Actor and writer Joanna Scanlan talks plus-size fashion, funny nurses, and why she’s working with her pet dog, Millie


Armando Iannucci recently said that the UK falls behind the US  when it comes to female comedy writers. Do you find it to be a male-dominated industry?

Absolutely, it always has been. There’s the youth element: TV comedy is often made for a young, male audience. But also, it has always been influenced by stand-up and there are very few successful female stand-ups. Jo Brand is of course one, which helped us get Getting On made [for BBC4] in the first place.

Many people who’ve worked on NHS wards say Getting On is scarily accurate. How did you research it?

We worked with a doctor and in the latter series we spent time at Homerton Hospital, where we found most of our storylines from interviewing people at all levels, from cleaners to consultants.

You’re promoting a plus-size label. Do you think there’s a shift in attitude towards bigger women in fashion?

It’s about getting real, isn’t it? The fashion industry has to realise that a) there are women across the country who are above size 16 and b) they want to wear more than just jersey leggings. There are some great role models, like Beth Ditto and Camila Batmanghelidjh.

You’ve played Bessie in Jane Eyre, and now you’re playing Catherine Dickens in The Invisible Woman...

Jane Eyre wasn’t written by Dickens, you do know that? You’re from The Independent...

I know! I was going to ask... How does acting in period drama compare to playing nurses and civil servants?

Playing someone who has really existed in history, there’s a strange sense of responsibility. With Catherine Dickens, there was the brilliant book, The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, in which she uncovered that Dickens had been living secretly with a woman for the last nine years of his life, while being held up as something close to a paragon of Victorian patriarchy.

In The Thick of It, you played a government communications officer. Do you feel you learnt a lot about the mechanics of Westminster?

I did learn a lot actually. But I based a lot of playing Terri Coverley on working at the Arts Council of Great Britain. There was something about seeing how politics works, the way people gravitate towards power, and the frightening level to which people’s behaviour would alter – and how difficult it is to be immune to that.

Terri didn’t seem particularly power-hungry...

Terri has a lovely dog and she needs to plant the bulbs for next year, so she’s got a lot more things going on that are a lot more important.

I was going to mention your dog, Millie. She’s appearing on your forthcoming comedy series about dog training. Any top tips?

I think the best way to look at it is like bringing up children: you have to be intuitive and sensitive to what’s going on, and consistent, then gradually you’ll get results.

To finish off... do you have a  favourite joke?

I only know one joke. It actually seems a bit sexist and weird now, I used to like it when I was a child. ‘How do you get a paper baby?’ ‘Marry an old bag.’ See, that is a horrible old misogynistic joke, isn’t it?

Joanna Scanlan is best known for her roles in the political satire ‘The Thick of It’ and the NHS sitcom ‘Getting On’, which she co-writes with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine. She is currently working with plus-size fashion brand Beige Plus and plays Catherine Dickens in ‘The Invisible Woman’, out on 7 February

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