Superintendent Ted Hastings’ razor-sharp one-liners have lightened dark plot lines, inspired drinking games and helped BBC crime drama Line of Duty win more than 10 million viewers.
Delivering them in his Northern Irish brogue while glowering from under his luscious, swept-over hair has made actor Adrian Dunbar a heart-throb at 60.
Fans will be devastated if the anti-corruption boss turns out to be H, the head honcho of an organised crime group in control of bent coppers.
But behind the nail-biting fifth series, which ends tomorrow in a 90-minute special, is a real-life family tragedy.
Ted’s colloquialisms were inspired by Adrian’s father Sean, who died in 1979 without them forming a strong bond.
Adrian had just relocated to London to attend drama school when his dad suffered a brain haemorrhage.
The star said: “I flew home but he died just before I walked in the door. I got very angry. Angry at life.
“When they were closing the coffin in the morgue, I didn’t want to move away. Then a cousin of mine came to pull me back and I slammed him against a wall.
“That was a terrible thing for me to do. But I was so f**king angry.”
Adrian had a “lovely relationship” with girlfriend Anat Topol, daughter of Fiddler on the Roof star Chaim Topol, but he said the Jewish tradition of mourning, burying the body and moving on damaged him for decades.
“As a typical Catholic guy who tended to suppress emotion, I suppressed everything for years – all my anger, all my pain,” he said. His scars about the loss of his emotionally distant father have healed.
Adrian said: “The older I get, the more I like my father and understand him. I was the first-born and he was very proud of me but he never was able to tell me that. There always was friction between us.
“Now I realise that was born, in part, out of stress. Not only of living in places like Portadown but of trying to get a job and keep food on the table.”
Retired teacher Dennis McKeever MBE remembers Sean, and his catchphrases, well. He taught Adrian maths at Drumcree College.
Dennis says: “Sean was a gentle but strong soul with a great sense of propriety and humour. I’m watching Line of Duty waiting to hear ‘Keep ’er lit’.
“I heard ‘Now we’re suckin’ diesel’ last week. The metaphor is wonderful. That’s the sort of thing his dad would’ve come out with.”
Dennis recalls how, as a boy, Adrian seemed destined for showbiz. “His mother Pauline was a fine singer and actress in am-dram. Adrian would accompany his mum to rehearsal and sit in the front row absorbing stagecraft.
“Anyone who saw Pauline perform would have no doubt where his inspiration came from.”
Adrian attended St Malachy’s High School, where he was a star pupil.
Dennis says: “Adrian took part in school shows and football. His form tutor was a great guy, whom Adrian will remember fondly, but he was killed in the late 80s.”
The Troubles coloured much of Adrian’s upbringing. Born the eldest of seven kids in Enniskillen in 1958, he and his family left for Portadown a decade later, as Sean looked for work as a building site foreman.
Adrian grew up on the Catholic Garvaghy Road estate, which comes under siege every year when the security forces prevent Orangemen marching through it.
“Portadown was the most marginalised of all the Nationalist communities in the North,” said Adrian.
“At the time of the first Loyalist strikes, gangs came in busloads from Lurgan to wreck our end of town, everyone on our estate was living in fear.”
Adrian himself was dragged out of a shop because of his school uniform and beaten “while the RUC strolled by”.
In his late teens he worked in an abattoir, which haunts him.
“It was a bacon processing plant – we got through 900 pigs a day. I can still hear the screams.”
He boosted his wages by playing bass for Elvis soundalike Frank Chisum – and enjoyed meeting groupies.
He said: “As a friend of mine says, bands on the road were the start of sexual liberation in Ireland.”
Moving to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, he became great friends with Neil Morrissey, who also stars in Line of Duty, and Coronation Street ’s Charlie Lawson, for whom he was best man.
But he still struggled with his father’s death.
For a time, he found solace in booze before attending AA meetings.
“Drink’s a great fella for pulling the covers over your head. And what alcohol did to me was made my thought processes extremely negative.
“I thought ‘**** it, I’m not having my life wrecked by this’.”
Adrian, who has a daughter Madeleine, 32, and step-son Ted, 38, appeared in Oscar-winning films My Left Foot and The Crying Game before Line of Duty made him famous.
He and his actress wife of 33 years Anna Nygh are based in London, with a home in County Leitrim.
One long-time friend, writer Brenda Winter-Palmer, describes him with a phrase Ted would be proud of.
She says: “He never jumped out of the bowl he was baked in. That means he not only kept his feet on the ground but in native soil.
“Aidy was always one of us. He loved nothing better than coming home and singing with us. We’re very proud of him.
“He couldn’t be H. If he is, there’ll be a revolution and all of us in Northern Ireland will never watch the BBC again.”
Line of Duty, Sunday, BBC1, 9pm
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