Amanda Abbington: 'Steven Moffat probably wants me to be the first female Doctor Who'

When Amanda Abbington starred in Sherlock, with her real-life partner, Martin Freeman, she became the victim of internet trolls. What might they do if she became the first female Doctor Who, she wonders

Gerard Gilbert
Wednesday 21 October 2015 22:11
Amanda Abbington says: 'Because I was out of work for such a long time... when I met Martin I was out of work for about 18 months... any work I get now I relish'
Amanda Abbington says: 'Because I was out of work for such a long time... when I met Martin I was out of work for about 18 months... any work I get now I relish'

A typical recent day for actress Amanda Abbington would begin at five in the morning in order to start filming in Brighton for a new BBC1 police drama, Cuffs, before a car whisked her off at noon, taking her to Neasden in north-west London to shoot scenes from the final series of ITV's costume drama Mr Selfridge. Filming here would end at 9pm before picking up again in Brighton at dawn. And so on for six weeks.

"I love it," says Abbington of this punishing schedule. "And because I was out of work for such a long time... when I met Martin I was out of work for about 18 months... any work I get now I relish."

"Martin" is of course her partner of 15 years, Hobbit-to-Sherlock star Martin Freeman, and it was Freeman's availability for childcare that freed up Abbington to work these long hours.

"Martin has been off since March," she says. "He's been doing bits and pieces of stuff, but mostly turning things down. He's really brilliant at that, morally if it's not right for him, he won't do it."

Morally? "Well, he's not chasing money and he's not chasing that A-list. He's very good at saying 'no', that's not right for me... I don't want to leave my family for that long'."

The family is completed by seven-year-old Gracie, and Joe, nine, who has come along to the interview in a restaurant in Camden because he's off school with a chest infection. This might have been awkward except that Joe borrows his mother's phone and disappears off round the back of the sofa to do whatever boys do with their mum's phone.

Anyway, after three years of filming Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand, the couple have decided never again to be parted for so long.

"At one point we didn't see him for four months, which really took its toll," says Abbington. "We decided after that, that that's not going to happen again, because when we came back together it was like ' I actually don't know who you are...'"

Like a soldier on leave in wartime, I suggest? "It actually felt a bit like that, without being too dramatic", she replies. "Nothing's worth that feeling.

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"So he's been at home and it's been really good for him because he's been a dad for six months, which they've all needed.... everybody's needed that... he's been taking care of the kids while I've been doing this stuff. But now he's going 'I'm really bored... I really want to go and do something', which I can understand because that's what actors need – they need to work. Come January he's got some nice bits and pieces which he's very excited about. And then we do the full series of Sherlock, in about March or April..."

Ah, yes, Sherlock, in which Abbington plays Freeman's, or rather Dr Watson's wife, Mary, but more of that later because the reason that she has dragged herself and the recuperating Joe in from their "cute and quite messy and shabby" cottage in Hertfordshire is in order to promote her role in the aforementioned Cuffs, a breezy police procedural set in Brighton.

Co-starring Ashley Walters (Top Boy) and Shaun Dooley (Broadchurch), Cuffs is a bit clichéd in parts, but makes a refreshing change from the high-concept whodunits that are queuing up in the wake of Broadchurch's success. It also capitalises on Brighton's unique charms – and crimes. "All the cases in it were actual real cases, from Brighton and around that area," says Abbington, who was particularly affected by a domestic violence storyline that runs throughout the eight-part series; "Horrible things like that abusers take all the handles off the doors so the women can never barricade themselves in," she says.

Abbington grew up an only child in Hertfordshire, a promising dancer until she attempted to perform the splits without warming up and ripped her groin muscles. She met Freeman in 2001 in the make-up truck while filming a Channel 4 drama called Men Only, about the aftermath a drink-and-drug fuelled gang rape.

Abbington starring in ‘Sherlock’ with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch

"I was moaning to make-up that I didn't have a boyfriend and she said, 'Oh there's someone on this who's moaning he doesn't have a girlfriend,'" recalls Abbington. "He walked in and she said, 'This is him.'

"We just hit it off, and I looked at him and thought, 'Oh, it's you... you're the one I've been waiting for.' And I remember him saying he thought, 'Please don't let her have a boyfriend.' And then about two months later I moved in with him, and that was it. It's been 15 years now, which has flown by."

At the time Freeman had just filmed a pilot for a little something called The Office, and his career was about to have a rocket put underneath it. "He showed me the pilot when I met him and, because The Thick of It hadn't happened yet, it was unlike anything I'd seen at the time," says Abbington.

What was it like, though, being freshly together as his career took off and hers stalled? "You just dig your heels in and that's when a lot of actors give up – they think 'I just can't take the rejection any more'. You just have to be tenacious... a bit scrappy."

The roles came in dribs and drabs – a Doc Martin here, a Poirot there – as well as the under-rated (by the BBC at least) Case Histories, and two episodes of the BBC2 romcom Coupling, which was written by a certain Steven Moffat – the future creator, along with Mark Gattis, of Sherlock. With her partner already a rip-roaring success as John Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, Abbington jokily describes her introduction, in series three, as Mary Morstan, as "nepotism".

"No, we'd watched The Hounds of Baskervillle [from series two] at Mark and Ian's house [Ian Hallard, Mark Gatiss's civil partner] and Steven, who was there, said, 'Martin, we're going to have a chat about the third series – shall we go and talk about it in the kitchen? Why don't you come along Amanda and have a listen?'

"And they were saying, 'We're going to introduce Mary Morstan, what do you reckon, Amanda?' And I thought they were saying, 'Who do you recommend?' And I was going to say 'I don't know... maybe Olivia Colman, or Nicola Walker, who's one of my favourites'... And they said, 'No, we want you to do it.'

"I remember crying and getting very emotional, They said, 'You know Martin better than anybody and you've worked with each other before; we know you've got a nice chemistry so they'll be nice shorthand there.'"

Her casting – an inspired triumph in the event – led to some vicious online abuse. Does it still go on? "I won some of them round but there's a quite a vocal group that I will never win round," says Abbington, who is wearing a beret pulled low across her forehead, which manages to be simultaneously jaunty and disguising. "I can understand why. I'm with Martin who they really like, and I play Mary Morstan, who they don't like, and they think I come between Ben and Martin, and Sherlock and John, but it's like banging your head against a brick wall... you can't argue with people like that.

"I was always brought up to be nice... that's my little mantra throughout life... just be nice. I genuinely don't understand the vitriol that some of them have; it baffles me. I don't read it any more; it's counter-productive because you just end up wanting to reply and that just fuels them."

Abbington in ‘Mr Selfridge’ with Tom Goodman-Hill

Her lips are rightly sealed as to the forthcoming Sherlock Christmas special – suffice to say that the one-off is set in Victorian times and that she is wearing a corset ("unbearable... funny for about five minutes"). Sherlock is one of Joe's favourite shows, although somewhat to his father's chagrin he prefers the American remake of The Office to the British original, in which Freeman played Tim. "Gracie really loves Cuffs," says Abbington. "She said, 'It's really good mummy'.... I hope people like it. I think it has the potential to be a really popular show."

Her wish list of future projects includes playing Lady Macbeth ("I keep trying to persuade Andrew Scott... Moriarty in Sherlock... to do Macbeth; and Martin too, because he wants to play Macbeth too") and to be given a role in Doctor Who.

"Yeah, I'm still trying to get in there," she says. "You'd think I would with Steven Moffat as my mate, but yes, I'd love to be in Doctor Who – he's got to put me in it."

Maybe he doesn't want to muddy the worlds of Sherlock and Doctor Who, I suggest. "He probably wants me to be the first female Doctor, that's what I imagine, that's why he's holding back," Abbington replies, before remembering her tiny but persistent following of online trolls. "And wouldn't that cause problems!"

'Cuffs' begins on 28 October at 8pm on BBC1; 'Sherlock' returns at Christmas, and the final series of 'Mr Selfridge' begins in January

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