Seven years in a role can pigeon-hole an actor, and Joanna Scanlon’s turn as the apathetic civil servant Terri Coverley in all four series of Whitehall comedy The Thick of It risked exactly that. Ministers would come and go but Terri was a constant, doing just enough to keep her job and make sure she was home by 6pm.
Early on in the series, Terri is described as someone so incapable of thinking outside the box that “she’s built a box inside the actual box and she’s doing her thinking inside that box”. It is testament to her talent, like with all good actors, that this description is wildly inaccurate of Scanlon herself.
Now back with a new film in After Love, she tells The Big Issue about growing up at boarding school before throwing herself headlong into adult life. It didn’t all go to plan, as most things don’t.
At 16 I was at a very pleasant girls’ boarding school in North Wales. I enjoyed that life, I had bags of fabulous friends – I’ve enjoyed friendship all through my life. Until I was 16 I always took it upon myself to stand up for what I saw as injustices, as very, very small as they were at that school. I would just break every possible rule I could, in order to get into trouble and get the punishment. You had to stand in a place called the Death Trap, which was just a glass corridor, so everybody could see you had been naughty. It was a sort of shaming process, but I took it as a badge of honour. I was very, very naughty. Then when I got to 16, one day just I woke up and thought, I can’t be bothered to break a rule today. It’s too much like hard work. So I gave up being a naughty schoolgirl. And two years later I was made head girl. I turned from poacher to gamekeeper, on the grounds of exhaustion. I think I still have a rebellious streak, but I’m pretty pragmatic about how to exercise it. I don’t see conformity as a good thing, but I’ve realised it’s really important to get along with as many people as you possibly can and to understand their points of view,
I was very close to my grandparents. They lived very close to us when we were all growing up. I feel my grandparents’ presence in my life all the time, I feel them around me. My grandmother was a great cook. She was very sociable, very homely. She was somebody you could turn to, very warm. And my grandfather was very funny, he had a wonderful sense of humour. He adored his grandchildren, he spent a lot of time playing with us. They were level-headed, they were kind. My grandfather died when I was in my twenties, my grandmother just before I became 30. But the longer they’ve been gone the more connected to them I’ve felt.
I was always ambitious. To be an actor, that was my dream. I was a little bit torn because there was always a side of me which would have liked to stay in North Wales, and live and work on a farm and have animals. But I felt like I was put on Earth to act. So I worked hard at it. As a child I did plays and pantomimes at school and I did all the associated board exams. It was a huge part of who I was, and I got up every morning and did it every day.
I’m not absolutely sure where I got that desire for acting from. One of my grandmothers was a very good singer at a semi-professional level. But I think her dreams had been thwarted by the lack of opportunity at that time for a woman and also a wife, a mother who wasn’t wealthy. And I spent a lot of time as a child with my uncle, who lived next door to a West End actress. I think that probably planted a kind of seed. But the thing I most remember is reading a Walter de la Mare poem in front of a few teachers at school when I was four and feeling like I had gone to a better place, like the poem was a place I wanted to be in. That is a bit dreamy, that idea of a fantasy kind of environment. But it was such a beautiful poem and I remember thinking, I’d like to spend my life in this.
I was confident that I had talent, enough to sufficiently be able to give acting a good go. But I was not confident that I had the temperament to be an actor, because it does require you to be able to handle a lot of knocks. Having said that, I would always work unprofessionally. I love working in community theatre; I believe that plays and performance is a healing experience for people. And an educative experience. So for me it’s not necessarily about earning a living. If I had to earn a living doing something else I would. But I would never give up.
I hit a major brick wall in my twenties. I think it was about not having the life skills required to support my adult life. Although my girls boarding school had been a very nice place to be, with my friendships and all the wonderful teaching we had and all the theatre and everything, I hadn’t grown up. I hadn’t worked out the basics about living an adult life. I was extremely naive. So I rushed headlong into relationships with boys which just broke my heart. I was like a Labrador puppy galloping towards the jaws of a crocodile. Curiosity took me into dangerous situations and places and experiences that I wasn’t equipped to handle at that point. I’d tell my younger self, you need support. This isn’t something you can do alone.
I know this will sound ridiculous, but I think the thing that would surprise the younger me most about my life now – and it still surprises me every day – is that anybody would rate me and want to work with me. I know it sounds silly because I should have enough evidence by now to prove that is the case. But every time somebody says, “Oh, would you like to do this?” or “We’d like to talk to you about that”, I’m like, really? Me? Maybe that Labrador puppy is still inside me somewhere. I’m still surprised every single day that I’m allowed to join the club and play the game.
I don’t watch anything that I’m in. I watch the screening they put on for the actors and the crew but otherwise I would never put it on purposefully. Sometimes I get my husband to watch it for me and tell me how it went, because I’m interested to know whether it works or not. But I really find it hard to watch. And I’ve never been particularly motivated by applause. When I do theatre, I’d much rather not do a curtain call. I’d really rather hide my head in shame.
I was especially delighted with Getting On [the BBC Four comedy set in a geriatric ward she created with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine]. I’ve got a friend who’s training to be a nurse at the moment and we’re still talking about the plot lines because they’re still really relevant. I mean, our first episode is all about infection control! And also, you realise as you get older, that so much of what constituted our lives as young people is no longer relevant to the new young people. I’m sort of shocked by that, I’m still trying to learn, what’s the new world like? It’s a shock to get old. One of the main messages of Getting On was about respecting older people who no longer seem to have any relevance, who are regarded as ‘past it’, and remembering they were once young just like you.
I still have the tears of loss for all the dogs I’ve had in my life. There was Candy, there was Bill, there was Bella… Isn’t it one of the ironies, that we have one life, but in our one life we have, if we’re lucky, the lives of five or six dogs. And you don’t ever, ever get over losing them. If I had to choose one dog to have one last day with, it would probably be my childhood terrier Bella. I would love to just take her out for a walk again.
If I could live just one day over again, it would be my wedding day. It was just such a wonderful thing, to have everybody you love in the same room at the same time. Looking forward to a happy future. I mean, that was something, to get married to a man I completely trusted and knew I was going to be happy with. There are two moments which really stand out in my mind. One was when the vicar said something like, do you all support this marriage? And everyone says, we do. That was really touching. The other was when we were alone. We got from the church to the wedding venue before anyone else and there was a big mirror in the empty room. And we just paused and looked at each other in the mirror. Afterwards I misremembered that moment as a photograph. I kept saying, where’s that photograph? And then I remembered it wasn’t a photograph, it was just a frozen image I had in my mind of us looking at each other in the mirror.
Joanna Scanlan stars in After Love, out in cinemas on June 4.