Who do you get when you need an ordinary, man next door figure who will end up being thrust into some decidedly extraordinary situations? Someone who can play an exceptionally ordinary man of the people who just happens to be swept up by aliens and ends up being flung across the galaxy. Someone who can be happily at home enjoying a life of domestic tranquility, before being mistaken for a master thief and whisked away on the heist of a lifetime. Who can take roles of such quintessential ordinariness, but still seem like a nice bloke who you would happily spend a convivial hour or two in your local, enjoying a few pints?
It has to be Martin Freeman.
Martin Freeman is an alumnus of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama; that school did alright by Andrew Garfield, Laurence Oliver, and Judi Dench. From there he had a number of parts both in the theatre and on TV. To be honest, his TV roles weren’t much to talk about; parts in The Bill, and Casualty which have their central core cast and are very heavy on supporting and background cast. This played in his favour, though, when the call came to appear in a mockumentary set in a paper wholesalers in Slough… The Office. For this project to really work you had to get behind the idea that it was a real documentary, and that couldn’t really happen if it was a stream of famous faces being paraded before the camera.
In the UK Office Martin Freeman played Tim Canterbury, a likeable, good natured sales rep, stuck in a job he hates and trying to make life bearable by playing practical jokes on his jobsworth of a colleague Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook), and flirting with the receptionist he is secretly in love with, Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis).
For comparison, the US version had John Krasinski playing Jim Halpert, a likeable, good natured sales rep, stuck in a job he hates and trying to make life bearable by playing practical jokes on his jobsworth of a colleague Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) and flirting with the receptionist he is secretly in love with, Pam Beesley (Jenna Fischer). The British version ran to a total of twelve episodes and a two-part Christmas special which wrapped everything up.
As is the way, the American view on comedy series (if some is good then more must be better) the US Office ran for over two hundred episodes.
From The Office it was a relatively small hop and step onto the big screen when Martin got the part (fnar fnar!) of John the porn star, who falls in love with his leading lady Just Judy (Joanna Page) in the Christmas favourite Love Actually. I remember the first version I had of it was a dodgy copy bought through eBay which came from China. It had been so bowdlerised that every part of Martin Freeman’s story had been cut out! Funny how the people who made the disc had no qualms about breaching copyright but were happy to painstakingly remove any bits of people with fewer clothes than usual!
Whether or not anybody knew it at the time, Martin Freeman took a tentative step into the land of the franchise when he was cast in the first part of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun Of The Dead.
In fact, he’s one of the seven actors who appear in all three; Hot Fuzz and The World’s End being the other two films in the set, which has been compared to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Alright, it was by Edgar Wright and I think it was a joke but still…
Then, in 2005, Martin Freeman appeared in a role which could have been written for him; as the exceptionally ordinary man of the people who just happens to be swept up by aliens and ends up being flung across the galaxy… Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He is perfect as the baffled and bewildered hero who thinks his day can’t get any worse when the council turns up at his cottage with a bulldozer, a demolition order, and a desire to build a bypass.
It always surprises me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy keeps failing to get off the ground as a franchise. The source material is brilliant, well structured, and hilarious. There are six novels which is, frankly, more than some franchises have had to go on. I may be biased but I’ve been a fan since hearing it on the radio during my last year at college.
While that book based franchise was failing to get off the ground, another was smashing its way into the record books. I refer, of course, to the Harry Potter series. For some reason, Martin Freeman was never called upon and he said; “For a long time I was one of seven British actors who wasn’t in Harry Potter. So I’d see all these films come out, and I was like, ‘yeah, yeah, Harry Potter’. For a long time it was just me and six other people staring through the window like orphans in a Dickens novel.”
But there was no need for any despondency as Martin had other even bigger franchises in his future.
Before long he’d be back on our TV screens with an updating of an old story, namely Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. This new series, Sherlock, became an instant classic with Bumbledyke Crumplesnitch in the title role and Martin as Dr John Watson.
This time though, we see a different Martin Freeman. While still, on the surface, an ordinary, down to earth man, especially when compared to Holmes, Watson has a deeper, darker past. Although he is a doctor, he has also served time in the armed forces and seen front line action. This gives Freeman’s Watson a steel core which means that while he can seem mild-mannered and easy-going, he can, and does, use deadly force to protect those around him.
To my mind, this version of the Sherlock Holmes stories has Watson as an equal central character rather than a sidekick.
Midway through the run of Sherlock, things really started to kick off for Mr Freeman. One of my favourite films is the Coen brothers’ Fargo so, when a TV series was announced I was in two minds about what we’d be in for. Would it be anywhere near as good? Would it be a made-for-TV remake? What would they do with it?
Then, when Martin was announced as Lester Nygaard I was really torn! I mean, everything I’d seen him in he’d been the epitome of Englishness. I don’t mean some sort of caricature, all bowler hat and rolled up umbrella, I just mean he was always recognisably English to an Englishman, as opposed to what the rest of the world thinks an Englishman is like. Turns out he wasn’t too bad!
But that wasn’t the biggest thing with regards to Martin Freeman and taking part in franchises. Following the global success of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Middle Earth was established as a fertile ground for future films. They had taken the huge novel and split it into the main three parts and made a film of each. So they turned to the prequel, The Hobbit, which was a much shorter children’s story meant to entertain the wee ones. And, never being behind the door when it comes to milking a cash cow, they managed to spin that out into three equally long films! Still, Martin was excellent as the slightly bewildered and befuddled Bilbo Baggins who reluctantly steps out into an unforgiving world and finds more inner strength than he could ever have dreamed of possessing.
And that just leaves an entrance into the biggest franchise so far… Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Oops! My mistake. Seriously though, his take on Graham Whittaker in A Chip In The Sugar is excellent. Given that the 1988 original was played by the author himself, it shows that Martin isn’t afraid to step into some big shoes.
However, I should have said the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Martin features as Everett K Ross of the Joint Counter Terrorist Centre, tasked to regulate and control the movements and actions of the Avengers, following the Sokovia Accords. Another American, but we are used to that level of versatility now! Everett Ross wasn’t a big part of Captain America: Civil War, but was developed much more in Black Panther and I can’t wait to see what they do with him in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever!
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!