Owen Brenman in Doctors

As Doctor Heston Carter, Owen Brenman has been through the mill at The Mill recently, after suffering domestic abuse at the hands of his partner, Marina. But now he feels strong enough to fight back. Here, the actor talks about his time on Doctors

The domestic abuse storyline about a woman hitting a man is very sensitive. How did you feel when you first read it in the script?
I thought it was really interesting. I’ve been in the show for three-and-a-half years. You have your moments in the sun with a good storyline and then you take a bit of a back seat. So it was nice to tackle something like this as it’s so well written. You just have to make whatever you have in front of you work, without necessarily knowing where the scripts are going to end up. And when you’re acting opposite someone, you try to make it interesting, real and believable.

DoctorsLuckily, in real life, you get on well with Marian McLoughlin, who plays Heston’s abuser, Marina.
The audience might think, ‘Oh they hate each other,’ but we didn’t. We got on very well, which, in a funny way, made the scenes easier to do. When it’s collaborative, you feel you can take more risks.

What do you think it is that finally makes Heston snap?
Other people may have reached that point sooner, but he eventually thinks that this is enough. Maybe this is true of people who are abused, and why it carries on. But he does reach that point where he realises that he doesn’t deserve to be treated like that and he stands up for himself. It takes him a while to get there.

At least he has the support of his colleagues…
Yes but it’s complicated by the fact that Owen and Marina have already broken up before and everyone convinced them to get back together because they didn’t know about the abuse. Maybe he thinks it’s a case of better the devil you know. But obviously then it got really violent and all ends again.

Do you think Heston has changed since he first arrived?
Initially, Heston was quite a comical figure – a bit more of a buffoon. I think that was because I tended to do more comedy than drama because I was the next-door neighbour Nick, in One Foot In The Grave. So they pushed the comedy a lot more with me, which was fine. But then they moved me sideways and took a more dramatic line, which was very interesting and I liked it a lot.

Will Heston be able to trust another woman again?Doctors
That’s a good point. Heston has had a lot of suffering and difficulty in his life - particularly with women. In previous storylines, he was married and his wife had a child, but it was someone else’s child and he didn’t know. He’s been let down a lot. It would be quite nice for him to have a successful relationship with a woman. I think he’s probably quite hopeful and, at heart, quite romantic. He presents this image of not caring, but I think inside, he’s quite soft.

What do you think the future holds for Heston now?
Although he tries to put the whole Marina situation behind him, it will affect his life in other ways, and he starts behaving in a way that he maybe wouldn’t have behaved if that hadn’t happened.

As well as appearing in front of the camera, you’ve also worked behind it as you’ve directed some episodes of Doctors haven't you?
Yes, I’ve done that twice now. I’ve done six episodes all together, because you do three episodes at a time. The last three I did just before Christmas. I loved it. It’s very hard work because it’s very fast - you’re shooting about 12 minutes a day. It could be one of the fastest shoots in TV!

It sounds exhausting!
Each episode takes just over two days and it’s great. I love it, but it’s quite bruising. You come out at the end feeling like you’ve been in a fight, you’ve had to compromise and you haven’t quite been able to do certain things. And you’re using a different part of your brain which I like as well, because suddenly you’re the grown up in a way, that’s how I liken it. You’re not just responsible for yourself and your own performance, everyone is looking at you and saying, ‘What do I do now?’ And you have to make the decisions, rightly or wrongly. It’s scary but very exciting.

DoctorsWhat’s it like to direct people that you’re working on-screen with every day?
They’re very good. When I first did it I thought I’d have to be a bit careful. But they know the score and you can rely on them to come up with the goods. The second time I did it, I was less fearful of suggesting different things. But they’re all usually pretty spot on so it’s not bad actually. You have to sometimes spend a bit more time maybe with the guest stars because they sort of hit the ground running and have to get up to speed quickly. But all actors are different.

So do you really enjoy it?
Yes. I’ve always been an actor who sits on the side watching a scene and wanting to say, ‘Well why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’ so I’d had to bite my tongue and acknowledge that’s not really my job and they might not like that. But when you’ve been acting as long as I have, you pick things up. I’ve worked with some very good people over the years and some very good directors and writers and you don’t realise how much you actually know until you start doing it.

Would you have done things differently if you’d been directing these final scenes between Heston and Marina?
(Laughs) Oh … that’s difficult… No I think Niall Fraser who directed them is a very nice director, and he was the one who encouraged me a lot to direct as well. We think a lot of the directors would think, ‘No, no, you stick to your job and I’ll stick to mine.’

Is it more difficult to direct a daytime drama than a primetime drama?
The only thing that is sometimes a worry about daytime TV is not making something too violent or too nasty. You kind of get quoted on how much blood you’re allowed to use and there are rules about compliance. But what I find interesting is trying to make the thing come alive and come off the page.

You mentioned earlier that you were in One Foot In The Grave. Weren't you recently reunited with your former co-star, Richard Wilson, in a theatre tour?
It was in 2007 and we were in Whipping It Up. It was fantastic to be working with him again. Richard is an example of how to be a company leader. When we did One Foot In The Grave, he remembered everybody’s names on set. He’s very generous, and I think partly because his fame came in his fifties I think he sort of appreciated it and he was nice. He’s a good guy.

Had you stayed in touch after One Foot In The Grave?
Sort of. I’m not very good at staying in touch. Richard sometimes has birthday parties that I get invited to. He’s much more of a networker then I am and thank God he is!

Do you like keeping your hand in with stage work?
Yes, and that’s the one thing I miss at the moment, because I’ve been in Doctors for almost four years now. I think the more you go without doing theatre, the more frightening it becomes. But I feel lucky to be working and then doing a part that I enjoy and being able to direct TV. So it ticks quite a lot of boxes.

Is there a role you still hanker after – either on stage or on screen?
That’s a difficult question. No, I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Macbeth because I don’t think I’m a classical actor. This is a really boring answer, but I just love to work with good scripts and good people really. I’ve got a fantasy about going to America, but thousands of other British actors are already out there, sitting about by a pool, waiting for the phone to ring. But that is my fantasy.

Elaine Penn