SURPRISINGLY perhaps, Richard Armitage didn’t jump at the chance to join the cast of BBC1’s Spooks.

He admits to being unsure about becoming part of the spy drama. Not because he was commited to playing Guy of Gisborne in another BBC series of Robin Hood. Or disturbed by the thought of competing in the pin-up boy stakes with Spooks leading man Rupert Penry-Jones.

His hesitation was prompted by worries that the series might be on the way out. “I was a big fan of the show when it started but, because of being busy, I hadn’t seen it for a while, so I didn’t know if it had gone bad,” explains Armitage.

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“Taking over from Rupert is such a tall order, so I was really conscious of that and didn’t want to be responsible for bringing the series down. If it closes at the end of series seven, it’s not a good thing to have on the CV.”

After catching up with past series on DVD and being shown rough outlines of the scripts for series seven, he was happy to jump aboard as Lucas North, an MI5 spy who’s been released after eight years in a Russian prison.

The BBC juggled with schedules to enable him to continue filming Robin Hood in Budapest, Hungary, and join the Spooks cast as well.

FILMING took him to Russia and needed him to learn to speak Russian.

He learnt it phonetically. “My biggest problem is that Lucas doesn’t just speak Russian, he passed as a Russian native for years, so I had to really work hard at it,” he explains.

“I had to make it seem that it was a second language. It was a challenge, but I sat down with a language CD back in November 2007 and I also had a Russian language coach.

“When we went to shoot in Moscow, I found I could communicate and understand some of the things the Russians were saying. That was exciting.”

Shooting in Russia on a variety of locations was a great experience for him.

Even though Russia and Moscow have changed beyond recognition in the last decade, he says, the dangerous aspects are still there.

“But perhaps that was in my imagination as I was travelling there as Lucas North,” he says.

“We were filming on the aeroplane, so I had to arrive in costume and character.

We shot footage during the flight and at the airport and used every second of the day we had there to shoot.”

Eight years locked up have left North malnourised but physically fit (which should please Armitage’s army of female admirers). His body is in working order but he’s damaged mentally, as flashbacks and things buried deep in his subconscious begin to surface.

“There’s a fight scene in the first episode, so he had to look like he could fight,” he says. “I wanted to slim right down for it, but the producers held me back from that. In the end, I lost about a stone and stepped up my training to get the right look.”

He won’t be drawn into a compare-andcontrast game between filming Spooks and Robin Hood. “They’re both so different,”

he says.

“Robin Hood is a fantasy legend and historic piece, so it all feels heightened and dramatic. I arrive on a horse, my character is bombastic and has a particular way of moving and communicating, which is public and aggressive.

“Lucas North is the opposite. He disappears into society and then works under cover. What he and the rest of the team do is subversive, slick and fine. It couldn’t be more different, which has been a great challenge. It’s been a really interesting year.”

How long North will be around is unknown, particularly as Spooks is wellknown for killing off leading characters in spectacular ways. Armitage is keen to do more but hasn’t seen the final script of the series yet, so he doesn’t know what’s in store for North.

“To be honest, I haven’t thought about it too much. However, judging the way characters tend to get killed off, I think when Lucas’s time comes I’ll welcome it.

“When Spooks characters are killed off, or disappear, it’s usually the most memorable moment of the episode, or even the series.

“There are moments in this series that take your breath away – giving that rare feeling of wanting to look away but having to watch compulsively through your fingers.”

■ Spooks returns to BBC1 on October 27.