David Morrissey likes a challenge - and his latest outing as a tormented police inspector in small-screen adaptation The City & The City is certainly that. He talks to Gemma Dunn

David Morrissey has shied away from playing a copper of late - but BBC Two's The City & The City proved one ranking he could not resist. Far from your run-of-the-mill procedural, the thriller, an adaptation of China Mieville's existential novel, offers an odd hybrid of crime fiction and fantasy literature, with a sprinkling of noir cop drama thrown in for good measure.

The mind-bending tale begins when Inspector Tyador Borlu (Morrissey) of the extreme crime squad is drawn in to investigate the murder of a foreign student on the streets of the down-at-heel city of Beszel. When evidence suggests the dead girl had come from Ul Qoma, a city that shares a dangerous and volatile relationship with Beszel, the inquiry soon threatens to challenge everything Borlu holds dear.

"It's anchored in something we know, police procedure, but it's so different," The Missing actor, 53, says of the show's appeal. "It's a different world with different rules, different colours, so I jumped at it because it really challenges you in a different way," he notes. "It certainly challenged me as an actor. It really pushed me and that's what you want."

Already familiar with the book and having already worked with screenwriter Tony Grisoni on The Red Riding Trilogy; as well as director Tom Shankland on The Missing, the Scouse star had complete faith in its page-to-screen transition.

But forging the two together came with its own challenges, namely, learning the "ways" of the opposing metropolises.

Beszel being "analogue, slightly eastern European, slightly dirty and grubby" and Ul Qoma "chrome, glass, military, Swiss in its cleanliness and in denial of any social disorder".

"The concept is strange; it is a detective story told in this city, which is actually two cities that share the same footprint," Morrissey says, having filmed in Manchester and his birth town of Liverpool.

"But there are very strict regulations about the fact that one city cannot see the other city's populace.

"They can't look there, they can't acknowledge them or interact with them and that creates all sorts of strange rules," he elaborates.

"Inside there is a secret police force called Breach and they are there to make sure that nobody breaks those laws of interacting between the cities."

As for Borlu: "He's a man who's very happy to be where he is, he accepts everything, and he accepts the rules of the game and of his country," maintains Morrissey.

"He's a policeman, he's a man of authority, but he's also somebody who's broken, he's lost," he adds.

"He's lost someone who he loved dearly - something that personally puts him at odds with his system because he's trying to make sense of something that's happened to him."

Much like Morrissey's roles in Britannia and The Walking Dead, Borlu is a strong lead but how does he differ?

"I'm 6ft 3, so you do tend to get guys who come in and kick ass a bit," he says with a laugh.

"But this is different. He's spinning from the off; sometimes I get characters who get that down the line," he adds. "But you can see his torment very quickly and it's reflected in the world around him - as well as his interior story.

"I loved [Borlu]. No one's said anything, but I'd love to carry on playing him."

Morrissey has high hopes viewers will be equally as intrigued.

"What I loved about The Missing is it's quite confusing, but audiences stay with it because your central dilemma is something you want solving," reasons the father-of-three.

"So even though our story is told in three time frames and you might think, 'Well who the hell is he?' or 'What's he doing?' it doesn't put you off. It makes you lean forward and go 'Where is it?' 'How is it?' 'What does it mean?'

"It's asking a lot of you, and I like that," he concludes. "It's not spoon-feeding you story and plot. You have to engage with it on many levels."

However, it's not a stretch to imagine a life like this, quips Morrissey.

City-dwellers, in particular, may relate more than most.

"London is a prime example of a place where we completely don't acknowledge other people who are sharing this space with us, we don't see them," he says, having left Liverpool in his teens to pursue an acting career in the capital.

"We don't have to look too far in our major cities to see how people have ghettoised themselves or are living in gated communities. We walk past people begging and sleeping on the streets and we have become blind to that.

"We are more and more on our screens and in denial about the world around us," he continues. "And I think The City & The City is taking that type of modern notion and accentuating it to a heightened level."

We have the ever-flourishing world of TV to thank for that, he says.

"It's a massive playing field, there's lots of things opening up, but the programmes that we make have still got to be good," enthuses Morrissey, who is currently starring in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre.

"But I think television has now become the place where good writers, good directors can come and express themselves. It's not seen as the poor relation to film anymore."

  • The City & The City airs on BBC Two on Friday April 6