Joanna Scanlan: From bumbling Whitehall press officer in The Thick of It to lifestyle coach in Heading Out

Actress tells Veronica Lee about the NHS and dark comedy – and why she's glad there are lighter times ahead

It must come as a relief to Joanna Scanlan that her latest television character is a lovable human being with a big heart. After playing a bumbling Whitehall press officer in The Thick of It and a status-obsessed nurse in Getting On, her role in the new comedy drama Heading Out couldn't be a bigger contrast: she plays a lifestyle coach.

Those two mild grotesques – Terri Coverley in The Thick of It and Den Flixter in Getting On – were in critically acclaimed comedies. Scanlan co-wrote the delicious comedy noir set in an NHS ward with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine, both of whom also starred in it. Brand received a Bafta for best actress for Getting On in 2011 and the programme is expected to be nominated in this year's awards, which are announced in April.

Heading Out is written by Sue Perkins (of The Great British Bake Off) – she plays Sara, a vet about to turn 40 who is scared to tell her parents that she is gay. It has a stellar castlist including Dawn French, Mel Giedroyc, Steve Pemberton and June Brown; Scanlan is Toria, the hopelessly incompetent lifestyle coach hired by Sara's friends to help her tell the truth about herself.

We speak as gay marriage is about to be legalised, so it may seem strange that coming out is still an issue for some gay men and women. But Scanlan says she recognises Sara all too well.

"There's a world of anomalies around this. On one hand we live – certainly in metropolitan life – with normality and acceptance of all sorts of sexualities, but that doesn't mean that people in themselves are resolved. Sue's script rings very true to me. Fifteen – even five – years ago equal marriage wouldn't have been thought possible; we're moving very fast ... but there are emotional journeys that take longer for some."

Scanlan, whose parents were hoteliers, grew up in north Wales and studied history at Cambridge, where she was in the Footlights. She was there at the same time as Tilda Swinton (hence Swinton's appearance in the final episode of the last series of Getting On), Simon Russell Beale and Hugh Bonneville.

"Hugh and I toured in Romeo and Juliet. He was Romeo," she says. And was she Juliet? "I was not!" she laughs. "I've been playing characters of 40 since I was 10," says 50-year-old Scanlon. "I skipped the Juliet phase. I played her mother, Lady Capulet. I remember, though, the director saying to me, 'I'm going to try some intuitive casting here – you're not going to play the Nurse ....' He spun that really well, I must say."

That anecdote – told with much hilarity – suggests that Scanlan doesn't have a fragile ego, and she says she doesn't mind looking foolish if the role demands it.

"I don't really care how I look," she says. "I'm sure I should have more dignity but it makes it funnier if you go for it. I'm overweight so I might as well use it."

Both The Thick of It and Getting On were partly improvised, so I ask if there is anything of Scanlan in Terri and Den. "I'm quite bossy ... and I can find it quite hard to apologise," she says, groaning. Scanlan might have to convince me on both counts – her hearty laugh punctuates our conversation, and she takes time over her responses.

She does a lot of research for her roles, she says. "I talked to people in those jobs [Whitehall and the NHS] because I cannot possibly know what it feels like to be somebody else unless I have some evidence of what it is to be them. Otherwise there's danger of it becoming a caricature. I was an academic for eight years [five years teaching drama at De Montfort University and three years at the Arts Council], so I suppose I have a trained approach to getting things right."

Heading Out is much lighter in tone than Getting On, but it seems that some of the best dark comedies of recent years have been written by women, Julia Davis's Nighty Night being a case in point.

"Some male comics are superb at the technical aspects of comedy, which is a thing of beauty in itself," says Scanlan. "But [in Getting On] we enjoyed showing the emotional side of our characters. I think that can lend itself to dark comedy when it's true to the reality. We were truthful about not just the sadness and the pain, but also about the banality and boredom of hospital life."

Was there ever a danger of making it too dark? "We had quite a few debates about where the line is drawn but I think instinctively once you get the tone right you know where the comedy lies. My personal instinct is to just do it, because you can always edit it later if need be." (One can imagine the debate about the opening episode, which centred on a freshly laid turd on a chair in Ward B4.)

It was subtly political as well, shining a light on areas of the NHS – care of the elderly and the chronically sick – that other doctors-and-nurses dramas consider unsexy. "Yes, it was political, but we tried to show all angles," Scanlan says. "The public sector is being treated as an opportunity for business, and I don't think business is ever as effective in schools and hospitals."

Getting On had a loyal following among NHS staff, who praised its gritty realism. Scanlan, who lives in south London with her husband, Neil, an accountant, and their rescue dog Millie, supported the campaign by NHS workers to save the A&E department of Lewisham hospital. "I was in contact with a couple of nurses there," she says. "I simply cannot understand the Government's thinking on this."

Scanlan says she has no idea if there will be a fourth series of Getting On, but before that may happen she is developing another project with Pepperdine.

"It's about training dogs, a family comedy about how people relate to their pets. It's going to be much sunnier."

'Heading Out' starts on BBC2 on 26 Feb

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing