interview

There She Goes star Jessica Hynes: ‘Having drama in school changes children’s outlook on themselves and the world’

As the dark new BBC comedy returns for series two, its star tells Fiona Sturges she feels lucky to still be getting acting jobs

Wednesday 08 July 2020 12:51
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'If I never work again, if it’s the end of comedy on TV as we know it, I will be very proud'
'If I never work again, if it’s the end of comedy on TV as we know it, I will be very proud'

When I speak to the actor Jessica Hynes, she tells me she hasn’t left her postcode for months during lockdown, but has rarely been busier. In between home-schooling her two younger children (she also has an older one who is home from university), she has, until a few weeks ago, been volunteering for her local community Covid-19 hub in Folkestone, Kent, which involved answering phones, taking shopping orders and collecting medical prescriptions for those shielding. “The people running it were so great and kind and committed, and it was really good to get out and help. Just the amount of organisation on a local level all across the country is so impressive. It’s amazing how people have pulled together.”

Best known for performances in landmark TV comedies such as The Royle Family, Spaced, Twenty Twelve and W1A, and roles in films including Shaun of the Dead, Son of Rambow and Paddington 2, Hynes is one of British film and TV’s most assured and reliable talents. The past two years have, she agrees, been particularly brilliant career-wise: first there was Russell T Davies’s apocalyptic drama Years and Years, in which she played an activist with radiation poisoning, and then The Fight, a film shot on a tiny budget over 12 days about a woman finding catharsis in the boxing ring. After that came the darkly funny BBC comedy-drama There She Goes, which is about to start a second series and for which she has already bagged a Bafta.

It is, she says, the best thing she’s done. It follows the fortunes of Emily (Hynes) and Simon (David Tennant), a couple with two children, one of whom, Rosie, has a severe chromosomal disorder. Written by the Have I Got News For You writer Shaun Pye, and drawn from his own experience as a parent to a learning-disabled daughter, the series is warm, funny and bursting with love, but also honest, unvarnished and often brutal. It is told in dual timelines: the later one looks at their lives with Rosie as an 11-year-old prone to shouting in libraries and breaking things, while the earlier one focuses on the period after her birth where they get to grips with their new reality. While Emily soldiers on and does all the heavy-lifting, Simon withdraws into himself, often staying late in the pub, or closing the kitchen door so he can’t hear his wife doing battle with their daughter in the next room.

When Hynes was first given the script, she’d never read anything like it. “It was obvious after reading it and meeting Shaun that this was a personal account of his experiences, by and large, and that he’d written with the utmost bravery and clarity and honesty,” she recalls. Tennant and Hynes met Pye’s wife, Sarah, and daughter, Joey, on the second day of rehearsals for the pilot. Hynes says that a day hanging out with his family “really focused my mind that this was a show not about disability but about parenting. And audiences absolutely related to it – not only parents with children with disabilities, but all parents. It’s a show about what it’s like to be up against a wall.”

When Hynes started out as an actor, fresh from the National Youth Theatre, she recalls being “abundantly grateful” for all and any work that came her way. Fully aware of the precariousness of the profession, she says, she would throw herself “at almost all opportunities with massive enthusiasm and energy. I felt so lucky to be working in a profession that I loved so much.” Nowadays, after 30 years in the job, she is a little more discerning. “I’ve grown in confidence in making decisions based on a script and a project. Wherever possible, and if my accountant will allow, I try to follow projects that are written by passionate people.”

How, I wonder, is it for an actor working in the business right now, in the time of Covid-19? “What? Reading that hundreds of thousands of jobs in the creative sector are disappearing?” she asks, suddenly animated. “How does it feel?” She lets out a sigh. “Yeah, I don’t know what to say. My mind always goes, ‘What can I do? How can we keep young creative minds engaged and keep them thinking that there is a future for creativity and arts in this country, even though we’re going through a hard time? How can we best help and support colleagues?’.”

I ask her if the government has a role to play in helping to save the arts – at the time, rescue packages for theatres and music venues were conspicuous by their absence. “I suppose so, yes,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Perhaps, I say, our leaders view the arts as a luxury rather than a vital industry that generates billions for the economy. Hynes pauses again, and then replies: “I’ve been going to visit drama departments in schools over the last few years. I’ve heard so much about what it means to pupils to have a drama classroom in their school. You meet the children for whom it’s changed their outlook either of themselves or of the world. It teaches children to interact and speak, particularly if they’re not excelling at other more academic subjects.”

Hynes has long been an advocate for the importance of drama being taught in schools, not just as a career but as a means of improving children’s mental health. She recalls speaking to one child at a school she visited who said that he loved drama classes. “And I asked: ‘What do you want to do, do you want to be an actor?’ And he said ‘No, I want to work in care. I have a sister who my mum cares for at home and I see what she does for her and I want to do the same.’ I literally had to turn my face away as I was choking back tears. I was so moved by this child, but also I realised how something like care work is informed by your ability to express yourself, and he had found that in the drama classroom.”

Still, Hynes is reluctant to get into the culpability of the government in cutting arts-based tuition at secondary schools, or in failing to help arts institutions during Covid-19 so far. But it’s when I raise the subject of the barriers faced by young actors entering the industry, and ask whether the industry is progressing or regressing in terms of gender, class and race, that the shutters come down.

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“Those are very complex issues,” she explains, and refers me to a keynote speech she gave on diversity in the media at a Channel 4 event in 2016, which she tells me is available online (it turns out it isn’t). According to newspaper reports at the time, it saw her warning that “our cultural muscles are being atrophied in a semi-conscious, flabby mainstream”.

Jessica Hynes and Miley Locke in 'There She Goes'

“Pretty much everything I feel about it is in [that speech],” says Hynes. “To be honest, I can’t give you a soundbite on it. It’s too complex.” Perhaps, I say, she could narrow her thoughts to her own career, the roles that have come her way and what they say about how things have changed? “Personally, I have nothing to complain about,” she replies. “I am very grateful and lucky for all the jobs and any jobs… Who knows what the future holds? But if you want anything else around that area … I can’t do any of this justice in an interview on the phone. I feel like I did this show, There She Goes, and I’m really proud of it. If I never work again, if it’s the end of comedy on TV as we know it, I will be very proud.” And that is that.

At no point is Hynes grumpy – she is simply keen to avoid all questions unrelated to the current project, and is audibly pained when I push her. Still, her reticence is surprising. In the past, she has been outspoken both about the iniquities of her industry and the government. Asked four years ago who she would invite to her dream dinner party, she replied: “The Conservative Party, so I could poison them.”

There are other things I’d like to ask Hynes, such as how she felt after Spaced, the cult late-Nineties sitcom, when her co-star Simon Pegg and co-writer Edgar Wright buggered off to Hollywood, and she stayed in London and took roles too small for her talents. I’d also like to know which of the Tories she’d murder first and why. But it’s clear that, today at least, these are no-go areas. So instead we talk a bit about Brighton, where I live and where she “had the most brilliant Seventies and Eighties childhood”, as well as her delight at mentoring young performers. “I see young comedians and actors coming up, and that makes me proud and happy,” she says. “Young people are taking over, as they should, and that’s what I’m all about. No one cares about me, I’m just an old fart now.” She adopts a squawky old-lady voice and yelps: “It’s about the young ones, Fiona!” and hoots with laughter.

In light of the pandemic, Hynes has given a lot of thought to what would happen if the work dried up – “I’ve got a houseful so I need multiple revenue streams,” she exclaims. “My husband said I’d be a good personal trainer. Or I could be a dog walker. I’ve done a bit of that already during the pandemic and I fell in love with the most beautiful golden retriever. So yes, I could definitely do that.”

There She Goes returns on 9 July on BBC Two at 9.30pm

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