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Why The Eighties Are Back (Don’t Panic: The Hair Isn’t)

Trench coats, pleated trousers and skinny belts – Black Mirror’s Mr Joe Cole takes a trip down memory lane

What better way to spend the day with one of the stars of Black Mirror than exploring the attractions of a deserted amusement park? Mr Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed sci-fi series, which returns to Netflix later this year, is known for its dark, dystopian visions of the near future; Dreamland, a sepia-toned 1920s amusement park in the shadow of a brutalist tower block in the heart of Margate, a down-at-heel resort on the south-east coast of England, seemed like the perfect setting.

How reassuring, then, to hear that “Hang The DJ”, one of six standalone episodes that make up the soon-to-air fourth season, isn’t actually as dreary, depressing and downright dismal as fans of Black Mirror might have come to expect. That’s according to Mr Joe Cole, anyway, who stars in the episode as one of the users of a futuristic dating app. “It’s a very different tone to other episodes, explains the actor. “It’s got more of a humorous, romcom vibe.”

It’s a change of tack for Mr Cole, who launched his career seven years ago with a string of bad-boy roles. In 2013, when MR PORTER first crossed paths with the then 24-year-old Londoner, we described his CV as reading “like the logbook of a juvenile correctional facility”. At the time, he was preparing to make his debut as the thuggish John “John Boy” Sheldon in season one of the BBC’s hyper-stylised period gangster drama Peaky Blinders. Now 29, he has since reprised that role in three additional seasons while further burnishing his tough-guy credentials in movies such as A Prayer Before Dawn, in which he plays a young English boxer incarcerated in a Thai prison. “That one was based on a true story,” he recalls. “We shot it in a real prison. It was... phew. Yeah. It was wild.”

Does he ever worry about becoming typecast? “I’m not that guy,” he says, “so it doesn’t bother me. When I first started [acting], people would ask me if I felt like I was being put in a box. But everyone starts in a box, don’t they? In the early stages of your career, you get the roles you’re given. It’s only by proving yourself in those roles that you earn the opportunity to explore new ones.” He credits American casting directors in particular for having the bravery to offer him in more adventurous roles in recent years. “Over there, I can be any class, any background. No judgement. It’s not quite like that in the UK, where sometimes it feels like you’re seen as one type of role and… well, Benedict Cumberbatch does everything else.” (“It works both ways, though,” he adds, pointing out that Mr Cumberbatch likely receives just as few offers for gritty, kitchen-sink-drama roles as he does for parts in aristocratic period dramas.)

You can see why a less open-minded casting director might be inclined to pigeon-hole Mr Cole. He’s not your archetypal, clean-cut leading man. He speaks in a pronounced, south-London accent. He has that boisterousness often found in men who grew up with a lot of brothers. (He has four, all younger.) He occasionally does or says something that hints at a dark side, like flashing a cheeky grin when asked what he’s been up to since the last time we met. (“A lot. Some things I can talk about, some I can’t.”)

But for all that he relishes playing up to the bad-boy stereotype, it’s easy to believe him when he says that he’s not that guy. On the dodgems, he talks with surprising zeal about a café in Bristol that serves avocado coffee smoothies, only stopping himself when he realises that he might be in danger of appearing to have forgotten his working-class roots. “Er, don’t write that down,” he laughs. For an actor who regularly rubs shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights, his life sounds pretty normal: gigs in the evening, five-a-side football at the weekends. And, best of all, he’s got this fantastic up-for-it enthusiasm, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that he agreed to come to a closed amusement park in Margate on a blustery November day to model some clothes.

What clothes, though. We chose this occasion to focus on a movement in fashion that is really starting to hit its stride: the 1980s trend. It’s a return to colour, pattern and texture; to big-shouldered, glam-rock flamboyance and post-punk androgyny. It’s trench coatspleated trousers and skinny leather belts. It’s Mr John Cusack in Say Anything… meets Mr Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. It’s dressing like your dad, but in a good way. Much like Dreamland Margate, the amusement park which provides the backdrop for this photoshoot, its appeal is rooted in nostalgia. The modern world is a terrifying place; the near future even more so, if shows like Black Mirror are to be believed. Little wonder that we seek comfort in the warm, familiar past.

Season four of Black Mirror will be released on Netflix later this year