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Joe Cole on being Harry Palmer: ‘It is such a cool character’

The Peaky Blinders star is stepping fearlessly into Michael Caine’s very large shoes in a brand new adaptation of The Ipcress File.

“I don’t know if trepidation is the right word, but I’m waiting for the backlash. The keyboard warriors will be out.”

Joe Cole is under no illusions, aware that he is stepping into illustrious shoes, wearing iconic clobber and sporting some legendary specs in his new role. It takes a brave actor to take on Harry Palmer, arguably the coolest character in Michael Caine’s impeccable early career. But Cole feels no fear as he stars in a new six-part version of The Ipcress File, adapted from Len Deighton’s Cold War classic. Best known for Peaky Blinders, Gangs of London and Black Mirror, Cole is afraid of neither aggro nor online trolls. Besides, he has just returned from a ju-jitsu class when The Big Issue calls.

The Big Issue: What convinced you that this was the right time for a new version of this story?

Joe Cole: The only way you’re going to do The Ipcress File is if it is different from the film. Our series is six parts, so it is sticking closer to the book. It delves into who these people are in more detail. And you have got to remember that the film was almost 60 years ago. It is iconic, and a special film for so many. My dad’s generation love it. But this is something different. Hopefully people will be able to enjoy this as well.

It evokes the ’60s so well – how did you get into that time?

I wish I had grown up in the 1960s or ’70s, although I’m sure there were some drawbacks. But it was a booming time. I had a lot of fun living there for a time – I was listening to the loads of 1960s Spotify playlists, started cooking more, because Harry cooks. I tried to hark back to those times, channel my grandad’s era – ditching the iPhone and being a bit more present, a bit more mindful.

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What are the key themes?

This feels like a different time, a different place. And it is different to anything else that is around at the moment – the 1960s, spies, espionage, brainwashing, intercontinental, it looks at race, feminism, the class divide. The Cold War is such a fascinating period of history. I feel like we are there again. We are on the way there, aren’t we?

Did you watch the 1965 film or stick to the book?

I watched the movie and immediately regretted it. No, I didn’t regret it. I just thought, ‘I can’t watch any more of this.’ Because Michael Caine makes such a statement with his Harry Palmer that you don’t want it to colour your own version. You want to do your own thing. I’d thought maybe I could try to just take the best bits – but that wasn’t going to work. 

You went with the iconic look – those glasses…

It is such a cool character. I loved immersing myself in that world. And he is far more stylish than I am in my day-to-day life. I was meeting the costume designer in a glasses shop and got there early. I tried on every pair and knew these were the ones. It was so important to get that right and not look like you are wearing fancy dress. 

I need glasses for the first time – should I get some Harry Palmer-style ones or will everyone be wearing them soon?

Nah, go for it. But be quick. As soon as the show is out you will be in trouble. Actually, I remember when we all got those haircuts for Peaky Blinders, it took a minute before it really caught on. 

Peaky Blinders is entering its final season – do you still get the gossip from the cast WhatsApp group?

Ha! There’s no Peaky Blinders Whats App group. But I hear the stories. My little brother is still in it. It’s a massive show and I had a lot of fun on it. I was only 23 when I started it, so there’s a lot of good memories. I’m excited to watch it as a viewer. 

You have two films coming out – one about bizarre endurance contests in the US and another about a Danish polar expedition. You’re giving us some range at the moment.

Yeah, a bit of variety. One of These Days is a mad story about trying to win a truck in southern America. They have these endurance competitions to keep your hand on the truck for as long as possible. Essentially, it’s bear baiting. It’s getting poor people to win the shiny object, like all their dreams will come true and problems will be solved. But the reality is somewhat different. It’s based on a true story. Against The Ice was an experience as well – out in Iceland, on the glaciers, in some of the most beautiful nature in the world. To me it’s about changing up the narrative, surprising people, having as much variety as possible and trying not to do any duds. 

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Do you seek out roles for their physicality – whether it is touching a truck for hours on end, trekking up glaciers or having massive fights in Gangs of London?

I don’t enjoy it, I just get paid to do it. But I definitely don’t mind getting my hands dirty. I did a cycle ride [he’s being modest – it was 980 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats] for Momentum Children’s Charity, who support kids with life-challenging conditions. For my next challenge for them I’m thinking either a triathlon or a ju-jitsu fight. Both of them terrify me.

The Ipcress File is on ITV and ITV Hub from March 6 at 9pm. One of These Days is in cinemas from April 1 

@adey70


This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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