“Tom, you never f**king know.” These were the words of wisdom that Sir Kenneth Branagh gave Tom Bateman when he asked Branagh if Murder on the Orient Express would do well in cinemas. Branagh had got everything he asked for – the right actors, his first choice director of photography – and yet, such is the caprice of filmmaking no one could be sure it would be a hit. And so it is with Beecham House, the new ITV series in which Bateman takes the starring role. It could be the next Downton Abbey; the show that cements him as a household name. Alternatively, it could be forgotten immediately. You never f**king know.
I’m having lunch with Bateman on a beautiful day in June. Bateman – dressed down in a white Levi’s t-shirt – has just come from his fourth Scottish accent lesson, a routine necessitated by his next star turn in a drama coming to a streaming service near you. He feels “OK” about the accent; his dialect coach tells him that it’s two steps forward, one step back. The platform in question is also requesting that he attends a barbecue workshop – because his character is good at barbecuing. It has a lot of money.
Few young British actors seem more destined for stardom than Bateman. Aged 30, he has already played the lead in an ITV sci-fi show (Jekyll and Hyde), been Amy Schumer’s love interest on the big screen (Snatched), starred alongside Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz (Murder on the Orient Express), and played the villain in a Liam Neeson film (Cold Pursuit). This is not to mention his theatre work, in which, scarcely into his twenties, he trod the boards with David Tennant, Joanna Lumley, and Robert Lindsay. The best indication of his success isn’t that he has never had a job besides acting, nor that he has bought a London flat by himself; it’s that he’s the kind of man who, when relating a story about the aforementioned knight of the realm, refers to him as ‘Ken’.
Written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, Beecham House tells the story of ex-soldier John Beecham, once of the East India Company but now an independent trader, who arrives in Delhi in 1795 to become the new master of an estate. Bateman spent 17 weeks shooting in India, and, as the lead, was on set the whole time.“I can’t even put into words how hard India was,” he says. “I lost so much weight. Every week we’d move to a new part of India; you unpack…it was just a really hard time. You’re pinching yourself, going, ‘This is amazing. There are thousands of other actors who would have killed for this part. You’re so lucky.’ That doesn’t make it not hard.”
In a line that Bateman tells me has been cut from the show, John Beecham says, “I’m not here to build walls.” He agrees that this line was a kind of nod to you-know-very-well-who. “She doesn’t give a f**k about upsetting people,” he says of Chadha. “It sounds a bit precious or darling or whatever but it was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. When I read the scripts I said, ‘Ah cool, this isn’t just a costume drama – we’re really trying to say something here.’”
Handsome, six foot plus and deep of voice, Bateman has stepped willingly into roles that utilise these screen-friendly traits. Can he feel the industry shaping him to be a certain kind of commodity? “I can in a way,” he says. “What tends to happen is, ‘Oh, you were the tall leading guy in that, do you wanna come and audition for the tall leading guy in this?’” In America you feel it a bit more, he thinks, but the world of acting still feels precarious – even to a leading man. Any notion that he has money to burn and countless scripts to leaf through is, in his opinion, false: “I do a job and then I’m almost back to square one. I question myself every single day.”
Up to this point, it would be fair to say that Bateman’s screen career has been peppered with bad luck: one of Jekyll and Hyde’s episodes had to be postponed after coinciding with the 2015 Paris attacks, Snatched under-performed and, while promoting Cold Pursuit, Liam Neeson made a now notorious racial slur which immediately doused any flames the film might have been generating. Beecham House could be the moment that Bateman ascends but he is mature enough not to believe the hype about himself. He has been in so many projects that were supposed to be the next big thing, he says, that he doesn’t get carried away. As a great man once said, you never f**king know.
Beecham House airs on ITV at 9pm on 23 June.
Looking for more small screen suggestions? Check out our guide to what to watch on Netflix in June 2019…