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Culture: Frost thaws away from the limelight; Birmingham-born actor Mark Frost has made a career out of playing baddies - his latest is a wife beater. But he's a nice guy, really, as Caroline Foulkes found out.

Byline: Caroline Foulke

Mark Frost wants to set the record straight. He's a nice bloke, really. The kind of bloke you could take home to meet your mother. And he'd probably bring her some flowers, too.

But if you saw him in the street, you might cross the road.

The Longbridge-born actor, now based in Ealing, west London, has a bit of a history of playing television baddies. Not just blokes that are a little bit naughty, a bit shady, but bad bad. The kind of blokes that would make Phil and Grant Mitchell look like pussycats.

He's had a long-running role in The Bill as the placid-sounding Jeff Simpson. But unlike his name, Jeff is not placid. He's a Nazi sympathiser who has an on-going feud with the Sun Hill police, resulting in murder.

Mark's latest role, in the BBC 1 dramaStretford Wives, has him playing Billy Brent, a wife-beater who is still obsessed with his ex, Donna, played by Cold Feet's Fay Ripley. Having put Donna in hospital, Billy has earned himself a holiday at Her Majesty's pleasure. When he gets out, he finds Donna is having a fling with a policeman. And he is not best pleased.

During the course of the twopart drama, he not only takes his anger out on Donna, he also beats up her new boyfriend.

'Billy is an immensely dark and horrific character,' says Mark, 33.

'The challenge for me was to bring a human aspect to his personality which would enable people to understand why he behaves as he does - it wasn't the sort of character you can just play like a stock baddie. He is involved in violence but he really loves this woman, too.'

Mark says the role was a challenge, both physically and mentally, as it gave him the opportunity to develop the character more fully.

'The thing about Stretford Wives is that the writing is just so good - far and away the best I've ever worked with. It immediately felt like a piece I really wanted to work on, very realistic and gritty in the kitchen sink tradition. So I wanted to find some kind of history for Billy. He has a faade as a hard man, but I think underneath he is a very weak and scared individual who has perhaps been a victim in the past. Without being an apologist for him I wanted to realise the ways in which he might be suffering, the ways in which he was also a victim. On The Bill you don't get the same amount of time to build up a character like that.'

As part of his research Mark spoke to both victims and abusers, as well as talking to those who help to rehabilitate them. He says the most difficult thing for him was coming to terms with how widespread the problem of domestic abuse is, and why so many victims choose to stay.

'It's still a bigger problem than we hear about. And it's difficult for someone who's never been in one of those situations to understand. With the person who is being abused, you think why do you stay, why do you put up with it? And it's for all kinds of reasons, it can be because they blame themselves. It's difficult to understand, I think, unless you have been part of it. From the point of view of the person who is doing the abusing, I think they can delude themselves that what they are doing is not as serious as it is. There's a very real part of them that genuinely believes they love the person they are abusing, and they want to make everything alright straight afterwards. It's a hard thing to deal with.'

One of the people he spoke to was a prison employee, who worked with domestic violence offenders on a daily basis.

'We discussed some of the possible triggers for violent behaviour and what effect a person's upbringing could have on the way they treat women. That helped me gain a greater understanding of how and why people adopt abusive behavioural patterns.'

Yet although he was invited to attend some of the sessions in the prison, he decided it against it.

'I didn't want to become a voyeur, I didn't want them to see me as a middle class, privileged person, just coming in and observing them.'

Filming the scenes was even more difficult, and Mark says they affected him deeply. 'Some days were easier than others. There were days when Fay and I had to get really physical. Those days I'd just go home feeling very different from my usual self, and I'd just sit there, quietly.

'I think it's quite scary that this kind of thing is potentially inside all of us. It becomes quite uncomfortable if you think about it. Everyone has a temper and everyone can lose it.'

Mark's first TV role was equally as scary - but only in the sense that he felt it might be his last.

'It was a Dennis Potter drama, the one he made just before he found out he had cancer - it was called something like Midnight Movie. It was the one he made after Lipstick on your Collar, and it starred the same girl in the lead role, Louise Germaine.

'I was so scared, because Dennis Potter was a bit of a hero of mine, and I had to meet him. I was convinced that I'd mess it up somehow and never work again. A week later he wrote more into my part, including my first sex scene with the female lead. I was even more nervous, and came away wondering if I ever wanted to go through it again.'

He says he fell into acting, seeing it as a way of escaping the nine to five slog. If he'd got into Oxford, it could have all been very different.

'After my A'levels I basically tried to get into Oxford, having done better than I expected in my exams - and I failed abysmally. So I decided to do something completely different; I chose drama at Warwick. At the end of my course I was desperate to avoid a nine to five job, so I applied for drama school. I suppose it was laziness on my part really. I was very green and I never imagined I could make a living at it - I thought you had to know a lot of people or have been in the business all your life before you were getting decent, regular work.'

But despite the Dennis Potter meeting which he thought had gone so terribly wrong, Mark has had quite a few regular roles.

Besides Jeff Simpson, he's also played Dr Steve Rawlings in the day time BBC 1 soap Doctors for about 18 months, and has just finished working on a series of In Deep with Stephen Tompkinson and Nick Berry.

His next role will be a stage one - but not before one of his baddies finally meets his match.

'Jeff Simpson will be getting his comeuppance in the next couple of weeks,' he says, laughing.

Stretford Wives will be shown on Wednesday, August 21 at 9pm.

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Mark Frost may have a reputation as a hard man, but he finds the roles more challenging than playing the good guy
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 19, 2002
Words:1221
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