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There’s a scene in the crime drama No Offence where Joanna Scanlan walks into the men’s toilets to reignite an argument with her boss. While he stands helpless at the urinal, she berates him, swears at him and finally skewers him with a momentary glance downwards.
It is genuinely funny TV, and further proof that Scanlan, known for her role in political satire The Thick of It, has emerged as one of Britain’s deftest comic actors. It also makes me nervous to be meeting her without having visited the loo beforehand.
Thankfully, the scene is a lousy guide to Scanlan herself. When I arrive in the restaurant of a Manchester hotel, she is sitting meekly in the corner, and proceeds to um and er over which table we should relocate to. “I don’t avoid conflict but I wouldn’t go out of the way to grab a problem by the balls,” she explains later.
Now 55, Scanlan has accumulated a pile of prime performances: she was Charles Dickens’ ill-treated wife in the film The Invisible Woman; an ungodly cost-cutting cleric in BBC comedy Rev; and, in The Thick of It, an obstructive press officer who dared to tell vicious spin doctor Malcolm Tucker that he was “wrong . . . like a sultana in a salad”. In January, No Offence, which this year won the Royal Television Society award for best British drama, returns for a second series with Scanlan back as the bossy detective inspector Vivienne Deering.
In an industry famous for lucky breaks, her career is an ode to second chances. She only started acting professionally aged 34 following a breakdown. She was 46 when she received her first commission on a script she’d co-written, a delicious, darkly comic sitcom about the National Health Service called Getting On.
“It took me 17 years of developing projects and getting them pushed back to getting a green light. It was 17 years’ worth of, ‘what about this?’, and ‘what about this?’. I never stopped. I kept on going. And it never worked,” says Scanlan.
The delays did allow her to soak up the melancholy of working life, now a theme of her acting and writing. When her contemporaries were already on screen, she was experiencing office hell as a researcher at the Arts Council. “I was never spoiled,” as she puts it jovially.
Even now, though, there is a question over whether Scanlan’s rise could have been sharper, were if not for the biases of British television. Getting On, which she co-wrote and co-starred in with Vicki Pepperdine and Jo Brand, was a masterpiece. It is full of agonising Office-style observations, such as a nurse who wakes a patient in order to administer a sleeping pill.
Yet, despite critical success, the series never received prime billing on BBC Two, where both The Office and The Thick of It found a mass audience. It aired on the relative backwater of BBC Four between 2009 and 2012. As a result, it became arguably the best recent British TV series that no one saw (HBO commissioned its own version of the show, which ran for three seasons in the US).
Would Getting On have been given a better airing had three men written it? “Yes. Yes. It is as simple as that,” Scanlan says, lowering her voice with a pained certainty. “I do truly believe that it is a deep injustice. We won just about every award going, and it was blocked.”
Victoria Wood, the doyenne of British comedy writers, who died this year, was credited with having shoved the door open for other women. But it remains at best only partly ajar. Research by talent agent Hollie Ebdon found that just 15 per cent of the BBC’s recent comedy pilots for newcomers were written by women. Nonetheless, Scanlan is optimistic. She points to Transparent, a series written by American Jill Soloway and produced by Amazon. “I think it’s a game changer [for female writers]. It’s about diversity. The comedy comes from underneath — it doesn’t punch you in the nose.”
In the crowded field of police procedurals, No Offence is distinctive in having three female lead protagonists. It was created by Paul Abbott, the award-winning writer behind Shameless, Clocking Off and State of Play. Scanlan says she twice turned down the part of DI Deering, thinking it demanded “a ballsier actress”.
“I kept saying, ‘No, I just can’t do this.’ [Because of] what, in modern parlance, is called the fierceness of her. The volume of her emotional strength, and literally the physical way of delivering the words. Paul Abbott puts so many contradictory words into one sentence. The technical challenge seemed insurmountable to me and, simultaneously, the volume of her emotions.
“[Viv] is kind of mono in her morality,” she continues. “There is a really strong sense of right and wrong, and there is no equivocation. I thought, ‘I don’t really play that.’ I normally play nuance or subtleties of moral positions. I’m fascinated by that in life, the grey areas.”
In the end, she was persuaded, and on screen she is a natural in the role: sharp, fearless, compassionate. “Lots of actors say, ‘That’s not for me.’ But sometimes you don’t know yourself very well. You don’t know how you appear. You don’t know your potential either. Others can often see that.”
Scanlan’s upbringing — she was born in the Wirral and raised in north Wales — included two female relatives with a passion for culture and an unrealised desire to perform professionally. Her paternal grandmother “was brought up in a well-to-do household. But when I go through all the photographs of her as a girl — classic pictures from the 1920s and 1930s of teenagers in gardens with pug dogs and Pekingese — she’s always in costumes, performing,” says Scanlan. “But there was no question of her ever working as such. There was deep frustration in not having the outlet, the creative life. She became an alcoholic, she became extremely unhappy. She also lost her husband in the second world war, which can’t have not contributed to that.”
Her maternal grandmother was an amateur singer, whose passion for opera ultimately ceded to her role as a shopkeeper’s wife. “There would be these occasions and she would do these arias from great operas, light operas or whatever. She was celebrated.” Scanlan’s father worked in breweries and hotels and her mother has a flair for prose; both are now retired. Her uncle buried his own musical streak in a career in insurance.
“I feel I’m the generation that is lucky enough to be able to earn a living as an artist,” she says. “I had the great good fortune of both my parents saying, ‘Go and do whatever you want to do creatively. Live the life that we couldn’t live.’ It may be prudent and sensible to work in insurance,” she continues, cantering to a comic pause, “but there is more to life than that. I do know that is a luxurious position in history.”
Nonetheless, for years it looked like the frustrations of previous generations would repeat themselves. Scanlan went to Cambridge University and joined the Footlights, the comedy troupe whose alumni include Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and John Oliver, and which remains one of Britain’s surest springboards to show business. But afterwards, when she contacted agents and started writing scripts, nothing came off. Instead, she ended up teaching drama at Leicester Polytechnic.
“I felt heartbroken. But that was quite an emotional response,” she says. “I thought there was maybe another way of manifesting what I believed in. So although in a way I was heartbroken at not physically living my practice, and the things I believed in, I was also pretty satisfied at a certain level by enabling others.”
She designed a new degree course for writers and performers, and then took a research role at the Arts Council, a public funding body. At the age of 29, the heartbreak, combined with the stress of a bureaucratic reorganisation at work, contributed to a breakdown. One day a doctor advised her: “If you don’t go back to acting, you will be ill for the rest of your life.”
Having spent weeks in Wales unable to do much more than walk the dog, eventually she found an agent, and the roles began to trickle in — Peak Practice, The Bill, One Foot in the Grave, the staples of turn-of-the-century British TV. “As someone who’s overweight, fat, large, big, early on in my career I got sent lots of characters who were” — she switches to a northern accent — “fat and funny, good-time girls. That’s not me. So I ended up playing the other version of fat as an actor, which is kind of caring or seemingly maternal, or [someone who] has a positive warmth about them.”
Her best roles were the ones she wrote for herself. In Getting On, she played a distracted senior nurse, whose priority was not caring for patients but sleeping with her gay male boss. When the BBC commissioned the show, she knew she had finally made it. It was, she recalls, “the relief as much as the joy”. How did she celebrate? “Well, I don’t drink or smoke or take any drugs,” she says. “So I probably just took the dog for a walk, with a spring in my step.”
Social hierarchy runs through British comedy from Blackadder to Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies; the comic potential from exploiting petty rivalries and insecurities is almost limitless. The Office centred on David Brent’s fundamental inability to act like a boss; The Thick of It hinged on the constant battle between special advisers and civil servants, each of whom saw themselves as the heart of power.
In Scanlan’s own writing, hierarchy is more than a device. In the early 1980s, the Footlights club was still a hangout for Marxists. “Of course it was super posh, but it didn’t feel it. That was partly because we were all Marxists. We might have been kidding ourselves but we were, at the time, trying to bring about the revolution. I was certainly a good reader of Marx’s material, even if I didn’t subscribe to it all wholesale. And I’m damn glad I was. I’m glad I was brought up with dual ideologies, competing against one another, because I do feel that we don’t have enough new ideas.
“I’ve always taken the socio-economic background of a human being first, before I extrapolate that either in the writing form of a character or in the acting . . . Most of my time is spent in front of the computer, working things out, little by little, and trying to represent our world.” She looks around the bar, to demonstrate what she means — “Who’s working in this hotel right now? Why are they here, in Manchester? Why now?”
In Getting On, all three main characters — the doctor, the senior nurse and the nurse — wish they worked somewhere else. Conversely, in No Offence all three female police officers relish their job. The series examines workplace hierarchies with a subtle and sporadic humour. “I don’t care what they say, sometimes you’re really nearly worth every penny,” her character tells one underling mischievously. “You are sharpening up like a good pencil,” she encourages another.
The richness of the language can get lost in the commotion, if you’re not concentrating. “Paul is a modern-day Chaucer,” says Scanlan.
Acting now accounts for around half of Scanlan’s time. The other half is spent writing, striving for characters who reflect real people. For HBO, she is working to adapt Puppy Love, a BBC comedy she co-wrote with Pepperdine, about the relationships owners have with their pets. As research, they recently travelled to Boulder, Colorado, looking for parallels of their characters, which ended up being “really easy to find”. She’s also done a novel-writing course and hopes to write crime fiction.
She recently started filming Pin Cushion, an independent British movie. Unlike some female actors, Scanlan has never struggled for older roles. “I always played 40-year-olds, even when I was 12,” she says. “There isn’t a working day of the year when I haven’t got something to do. Whether I’m being paid for it or not is arguable. If no one wanted me, I really think I would keep on doing it anyway. I just would. I would just keep on writing.”
She jokes that the menopause has given her a “new lease of energy”, and a love of park running. “I felt like my body, which had been in some way harnessed to the process of reproduction for those years, suddenly was given back to me. I feel this great sense of return to my body.”
Scanlan and her husband, who live in London, met too late to have children. “I’d have loved to become a mother but I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to be a very good actor or an artist had I been one,” she says. “There was a point in my own life, when I was in my mid-thirties and saying, ‘Oh, I want babies’, and both my parents said to me there is more to life than having children. Which you could take in two ways. But I think what they meant, their unfulfilled artistic expression perhaps was curtailed by having a family, and perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to manage both. My deep suspicion is that I would have prioritised children above having an artistic life.
“I think there’s a great freedom in the artistic practice of not having my own children,” she adds. “I feel no sadness. This is my life, and my life is as it’s meant to be.”
Her tone is the most certain that she has struck in the whole interview — a flashback to the police detective inspector who towered over the urinals. We say goodbye, and I wait until she is a safe distance away before I tiptoe back to use the hotel toilet.
The new series of “No Offence” starts in January 2017 on Channel 4
Photographs: Lottie Bea Spencer