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Brian Cox not taken by gangster life

Sitting in the cosy drawing room of a luxurious London hotel, sipping tea from a delicate china cup and saucer, Brian Cox looks a million miles away from his latest on-screen alter-ego.

The Dundee-born actor will appear in The Take as vicious crime kingpin Ozzy from Wednesday June 17.

While he enjoyed working on the Sky1 mini-series, adapted from a Martina Cole best-seller, the 63-year-old reveals he's not overly fond of the real-life inspirations for his character.

"This world of gangsters and hard men is interesting territory, but I don't particularly like it as a culture, I find no glamour in these people," he says, having filmed his part in a prison in Ireland.

"I don't find guys like Ozzy admirable. I find them rather pathetic, actually. In Russia, they have a wonderful phrase about these sorts of men that goes, 'Little mice who blow off their own tale and become elephants' -which describes how they come to think they're bigger than they are.

"These criminal characters are dramatically interesting, but only in terms of their idiocy."

The Take begins in the early 1980s. Ozzy is in prison for a crime that's never discussed, although it's presumably grisly.

He's taken under his wing the soon-to-be-released Freddie Jackson, played by the menacing Tom Hardy, and is preparing him for life on the outside with a string of orders to follow and advice to live by.

Freddie, being something of a loose cannon, disobeys his instructions and begins to establish himself as a main player in East London's crime world. Each of the three subsequent three instalments jumps forward a number of years until the final part reaches the present day.

It's only his quick-thinking cousin Jimmy, played by Shaun Evans - perhaps still best known for his role as gay French tutor John Paul Keating in Channel Four's Teachers - that keeps him out of trouble, although their bond becomes increasingly fraught as Freddie's maverick streak becomes more and more brutal.

"Freddie is a terrible character," says Brian. "As one of God's creatures, he's a big disappointment. Jimmy does a lot better because he's closer to my character Ozzy in mentality, he's not as much of a head-banger.

"That's the problem for them - Freddie. He's more like Ronnie Kray."

Brian then recounts a story of the time his theatre company performed King Lear in notorious high-security psychiatric hospital-cum-prison Broadmoor.

"Ronnie Kray was there then, and Peter Sutcliffe was there too. I asked the warden, 'Will the Yorkshire Ripper be joining us this evening?'," he says, with noted disdain in his voice.

"He said, 'No, there are too many women in it, he doesn't like women'. I also asked if Ronnie would be there, but I was told he'd only come if it was he playing King Lear himself!

"Life is like an extended fantasy world for these people. You think, 'Why don't you just get a job, do what everyone else does?'.

"It's like a family business for a lot of serious criminals, and they're locked into this mawkish sentimentality, and it's despicable."

Author Cole was also the executive producer of the series, though Brian says he didn't know of her previous work.

"But she is on the money with the language she uses, there isn't a word of this I don't believe," he says.

"They're like actors these gangsters - performers - and they're terribly sentimental. You always have to be wary of sentimental people, because violence and sentimentality go hand in hand.

"Just look at the Mafia - they all love their mothers and all that, but they will cut someone's balls off as soon as look at them.

"Ultimately, gangsters just aren't very nice, so while I think it's important to reflect them, we must never celebrate them."

The character of Ozzy isn't unfamiliar territory for Brian, who has played a number of psychopaths and career-criminals during his long and distinguished career, most famous of them all Hannibal Lecktor in 1986 film Manhunter, adapted from the Thomas Harris book Red Dragon. The cannibal serial killer's surname was spelled Lecter in subsequent movie versions featuring Anthony Hopkins, fact fans.

There's also the tyrannical Agamemnon he portrayed in Troy with Brad Pitt and Eric Bana, crooked CIA man Ward Abbott from the first two films of the Jason Bourne trilogy and mutant-hating General William Stryker from the second X-Men film, X2.

"It's not uncommon for me to do someone like Ozzy. The thing The Take reminds me of most is a series I was in years ago called Out," he adds, referring to the 1978 programme in which he starred opposite Tom Bell.

"He played a convict just released from prison, out to find out who'd stitched him up. I played the guy who stitched him up - McGrath," Brian recalls. "It's one of the best gangster series there has been on TV."

Hearing Brian speak, in his deep, gravelly voice with Scotland-via-LA accent, it's clear he's a classically-trained thespian. He studied at Lamda (London Academy of Music And Dramatic Arts) in the 1960s before breaking into television. His early roles include cult classic The Prisoner and live police serial Z Cars.

He's since spent time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre. The video game industry has taken advantage of his powerhouse voice too, utilising it for a number of parts, most notably Scolar Visari in the two best-selling Killzone games.

Brian says he's a workaholic, and while he's trying to slow down a little as he gets older - he turned 63 on June 1 - he finds it difficult.

"I just love the work," he admits, before smiling. "Plus we've all got overheads."

He moved to the United States 14 years ago "because of the state of British television back then" and doesn't miss the UK now. He left Los Angeles after a few years - "There are only so many farmer's markets you can go to" - and now resides in New York, a place he believes is one of the friendliest in the world.

"I would do more TV if more roles were coming," Brian says, later explaining he recently filmed a pilot for a new series, but NBC rejected it.

"TV is more of a writers's medium, plus I'm not particularly impressed with what's happening in the movie business at the moment, in terms of distribution of work. There's a lot of schlock out there, and very little actual deft, delicate pieces of film-making. They're getting made, but they're not getting seen.

"At least with TV, there's a good audience."

Extra Time - Brian Cox

Brian Denis Cox was born in Dundee on June 1, 1946.

His mother was a spinner in a factory mill, while his father, who died when Brian was nine years old, was a weaver.

When Brian portrayed Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter in 1986, Anthony Hopkins was appearing in King Lear with The National Theatre. When Anthony Hopkins took on the role for Silence Of The Lambs in 1991, Brian was appearing in King Lear with The National Theatre.

He received a CBE in the 2002 New Year's Honours list.

Brian is diabetic, and has campaigned to promote a diabetes research facility in his hometown Dundee.

 

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