PERHAPS only when we’re reminded of our own mortality do we ever truly take a moment to reflect on what we have achieved during our lifetimes – the successes and failures and the enduring effect of decisions made in a moment.
Such retrospection is the focus of the new four-part Channel 4 drama Any Human Heart, based on the novel of the same name by William Boyd.
The opening scene introduces us to a man in his eighties, a writer by the name of Logan Mountstuart who, having suffered a minor heart attack, is starting to put his life in order by reading the journal he started as a boy.
“My fundamental aim was to write the complete story of one life that covered most of the 20th century,” says Boyd, who also wrote the screenplay.
“It’s a particularly unusual life that, in all its ups and downs, melancholy and comedy, moments of bliss and intense grief, could stand for what all of us share as we experience the human predicament.”
Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Claflin all take on the role of Logan, portraying different stages of his ordinary, yet extraordinary, life through every decade of the 20th century.
Newcomer Claflin embodies the idealism, vitality and naivety of the young Logan, whose lust for life and women begins as a student in Oxford and continues in Paris in the 1920s.
“I start playing Logan at a younger age, when he’s very young to the world and on his journey to try and find women, love and sex,” says 24-year-old Claflin.
“It’s all about Logan’s journey through childhood to manhood and maturity.”
Like Logan, Claflin says he didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and he too was “a late bloomer”.
“The lovemaking scenes between the girls and I were definitely not the most comfortable experiences, but you have to laugh it off and get it over and done with. You can’t be fazed by it,” he laughs.
“The first one was the worst – obviously it always will be. It was with Holliday (Grainger, who plays Tess Scabius) and I had to lose my virginity on screen. I hope my mum doesn’t watch – I pray to God that she doesn’t.”
Claflin only graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2009, but he’s already proving to be a star in the making. Aside from Any Human Heart, he can be seen in Pillars Of The Earth and is currently shooting the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie with Johnny Depp.
“I’m sure as soon as the criticism starts coming in there will be more pressure, but at the moment I’m still living in that honeymoon period,” he says modestly.
“The roles have been very similar, in the sense they are all very naive characters. It would be amazing to do something on the opposite spectrum. But at the same time, I’m having a whale of a time. I’m very lucky to be where I am.”
Macfadyen, who also stars in Pillars Of The Earth, plays Logan through middle age, from the thrill and heartache of true love and the birth of his first child, to the horrors of the Second World War and, later, the scandal of the New York art scene in the Fifties and Sixties.
“I’d always been a big fan of William Boyd’s books and read this and couldn’t put it down,” recalls Macfadyen, 36.
He describes Logan as a “wonderful” character who has “great highs and lows in his life”, but he admits he’s not a man without flaws.
“He’s selfish, petty and vain, but he deals with everything like all of us, so he’s very rounded and human.
“Reading him, I was very comforted by the story of his life. You think, ‘I’m not alone’. Everyone is struggling to find happiness and meaning in their life.”
This is the man who’s married to Ashes To Ashes star Keeley Hawes, with whom he has two children, and who’s forging a successful Hollywood career with roles in Frost/Nixon, Pride And Prejudice and the recent Ridley Scott epic, Robin Hood. He is currently shooting a new big-screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers.
But his experience on Any Human Heart has proven one of his most enjoyable yet. “It was so wonderful having such a brilliant cast, it was such a treat,” he says.
“You’d be on set every day and there’d be these brilliant actors coming in for a day or two, flying in and being brilliant and then going away and you’re thinking, ‘Wow’.”
The older incarnation of Boyd’s literary everyman is embodied by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, who plays Logan through his final years, from London in the Seventies and Eighties, where he experiences the shame of poverty and unlikely heroism, through to his not so serene old age in rural France.
“As soon as I got the script I was hooked,” says 61-year-old Broadbent, who’s starred in everything from Only Fools And Horses and Moulin Rouge to Gangs Of New York, Harry Potter and Iris, for which he won an Oscar.
“It was clearly an extraordinary and very unusual project, particularly in this age of tight budgets and limited vision.
“It wasn’t formulaic in any way and absolutely not the sort of drama we currently get on television. It’s very different and original, and very refreshing.”
That said, he admits he initially had reservations as to how a trio of actors playing the same character would work on screen.
“We started off thinking that we would have to try and match each other’s style in some way, but in the end that seemed superfluous. The writing holds the characters together.”
Broadbent doesn’t keep a journal like Logan (“It needs discipline”), but admits that certain scenes evoked personal memories.
“The whole period when Logan got involved with the revolutionary group and the newspaper was all very familiar to me from being a young man in the Seventies,” he says.
“There was a lot of that going on back then and it was really well observed in Boyd’s writing. It brought it all flooding back.”
It’s the attention to detail that will make Any Human Heart all the more relevant to the audience.
“Logan is a wonderfully complex character,” says Broadbent. “His life is so varied. It’s extremely difficult to describe, but that’s the challenge of the series.”
One of the themes of the book is that we are all victims of luck, both good and bad.
“Logan simply goes with the flow,” says Broadbent.
Any Human Heart begins on Channel 4 on Sunday.