TV

‘I just want to represent real people’ – Lydia West talks Inside Man, It's A Sin and the cost-of-living crisis

Rising star Lydia West on the moral dilemmas of new BBC drama Inside Man and the real world impact of It’s A Sin

Lydia West and Stanley Tucci in Inside Man. Image: BBC / Hartswood Films

New BBC One drama Inside Man is sharply written. The dialogue is whip-smart and witty, while the twisty-turny story demands full concentration from viewers as it poses some big moral dilemmas. 

Would we intervene on witnessing misogynist harassment on a train like brave Janice (Dolly Wells)? If good people do bad things, how should we respond? Why are we laughing at a serial killer’s goofy jokes? Should we find his fellow death row murderer quite so charming (come on, he is played by Stanley Tucci)? Would we rather violent offenders face severe punishment or are we content to allow them to, in some way, atone for their crimes?

Inside Man also walks a fine line between being relatable and being absolutely, preposterously unbelievable. But such is the speed of thought on display, the sparkle in the writing and the mesmerising messiness of the moral quandaries, that we go along for the ride. In short, it is a classic Steven Moffat drama – with elements of Sherlock, Doctor Who and even Press Gang if we look hard enough.

Lydia West knows a thing or two about Moffat’s methods, having previously appeared in his 2020 adaptation of Dracula. West also appeared in Russell T Davies’s Years and Years and, most famously, as Jill, the morally upstanding queen of the Pink Palace in It’s a Sin.

Her verdict on her latest TV hit? “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s kind of a psychological thriller, it’s kind of a murder mystery, it’s almost a dark comedy.

“I had no idea what was going to happen up until the last scene. Even then, I still don’t actually understand what happened.

“That’s what Steven does. He is very smart and he believes all his audiences are smart too. So they don’t need everything spelling out. You can even make some conclusions yourself. It gives the viewer control of the story and your interpretation of it.”

West is talking via Zoom from her home ahead of the Inside Man premiere in London. Later, she will be on stage at the BFI, answering questions from fans alongside her co-stars David Tennant, Dolly Wells and Stanley Tucci, plus writer Moffat and director Paul McGuigan.

West plays crime journalist Beth, who is the bridge between Inside Man’s two distinct worlds – a cosy English village in which David Tennant plays the local vicar and Dolly Wells a roving maths tutor and a US prison’s death row, on which Tucci awaits execution, using his remaining time on Earth to exercise his brain and relieve his conscience, solving crimes with “moral worth” for visitors who seem to have no problem reaching him in the secure facility.

“There’s a whole theme in the series about morality,” continues West. “The tagline is ‘everyone can be a murderer – you just have to meet the right person.’

“It is an interesting concept. And it is kind of true. Most murders are committed by spouses or family members. But am I capable of murder? I’d like to think not. But if I’m in the right situation at the wrong time, I could be. It’s quite bleak to think about.”

It’s not often as an actor that you can say you helped create something that saved lives

Lydia West on It’s A Sin

If the mind games Inside Man leaves us playing are dark, dangerous and upsetting the process of making it was the exact opposite. Tucci, with whom West shares many of her best scenes – journalist Beth Davenport quizzing murderer Jefferson Grieff on Death Row before asking for his help to solve the mystery of her friend’s disappearance in long scenes, beautifully played, featuring battles of will and wit – gets special praise. Tucci revealed in a recent interview that he could imagine killing another human, in the most stringent circumstances. West is having none of it.

“Stanley is like the kindest, most gentle, elegant man I’ve ever met in my life. I just don’t see him being capable of murder,” she says.

“I’ve only just started watching Searching for Italy. But I got his memoir for Christmas. And he’s just so wholesome. If you just think of like a wholesome person, you just think of Stanley Tucci.

“The on-set catering was good. But I did smell some nice cheese out of his trailer – and would you have it any other way? Of course Stanley is eating delicious food every day because he is Stanley Tucci!”

If Inside Man marks another fine performance from West, her role of Jill in It’s a Sin remains her calling card. It was the show that both elevated her career and opened her eyes to the ability of TV drama to have real world impact. Russell T Davies’s series showed the solidarity and devotion of a group of young gay men plus their best female friend Jill through the Aids epidemic.

“It’s only now, coming up to two years on, that we can really feel the impact of it,” says West. “It’s a Sin was such a special project. It did it change the conversation, it changed lives and it literally saved lives. And it’s not often as an actor that you can say you helped create something that saved lives. So it feels so special.”

The young cast of It's A Sin
Omari Douglas, Nathaniel Curtis, Olly Alexander, Callum Scott Howells and Lydia West starred in Russell T Davies’s new drama It’s A Sin

But how to follow it? West is being mentored through this crucial next stage of her career as part of the Bafta Breakthrough scheme.

“I have two mentors, Suranne Jones and Will Poulter, and I find them both very inspiring, because of their activism work – they both do quite a lot of work around mental health and they are also amazing actors and beautiful people,” she says.

The plan is to search out more projects telling real stories that can leave a positive mark on the world.

“Having been in something so iconic, so important, I want to continue to be in projects that tell great stories and include marginalised communities and diversified talent, but also lead to help lead causes that are close to my heart.

“I’m not an activist. But after It’s a Sin, I realised I had a platform and a voice, so I want to use it. That comes with a level of responsibility that I’m really, really happy to embrace.

“All I can do now is go forward with work that means something to me and hopefully to other people and represents people. I just want to represent real people.”

This is why she is happy to be talking to The Big Issue. West is a regular reader, who is on first name terms with at least one London vendor.

“I love The Big Issue by the way. I’m sorry. I’m such a fan,” she blurts, midway through the conversation.

“I just think the work you do is so amazing. Whenever I see a Big Issue I buy one. I’m just like, oh my god, yes, this is what we need, let’s change things, let’s bring people back into the workforce and create opportunities and open doors for people. Also all your content is so real and so inspiring – you write for humans, you write for real people and I just love that.”

Amen to that. Asked for her own current big issue, West is quick to respond. Like so many at the moment, she is anxious about the cost-of-living crisis and its implications.

“It really upsets me. Like everyone else. The fact that people are going to have to choose between heating and eating sickens me. And the amount of foodbanks that are needed? It’s very, very sad,” she says.

“More needs to be done. And people need to be made accountable. Corporations need to be made accountable. That’s an ongoing issue. For anyone in our generation, we all have an interest in it now because it’s just brutal.

“So I mean, if I could do a drama about the cost-of-living crisis, sign me up.”

  • Inside Man airs on Monday and Tuesday from September 26 on BBC One and iPlayer

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