“People don’t have enough decent conversations nowadays.” Craig Parkinson talks acting, podcasts and the human condition
For three seasons of Line of Duty, Craig Parkinson played one of the most obnoxious characters on British telly. Snide, obsequious and ruthless, Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan was a bent copper, embedded in a team dedicated to rooting out bent coppers.
But listeners to his Two Shot Podcast will already be aware that Parkinson in civvies is a world removed from his onscreen personae, which includes playing Kray twins in Whitechapel – with deviousness and guile replaced by honesty and truth. He has also appeared on film in Four Lions, Soul Boy (with AC-12’s very own DC Arnott, Martin Compston) and as Anthony H. Wilson in Control, not to mention a recent run in Hangmen at the Royal Court.
So it’s a small miracle that since the podcast first aired in July last year, he’s racked up a further 55 episodes, with guests including Adrian Dunbar, Meera Syal, Michael Smiley and Dave Haslam. Parkinson says the podcast was born out of a need to keep occupied.
“Being an actor for 20 years, you’re constantly at the beck and call of other people. The control is out of your hands, and I’m not really one to sit down and twiddle my thumbs, I really need to be doing something. I’ve always been a big fan of podcasts. I was consuming a lot, learning loads, getting inspired and I just thought I really needed to do something. Start a podcast. I didn’t know what it would be about. But I knew two things. I knew I didn’t want it to be about me because there’s nothing worse than an actor droning on, and I knew I didn’t want it to be about work, about acting that much. I knew I loved meeting people and talking to people and that was the start of it, and it’s sort of morphed into what it is, really.”
“I suppose it’s about the human condition, human stories about what makes us us. In that way, anybody can listen to the podcast and get something out of it. It doesn’t shut the door, it’s not a closed shop, it’s kind of for everybody.”
So there’s no audience type, as such?
“Our listeners range from students of all sorts to everyday people who have nothing to do with working in the arts at all. There’s a loyal listener who’s a professional gardener in Nottingham. We don’t necessarily talk about a closed circuit of the arts that’s just going to appeal to certain people, because it’s really about the human condition and the everyday struggles we all have at times. They’re just stories, nice conversations. People don’t seem to have enough decent conversations nowadays.”
One conversation I was looking forward to was with Paddy Considine, recorded in front of a live audience at The Charlatans’ North By Northwich festival earlier this summer. Instead, soon after the recording, Parkinson released a four-minute pod explaining why those lucky audience members would be the only people to hear that particular conversation.
“What I’ve always wanted is for the people who come on to know that it’s a safe place where we can talk about anything. There has to be trust and respect there on both sides and not talking to a journalist who’s going to turn it into a hatchet job. The people who come on and open up they have to know trust and respect is there, and it works on both sides. When we listened back to Paddy’s episode we just thought it was such a special moment that we wanted to keep it for those people. We wanted to retain that moment.”
The Two Shot Podcast had already garnered a pretty large and loyal audience by this time (it was 45-episodes-old) so it must have been a tough recording to shelve.
“All round it was actually quite an easy decision to make,” says Parkinson. “It was funny because I was quite nervous about making the announcement that we’d decided not to put it out but it was met with love and respect from all our listeners. Not one person said ‘oh bloody hell why can’t you just put it out?’ – well I can’t do that. It’s not that type of podcast. I don’t know if many people know, but I give all my guests editorial control, so if there’s certain parts of the podcast where they decide they’ve divulged too much then it’s not a problem to edit it out. This is a one-time, organic natural conversation, something which can’t be repeated. When you’re asking people to open up about their past, about certain troubles, whether that’s dark times or mental health issues that they may have, they need to know that the trust respect and honesty is there. The guests are being honest with me, so I have to be honest with them and with the listeners otherwise they can just go and listen to another conversation podcast which isn’t 100 per cent genuine.”
This certainly comes across. Parkinson’s ‘technique’ is not that of interviewer, counsellor, or of someone simply seeking answers. Yes, in many cases he’s chatting to friends over a brew, but his gentle and relaxed approach is as consistent with mates as it is with guests he’s meeting for the first time. And it’s disarming. In addition, The Two Shot Pod is also rather rare among more high profile podcasts in that it doesn’t have any sponsors. I’m guessing this helps him to retain an element of control?
“Well it does, because you’re not part of any larger network of podcasts. We set up a Patreon site and people throw us a few quid but we fund most of it out of our own pocket – myself and producer Tom Griffin (‘Griff’). But it wouldn’t be what it is if someone else had control, we might as well not do it. I think having a sponsor wouldn’t change content or control but would give us a few extra quid to go that extra mile. But then again, I’ve always said to my listeners that I wouldn’t get a sponsor on board – in fact I’ve actually turned sponsors away – that certain other podcasts have. Our listeners don’t want 15 per cent off a mattress that they’re never going to use or a website they’re never going to make. I’m not going to force a sponsor I don’t believe in onto my listeners. When a sponsor does come on board that I agree with, that I believe my audience will get something out of, then I’ll go ahead and draw up a contract. Until then, there’s just no point because we end up turning into every other podcast, and there’s enough competition.”
As Parkinson gears up for a live recording with Ralf Little at the inaugural Manchester Podcast Festival, I wonder if he has some advice for any budding podcasters.
“It’s all about being genuine and honest with the listeners. I listen to a plethora of podcasts that are all very different. That’s the joy of podcasting, it can be whatever you want it to be. But just know what you want it to be, and find your voice. Stick by your guns and just be truthful to that. I see myself as the host but also as a listener, an audience member, because I want to find out the stories from the guests just as the listener does. So sometimes when something shocking happens I’m as shocked as the listener at home. I have two different roles. What’s drawn people in is that it’s life stories, stories with heart and soul. The human condition, and the way it connects with people, is extraordinary.”
I’m often bewildered by the sheer amount of podcasts out there, and so some informed recommendations are always welcome. What’s on the Parkinson playlist at the moment?
“It changes every day. There are certain staples I go back to because I trust where they’re going, so anything the Helen Zaltzman does – The Allusionist is fantastic. There’s a very funny dissection of BBC’s The One Show that John Holmes does called The The One Show Show where they get three people who’ve never watched The One Show and get them to dissect it to show how absurd it all is. Beef & Dairy Network is very funny, Imaginary Advice with Ross Sutherland is very good – that’s a fiction podcast. I like Olly Mann’s stuff. I could go on all day.”
The range of different genres here is telling. Parkinson is interesting because he’s interested. Interested in people. It is writ large across every episode of his Two Shot Podcast and it’s the reason why guests and audiences feel they are in safe hands. Just sit yourself down, put the kettle on and prepare for a nice old chat.
Craig Parkinson is at the Manchester Podcast Festival on October 5, 2018. For more information, click here.
To listen to Parkinson’s chat with the new Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, click here.
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