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(C) BBC – Photographer: Des Willie

I’ve been aware of Sean Bean for a long time. He does action adventure-y, fantasy type things (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Equilibrium, Troy, Patriot Games, etc.) The fact that so many of the characters he plays die and quite violently is something of a cultural phenomenon. There are hashtags out there to prove it.

I also know he was an object of affection in the Vicar of Dibley…

That’s why I was so impressed to see Bean  in Broken, the Jimmy McGovern-penned BBC drama about a Catholic priest in a Northern English parish trying to serve his soul weary, poverty-stricken flock while wrestling with his own demons. If you’re not familiar with McGovern, he is the king of working class despair and I admire his ability to depict humanity and compassion in even the most desperate circumstances.

Sean was exquisite as Father Michael Kerrigan. Michael is a good man. He’s selfless, empathetic, fun-loving and approachable. He also notices when people are hurting and yearns to help them.

His dedication to God is strong and his desire to emulate Jesus is obvious in the rebellious incitement of his parishioners to smash up the local betting machines that have ruined so many lives.

And he is honest to a fault. When his mentor and friend Father Flaherty (Adrian Dunbar) advises him not to reveal a hurtful but irrelevant fact at an inquest, Michael feels compelled to admit to a brief slight of his duties to set the record straight.

But he’s not perfect. Sometimes he’s unsure what to say to make things better or how to ease his parishioners’ burdens. And no one is harder on Michael than he is on himself. He has flashbacks of his misdeeds and poor judgement. He also struggles to forgive the serious offenses committed against him in his youth.

While I watched Bean’s  performance I didn’t think of Ned Stark or Boromir or Richard Sharpe. I felt I was witnessing the authentic heart-felt efforts of a man of faith – to care for his dying mother, to comfort a mother who has lost her son, to counsel a police officer trying to do the right thing and to guide a desperate woman to take responsibility for a profane act.

Most compelling were his conversations with Roz (Paula Malcolmson), a woman shamed by what her gambling addiction led her to do and resigned to committing suicide over it.  She challenged Michael to show her a light at the end of the tunnel and also to confront the darkest episodes of his own past.

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We travel with Sean’s character through a wealth of emotions from impotence and grief to empowerment and grace. The end of that final episode made all the misery and striving worth every emotional second. I sat there with tears streaming down as the people who Michael thought he had disappointed, let him know otherwise. I’m not a religious person, but I think I would feel completely comfortable confiding in Father Kerrigan. Sean Bean’s portrayal combined an essence of benevolence and social justice tempered with very human self-doubt. It gave me a glimmer of hope in a time when people judge with haste and hate too easily.

I watched this six part series on the video sharing site, Dailymotion. Not ideal, but I hope Broken will eventually come to a reputable US streaming service or perhaps even PBS. More people should be aware of this inspiring journey and Bean’s must-see (and perhaps BAFTA-worthy) performance.

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Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin image credit Acorn TV

Jensen as Agatha Raisin  (image credit Acorn TV)

It’s not often that I get to conduct an interview from the comfort of my living room, or for that matter, from anywhere at all. But thanks to my friends at Acorn TV, I was afforded the the wonderful opportunity to speak with Ashley Jensen last week. This Scottish actress is probably best known to American audiences for her work in sitcoms like Extras, Ugly Betty or Catastrophe. She’s also lent her voice to many an animated feature and now can add M.C. Beaton’s PR guru-turned-amateur detective, Agatha Raisin to her CV. We had a lively phone chat that touched on the many and varied stages of her career as a working actress.

We began by discussing how Ashley got her start in acting. While she didn’t get much exposure to drama in school, she joined the National Youth Theatre in London when she was a teenager attending over her summer holidays. After that she went to drama school for three years from ages 18 to 21. Once her training was over,  she “basically started at the bottom doing theater – the type of theater where you drive in a little van, put the set up, do the show, you take the set down, you put it in the van and go to the next gig. Like a bunch of traveling minstrels.”

Gradually Ashley moved on to playing tiny parts on television. “I kinda feel as if I’ve really served my acting apprenticeship. People are asking me how it is being at the helm of a show. To me it was far more terrifying going on and doing my one scene or four lines in a long standing show with a lead actor. That was far more scary than being the lead actor in a show.”

When I asked her if she had ever considered another career, she recalled a drawing she made as a young girl for her mother telling her it was a picture of when she would be an actress on television. Ms. Jensen said there was never any doubt in her mind about acting, but she felt she had to be very single-minded about her choice of career.

“I knew I had to make a living out of it because I didn’t have a trust fund somewhere that could subsidize me if I failed at this thing. I absolutely had to earn a living out of it. People talk about success and they kind of deem success as when you become a bit of a household name and, to be completely honest, I felt like I was a success way before that because I was able to pay my own rent in the chosen profession, in the job that I trained to do. I was like ‘I can’t believe that I’m working in theater which is what I always wanted to do and I was able to pay my way’ and so I figure I was a success years ago.”

Ashley’s breakout role was in the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant follow-up sitcom to The Office. In Extras, she played Ricky’s best friend and fellow TV and film extra, Maggie Jacobs. Many famous celebrities from both sides of the pond guest starred on the show as well. One of those A-list actors was Samuel L. Jackson and Ms. Jensen recalled the reaction to the American movie star as he first arrived on set.

“I’d never met anyone from the movies, from the silver screen- so I was already overwhelmed acting alongside Ricky and along walks Samuel L. Jackson and there was this silence on the set. I’ve never heard silence like I heard silence when Samuel L. Jackson walked on the set. And of course Ricky being Ricky just broke it when I think Samuel L. Jackson bent over and tied his shoelace or something and Ricky shouts “He ties his own shoelaces!” and then the atmosphere changed and everyone was fine.”

“I mean these guys all came on and they did such a great job at playing these heightened versions of themselves and they absolutely loved it. I think they loved coming on and almost slumming it on this BBC TV show where the budget isn’t what Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson are used to.”

 

After her Emmy and BAFTA nominated role in Extras, Ashley took a vacation and found herself on the brink of her next big job playing Betty Suarez’s friend and co-worker Christina McKinney in the Golden Globe award winning sitcom, Ugly Betty.

Ashley-Jensen-in-Ugly-Betty

Jensen with America Ferrrera on Ugly Betty (image courtesy of Silent H, Ventanarosa and Reveille Productions)

 

“I came over literally for a holiday with my husband to do a California road trip and my agent said you may as well see a few people out there and one thing led to the other and before I knew it I was screen testing for various pilots, a couple of which I didn’t get.  Then all of a sudden in rode this little gem of a script and I went ‘This is the one I really want to do!’ This is a story I’d not seen before. It was heightened, it was fun, it was a bit camp and yet it was really honest and dealt with a lot of really human issues. And I thought this is the one I really want to get and, lo and behold, I got it. Of course I signed up for a few years and I moved to America and I lived there for six years.”

Asked to reflect on the differences between working in television in the UK and LA, Ashley cited two main factors.

“LA is an industry based on film making and TV program making so there’s not so much of a struggle with the money aspect of it. So if we need to do overtime to get the shots, we’ll do it. Because occasionally sometimes here (UK) we can be a little compromised because they can’t afford to pay overtime.  And we also have this thing called the weather which can affect our filming. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve done with a hot water bottle strapped to my waist, heat pads sewn into my vest and, of course in LA, you don’t have that plus your food is better over there. The craft services are so much better than ours.”

It’s been said an actor’s voice is his/her instrument and Ms. Jensen has made good use of hers, namely as a narrator and voice-over artist. Some of her animated credits include Arthur Christmas, How to Train Your Dragon and Gnomeo & Juliet. I asked how she liked doing this sort of work and she had a very enthusiastic response.

“I love it! You know you think you’re just standing there saying lines but after a four hour session I’m sweating. I kind of get physically involved in it and you’ve got to really think on your feet and think of different ways of saying the line again and again. Yeah, I really like it. It’s almost like you kind of leave your dignity on the doorstep and you’ve gotta just go for it and think no one’s looking at me, apart from the fact that they are actually filming you so they can see how your face moves. It’s fun. It’s kind of like being a child again doing animated films, just doing silly voices and jumping about and being incredibly uninhibited because there’s no space for being inhibited in any way.”

Ms. Jensen also filled me in that she has begun work on Sherlock Gnomes which is the sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet. I assume she will reprise her role as Nanette the Frog.

 

Next we discussed her stint as narrator of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, a UK reality medical television program which tries to make common medical issues, especially those that are “embarrassing” understood and to debunk myths surrounding them. I wondered if there had been any conditions that Ashley had come across on the show that stood out as being particularly upsetting, perhaps like this one:

“I did watch the VG and sometimes go ‘Oh, no sorry. I totally missed my cue just watching that there’ but I remember when I was pregnant, I could barely get through an episode without crying. It was just like,  ‘Oh that poor man!'”

But aside from the shock value, Ms. Jensen remarked on the show’s impact on its participants and the larger TV audience as well.

“Viewers emailing in and Twittering in, and doing all that twittery thing that I don’t really do, saying that because of your program I went to the doctor and I found out I have this and my life is so much different, in fact my life has been saved. I mean it was a bit ridiculous sometimes with a nice mix of daft problems but then there were some real conditions where you went ‘Wow, that person’s life has been literally changed because of this program’ and that was great.”

Eventually I got around to the Agatha Raisin portion of the conversation. As with any adaptation of a popular book series, there are always going to be adjustments from page to screen.  First we addressed to obvious physical differences between Ashley and Agatha.

Agatha stands out in appearance if not in cookery (image credit Acorn TV)

Agatha makes an impression in Carsely  (image credit Acorn TV)

“I think I’d read one book before the interview and was thinking – this woman’s older than me, she’s got brown hair, she’s chunkier than me, she’s from Birmingham. Why me? I spoke to the author M.C. Beaton and got her seal of approval (despite) the fact that I look different to what she’d originally envisioned. There’s always going to be somebody that’s not going to be comfortable with how we’ve done it and that’s okay. I thought I can’t let this worry me too much, but the author’s good with it and she’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you there’s more than a little bit of Agatha in there, M.C. Beaton. She has her bright pink lipstick and her flamboyant clothes and she also is Scottish. She’s such a character and she’s such a wonderful woman.”

As for how Ashley approached playing Agatha, she admitted it was more about the essence of the woman than the package.

“She wears her makeup, her structured clothes and her perfect hair almost like her armor against the world. And yet underneath, and we got to see that in the show, behind closed doors she’s had a disastrous love life and a very close relationship with a bottle of wine and she’s a terrible cook and she has a wee cat that she just loves and was actually, in a lot of ways, quite lonely and looking for a bit of warmth. And that was quite nice to play. I think it came across on screen quite well in that you got to see little moments of vulnerability that made the character a wee bit more of a three dimensional character rather than she’s just a bitch.”

We touched on Mrs. Raisin’s eensy weensy problem with assimilating fully to her newly adopted home of Carsley. Ashley shared that it was a conscious decision that there was to be lots of boldness and color in Agatha’s look to symbolize how she wasn’t conforming to English country life.

“This was who she was and she wasn’t apologizing for it, but I think ultimately she did want to sort of fit in and be part of what was her childhood dream of living in this lovely little cottage. I think she’d had herself a bit of a troubled background, not that we see too much of that because we just see her now, but I think that’s the backstory of who she was which kind of gives the character a wee bit more depth again.”

As for Agatha’s new hobby since moving to the Cotswolds, Ashley discussed what about her character’s personality and experience makes her a good detective.

“I think her PR skills obviously stand her in good stead and the fact, I think, that she just doesn’t take no for an answer. I think she has got this utter confidence in her own ability to get people to do what she wants whether that may be through manipulation or a little bit of fear and intimidation. She kind of manages to muscle her way into situations where I think maybe the policemen, particularly in our series Bill Wong, wouldn’t be able to get himself into. She can be charming when she wants to and flirty when she wants to. She just makes sure she gets her own way really.”

One of the silent characters of Agatha Raisin is the Cotswolds itself. Ms. Jensen confirmed that the show was shot in and around the region including Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

“It was all these shires that are all very close to one another – beautiful little villages that are all sort of nestled in hillsides around this area. It looks so glorious too with the stately homes of which there are many around this area. I mean, it’s so quintessentially English, isn’t it? Hopefully that’s something an American audience can enjoy the charm of. Just looking at that countryside is like a chocolate box. A chocolate box England.”

When it comes to her own retirement in the distant future, I wondered if Ashley would take Agatha’s path or choose another destination.

“Funnily enough I live not far from where we film. I live just outside of Bath in the rolling countryside with bulls and pigs for neighbors. It was a bit of joke really because it’s like ‘Hey I’m living Agatha’s dream!’ Except I have a family – I’ve got a husband and a dog and a child so I’m not quite like Agatha in that way. Yeah, I love it here. It’s just so glorious and it was such a wonderful job because a lot of the locations were very near to where I live and how often does that happen. Not very.”

To end the interview, I engaged Ashley in a conversation about another of her more recent works, the quirky, dystopian film The Lobster which also stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. The story is set in a society where single people are confined to a specially designated hotel and have forty-five days to find suitable mate, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the wild. I wondered if her character, Biscuit Woman, had an animal in mind when she came to the hotel.

“I think I had it in my head it was a bumblebee. I don’t know why but I think I thought she might want to be a bumblebee. Which would be a ridiculous one because they only last for a few days, don’t they? I don’t think she was the brightest of women, Biscuit Woman.”

After viewing the film, I was most impressed with Ashley’s chameleon-like appearance, and admitted it took me a few scenes to recognize her.

Ashley in all her self-described slump-shouldered, ill-fitting bra glory in The Lobster (image credit Film4)

“The director had said he wanted me to cut my hair for it and I was like ‘No listen, seriously, we don’t need to. I know a style that will be brilliant. I’ll just walk in and I’ll look just exactly what you’re asking for.’ I think he was a bit worried I was going to look too attractive. I said, ‘Yorgos (Lanthimos) believe me, I won’t. I won’t look too attractive.’  I got on the set and I had no makeup on and my hair like that and he quietly went up to the makeup woman and had a little word. She came up to me and said ‘Ashley, Yorgos wants you to put on a little makeup.’ And I looked over at Yorgos and said, ‘I told you, I told you.’ He went, ‘You did, you did.’

With that we had to end our call, but Ms. Jensen concluded by saying she was delighted that Agatha Raisin has reached American shores. If you want to check out her performance along with other cast members Katy Wix, Jamie Glover and Mathew Horne, the series is currently streaming on Acorn TV. The pilot movie, The Quiche of Death, premiered on Monday, August 1, 2016, and the eight-episode series 1 became available the following week.

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Turner as The Hobbit's Kili image credit New Line Cinema

Turner as The Hobbit’s Kili
image credit New Line Cinema

Before you get the wrong idea from the somewhat misleading title of this post, let me clarify the nature of my rendezvous with the owner of the most talked about abs of 2015. Through no obsession or conscious planning of my own, I found myself, on and around January 1, binging on a lot of Irish actor Aidan Turner’s recent work.

Never mind the fact that my daughter and her boyfriend had been watching The Hobbit trilogy which featured Turner as Kili, the designated heartthrob in a pack of thirteen dwarves. I was already part the way through Poldark: Series 1 on DVD when I discovered the newly broadcast Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None was available to stream on Daily Motion. I was on Aidan overload, but there are worse things that can happen on New Year’s Day so I went with it.

If I’m honest, Poldark, a remake of the 1977 post-Revolutionary War period drama, had been a bit of a slog to get through. I’d watch an episode or two, then take a break of up to a week sometimes and then resume with a new sense of resolve. It wasn’t that the Cornish landscape wasn’t breathtaking or that the love story between Turner’s gentleman Ross Poldark and his wild servant girl turned devoted and pure of heart wife, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), wasn’t engaging. There was just so much misfortune and so little joy in these characters’ lives, it got to be a chore to watch what would befall them next.

And not all of the bad stuff can be blamed on fate or various societal inequalities of the time period. Yes, Ross has many strengths, among them being a friend to those of lower station, his apparent incorruptibility and his loyalty to his family and all others who can earn his trust. However I couldn’t help thinking that if he had been a bit more amiable to George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) who was obviously eager to be sitting at the “cool table” with Ross and the other Poldarks, he might not have been arrested on a number of serious counts at the cliffhanger conclusion of the series.

In the end I endured the unfair imprisonment of Jim Carter (Alexander Arnold), the downfall of well-meaning but ineffectual Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller who is American by the way), the shunning of cousin Verity (Ruby Bentall) and of course the heartbreaking death of Ross’ baby Julia as a result of the putrid throat epidemic (which turns out is what we now call diphtheria.) And for what? For moments like this one…

 

On the other hand, the three part mini-series And Then There Were None was compelling and practically beckoned me to watch it. In this 2015 adaptation of the Agatha Christie tale about eight strangers and a pair of domestic staff summoned to a secluded island in Devon under false pretenses, Mr. Turner portrayed mercenary Phillip Lombard. When each house guest is accused of a murder, Lombard freely admits to his slaughter of twenty-one East African natives in order to gain access to a haul of diamonds. He is unapologetic, brutally honest and charming which, in the end, does him no good when he finds himself one of the last survivors on this island of revenge and terror.

There are several particularly notable moments for Turner in this series. One is obviously his provocative towel scene. In the story each guest is required to strip down to a robe or towel so the others may search their room for Lombard’s missing revolver. It worked very well for Aidan – for Toby Stephens, not so much.

Vera Claythorn (Maeve Dermody) and Turner in the OMG moment of And Then There Were None image credit BBC

Vera Claythorn (Maeve Dermody) and Turner’s Lombard in the OMG moment of And Then There Were None
image credit BBC

But I also felt he got the best line of the series. When Lombard tells the others he plans to kill their tormentor with a bullet between the eyes, Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson) is repulsed by his vulgarity and asks how he can say such horrible things. Lombard responds with a snear, ” I just open my mouth and it comes out.”

Aidan Turner is definitely on a hot streak and, based on the comments I get at the library from ladies of all ages looking for his work on DVD, he’s getting hotter as we speak. (To those who have discovered him through Poldark, may I recommend Being Human?)

And so there you have it, my first telly experiences of 2016. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead and, of course, to sharing my British TV observations with you. Happy New Year and happy viewing!!!

 

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