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Toby Jones: 'I absolutely can't watch myself on TV. It's not something I enjoy doing'

(Image credit: Milk)

Toby Jones plays a lawyer in Agatha Christie's The Witness For The Prosecution, and he'll be back on our screens in January as a mysterious new Sherlock villain. We spoke to him to find out more...

Toby Jones plays a lawyer in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short story, set in 1920s London. We caught up with him to talk about the crime drama and his role as Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest nemesis…

What can you tell us about The Witness For The Prosecution? "The story is set in 1923, so the war has been over for five years. My character, John Mayhew, was in the war and it still affects him. The war in this drama has a massive impact on everyone. And it has a massive impact on everyone’s understanding of the murder, and the value of life."

Now he's a lawyer... "Like a lot of people, he’s not thriving – he’s having to eke out a living as a solicitor. When a very wealthy heiress - played by Kim Cattrall - is murdered he sees a chance to make some serious money. It feels like an open and shut case, but he becomes possessed by it. It turns him into something of a detective, because he’s trying to hunt down any possible clue he can get to try to represent this guy properly and it leads him into a certain kind of madness.

The original short story was only 23 pages long, can you tell us what Sarah Phelps has done to expand it to a two part series? "Sarah’s adaptation is brilliant. From this very short story, she’s extrapolated lots of issues – the whole notion of good and bad. This is a good war, we’re going off to fight it, but after the war, that’s all up for grabs..."

Had you come across the story before you read the script? "I wasn’t familiar with it. Before the script arrived, I associated Agatha Christie with clockwork plots that however violent or crazed the murder is, order is restored at the end. That’s not what Sarah has written here. What she’s written here is that order is not necessarily restored at the end – it’s jeopardized!"

Your wife is a criminal defence barrister, did she help you prepare for the role? "She did, in so far as I speak the language a bit. It’s a slightly different age but I know the process pretty well because every day of the week she’s dealing with solicitors, but our jobs are pretty similar. There’s the public speaking element, but more importantly there’s the empathizing with strangers element, which is similar to both our work."

Are there some good meaty courtroom scenes in this? "There are and there’s a challenge in courtroom drama to reinvent them. There’s very little you can do to reinvent a courtroom drama because courtroom scenes are about reaction shots. They’re about people speaking and a reaction shot. And it’s really about how you create enough reaction – enough of a spectrum – that you don’t kill off mystery, in a way. That the actors are required to react in such a way that the game is kept going."

How was it working with Sex And The City star, Kim Cattrall? "I think I’m the only actor on set who didn’t work with Kim because obviously my relationship with her starts once she is dead. That’s not a spoiler is it?"

Are you a big Agatha Christie fan? "No, because I’ve met big Agatha Christie fans and I know what they’re like and I’m not a big Agatha Christie fan! Agatha Christie is such a massive figure in the culture that it would be hard to avoid Agatha Christie and you grow up watching Agatha Christie and various adaptations become iconic in your head. And you go, remember Peter Ustinov in Death In the Nile? Or Albert Finney in Murder On The Orient Express. Yes, I know about those things but I’m not a completest. I’ve got friends who have got first editions and things like that..."

You were in Murder On The Orient Express a few years back... "The only thing I really remember about Murder On The Orient Express is being stabbed by most of equity. I was lying there on this train and they’d fixed up this rig, so I could be stabbed, repeatedly stabbed by everyone – I hope this isn’t a spoiler. It felt like, David Morrissey? Next. Barbara Hershey? Next. Eileen Atkins? Next. As they plunged the knife into what was my chest. That’s my weird memory of it. I used that as my Christmas card that year!"

Nice... "Yes it was perfect, because there was snow all around me, there was blood that looked kind of festive and there was me, dead. I thought it was a festive little card."

What do you watch at Christmas – do you have traditions? "We do - we watch It’s A Wonderful Life. Other than that, it's old movies and stuff. But everyone’s very busy at Christmas so it’s usually Boxing Day when people watch TV. On Christmas Day, by the time everything is done, there’s a row to get on with – that takes care of the evening. Then you wake up, there’s amends to be made and then you watch TV!"

Can you watch yourself on TV? "I absolutely can’t watch myself. It's not something I enjoy doing."

So if this is on Boxing Day? "I shall go for a lovely Christmas walk."

Is it true The Detectorists is no more? "I wouldn’t say that. Talking to Mackenzie Crook quite openly, he said, “I’ve got this real trouble of the six episode thing.” And we’d chat about it. So I think it may not happen in six episodes, but it may happen in a different format..."

...a movie maybe? "I loved making the series, but don’t know if anyone would want to watch a movie about two people in a field. It would be quite hard to make that a dynamic movie!"

You're in the new series of Sherlock, playing a mysterious villain … have you been accosted by Sherlock fans? "Not accosted. But it’s weird. It begins to affect you. You’re aware that people who you thought were rational and friends of yours somehow manage to bring it into conversation. And all of these fans of the show – not least my kids – everyone’s aware of this storm that’s coming. Which is this new Sherlock!"

Were you taken aback by it? "I never fully appreciate how big something is. I remember when I did the voice of Dobby and I said, ‘I’ve got this really interesting job, this little elf character in the Harry Potter film.’ It was early in the cycle and I hadn’t read the book, but people were weeping at the other end of the phone. It’s quite helpful to be a little naïve about things."

Your daughters are Sherlock fans. Have they been probing you for information? "I wish they were interested in my life. They don’t care."

... not even Sherlock? "They’re interested in Sherlock. But honestly, they have to listen to people asking me stuff about it. They have to watch me far more than anyone should have to watch anyone. They don’t ask me about my job. They go, enough about Dad! Enough!"

You said some of your friends had asked you about Sherlock. Is there anyone who’s surprised you with their enthusiasm? "Well, I might be underestimating it because I think the show is so big now. And again, I say I wasn’t aware of this before I did it, that everyone says something. If it’s not them, it’s their kids. You know, tell us about Sherlock, what was it like? And the rather boring thing to say about it is that like any other TV thing, it’s just that it is a very good quality script. It’s very clear what they’re aiming for. There’s no doubt about the world of it and how they want to do it. And that’s very reassuring. I’m about to go and do more sound dubbing on it now. So I’ll get more of an idea!"

The Witness For The Prosecution will air on BBC1 this Christmas