Joanna Scanlan: ‘I felt like an embarrassed child running behind the elite pack’

Joanna Scanlan: Heeded the advice of a doctor who said,  “If you don’t go back to acting you’ll be ill for the rest of your life.’”
Actor talks about Footlights, teaching, sage advice from a doctor and her new film After Love

It took a while, but Joanna Scanlan is now an immovable part of the British screen establishment. She helped create the cult classic Getting On for BBC Four. She was unforgettable as the harassed press secretary Terri Coverley in Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. Her dog-training comedy Puppy Love was a gem. She’s in Bridget Jones’s Baby, In the Loop and Kinky Boots. Yet she can still go to the supermarket largely unmolested.

“That rarely does happen. Yeah, very rarely,” she says. “The other day, somebody said to me: ‘Do you work behind the bar in the rugby club?’”

That is sort of a compliment. Scanlan slips so smoothly into her character roles that she becomes a part of the viewer’s extended family. Her imminent performance as a British Muslim, recently bereaved, in Aleem Khan’s excellent After Love may surprise those who know her only for comedy. It was sufficiently strong to win her the best actress prize from the Dublin Film Critics Circle at the recent Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

“It is a big thing, obviously, to win any awards, but particularly from Dublin. That meant a lot to me,” she says.

You will hardly need to be told that Scanlan’s people were originally from Ireland. Intriguing mysteries cloud around the ancestors’ stories. Scanlan’s own journey towards her present indispensability is packed with more unlikely swerves. Settle in. We begin in Co Cork.

“Yes, in Passage West. My grandfather came over to Birkenhead with his father and his brother in about 1921. Given the timing of it, I have always been intrigued to know what the reason was they came over. So far I have no news on that. But I am trying to do some genealogy.”

Scanlan’s grandfather, a timber merchant, was killed in the second World War while flying with the RAF. His brother, Robert Scanlan, was a war artist and a commercial designer for the J Walter Thompson agency.

“He was reputedly one of the team that worked on the KitKat wrapper and also Tony the Tiger. He apparently drew Tony the Tiger,” she says. “But he would not talk about his time in Ireland. So none of us really know what had gone on in the family. We don’t know if it related to Irish independence or to some other reason.”

The first thing I remember performing was a panda. Then I graduated to singing Boom Bang A Bang in a yashmak in the year that Lulu won the Eurovision.

Scanlan was born in Cheshire and raised largely in north Wales where her parents ran a hotel. The acting bug was spurred by participation in amateur theatrics at her convent school.

“Mother Dolores and Sr Elizabeth put on an annual pantomime that was the talk of the county of Denbighshire,” she says. “Mother D was a stickler for getting it as perfect as could be. The first thing I remember performing was a panda. Then I graduated to singing Boom Bang A Bang in a yashmak in the year that Lulu won the Eurovision. So, I was siphoned into the world of performing by Mother D. She was an incredible woman. She would stand at the bottom and just tap our ankles. To my memory – maybe I’m deluded – she smoked cigarettes and drank a lot of whiskey in front of us.”

“I talked to as many people as I could about what it is to practise Islam in an everyday sense.”
“I talked to as many people as I could about what it is to practise Islam in an everyday sense.”

That sounds like the sort of thing teachers still did at the end of the 1960s. Clearly a bright girl, Scanlan later made her way to Queens College Cambridge where she became part of the legendary Footlights troupe. It hardly needs to be said how important that company has been to British comedy in the post-war years. Peter Cook, John Cleese, David Frost, Miriam Margolyes and Germaine Greer are just some of the talents who cut their teeth in the society’s “smokers”. Scanlan’s generation was among the most fecund, but she didn’t really feel part of the family.

“No, I didn’t. Really it didn’t fit me very well,” she says. “The first year I arrived there was Stephen Fry. That was probably the ultimate year. Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson. Tony Slattery, two or three others. You could look it up. But that was really an incredible year.”

Yes, indeed. That company, also featuring Hugh Laurie, won the inaugural Perrier Award at Edinburgh in 1981. The tour traditionally begins for Footlights at the close of the academic year and ends at the Fringe. But Scanlan wasn’t with them.

“I felt my suggestions and ideas didn’t sit right,” she says. “I remember writing this sketch about a children’s sex education book. And I remember everybody sort of going: ‘That’s a bit rude’. It was okay if you were being clever about politics. But to be too earthy – or sort of what I think of as womanly – didn’t fit. It was brainy, rather than touchy-feely. On the year that I was invited to do that May Week, I actually elected to go to Edinburgh and do a play instead. I have always been torn between comedy and drama.”

I had this kind of mental breakdown. It was diagnosed as chronic fatigue. I basically just stopped functioning.

Scanlan and her former colleagues at Footlights took markedly different routes through the 1990s. While Thompson was working her way towards an Oscar and Fry was becoming nationally ubiquitous, Scanlan volunteered for community theatre, directed a few plays and ended up teaching at Leicester Polytechnic. What happened next is quite a story. There is sadness here, but there is also a positive message about the right way to be a doctor.

“I had this kind of mental breakdown. It was diagnosed as chronic fatigue,” she says. “I basically just stopped functioning. And I was sent by the GP to the consultant physician at the local hospital. He asked me about three questions. He checked out there was nothing wrong with me on the medical tests. And then he said to me: ‘What job do you do?’ I said I was teaching. He asked if that was what I was planning to do. I said: ‘No, I was hoping to be an actress.’ And he just said: ‘Right, okay, if you don’t go back to acting you’ll be ill for the rest of your life.’”

The conversation opened up inner tensions that Scanlan had been denying for years. The advice felt, she says, like an “arrow straight into the centre of her chest”. Suddenly the path before her made sense.

Joanna Scanlan delivers a fine performance as a Muslim character in After Love.
Joanna Scanlan delivers a fine performance as a Muslim character in After Love.

“Coming from that Cambridge graduate world, everybody else got straight off the starting blocks very quickly,” she says. “And it was really, really embarrassing for me to say: ‘Uh, excuse me. I’d like to do this too.’ I felt like an embarrassed child running behind the elite pack, but it was a truth that I wasn’t able to dodge.”

It took her about four years to get from that moment to something like life as a professional actor. She secured an agent. She began writing. By the turn of the century, she was securing regular work. The arrival of The Thick of It in 2005 earned her a place in the British sitcom aristocracy. But Getting On feels like at least as important an achievement. Created by Scanlan with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine – all three also star – the series detailed life on a geriatric ward in the National Health Service. It was poignant. It was funny. But it was also slyly political. (I love how they named Brand’s character Kim Wilde.)

Did she write it as a way of generating acting work?

I think my writing imagination has to be free to write whatever comes up – rather than having a defined character in my casting bracket.

“I think it could have been written for somebody else,” she says. “I find it easy to write. When an idea comes to me as a writer, it’s not usually because it’s something I can be in. I think my writing imagination has to be free to write whatever comes up – rather than having a defined character in my casting bracket. Then, having written it, I can look at it again and say: ‘Well, actually, I could play that.’”

Scanlan is now close to unavoidable. As we speak, she is preparing for a new TV adaptation of HE Bates’s Darling Buds of May by the unstoppable Simon Nye. (The last take on the Larkin family famously launched the career of Catherine Zeta Jones.) Next month we get to see her fine performance in After Love. I wonder how she prepared herself for playing a Muslim character.

“I talked to as many people as I could about what it is to practise Islam in an everyday sense,” she says. “I related it back to my own Catholic upbringing. I’m from a devout Catholic family, and I’m old enough to have been there just pre-Vatican II. I related it back to our practices of the rosary, or the Angelus, particularly.”

Joanna Scanlan takes this seriously. You would expect nothing less of someone who rededicated herself to acting when approaching mid-life. She is a credit to that physician. She is a credit to Mother Dolores. Who cares if she is rarely recognised?

“People did occasionally recognise me after Puppy Love,” she says. “I wonder if that’s because I was dressed like her – in a dirty old fleece with a dog on a lead. Ha ha!”

After Love opens on June 4th