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Jim Broadbent and John Simm in 'Exile'

Jim Broadbent, the Oscar-winning British character actor, has revealed that, like all good thespians, he draws on his own personal experiences to bring a touch of reality to the roles he plays.

So when asked to portray a former journalist, Sam, who is battling with Alzheimer’s, for the new BBC drama Exile — written by Paul Abbott, the man who gave us Shameless —, he found it only natural to use his memories of his own mother, who also had the disease.

He told the Guardian: “It was upsetting when mother was ill; in a way that was more upsetting than any acting will be. But you know, you just use all that. You remember what was painful about it.”

Not that he’d have done it if the point of the drama is simply to raise awareness of a dreadful situation in an arbitrary way, as he explained “it’s not a disease-of-the-week drama, it’s a thriller with Alzheimer’s as the backdrop.”

Paul Abbott has his own family reasons for writing the drama. During his early 20s he used to regularly visit his grandmother, who also suffered from Alzheimer’s, and try and talk to her. These experiences helped him to create the role of Sam’s son Tom — played by John Simm — who is trying to finish an investigation started by his father.

Paul said: “I used to lay different objects down in front of her and see how many sentences I could get out of her. The smell of lavender, for example, would stimulate an anecdote. I wanted to see if something like a clothes peg would force her to make sense. Otherwise our conversations were dominated by her random amnesia.”

And he’s delighted to be working with Jim too: “I thought I’d had a stroke when he confirmed. These days you can’t afford actors at this level as a matter of course, but with a good script you can get them.”

Exile is on BBC1 at 9pm, on May 1.

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By Fraser McAlpine