TV preview: Gabriele Byrne in Quirke

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. Picture: BBC
Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. Picture: BBC
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An opportunity to return to his home city was simply a bonus for Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne, rather than the sole reason he accepted the titular role in the new drama Quirke, which starts on BBC One, on Sunday, at 9pm.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job just to go back to Dublin, it was an added thing for me,” says the 64-year-old, who now lives in New York. “This was a superb script and a fantastic role. Strangely enough, a lot of the locations we visited were locations that I knew extremely well, though.”

Indeed, he revisited his very first flat in the city – “The production team didn’t know that, of course. It was done out to make it look like an apartment in the Fifties, so that was a strange experience” – and they filmed in the theatre where he made his first stage performance.

“That was very bizarre, because what happens in a situation like that is we live most of our lives with very definite demarcations between the past, present and future. And just for a few seconds, it felt like 1978 again, and then it disappeared.

“It was an unsettling feeling really, because the buildings stay the same but you change.”

Set in 1956, Quirke has been adapted from the books by John Banville. The three-part drama follows Byrne’s city pathologist (we never discover his first name), who stumbles back to his lab after a night of drinking to find his colleague and adopted brother, Malachy Griffin, completing some paperwork for a recently deceased woman named Christine Falls.

Mal isn’t thrilled to see Quirke, a fact that troubles the pathologist when he returns the next morning to find Christine’s body gone. Consumed by curiosity, he’s determined to call Mal to account and begins asking questions that lead him on an increasingly complex trail; one that takes him across the Atlantic where he unearths a family secret.

“As most characters are in noir fiction, Quirke’s an outsider and a loner. He’s not a detective who kicks in doors and says, ‘Freeze asshole’. He’s just a curious man who cares about the bodies that are brought in,” says Byrne, who spoke to working pathologists before shooting began.

“I asked this guy how he felt about working with dead people for 30 years and he said, ‘We have to take care of the dead.’ I thought that was an amazing thing to say, that the morgue was like a sacred place.”

Although it’s a mystery thriller, Quirke’s also a character piece and a fictional examination of the kind of society that existed in Dublin 60 years ago.

“It was a very oppressive, almost Taliban-esque society, where children and babies were taken from mothers who were regarded as ‘fallen women’ (women who fell pregnant outside wedlock) and sent to America.”

Although Byrne was only a boy in 1956, he has memories of the era. “When you’re growing up in a place, you’ve no idea that it’s any different anywhere else, because that place is the centre of your universe,” he says.

Byrne, raised a strict Roman Catholic, contemplated becoming a priest before graduating in archaeology and linguistics. He made his film debut in the 1981 epic Excalibur. The movie he considers his game-changer is 1986 political drama Defence Of The Realm, in which he played a reporter.

He muses, “The world of film has changed in the last five years. There’s a big gap between very low budget films, and franchise pictures which cost two or three hundred million. And that gap has been filled by television. The best writers are in television and I think you will see a lot more actors move in that direction, because there used to be a very snobbish attitude.”

He, on the other hand, has always held “a great affection for the way I came up through theatre and TV.”

His recent small screen credits have included Vikings and Secret State but whether he’ll return for another series remains to be seen, however.

“I don’t want to turn into one of those ‘detective guys’. That would kill me altogether,” says Byrne. “I enjoy the level of anonymity I have now. When I was doing In Treatment, it became a bit of a nightmare.

“You have to be very careful with television. I love working but I don’t want that kind of attention again.”

Quirke, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm