of the reasons we maybe haven’t rushed back to [make more],” he says. “Because it got out of hand. The build-up to the last series was insane, with people watching it on big screens outside pubs.”
He was filming Amazon Prime Video’s ambitious supernatural horror The Rig in Edinburgh at the time, but unlike the rest of Britain’s hooked population he “couldn’t be in the house” when Line of Duty was airing.
“I had to go out and walk because my phone was just going off the hook,” he explains. “Everywhere in the street, you could hear people talking about it. And then the streets would empty when it came on, and that’s when I went out because I thought: I don’t want to be in the house when this is on. By that point, we were all ready for it to be over. We were so happy with the response, but it just felt like the nation was hanging on you. It felt too much.”
Now that Line Of Duty is over, Compston is ready for the biggest period of his career so far. First out of the traps is Mayflies, coming soon to BBC One. Based on the acclaimed novel by Andrew O’Hagan, it tells the tender and heartrending story of the bond between friends Jimmy (Compston) and Tully (Tony Curran). Comprising two-parts, it traces them from their salad days as teenage bandmates – making a pilgrimage to see their favourite groups including New Order in Manchester – to middle-age where a terminally ill Tully enlists Jimmy to help him end his life with dignity.
In real life, Compston has been mates with Curran for over 20 years. “The turnaround on Mayflies was so quick – I was offered the job a week before filming – so they were looking for people who already had an in-built chemistry because you didn’t have time to work on the backstory. That helps when you’re doing these emotionally-charged scenes. Being a BBC show, it has to be neutral around the issue of assisted dying and show all points of view, but I hope it sparks wider, and more informed debate around the situation.”
Then there’s The Rig, set on the fictional Kinloch Bravo oil rig stationed off the Scottish coast in the North Sea, where Compston steps into an orange boiler suit as communications officer Fulmer Hamilton. As the station becomes engaged in John Carpenter-esque fog, severing all contact from the outside world, and a deluge of sinister ash plummets from sky, the tension ratchets up.
Compston, whose father worked on an oil rig offshore from Aberdeen, says it was “a joy to be part of something like that, especially filmed in Scotland, with that sort of ambition and scale in terms of story and action. You can’t put The Rig in a box and it goes to some surreal places. Everything now is a reboot or sequel or prequel, and this feels entirely original and difficult to describe.” Though he remains tight-lipped on what happens, he does reveal, with a certain amount of pride: “I’ve got this huge stunt where I’m set on fire!”
“When you’re working class, showing an artistic side is seen as a weakness”
If Indiana Jones made young Compston want to act, we ask if he has any desire to go full Hollywood next. While he “wouldn’t say no”, he’s more interested in developing his own projects, namely a forthcoming show he’s created with the studio behind Line of Duty. It’s about Allan J. Pinkerton, a Scottish copper, abolitionist and detective from the 1800s.
“He’s a guy from the Gorbals,” says Compston of the notoriously rough area of Glasgow immortalised in late ’80s sitcom Rab C. Nesbitt, “He became the most powerful lawman in the world. A real Sherlock Holmes figure who became Abraham Lincoln’s spymaster and chased down Jesse James. His life story was incredible and he was a real visionary.”
It also taps into his interest in Scottish history and politics. Compston was vocally pro-Scottish independence during the 2014 referendum and feels Scotland going it alone is a foregone conclusion. “The fact is the youth of the country are massively in favour of independence. Politicians from Westminster want you to think: ‘Oh they’re all a shower of bastards’ and make you feel disenfranchised so you don’t vote, but the youth are going to drive this thing and I really do think it’s not a case of if, but when.” Compston is working on the show with a writer, and says he has always penned stories – yet never showed them to anyone; coming from a background where you hid your creative aspirations in a Panini football sticker book.
“When you’re working class, you don’t want to show any artistic side because it’s seen as a weakness and something you get slagged for. My best pal – he was the best man at my wedding – once started playing a song on guitar and I asked: ‘What’s this? Is it by The View or Babyshambles?’ And he replied: no, I wrote it’. I was like: ‘Why the fuck did you never tell me you wrote songs?’ And he said: ‘Well, why didn’t you tell me you liked acting?”
As he prepares to embark on the next chapter of his career, Compston will be catching up with his Line of Duty co-stars for a Christmas curry in December. Asked as to whether he thinks it’ll come back, it sounds like a case of ‘definitely [sic], maybe’.
“Jed has left the door open. We wouldn’t do it for the sake of it. But if we do come back, I can guarantee it will be explosive. He’s left people desperate for some kind of ending and he’s always three or four steps ahead so if we do come back, it would be pretty epic.”
‘The Rig’ is available on Prime Video from January 6 and ‘Mayflies’ airs on BBC One & BBC iPlayer over the Christmas period