A Downhill interview with Karl Theobald

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There’s something wonderfully middle-aged about contemplating the meaning of your own existence and place in the world. At no other age are you expected to conclude deeply and meaningfully upon the geography you’ve passed on your journey. In centuries gone by it was the sole province of women who had been married off and those who were about to die.

That isn’t to say that such reflection has no useful role, only that those doing it tend to be the sort of people who’d prefer to whine about their situation than do anything to remedy it. Or try to relive their youth by metaphorically getting the band back together and attempting to walk from one side of England to the other.

Probably best known for his role as Martin on Green Wing or Twenty Twelve’s Graham Hitchens, Karl Theobald is as enjoyably witty in person as many of the characters he has played. Speaking from Bulgaria on a break from shooting a new series of ITV’s ‘Plebs,’ he tells me that the town has a flea market “selling authentic Nazi memorabilia, butterfly knives and knuckledusters” and where the local shopping mall has a sign reading ‘No smoking, no alcohol, no guns.’” It’s a very different world to the one where ‘Downhill’ was filmed.

The film is structured like a classic road trip movie – but on foot – because size constraints obviously mean that “it’s hard to make a road movie in Britain.” By slowing the pace down, first-time director and writer James Rouse makes excellent use of the conflict men have with their environment to better explore their conflicts with themselves.

All four main characters have very different reasons for coming along, but as far as Theobald is concerned for the men they played, “it’s not pure escapism.” Quoting the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, he tells me that ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,’ and that that for him is what makes Downhill an interesting insight into the middle-aged male’s psyche.

His character, Keith, makes the journey north with his school friends knowing under the weight of a failing marriage due to the recent self-revelation that as Keith puts so succinctly, “I like men, alright?” And for Theobald, Keith “is probably not a man who would have associated himself with contemporary ideas of homosexuality.”

The real issue Keith has, is coming to terms with something that is incompatible with the wife he has, and trying to understand whether his new definition of self will change how he’s understood by others. For Theobald, whose parents divorced when he in his twenties, “certain things came out of [their split] which somewhat made me think ‘Have the last 20 years been a lie?’ And I suppose that’s what happens, you rearrange your life to take account of this part of you that has been a secret.”

Ned Dennehy as Julian, Keith’s antagonist, can be an uncomfortable spectacle. Not least because at numerous times throughout the film I felt complicit with his homophobic humour. His off-the-cuff wit lacks the universality that would make it acceptable outside an audience of similarly minded friends.

Something which did raise questions on set. “We had discussions about it. And I did have certain issues with it and I think Ned had certain issues with it.” There is an attempt to provide historical context to Ned’s barbs, and the understanding on set was that for Ned, “it’s like when black people use racist language, [that having suffered through that experience, now gives Ned] carte blanche to make homophobic jokes.”

Much like Theobald, I don’t know if it takes adversity to forge friendships, but “through hardship, you certainly find out which friends are worth fighting for.”

Unfortunately it doesn’t look like he’ll be reuniting with his Green Wing castmates any time soon. Asked about any potential film or future series, Theobald is categorical: “There haven’t even been hints of rumours.”

Downhill is out in selected UK cinemas now

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