Sunday Times - August 24, 2003

The One To Watch

For all ITV's flirtation with golden handshakes and exclusive deals, its highest-rated new drama last year was not a vehicle for those who had been considered its biggest stars, such as Robson Green, Sarah Lancashire or Ross Kemp. It didn't even feature an actor under 30. Its biggest new hit starred Michael Kitchen, an actor who seems to be hitting his stride at the age of 54.

The drama was Foyle's War, an old-fashioned detective series full of period charm set in the second world war. It returns later this year, but Kitchen is much more than an actor who looks good in a fedora. An underrated star, you can see just how good he is tomorrow in Alibi. This is an uncategorisable two parter, which is not quite a thriller, and not quite a black comedy, though it has elements of both.

Written by Paul Abbott, it begins with a set-up of Hitchcockian promise. Kitchen's character throws a party for his wife, during which one of the caterers (the excellent Sophie Okonedo) notices she is clearly not as faithful as Kitchen believes. After the party, Okonedo forgets her bag and has to return to the house, where she finds Kitchen standing over a corpse. For a while, you have no idea how it might develop.

"It's a very unusual drama for ITV," says the director, David Richards. "They kept saying, 'What is it, is it a thriller or what?' but it's really about a rather odd relationship that develops betwwen two mismatched people (Kitchen and Okonedo) who would never normally meet. Paul Abbott and I are interested in people who have bigger emotions going on than they have the capacity to express, and essentially Alibi is rather about a rather disorganised, repressed, middle-aged man carried through this awful situation by a much younger, apparently ordinary woman."

Kitchen is perfect in it. "He's terrifically good at suggesting a boiling rage of suppressed emotion, while on the surface being calm," says Richards. "Whatever he is saying, he always looks as if he might be thinking something else."

One of the generation of actors who began his career at the RSC and the National, Kitchen made a few Hollywood movies, including Out of Africa and the Russia House. He has never made it big in Tinseltown, however, specialising in baddies, unlike, say, Alan Rickman. But Kitchen is so good you cannot help but wonder why he has never become a big star. Why hasn't he made it into the super league, like John Thaw or Davis Jason? "You never know why these things don't happen," says Richards. "It's certainly not lack of ability."

Until Foyle's War, he had been one of those actors who is never out of work, yet never the star. He never does interviews, but he is hardly the first actor to keep a low profile. "David Jason appeals to lots of people and John Thaw was very good at being interestingly grumpy, but Michael is more idiosyncratic," says Richards. "He's attractive - whenever I say I'm working with him, loads of women say they fancy him, but maybe he is too acquired a taste." Acquired taste or not, this is a vintage performance.

Thanks to Mairi for sending this over.