Any actress aspiring to join Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones as queens of popular British TV drama should seriously consider applying to work in a certain fictional northern pub. For a stint behind the bar of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street – if the success rate of former employees is anything to go by – is an almost a guarantor of future glory.
Lancashire, who played ditzy Raquel Watts for the best part of nine years, currently reigns supreme with Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley (two dramas penned by a former Corrie scriptwriter, Sally Wainwright, as it happens), while Jones (who played Karen McDonald for five years) is at the moment filming the second series Doctor Foster, for which she last year won a Bafta for her performance as the cuckolded GP.
Meanwhile these two Weatherfield graduates have been joined by another pretender who has served her time as a Corrie pint-puller (and, like Jones, as spouse to Steve McDonald – a man just one wife away from equalling Henry VIII’s tally), Yorkshire-born Katherine Kelly.
Having played Becky McDonald (née Grainger) for five years, Kelly has gone to star in Mr Selfridge, Happy Valley and The Night Manager. And later this month she will be headlining in two new dramas, ITV’s Him and BBC3’s Doctor Who spin-off, Class.
Him, says Kelly, is a “a domestic show with a slight horror element” in which she plays the mother of a troubled teenage boy with telekinetic powers. This ability, usually accompanied by a nosebleed, means he can throw objects with the power of his thoughts and, in one memorable scene, threaten to kill his stepfather with the contents of his toolbox.
“I just thought it was a really different script,” says Kelly in her home in north London that she shares with her Australian husband, Ryan Clarke, and baby Orla. “I couldn't stop thinking about it after I read it and I always like to try and do something a bit different and a bit challenging.”
In Class, set in Coal Hill, a fictional school that has featured in Doctor Who since its inception in 1963, Kelly plays the physics teacher, Miss Quill – “the teacher that you’d would just never want”, says Kelly. “She is more intelligent than all of the kids put together and she cannot bear them and she’s very happy to dole out detention. But if you were ever in serious trouble, she would be the one you go to because she’s totally kick-ass. She’s bit of a dream role, really.
Produced by Steven Moffat and written by Patrick Ness, an American author best-known for his books for young adults, the series concentrates on the secrets and desires of the academy’s sixth-formers – with added monsters.
“It’s very much part of the Doctor Who family – Peter Capaldi’s in the first episode – and we are fighting aliens left, right and centre, so there was a lot of green screen and typical sci-fi filming,” says Kelly. “When I told my dad about Class, and that I was going to play Miss Quill and I was describing it all, he said, ‘that means you can never be the first female Doctor Who’.”
Her dad – a former miner and psychiatric nurse who went on to help found the Lamproom Theatre in Barnsley – takes a strong interest in his daughter’s career. An academic teenager, Kelly was headed for university until he chucked a prospectus for Rada, which he’d picked up in the library, on to the dining room table and said, ‘you might want to have a look at this, Kate’.
She was duly accepted by the prestigious drama school, becoming contemporaries with Laurence Fox, Ben Whishaw, Tom Burke and Eve Best – concentrating on theatre after graduation and ending up taking lead roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the tender age of 23. If, as she says, Kelly looked upon her early stage work as a form of further education, then her five-year stint in Coronation Street she compares to being in repertory theatre.
“To me it always seemed like the equivalent of old-fashioned rep”, she says of the show that she initially joined for eight episodes. “I'm up for everything that there is, and you could never call me a snob. I just take jobs and scripts as they come. Becky was a small part but a juicy part, a homeless villain, and I had no intentions of staying for very long because I don't, that’s not my thing, really; I enjoy variety”.
When I interviewed Suranne Jones a few years ago, she told me she quit the soap because she found herself repeating herself, but Kelly says that the writers developed and reinvented Becky so much that playing her was like taking “seven different roles”. And Kelly is a grafter who takes her craft seriously.
“Always I thought, OK, Becky’s drunk again, but why is it this time? Is it because she’s happy she’s getting married? Is it because her marriage is failing and she's drinking herself into oblivion? That was the challenge, to find a different way of playing it. In a way I embraced the inevitable repetition of the show and tried not to play the same thing twice, no matter how it was written.
“And I was a better actor for it – massively”, she says. “I just think you get out what you put in, and if you put a lot in it's like a ping-pong match with the writers and they will pick up on what you're doing and send you something great back. And when do you get that time on television to make mistakes? You don't, really.”
Jones also told me how, when she left Coronation Street after five years of playing Karen McDonald, she went to see a drama coach, worried that she had fallen into bad habits from the show’s rapid turnover and what she called “self-directing” - something she felt she had to do because there was little time for rehearsal.
“In theatre you get constantly directed and I floundered a bit in my first week”, agrees Kelly. “Then Bradley Walsh said to me, ‘I can see you looking around to find someone to tell you whether you can do that or not’, and he said, “Just do it’. The minute Bradley said that to me, it was just a moment of release.”
“I actually used my Rada training more for Coronation Street than I did for any other job because it was like I was in a Greek tragedy. I’d read the script and think this is absolutely insane what I'm supposed to do now on these cobbles in a back street in Manchester.”
‘Him’ begins on ITV on Wednesday 19 October at 9pm; ‘Class’ is available online on BBC3 from Saturday 22 OctoberReuse content