Amelia Bullmore: 'My brother calls me the family pornographer'
She writes, she performs, she baits the red tops ... Gerard Gilbert meets an actor provocateur
'I was born on the wrong side of the tracks but I pulled through, and against all the odds have been allowed to play gritty northerners," says a deadpan Amelia Bullmore of her progression from a privileged Chelsea upbringing to a five-year-stint as brassy Steph Barnes on Coronation Street.
But in some respects the journey from Sloane Square to the nation's favourite cobbled street is the least surprising move in Bullmore's career. She left Corrie to perform with those enfants terribles of Nineties comedy, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan, she wrote acclaimed stage and radio plays, and now she lands supporting roles as varied as a police inspector in ITV1's returning girlie cop show Scott and Bailey (for which she has also written an episode), BBC1's latest round of Sherlock and in BBC4's delicious London Olympics satire, Twenty Twelve."I think it's a brilliant, accidental chaotic mixture," says Bullmore, a slim, fine-boned 48-year-old with something of the Kristin Scott Thomas about her. Her family – father, Jeremy, who at 83 still works for the world's biggest advertising agency, WPP, mother, Pamela, a gardening writer, and two older brothers, Ed (a Cambridge psychiatry professor) and Adam (a documentary-maker) – thought her joining Corrie "hilarious".
"I went to Manchester to read drama and stayed for 10 years," she says, remaining in the city to perform with an all-female cabaret company, Red Stocking, which in turn led to her teaming up with Phil Middlemiss as volatile screen couple, Steph and Des. "Phil was brilliant," she says. "I was shouting ... overdoing it. They were incredibly tolerant of this impostor. In the end I just thought, 'This is an aberration, this job', and the idea of sticking at one thing so early on didn't seem a good idea. There are a lot of people on Coronation Street who say, 'I wish I'd gone sooner'."
Bullmore returned to live in London in 1995 with a new husband, Scottish actor Paul Higgins, and a new-born daughter, Mary. It was while pregnant that Bullmore was first inspired to put pen to paper. "I wrote a pilot for Yorkshire TV for Niamh Cusack, who was a friend, and had said to me, 'I like your postcards. Write me a script'."
In the event, Yorkshire didn't like the script, but it did the rounds and eventually ended up with World Productions, who were looking for writers for the second series of BBC2's This Life. "It was like a writers' gym. They taught me everything. Tony Garnett [mould-breaking producer of Cathy Come Home] said, 'If you can write dialogue and cook up characters, we'll teach you everything else'."
Bullmore doesn't see herself as a writer-performer in the Julia Davis or Catherine Tate mould, "but rather I am a writer and a performer". The confusion – especially at the start of her writing career – was in other people's minds. "My first paid writing was 15 years ago, and after that there was a bit of 'Oh, I hear you're writing', not quite knowing what that meant," she says. "Also I had a couple of experiences where I would go and excitedly over-talk about a script, and people said, 'Oh, you're talking as a writer'. I've talked myself out of a couple of jobs that way, but I learned to just shut up."
Bullmore has scripted one of the new Scott and Bailey episodes, for once writing for herself as well as Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones. Did she give herself more lines? "I thought there were two mistakes I could make," she says. "One would be to perversely under-write myself and the other would be to grotesquely over-write.
"On the whole, it's a brilliant mix of interests. If I'm writing, it means I'm home at dinner time, but I love writing with a sparky group. That bunch of people from the Blue Jam days – that was an absolute golden era."
Blue Jam came about after Bullmore met Chris Morris, when Morris was directing the pilot episode of Big Train, the seminal BBC sketch show that also featured the then largely unknown Simon Pegg, Mark Heap, Julia Davis, Rebecca Front and Catherine Tate. Bullmore became a regular on Blue Jam, Morris's startlingly original ambient late-night Radio 1 series, and appeared in his notorious Brass Eye paedophilia special in 2001, in which various celebrities were persuaded to support a spoof charity, Nonce Sense. ("I'm talking Nonce Sense," declared the likes of Gary Lineker and Phil Collins.) Bullmore was among those "named and shamed" by the News of the World for being involved. "My middle brother was delighted and very proud," she says. "He sent me an email addressed to 'the family pornographer' ...."
Morris's former The Day Today co-star, Steve Coogan, was the next to call on Bullmore's services – to play his Ukrainian girlfriend, Sonja, in the second series of I'm Alan Partridge, although Bullmore says that it was less of a laugh than Blue Jam and Brass Eye. "People always say, 'I bet that was fun', and it wasn't," she says, explaining that the first series had proved so successful that Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci felt under intense pressure to maintain the standard. "It was quite something to witness," she says.
In the meantime, Bullmore had herself been writing – a play called The Middle, about a recently married man who realises he has wed the wrong sister. It was nominated for the 2000 Dennis Potter Award. Then there was Mammals, which was shortlisted for the What's On Best New Comedy Award in 2005.
She also acted in such diverse TV dramas as State of Play and Ashes to Ashes, although her most acclaimed role of late has been opposite Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Hynes in Twenty Twelve, the spoof sitcom about the compliance team for the London Olympics. She plays Kay Hope, Head of Sustainability and champion of stag beetles and a giant wind turbine she dubs "The Angel of Leyton".
Filmed at the top of Canary Wharf tower ("Hugh Bonneville doesn't like the planes coming so close") Twenty Twelve is wickedly funny in that cod-documentary The Thick of It manner. What does the real Olympics compliance team think of the show? "We have had word that it doesn't go far enough," she says, "that it isn't the half of it." Perhaps that's a play Bullmore can write when it's all over.
The second series of 'Scott and Bailey' is coming to ITV1 this spring.
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