Two of East Lancashire’s most famous sons have combined to produce one of the most eagerly anticipated TV events of the year. Actor John Simm talks about working with director Michael Winterbottom and how the prison drama Everyday reminded him of how much time he spends away from his own family . . .

ACTOR John Simm has gone from Life on Mars to life behind bars for his latest project, Everday, which sees him reunited with director Michael Winterbottom.

The drama, to be screened on Channel Four on Thursday, was shot over a five-year period and follows a family coping with their father’s prison sentence.

For Simm, who grew up in Nelson where he attended Edge End High School, it was the third time he has worked with the prolific film maker.

Winterbottom, who grew up in Mellor and attended Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Blackburn, has become known as one of the film industry’s most innovative figures. For Everday he found a real set of four young siblings (Stephanie, Robert, Shaun and Katrina Kirk) who were asked to pretend that Simm and on-screen wife Shirley Henderson were their parents.

Much of the film is shot in their real house and the school they actually attend in real life.

Cameras were non-intrusive, to the point that Simm jokes he wasn’t even sure when they were filming.

“A lot of the time you don’t know where the camera is. You’ve got a mic on and sometimes you think, ‘Is he actually filming this, or have they gone home?’ It’s like you’re living it,” he recalls.

Not only that, but Everyday was shot over a period of five years and used only the bare outline of a script.

It’s very natural as a result and, as time goes by, we see the children grow up and become increasingly distant from their ‘father’.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t see them for a year,” says Simm. “I would be on the end of a phone and we’d always have a real conversation. And because they’re kind of not acting - they’re only acting in that they’re pretending we’re their parents - I would ask them what they got for Christmas, and that was what they really got for Christmas!”

It also meant that Simm and Henderson had to pick up their characters every so often, and find time between their schedules to film.

Simm said: “It just all worked out. We’d get a phone call after doing a job and we’d all be around and off I’d go back to prison!”

Playing a character separated from his family struck a chord with Simm who in the past few years has filmed Doctor Who in Cardiff and Mad Dogs in Majorca, and knows what it’s like to be separated from the family.

“Sometimes I spend three months away and I’m used to those phone calls, and how upsetting it is that I’ve missed that and I’ve missed this, so I could relate to that in a very small way, although it’s nothing like being in prison,” says Simm, who has two children; Ryan, 10, and Molly, five, with his actress wife Kate Magowan.

Filming on location in real prisons, Simm had a real insight into what it must be like to be locked up, describing it as “horrendous”.

“People say it’s cushy being in prison, and it certainly isn’t from what I saw,” he said. “It’s no picnic at all. And being wrenched apart from your family, there’s nothing worse than that.

“And for it to be your fault as well is an awful thing to carry around and try to make right in these little pockets of time you’ve got together.”

The film doesn’t take an overly political stance. It doesn’t specify why Ian is in prison (although, given that he serves five years, it can be implied the crime was a serious one).

Simm says they were more interested in the emotional responses to a prison sentence.

“All the prisoners I talked to, when I asked what the worst experience was, said it was when the door shuts for the first time in your cell. And you look around your tiny room and you think, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ “There was one guy I spoke to - when he went in he had his own business, he was married with a family, and as he was about to leave prison his wife had left him, the business was finished and he had to start again. And he kept saying, ‘I just made a massive mistake’.”

Simm says the actual prisoners had no problems with the filming and he got on with everybody he came into contact with.

“But sometimes with me trying to swagger down a prison corridor, I’d get, ‘Get back into your time machine, you idiot’, and that would suddenly bring me back to earth.”

  • Everyday, Channel 4, Thursday, 9pm