Quite… extreme.” These are the words Monica Dolan chooses to describe the characters she plays. In Appropriate Adult, she quivered, spat, seethed and raged as serial killer Rose West. Therapy comedy Hang Ups saw her portray a breathless woman called Alison Jones who, for 20 years, has been unable to shake the emotional shock of losing her idol Princess Diana. And in BBC parody W1A, her Welsh, gloom-ridden comms officer Tracey Pritchard spoke almost exclusively in these sentence constructions: “I’m not being funny or anything, but…” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
Dolan’s chameleon-like ability to slip into the skin of so many different people – real and fictional – has given her a reputation among critics and audiences as one of Britain’s best “character actors”. But she’d never use those words herself. “I find ‘character actor’ quite an old-fashioned term,” she says. “I’m not fond of it. It comes with the notion of people blowing their nose too often or having a funny limp.” She laughs, softly. “Characters are just characters and sometimes they say a lot and do a lot and sometimes they don’t. It’s never a term I’d apply to myself, or to other actors. It sort of implies that you play smaller roles, but, well, it changes all the time.” It does. Dolan was nominated for a Bafta for her performance as Jeremy Thorpe’s stoic second wife Marion in A Very English Scandal, despite only being introduced at the end of the series. She was equally brilliant in the lead part of an introverted librarian spending the holidays with her heavy-metal-loving teenage son in 2019 indie film Days of the Bagnold Summer.
In the 53-year-old’s latest role, she is playing a real (and quite extreme) person: Anne Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe. The ITV drama tells the true story of John Darwin (played with wicked relish by Eddie Marsan), a former science teacher from Hartlepool who, with the help of his wife Anne, faked his own death to claim life insurance and avoid bankruptcy. The couple pretended to the world that John had gone off in his canoe one windy day in March 2002 and never returned. He was declared missing, presumed dead. They lied to their two sons, who grieved the father they thought they’d lost forever. In 2007, John got bored of hiding and turned up at a police station in London, claiming he had amnesia and couldn’t remember a thing from the past five years. The story blew up, and John was soon dubbed “the back-from-the-dead canoeist”. But his and Anne’s deceit came back to haunt them just days later, when a Cheshire housewife found a photo online of the couple smiling at an estate agent’s office in Panama, taken in 2006 – the year before he’d handed himself in.
“There are so many parts of the story that wouldn’t make it out of the development room if they weren’t true,” says Dolan over video call from her home in Hammersmith, dressed crisply in a champagne cream blouse and gold necklace. “I thought Anne would be a very interesting character to play, because, what makes somebody do that?” Dolan was not able to meet Anne ahead of playing her – “Anne didn’t want to” – but Thief is very sympathetic to her. Dolan’s Anne narrates the series, and is depicted as a victim of John’s coercion and bullying. While he’s in hiding, enjoying a full English at a hotel, she’s at home sobbing, her house full of police. When she tries to resist his mad plan, he tells her she has to go along with it because otherwise she’ll end up alone. “No one’s queuing up to marry a woman like you, Anne,” he says. Later, she realises: “For my entire adult life I’ve just been extension of him, really. Well, not even that, just nothing.” They had met at school and she’d been his ever since.
The show, like ITV’s coughing-major drama Quiz and Sky’s offbeat true-crime series Landscapers, brings to light the quirks of everyday Brits to show how they got themselves into extraordinary situations. The aesthetic is floral wallpaper and stained cardigans. Rainy days and whistling kettles. Dolan plays Anne with her signature skittishness: the smarting, the flared nostrils, the trembling bottom lip and the wobbling chin we are so familiar with now. But the only mannerism I have seen in her characters that occurs when she is being herself, is a sort of squinting she does at the ceiling, as she tries to find the right words or remember a particular part.
In Anne’s narration in Thief, when she is found guilty of six counts of fraud and nine of money laundering, before being sentenced to six and a half years in prison, she says: “It was three months longer than John got, but then, I was their mother. I think most people felt I got what I deserved.” It’s a startling moment. Even though John is depicted as the driving force behind the lies, and he left his sons seemingly without a second thought while betraying them tore Anne apart, in the end it was her failure as a mother that was the most unforgivable crime.
“Society expects a lot of women and usually they’re right to, because we’re pretty caring…” Dolan says. “We have certain ideas of motherhood, don’t we? And what we expect of mothers and how we idealise them. Woe betide a mother who falls short. There’s a lot of pressure on parents.”
Dolan says it was “not important” to her that Thief looks kindly on Anne – if anything, she was “concerned about letting her off the hook too much” and pushed for more scenes that showed her repeatedly lying. “I wasn’t interested in doing something where we see her as a little bunny who didn’t know what she was doing or wasn’t culpable in any way,” she says. “I’m never concerned if someone’s sympathetic or not. The exciting thing to me – and I’m quite a nosy person, or curious rather – is how people behave. If you try to find the reasons why people do things and go from there, then the audience will see that and either feel sympathy or not.”
Dolan has made a name for herself playing characters who many would find extremely difficult to sympathise with, or who are utterly reviled – serial killer Rose West being the most notorious. Dolan won a Bafta for her frightening portrayal of the woman who collaborated with her husband Fred in the torture and murder of young women and children. One critic said of her performance: “Dolan appears to have been possessed, against her will even. It’s extraordinary acting, both convincing and terrifying.”
If Dolan’s approach is to try to get to the root of why people do awful things, what was West’s reason? “Sometimes they’re quite basic, and with her, the motivation was sex and trying to stay alive with a husband like that. Rosemary West was the only person who Fred met at a bus stop that he didn’t kill, and she somehow managed to make their relationship dynamic and survive it and create a way to live within it, and to enjoy that relationship, I guess.”
West served most of her life sentence in Durham’s Low Newton prison, where Anne Darwin did her time. The eerie coincidence makes Dolan smile. “Chris [Lang, screenwriter] was teasing me, saying we could have a scene where I play both of them, because apparently they bumped into each other in the gym,” she says. “What was quite interesting to me was that in Anne’s book [Out of My Depth], she says, ‘Oh my God, I was in prison and there were dreadful people like Rosemary West there.’ It’s almost as if wrong isn’t wrong if it’s done by nice people like her.”
When Dolan was playing West, her friends and family would ask lots of questions about her research at first, before finding it too much to hear. “It got to a point where people would go, ‘Oh, actually, no thanks,’” says Dolan. How did she cope with holding all the grim details in her mind? “It did creep into my nightmares. I remember waking up and having pictures of the victims in my head.”
Dolan dives headfirst into her characters. For West, she went to the killer’s solicitor and got a transcript of the entire trial. She read Brian Masters’s study of West’s sexual obsession, She Must Have Known, and raided through her own mother’s collection of NHS glasses to find the perfect pair of specs. They hardly come off. They’re as much of a fixture as West’s thick, clinging fringe and hard stare. When Dolan performed a new monologue for Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads at the Bridge Theatre, she started learning her lines for the part of a bereaved woman the very day she found out her brother had died from Covid. And for W1A, according to her co-star Sarah Parrish, Dolan stayed Welsh for the part of Tracey from the read-through right through to the end of the shoot. She kept her northeast accent the whole way through making Thief, too.
What does she think of the recent reports of American actors staying in character for nine months, or not talking to each other because their characters don’t get on? “I think that’s ridiculous,” she says. “Think of how many relationships you’re capable of holding in your head at once. Also, your character isn’t in a situation where they’re queuing up for their lunch or getting dressed or being in a Winnebago, getting notes. That’s happening to you. You have to be outside it as well, otherwise you can’t talk about what’s going on.” Laughing, she adds that if she and her Thief co-star Marsan were to go method, “he’d be telling me what to do all the time”.
“It concerns me at the moment that a lot of the imaginative aspect of acting seems to be underestimated, and experience – whether you’ve experienced x, y or z in real life – seems to be given more weight. I think imagination is an actor’s most useful tool and truth and authenticity are different things. Truth is more important.” She shrugs. “It’s too tiring to stay in character all the time, anyway.”
‘The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe’ begins on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 17 April
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