Square Mile
Menu Search

Henry Lloyd-Hughes: "You don’t know what role is going to define you"

Henry Lloyd-Hughes has starred in some of the biggest British shows of the past decade – The Inbetweeners, Killing Eve and now The Irregulars. Will Sherlock Holmes be the first role on his death reel?

Henry Lloyd-Hughes

Henry Lloyd-Hughes is showing me around his shed. Virtually, of course – the nation remains locked down and our conversation takes place over Zoom. And even if it wasn’t, even if Henry and I had found a means to speak in-person, it’s unlikely we’d be speaking in his shed. Interviews tend not to be conducted in sheds. Coffee shops, pub gardens (oh boy), photo studios, yes. Sheds, by and large, no. Even Shed Weekly prefer to do theirs in a Wendy House. Better acoustics, you see. Plus it comes equipped with its own tea set, although the tea itself requires a touch of imagination.

Alas, my Wendy House days are behind me – but were I required to conduct an interview in a shed, I would happily take Henry Lloyd-Hughes’s shed. As sheds go, it’s a doozy. There’s a proper recording deck for one thing, headphone, mic, the full shebang. It’s an ideal setup for his voiceover work – he appeared in a recent World of Warcraft game. Unfortunately the acting, the sportswear brand N.E. Blake, and the two small children rather dominate his schedule.

“It’s a lot,” says Lloyd-Hughes of lockdown life with the little ’uns. “Everyone’s on top of each other all the time.” He and his wife “spent a lot of time trying to work out how not to be the worst parents in the world.” They needed a refuge, a place to unwind. No joy with the private island but they did have a back garden. “Ah man, it was the best decision I ever made,” grins Lloyd-Hughes. There’s nothing like the joys of fatherhood to make a man appreciate his shed.

What else is in here? Apart from a small blue bicycle – the sole intrusion of infanthood – the vibe is very much ‘man-cave chic’. The wall behind Lloyd-Hughes has a lot going on. There’s a shelf festooned with framed pictures of old schoolmates and sports teams. There’s a white pendant trimmed with gold. There’s a large monochrome photograph of men I don’t recognise but feel I should.

“That is a band I used to be in,” says Lloyd-Hughes. “The people in it maintained their musical status, whereas I have lapsed.” It must have been quite a good band: pictured in the photo are Charlie Frink, composer and frontman of Noah and the Whale, and singer-songwriter Charles Costa aka King Charles. Perhaps Lloyd-Hughes should contemplate unlapsing – but then he’s playing Sherlock Holmes on Netflix’s much-ballyhooed crime drama The Irregulars. The acting lark seems to be going OK.

Henry Lloyd-Hughes

We’ll come to The Irregulars momentarily: it’s a hell of a show and Lloyd-Hughes’s Holmes is unlike any of his predecessors – quite an achievement considering there are more than 250 of them. We’ll talk about his career, too: it’s been an eclectic one, ranging from The Inbetweeners to Les Misérables to Killing Eve, and Lloyd-Hughes offers a fascinatingly candid perspective of the showbiz industry – emphasis on the biz.

But first, Henry, on the door behind you – is that a framed England shirt from the 2019 Cricket World Cup?

Damn right. Inscribed with a personal message from our victorious captain Eoin Morgan: ‘Henry, thanks for your support over the summer.’ Wow. How did he get that? “Not justifiably. Not fairly, would be my answer. I did not single-handedly win England the World Cup.”

He wasn’t even at the final. He was abroad with his family – “I was gonna say holiday, but when you’ve got two small kids the concept of a holiday becomes slightly nebulous. We tried to go away somewhere. It was very expensive for a very short period of time. Just long enough so that I missed the World Cup final.”

My step-grandfather played tennis at Wimbledon. He lost to a man with one arm

To compensate for this absence, Lloyd-Hughes flooded his social media with support for the England cricket team. Doing his bit, in that great British tradition. Was his bit as significant as, say, Ben Stokes’s bit? Let’s be honest, no. But it was enough to receive a signed cricket shirt from the ECB marketing department. “Isn’t that sweet?” says Lloyd-Hughes happily. “I framed it and made it look very important.”

Perhaps he should reciprocate by sending Morgan a signed N.E. Blake shirt. Not content with co-founding East London cricket club The Bloody Lads – “team slogan: focus on the good and put the rubbish in the bin” – Lloyd-Hughes launched a sportswear label in 2019. Its speciality, luxury cricket whites; its name a homage to the shop owned by his great-grandfather Nicholas ‘Paddy’ Padwick. The modern N.E. Blake just opened its first shop in Korea. “We’ve gone from zero shops to shops in Korea,” says the founder, a tad surprised himself by this development.

Weirdly, sales have remained steady over the past year – despite, you know. Maybe everyone is stockpiling for summers to come. Lloyd-Hughes speculates the ban on village cricket might have made village cricket cool. (At last!) “Maybe when you say to people, ‘you can’t play sport’, they’re like, ‘you know what? I bloody well am! And I’m gonna do it in this really nice gear!’”

Another lockdown summer and we’ll resurrect the underground rave scene of the early 1990s; only the text message arrives mid-morning, and the secret location is not a Manchester warehouse but a smartly manicured lawn in Tunbridge Wells. Ecstasy indeed.

Henry Lloyd Hughes

Back to the World Cup. My memories of that golden afternoon for English cricket are forever tarnished – OK, ruined – by the concurrent Wimbledon final and Roger Federer’s epic, agonising defeat to Novak Djokovic. Two match points, Roger! On your serve! On your fucking serve! It’s fine, I’m over it now. It’s fine. Fine. Fine.

Attempting to head off my mental breakdown – or perhaps exacerbate it and escape the rest of the interview – Lloyd-Hughes tells me that his sister attended the legendary 2008 Wimbledon final and Roger Federer’s epic, agonising defeat to Rafael Nadal. (For a man who may well retire with the most wins in tennis history – he’s currently 32 off Jimmy Connors – Fed sure does like an epic, agonising defeat.) Tickets to that match were secured thanks to their grandmother, or rather their grandmother’s second husband. “He played at Wimbledon and lost to a man with one arm.”

Come again? So Lloyd-Hughes’s grandmother married a guy named JJ Archer. A tennis player of considerable skill: “I think he got to the finals of junior Wimbledon. Then he played as an adult and lost to a man with one arm.”

Perhaps out of sympathy, the All England Tennis Club supplied Archer with tickets to Wimbledon for the rest of his life. When Archer died, this privilege passed onto his wife – Lloyd-Hughes’s grandmother. Only with her passing were the tickets finally shut off. “You might think the bar is high,” says Lloyd-Hughes of a Centre Court residency, “but you only need to get one game. Doubles, mixed doubles. See if you can crowbar yourself in there!”

He doesn’t know the name of the one-armed tennis player but Google yields the Austrian Hans Redl who competed at Wimbledon from 1947 to 1956. (Can’t be that many of them.) Redl served by tossing the ball up with his racket and reached the last 16 on his tournament debut: JJ Archer was far from his only victim. Still, it must be a little galling. You make the finals of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, only to be vanquished by an opponent who can’t clap. I guess it’s preferable to losing to a man with one leg.

Henry Lloyd Hughes

Now then: The Irregulars. Prior to our interview, I’m sent a list of plot points, the spoiling of which will result in Netflix coming to my house and chopping off one of my hands. (The email doesn’t make the threat explicit but the subtext is clear.) Were I a tennis player this wouldn’t be an issue, but I work on a computer from home so it very much is. Lloyd-Hughes has a similar predicament: “I’ve got a list of things that I can’t say and a list of things that I can say – which is about three lines.” 

So what’s safe? I should be OK to tell you that The Irregulars involves the group of teenage street urchins who assist Holmes in multiple stories – introduced in A Study in Scarlet as “the Baker Street division of the detective police force”.

It’s a far weirder, more gruesome show than the previous sentence suggests. “Skins meets The X-Files” is the Lloyd-Hughes logline. “It is period but there’s none of the strict adherence to period language or whatever. All of those rules are being slightly broken. It’s also really scary and violent.”

Even he was surprised by the finished product. “Kids are looking out for one another. Things are a bit sketchy but they seem sweet enough. And suddenly people’s eyes are being pecked out by birds.” He recalls texting his friends during an early screener. “I reckon the target audience is 15, 16.” As the content grew increasingly adult, the clarification – “Ignore that! Ignore that!”

You don’t know what role is going to define you. Until either you’re dead or you retire

In 2012, Guinness World Records crowned Sherlock Holmes as the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV – more than 250 and counting. (Count Dracula leads overall but Dracula is a vampire and therefore not human. Don’t ask me why Guinness World Records applies this caveat but it does.) Crossing the threshold of 221B Baker Street is a significant step for any actor. You tread in the footprints of giants.

“It feels like a huge notch on the bedpost,” confirms Lloyd-Hughes. “The strange thing about acting is you don’t know what role is going to define you. Until either you’re dead or you retire.”

Were he to die tomorrow, and the news ran a montage of past roles – “which they wouldn’t because I’m not famous” – OK, fine, but say the news did run a montage of his past roles, Lloyd-Hughes has no idea what roles might be shown. That was his first reaction to landing Sherlock. “Am I about to do that bit in my death montage?”

He’ll have to die first – and I rather hope he doesn’t because Lloyd-Hughes gives a great interview and seems an incredibly nice guy. He also makes a helluva Holmes; and without giving too much away – gulp – this incarnation of the detective allows Lloyd-Hughes to showcase the full range of his formidable talent.

This is a bohemian Sherlock, a Sherlock who doesn’t give a fuck. “We wanted him to be louche,” says Lloyd-Hughes. He namechecks David Bowie’s Thin White Duke, a persona adopted in the 1970s when Bowie lived off a diet of cocaine, peppers and milk. (Beats Keto.) The literary Holmes dabbled in cocaine. “Everyone knows that stuff, it’s not radical. But what if we made him a caner? What if we made him a proper caner?

“Everyone has that friend who’s kind of a genius. But because their mind works so quick they think they can do a five-day bender, turn up and nail the presentation Monday morning and nobody’s gonna notice. I have some friends like this. The smarter they are, the more they push
it – because they’ve got just enough brainpower to get away with it. So they go harder.”

This might be the first Holmes to piss himself: I don’t recall Basil Rathbone urinating blearily on the floorboards. “I think there’s quite a few firsts,” agrees Lloyd-Hughes. “The emotional sphere of that character is not one that’s been massively plumbed.” As he describes it: “You’re fast-forwarding to the bit in the rock documentary where the bad stuff has happened and the band has fallen out.” Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll – what more could you ask for? Apart from maybe violence… Well, there’s plenty of that, too.

The Irregulars

Henry Lloyd-Hughes is sitting at home. The doorbell rings. It’s the postman. What’s in the mail, Mr Postman? A script, Henry. A script from a famous director. They want you to star in their upcoming project. Have a read and let them know your decision... This kind of thing doesn’t happen to Henry Lloyd-Hughes.

It never has. Scripts aren’t sent to him; doorbells don’t ring. He’s landed some great roles, and every one of those roles was earned through audition and perseverance and repressing the memory of his previous ten rejections. Casting directors don’t greet him with, “ah, Henry! The very man!” They frown and they squint and they ask, “have I seen you in something before?” Much the same as the general public. Somebody nods at the bar: “hey, mate! I recognise you – were you at Irene’s wedding?”

Because they do recognise him and they have seen him in something before. Many things. They just can’t quite place him. Lloyd-Hughes’s versatility has kept him almost permanently on our screens but prevented him from piercing our collective consciousness. “It is both my greatest strength and also my greatest weakness.”

Getting typecast can be irksome but it means you’re getting cast – often through a phone call from your agent and a grunt of assent. There’s little point asking Charles Dance to read for the devious aristocrat, any more than Danny Dyer must prove himself a cockney hardman. Casting directors like to know what they’re getting.

I often feel every job is my first job. I’m doing a total reinvention every time

“Without wanting to be too hard on myself,” says Lloyd-Hughes, “I often feel every job is my first job. I’m doing a total reinvention every time. Which on a creative level is incredibly satisfying because there’s no throughline, there’s no connection between anything that I’ve done. But on another level it’s totally exhausting.”

He chuckles. “It never gets any easier.”

It’s not a bitter chuckle. Lloyd-Hughes speaks with a breezy acceptance of his lot. His Instagram handle is @matineeidle; his bio quotes a past Gentleman’s Journal interview which dubbed him “The most famous actor you’ve never heard of”.

Tongue in cheek, sure, but the perks of anonymity aren’t carried into the studio boardroom. In the studio boardroom, you want to be heard of.

View on Instagram

“I’m not remotely famous. And unfortunately that is important in some people’s minds. Chiefly the people that finance films. Film financing is only based on whether you’re famous or not. It’s not based even remotely on whether you’re right for the part – or indeed any good to begin with. Those things are totally irrelevant.”

Naturally, Lloyd-Hughes auditioned for The Irregulars. He pitched his vision of Sherlock Holmes and had that vision accepted. Then, something strange happened. Over the course of production, the vision wasn’t changed. He lost the hat – “At one point I had a big hat. I really wanted a big hat. The big hat was not allowed” – but the Holmes of his audition and the Holmes of the show are basically the same. “Almost every aspect of the character that you see on the screen was exactly how I thought it should be done.”

This is a rarity: few visions emerge uncompromised, or even recognisable. “My friends who work in advertising often tell me: you start off with the idea like this, and then by the time you see the advert on screen you’re like, ‘oh my God, what have we done?’” No such worry here: Lloyd-Hughes has done exactly what he intended. “It is the most satisfying aspect of the job: to have that idea and then see it to fruition and see it up there, completed. It’s brilliant.” 

He’s only experienced that process once before: playing the villainous Aaron Peel on Killing Eve, a character whom he pitched right down to the rimless glasses. Lloyd-Hughes and Phoebe Waller-Bridge go back a long way. They attended the same nursery school and later appeared together in a stage production of Rope. (In 2009 – it was quite a lot later.) “Phoebe and I played lovers. It was very sweet. Now she’s more famous than John Lennon.”

View on Instagram

Between romancing Waller-Bridge on stage and fighting her for the last purple crayon, a teenage Lloyd-Hughes enrolled at Hogwarts for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This discovery startles me. I’m of the Harry Potter generation and I had no idea Lloyd-Hughes appeared in the Goblet of Fire.

A wry smile. “The reason why you would have no idea is because I’m not really in the film. In spite of the fact I still get sent half a dozen letters a year saying ‘I’m such a big fan of your work in the Harry Potter films’. I was mainly cut before filming began, truth be told. It wasn’t just because of my bad acting.”

He played Ravenclaw Quidditch captain Roger Davies, a small part that grew smaller with every rewrite. “I probably had ten lines, which then became six lines. In the final script I think I had four lines.” He wasn’t invited to the premiere and first saw the completed film at a cast and crew screening. He waited for his scene. And waited. And waited. The credits rolled. Oh. “It never occurs to you that you’d be cut out of something. Especially when it’s your first job.”

No matter. The Harry Potter generation is also The Inbetweeners generation and we all know his true alma mater to be Rudge Park Comprehensive. As ferocious school bully Mark Donavan, Lloyd-Hughes tormented the four hapless heroes of the title and helped create one of the most beloved British sitcoms of the 21st century – briefcase wanker, fwend! and all that. Whenever Lloyd-Hughes is recognised in public, it’s usually by fans of The Inbetweeners.

When you become famous, you stay that age forever. Perhaps I’ve been liberated by the fact I haven’t

“This is not a humblebrag but I was giving blood this morning. Obviously you’ve got to wear a mask. I’m giving blood. There are wires coming out of me.” A nurse came over: “Excuse me, I’d like to ask a question. Have you ever done any acting?” “Yeah, sometimes,” replied Lloyd-Hughes, slightly taken aback. He was wearing a face mask, after all. Asked the nurse: “Are you The Inbetweeners?”

“It was a middle-aged to elderly Indian man who recognised me. I was not expecting, when I was wearing a school uniform, filming for like £5 a week, that ten years later or whatever I’d be getting recognised. Even behind a mask!”

Occasionally being recognised in the doctor’s surgery feels about the ideal level of celebrity; a nice little dose of validation and then home to the kids without a horde of screaming fans trying to tear your clothes off. Not getting big allowed Henry Lloyd-Hughes to grow up.

“When you become famous, you stay that age forever. Perhaps I’ve been liberated by the fact I haven’t. I have aged. I’m knee-deep in the world of nursery pick-up times and life insurance and pensions and VAT returns. I couldn’t be further removed from the cool serenity of the back of the chauffeur-driven car. I’ve got the baby food on my face and in my hair. That’s the only life I know.”

As lives go, it sounds pretty dreamy. Who needs a chauffeured car when you have your family, your clothing brand, your Irregulars – and, most importantly, your shed. 

View on Instagram

The Irregulars is available globally on Netflix. Visit NE Blake here

Loading