He plays a detective in the most dangerous community in Britain, but rising star Gwilym Lee has far more than murder on his mind…
As fictional worlds go, Gwilym Lee operates in one of the most dangerous. Yes, he’s DS Charlie Nelson in Midsomer Murders, the programme in which villagers end up drowned in tureens of soup, impaled on cricket stumps or clobbered silly with legs of lamb from the meat raffle, with terrifying regularity. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s also just finishing a run of the First World War drama, Versailles, at the Donmar Warehouse.
Right now though, he has more pressing concerns than the next whodunnit. He’s about to run the London Marathon. ‘It’s a bloomin’ nightmare. I don’t know what I’m doing,’ 33-year-old Gwilym confesses with only the slightest hint of hysteria. ‘I’m an idiot. I’m training for the marathon. And I’ve also got to move house, and I’ve got this mammoth play…
‘I might have taken on too much. But it’s going all right. It is going all right.’
Besides, it’s all for a very good cause. Gwilym is running in memory of his friend Simon Fenn, who died from pancreatic cancer two years ago. ‘He was an incredible man,’ he says. ‘He was my age, and an amazing athlete. He did three Ironman competitions, and ran a marathon in three hours and eight minutes. But he was struck with pancreatic cancer and died five months later.
‘So I’m running the marathon for the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund and for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. The charities are a great inspiration. Any morning I wake up and it’s cold, it’s raining and it’s windy and I can’t be bothered, their work makes me get out of bed.’
When Gwilym isn’t panicking about running 26 miles he’s quietly becoming a household name. His role on Midsomer Murders is quite a coup. And not bad for a chap who admits that he only started drama classes because it was a good opportunity to meet girls. ‘I went to a boys’ school,’ he says. ‘Drama was a social thing really, a bit of fun, and I never took it too seriously.’ But the Royal Shakespeare Company was just down the road and before long he was cast in Richard III.
‘All of a sudden I was exposed to the reality of the art,’ he recalls. ‘I was seeing these actors in their mid-20s, who seemed miles away from me – they were proper actors. But I thought “this is a feasible profession”, it can be done.’
Gwilym Lee with DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon), Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (eft) and Ann Eleonora Jorgensen (right) from The Killings Of Copenhagen episodeGwilym Lee with DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon), Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (eft) and Ann Eleonora Jorgensen (right) from The Killings Of Copenhagen episode
He was about 16 when he first considered giving acting a real go as a career. But his school advised him to get a qualification to fall back on. ‘I had a meeting with my teacher and he said, “What are your ideas for a career?” And I said, “Oh, I wanna be an actor.” And he said, “That’s really nice, but what do you actually want to do?”
‘It wasn’t a cruel or facetious response. It was quite helpful because it’s not an easy profession.’ And so he went to Cardiff to get an English degree. Gwilym, as his name suggests, has Welsh heritage. His parents are both Welsh – although he was born in Bristol. But can he speak it? ‘I had great ideas when I went to Cardiff about learning it, and I lived with two Welsh speakers for two years.
‘But, needless to say, the idea of sitting down and doing a language class in your free time wasn’t as appealing as going to the bar. I can say a few words and I can sing in the language, but I couldn’t have a conversation in Welsh.’
Prior to Midsomer, Gwilym was most at home in the theatre. ‘It’s a great way to learn your craft as there’s nothing between you and the audience. It’s acting at its most exposed. But television offers other attractions. Not least, and I know this is shallow, you don’t have to give up every evening of your life for six months.
‘When I first left drama school, I did a lot of theatre, and it took me a long while to play a character that didn’t die at the end of the play. I had a habit of being in these big, heavy, tragic, classical plays.’
Nevertheless, he was delighted to return to the stage in Versailles. ‘A lot of the issues that came about in the First World War we’re still dealing with today: America’s position in the world and its foreign policy and the breakdown of the British Empire.’
So how does he prepare for such a tense performance? ‘A Berocca usually goes down pretty well, and a few Percy Pigs. Maybe a banana.’
And how is it being a key character in Midsomer?
‘I spent months last summer gallivanting around the countryside investigating weird and wonderful murders. It was great,’ he chuckles.
Let’s just hope Gwilym doesn’t end up a victim himself in the next series.
ALL IN A GOOD CAUSE
Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund: www.pcrf.org.uk
Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research: www.leukaemialymphomaresearch.org.uk
Sponsor Gwilym’s marathon at: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/GwilymLee
First published in the Lady magazine