TV - Professor T

Ahead of the first episode of ITV's stylish new crime drama, Professor T, on Sunday, watch the trailer and read an interview with its star Ben Miller...

Based on the hit Belgian series of the same name, Professor T is set against the stunning backdrop of one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, Cambridge University. The series is centred around the eccentric, but brilliant Criminology Professor Jasper Tempest, played by Ben Miller, who suffers with OCD and has a tortured past. 

In the opening episode, Professor T finds himself unwillingly caught up acting as an advisor to the police; his interest in crime is purely academic. Diana Tyson (Elizabeth Kate Back) was violently attacked on the university campus where Professor T has tenure. DI Lisa Donckers (Emma Naomi) suspects that the assault is very similar to one that occurred years beforehand, and, having been a previous student of Professor T’s, she thinks he can help. Although a valuable contributor to the police force, people that don’t know Jasper very well, struggle with his behavior. Professor T’s relationship with the world often leads him to daydreams and fantasies about the people around him, and the viewer is privy to these wonderful and quirky sequences.

Tony award-winning actress Frances de la Tour takes the role of Jasper’s colourful, but overbearing mother, Adelaide. Emerging star Emma Naomi will play Detective Inspector Lisa Donckers with rising star Barney White cast as her police sidekick Dan Winters. The series also stars Andy Gathergood, Sarah Woodward, Ben Onwukwe, Douglas Reith and Juliet Aubrey.  

Professor T was filmed on location in Belgium and Cambridge. The six-episode series was directed by leading Belgian director, Dries Vos, produced by Robin Kerremans and Dimitri Verbeek and executive produced by Eagle Eye’s creators Walter Iuzzolino and Jo McGrath. Walter Iuzzolino said, “Professor T is my all-time favourite detective – a tortured genius wrestling with a mystery childhood trauma. It’s a unique crime series with a core of wonderful warm characters at its heart and I am delighted to be working with our hand-picked European production team to make this for ITV and international audiences.”

Ben Miller is Professor Jasper Tempest: A lecturer at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. Renowned for his brilliant mind, his dry wit, his quirky teaching methods and his brusque demeanour; he’s a walking encyclopaedia of criminal behaviour, habits, and motivations. He’s obsessive compulsive, borderline autistic and an incurable germaphobe who can’t help saying out loud exactly what he and everyone else is thinking and is prone to elaborate fantasies that illuminate the subtext in any given situation. A (mostly) dutiful son to a domineering mother, a reluctant mentor to a former student and a conflicted suitor to an old flame, Professor T is also a man with a very dark secret, which he’s forced to confront when he moves back into his family home.

What were your first impressions of the Professor when you read the script?

“He’s just so strange! I loved his eccentricity and I've always enjoyed those detective stories where the detective has a kind of special ability. The idea that someone is just so extraordinary and operates on a different level, so no-one else can quite figure out how they tick.

“There's something slightly dangerous, unknown and unpredictable about Professor T. You don’t know if you can completely trust him, but as the stories play out you see him behave in an honourable enough way to have a little bit of faith in him. There’s still a lingering doubt though, and that's what makes him so interesting. Sherlock Holmes is a paragon of virtue, but I'm not sure Professor T is. He's so good at putting himself inside the head of a criminal and I think that’s what is slightly untrustworthy about him.

“He can be very funny too – there’s a lot going on in the professor’s mind, but his expression doesn’t change a lot, half the time he’s like a tailor’s dummy. He doesn’t react emotionally to crimes.”

He’s a criminologist, but he’s quite reluctant to be drawn into policing isn’t he?

“Yes, and I’m constantly in doubt as to what the reasons are for that. It’s Lisa Donckers who is the protagonist really, she’s the one out there trying to figure out whodunit, and Professor T is sometimes helpful in that process, sometimes not. I love that dynamic, that he isn’t the investigating character.

“I love the angle of criminology too, you learn so much about criminal behaviour and psychology through this show, and it’s really appealing to the scientist in me. The professor is really knowledgeable and every hypothesis or theory he mentions in the series is real, which means you can disappear down a rabbit hole with your research. It's such a brilliant angle on crime, I just don't know why it's not been done before.”

Why are we so interested in crime stories, do you think?

“All of us are fascinated by criminal behaviour because we wonder to what extent we are a criminal ourselves. Sometimes people who murder don't seem to be very different from us, they might seem pretty normal, and our capacity for harm is one of the things that we find so scary about humanity. When I take my dog for a walk in the woods, I’m not worried about a badger chasing the dog, or a stag, it’s the human figure in the distance you’re unsure of, because we’re a dangerous species. This is why shows like Serial and Making a Murderer are so fascinating, because there seems to be no end to our inventiveness when it comes to crime, we’re great liars. That’s what Professor T does really well, it mines that grey area that we all deal with in normal life and just throws a direct light on it.”

How did it feel to reunite with Juliet Aubrey [who plays Chief Inspector Christina Brand], after working together on Primeval?

“I loved working with Juliet on Primeval, she’s one of my favourite actresses and we know each other so well. She brings so much to everything she does, so you just feel there’s always such a back story with her acting.”

How did you feel when you heard Frances de La Tour would be playing your mum?

“It was really intimidating but also really exciting. I’ve just loved Frances's work my whole life, she’s extraordinary. I saw her in a movie the other day and she’s so different in everything she does, but always so unmistakably her. There’s always something slightly comic about our scenes in Professor T and she's just so funny and brilliant. I had to put my admiration for her to one side when playing those scenes, but it kind of works because your mother is such a huge figure in your life, why couldn’t it be Frances de la Tour?”

The professor has a unique relationship with his mother, doesn’t he?

“It's brilliantly layered, there's so much going on. It’s such a loving relationship but they are brutally honest with each other about how they feel. Jasper doesn’t ever try to please her, but Adelaide is always trying to please him, and she's also so skilled at manoeuvring him through life. Can you imagine if you ever dated him, and you had to deal with his mother… it doesn’t bear thinking about.” 

How much do we learn about the professor’s childhood?

“There's a really dark story there, which is revealed during this first season. You do get to understand what went on when he was a child and it does go some way to explaining why he is as he is. His mother is selling his childhood home, a house that neither of them have lived in for such a long time, partly because of all the terrible things that went on there. For some reason he takes this as the moment to confront his past and some of the things he’s avoided all his life.”

The professor suffers from OCD, which is a condition you have experienced yourself…

“His OCD is not my OCD, so even though I understand the feelings behind his behaviours, those aren’t the behaviours I experienced. I can only talk about my own OCD and I’m sure everybody has it differently and to varying degrees, it’s an incredibly wide spectrum of behaviour. Mine is about control, it’s a way of dealing with my anxieties by attempting to control something because I can't control everything else.

“I found it weirdly cathartic to play those scenes. Sometimes I would just be in floods of tears and the scenes were unusable because Professor T is not a very emotional person, but I am. So I would get very upset in some parts, but I think I was getting an emotional release from my own stuff from playing the character. It was relief at being able to play this condition in another character.

“One of the things I could bring to playing Jasper was that I don’t see OCD as a funny condition, I could play it in a truthful way and that gave me a strong connection with the character. I’ve not seen it done properly in many TV shows, but it’s portrayed really well here. OCD is just a part of him, and I love the way that everyone else understands and manoeuvres their way around him.”

You went to university in Cambridge, how did it feel to return to the city for Professor T?

“It was really, really weird and here's the weirdest thing of all: the house that Professor T grew up in is a house I know really well. It’s part of Jesus College and it’s where one of my good friends from university lived, who I wrote my first comedy sketches with. He lived in the house in a room on the ground floor, which is the room we filmed outside. Wow, it was properly strange playing scenes going through the door there, when 30 years ago I was doing the same thing. I don't know if things like that make the show better, but the character in the story knows the space really well from his earliest years and so do I, so that can't hurt. It’s always exciting when you're playing a character and don’t have to act!”

Did you take much inspiration from the Belgian series that Professor T is based on?

I watched every single episode and I loved it, it’s fantastic. We're making a very different version and I think that's a good thing, because you can't replicate what someone else has done. The Belgian series feels like European cinema, but we’re approaching it with a very different shooting style. We completely rewrote the scripts as well, so if you watched the Belgian series, the details are different but we’re going in the same direction. We've really cherry picked the stories we felt would work well in Cambridge.”

How important are the fantasy sequences in this series?

“I loved them because they allow you to see what's going on with the professor emotionally, when he conceals his thoughts and feelings so completely from other people. It’s a really great device to make you sit up and pay attention while you’re watching the show, I love that surreal element.

“I’ve always loved surreal comedy anyway, from the early days of Armstrong and Miller, I've got a real soft spot for it.

“But as entertaining as they are, those sequences are not just there to lighten things up – they really do tell you about what he's thinking. You think, “Oh wow that’s what’s going on in his head all the time and he's trying to act normal.”

Finally, how did you cope with filming under COVID restrictions?

“It was really strange, but the odd thing is I felt closer than ever to the people we filmed with, even though we could hardly speak to one another and I still don't know what half of the team actually look like, because everyone was wearing a mask all the time! There's a real bond between everybody, and it was extraordinary that we didn’t have a single case of COVID the whole time we filmed. Obviously, it’s partly luck, but also down to how seriously everybody took the precautions – it is one thing to be socially distanced at work but then it's very tempting to see your friends in the evening, but everyone stayed isolated, which was tough. I felt really lucky to be working.”

Professor T starts on ITV on Sunday 18th July at 9pm BST

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