TV & Movies

Matthew Macfadyen’s Most Bumbling Characters, Ranked

“King of edible leaves, his majesty the spinach.”

When it comes to playing a certain type of foppishly charming bloke, Matthew Macfadyen surely finds himself right up there in the big leagues – his prowess for likeable awkwardness matching that of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. Unlike those two veterans, however, he’s also got another trick up his frilled sleeves; not only has he nailed the art of the muttering English aristocrat, he’s also skewered the essence of the character’s subtly different American counterpart.

Originally rising up the ranks in a number of period dramas – as well as UK crime thriller Spooks – Macfadyen has found fame on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his scene-stealing Succession character Tom Wambsgans. A Mid-Westerner who has joined the show’s brash Roy family as a latecomer (he’s married to Shiv) Tom is painfully keen to please his new in-laws, but barely succeeds in making a good impression. With the epic family drama making its return for a fourth and final season, here’s a look at some of Macfadyen's best moments over the years.

8. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, Ripper Street (2012)

Though it would be unfair to place all blame squarely with Macfadyen, there’s no denying that a lot of mumbling occurs in Ripper Street – a mystery thriller set in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders in East London. Countless viewers ended up complaining about having to crank up the volume. “'We do our best to avoid mumbling and background noise because it’s important to ensure the audience can enjoy our drama to the full,” a BBC spokesperson was later forced to respond.

7. Tom Quinn, Spooks (2002)

A steely secret agent who rarely buckles under pressure, sometimes to his detriment (like when he resisted interrogators even as his colleague Helen was being tortured with a deep-fat fryer) there is, nonetheless, a hint of bumbling at the heart of Macfadyen’s much-loved Spooks character Tom. From sabotaged missions to frankly unprofessional romantic entanglements with his co-workers, he certainly has his moments, but mostly he’s cold, unreadable, and exacting.

6. John Stonehouse, Stonehouse (2023)

Another dramatised tale of a real-life fraudster, Stonehouse follows the almost-unbelievable plot concocted by Labour MP John Stonehouse, who dramatically faked his own death in 1974. The politician planted a pile of clothes next to the ocean in Miami to make it look like he had drowned, before flying to Australia to start over with the woman he was having an affair with, Sheila Buckley. If it sounds like a plan with a lot of potential holes… Well, the whole scheme only lasted around a month, and Macfadyen is flawlessly clumsy as its lead executor.

Fun fact: Daniel’s wife in the film Barbara is played by Macfadye’s IRL partner Keeley Hawes.

5. Arthur Clennam, Little Dorrit (2008)

Oh, dear old oblivious Arthur – just like Macfadyen’s take on Mr Darcy, he has a complete inability to recognise love, even when it’s right in front of him, waving a Victorian-era fan right under his hapless nose. The poor guy even ends up in prison at one point, saddled with a load of debt that isn’t necessarily his fault. Like many of Macfadyen’s best characters, he’s a walking, talking disaster magnet, but this one has a heart of gold, and even gets his romantic trot away into the sunset with Little Dorrit at the end of his Dickensian ordeal.

4. Charles Ingram, Quiz (2020)

In virtually every mystery going, the person responsible is always the one you’d least expect: perhaps that’s why former Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant said he didn’t notice any untoward behaviour taking place while contestant Charles Ingram sat in the famous quiz hotseat. Further down the line, however, it emerged that Ingram – who self-consciously darted between answers and made up lies to explain his last minute changes of heart – had been guided by carefully-timed coughs from fellow contestant Tecwen Whittock. And in Quiz, a TV drama about the scandal, Macfadyen captures his dithering perfectly.

3. Daniel, Death At A Funeral (2007)

Succession might’ve given Macfadyen his best-known comedy role, but it’s not the only story he’s appeared in that revolves around a patriarch. The 2007 black comedy Death At A Funeral also does an often-hilarious job at examining our awkwardness and clumsiness around dying as a family organises a final send-off. Though many of the wittiest one liners go to other characters, Macfadyen can say it all with a simple eyebrow wiggle or uncomfortable shuffle. “I hate funerals,” he mutters during his eulogy. “Don’t you?” And Keeley Hawes stars opposite Macfadyen in this one too!

2. Tom Wambsgans, Succession (2018)

Out of all of Succession’s Machiavellian figures, Matthew Macfadyen’s desperately power-hungry Tom Wambsgans – who becomes willingly entangled in Roy family life after proposing to Logan’s daughter Shiv – is one of the show’s most intriguing anti-heroes. Propelled by nervous energy and a constant eagerness to instantly gain other people’s respect, Tom sees himself as a cold, calculating business brain, but mostly follows Shiv around like a lost puppy. Though he’s incredibly rude to anyone outside of the Roy family, and certainly makes a solid attempt of ruining Cousin Greg’s life as his overbearing boss, it’s all an act – whenever he’s faced with any sort of real conflict or moment to seize authority, he quietly mumbles in the vague direction of his loafers, gradually continuing to dig his own grave with every word he says. Tom without a doubt gives us some of Succession’s best on liners – a personal favourite being “King of edible leaves, his majesty the spinach.”

1. Mr Darcy, Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Though Colin Firth famously nailed Darcy’s aloof vibes in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, Macfadyen's own take on the classic romantic love interest is deliciously awkward, and the dictionary definition of a bumbling buffoon. Starring opposite Keira Knightley in a 2005 film based on Jane Austen’s classic novel, he spends a good chunk of his screen time wincing into space and grasping for words which never seem to arrive – when he does pipe up, he often mumbles the wrong thing, and even manages to make a slight hash of proposing. Classic Macfadyen.