Martin Freeman: The Responder star on why TV viewers can 'smell lies'

Martin Freeman
Martin Freeman: "I like playing people who are up against it" [BBC]

Martin Freeman is back on the beat as a burned-out police officer in BBC drama The Responder, and the actor clearly relishes the chance to return to such a gritty role.

"From a purely selfish point of view, I like playing people who are up against it," he tells the BBC.

In series one of the Bafta-nominated 2022 show, Freeman's character, PC Chris Carson, was demoted to doing endless gruelling night shifts.

He found himself dealing with the the sharp end of Liverpool's underworld, including its brutal drug gangs.

Lurching from crisis to crisis, he tries to uphold the law, while his personal life and mental health unravel.

"I like the fact he has to go through a lot of stuff," says Freeman. "It's interesting - it brings him into conflict with himself and other people.

"And I love that - it's what makes you want to be an actor."

Tony Schumacher in the police force, and today
The show's writer, Merseyside-born Tony Schumacher, was a police officer in Liverpool for a decade [Tony Schumacher/BBC]

The BBC One drama bagged six Bafta nominations, and Freeman won an international Emmy for his performance. The Observer's Barbara Ellen wrote: "It is television police drama refashioned as a long, dark night of the soul."

It was a no-brainer for Freeman to do another series.

"It's lovely to do something you're dead proud of, because not everything you do ends up being a smasheroo," he says.

In series two, Chris is unwillingly entangled with local criminals, while his personal life gets steadily worse. His rookie partner Rachel Hargreaves is also struggling.

Freeman says he thinks it is a realistic portrayal.

"It's sympathetic because it shows them as human beings who are really trying, in the worst possible circumstances, that most of us have no idea about," he says.

Martin Freeman and Adedayo Adelayo as police officers in The Responder
Chris and Rachel's personal problems add to the stress of their jobs [BBC]

He thinks audiences, including some police officers, may appreciate Schumacher's unfiltered approach to putting their lives on screen.

"I hope the police who watch this go, 'Yeah, this is a flawed, three-dimensional character' - that's what we all are anyway," he says.

"It's certainly not an advert for the police. And it's not a pamphlet for how you should do police work.

"But when I watch drama, I just want it to be vaguely true, even if it's about a world I don't know about."

He says viewers, including himself, want a drama to show the "tribulations of actual human beings rather than cardboard cutouts", so authenticity is crucial.

"You smell lies, and you can smell it when it's off," he says.

"But when something seems humanly true, I think people appreciate that.

"It seems to be the case with this show."

The Responder
Chris is desperate to stop working nights so he can see more of his daughter [BBC]

The actor, who won a Bafta for BBC drama Sherlock, and starred in The Hobbit films, The Office and Love Actually, has also had police officers tell him: "You all did that really well."

"The fact they came over, in order to compliment the show, suggests it definitely hit something in them," he says.

"It's like the Scouse accent - if the Scousers think I've done OK, they'll let me know, because if they didn't like it… " He then shrugs and laughs.

The show's writer, Tony Schumacher, also finds this pretty funny. But luckily for Freeman, his accent has been praised as "flawless".

Schumacher, who was in the police force in Liverpool for a decade, based Chris's character on himself.

The job became too much for him after he was badly assaulted twice on duty, and needed surgery for an injury. He had a breakdown and quit, becoming a taxi driver, and then a writer.

Emily Fairn plays drug addict Casey, with Josh Finan as Marco
Emily Fairn plays troubled drug addict Casey, with Josh Finan as Marco [BBC]

Having exorcised many demons in series one, he still felt a pull to return to the show.

"Everything I write is exploring how I feel about it, it's a way for me to figure things out about myself. It's cathartic," he says.

This is why he is happy to mine his own experiences, although he and Chris don't share plotlines.

"I think, as a writer, you should be dipping your pen in your own head. It's cheaper than therapy," he laughs.

"In my office in Liverpool, there's a therapist next door. I know every time she walks past me, she must think, 'Oh God, there's somebody in there that I could get my hands on'."

'Reflect on people's feelings'

Schumacher is keen to portray life in the force as he sees it, saying: "I always say this isn't a police drama, it's a people drama, a kitchen sink drama.

"I couldn't write about bobbies walking up and down a corridor spilling coffee. Not interested."

A recent YouGov survey in The Times suggested more than half the public say they "do not trust the police to solve crimes" and more than a third say they "have no faith in the authorities to maintain law and order".

Schumacher fully acknowledges that news stories exposing bad practice and crimes within the police affect public trust.

But his portrayal of Chris and Rachel shows them in a "stressful job, dealing with complexities, dealing with people screaming in your face".

"To have cuts, and the additional weight of public opinion swinging against the police - rightly so in many cases - it'd be wrong for me to not look at that and go, 'I need to reflect on people's feelings about that, the people who are doing their job'," he says.

Adelayo Adedayo
Adelayo Adedayo looked at the effects of PTSD as part of her role as Rachel [BBC]

Adelayo Adedayo plays Rachel, who suffers physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her firefighter boyfriend in series one.

Viewers praised her scenes, with one posting on X: "The Responder, wow, well done BBC for highlighting domestic abuse occurs by professionals to professionals, it affects all walks of society."

By series two, Rachel is trying to move forward, but is still feeling the aftershock.

Adedayo looked at "the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder", and spoke with women who run the Liverpool Domestic Abuse Service.

"It was really eye-opening, they talked about not being able to move on in your mind. So even though you've put physical distance between you and your abuser, it's toxic, because it's someone you loved," she says.

"You're still mourning a relationship.

"One of the symptoms women experience is hyperarousal [described by the NHS as being on edge and constantly aware of threats]. What a painful and difficult place for Rachel to be - she's a police officer, in situations where there's threats all the time."

Josh Finan
Josh Finan says he knew people growing up who were in trouble like his character Marco [BBC]

Josh Finan plays local character Marco, entangled in crime in series one, as a friend of Casey, the drug addict Chris tries to help.

Finan, nominated for a best supporting actor Bafta for his role, says Schumacher's writing really rang true for him.

"After the first reading, I was like, 'Oh, this is Liverpool, this is the way people talk, there's a humour that's woven through that show."

The actor, who is from the nearby Wirral, explains that although "Marco isn't me... he is a character I've sort of played in real life, when you're an insecure teenager".

"I wasn't ever in as much trouble as him - but people I know were, and I was adjacent to it.

"That youthful, masculine world was quite real and apparent when I was growing up - and so you wear that costume."

MyAnna Buring and Martin Freeman
Strained marriage: MyAnna Buring and Martin Freeman as Chris and Kate [BBC]

MyAnna Buring, who plays Chris's wife Kate, says series one did so well because "it had its own voice... there was a poetry to the messiness of it."

She also thinks this show is distinct from many other TV police dramas.

"What's so interesting with this, as opposed to a procedural kind of police series, is it's character-driven, an emotional look at the life of somebody working on the front lines," she says.

Schumacher concludes that the "vast majority" of police officers "are doing the best they can - and sometimes their best mightn't be that great, but they're trying their best".

He pauses, and says: "I don't think I worked with anyone who didn't care."

Freeman adds: "I have to believe the vast majority of them are in it for the right reasons.

"They do things I don't want to do, and I'm glad someone does."

All episodes of series two of The Responder are available on BBC iPlayer from 06:00 BST on Sunday 5 May, with episode one on BBC One at 21:00 BST.