TV’s dark-comedy queen Joanna Scanlan tells Judith Woods how she followed her career dream on doctor’s orders – and found The One mid downward-dog.
How to convey the brassy, ballsy, blunt-speaking magnificence of DI Viv Deering in Channel 4’s outrageous, blackly comic police drama No Offence? Think of a 5ft 1in dynamo with ship’s prow curves, a potty mouth and racy red heels. She has no qualms about fighting dirty or deploying her cleavage when she needs to distract, deter and discombobulate. Unstoppable, unorthodox and unembarrassable, Viv cares about results, not rules.
‘I love her,’ admits her alter ego Joanna Scanlan, Cambridge-educated and one of our finest, funniest actresses as well as a cracking screenwriter. ‘She’s so utterly secure in her sexuality – her low-cut frocks are just part of her arsenal. She means to intimidate and ultimately she doesn’t care if a man finds her attractive or not because her all-terrain ego means she’ll ride roughshod over him anyway.
‘That’s a powerful position to be in. Women like her aren’t often portrayed on TV but when they are, we recognise and embrace them; it’s crazy to assume that bigger or older women are no longer attractive, that they don’t have sex or use their sexuality to get what they want.’
But the irresistible appeal of No Offence isn’t just about Viv, says Joanna. ‘We tackle important issues head-on. The first series was about a serial murderer targeting kids who had Down’s syndrome, the second dealt with gangsters exploiting the innocent and the new series is about right-wing extremists.’
Joanna, 56, is engaging, quirky, feminine and – paradoxical though it sounds – a deceptively dainty size 18 to 20. Let’s just say her latest hobby is paddleboarding with her 6ft 7in husband (more of which later). She arrives for the YOU shoot dressed in white linen and navy suede sandals, an Alexander McQueen silk scarf draped around her neck. She’s thrilled at the prospect of being styled: ‘I never have a clue how to put outfits together,’ she says, beaming with delight. ‘If I’m going to an event I always need someone to tell me what to wear and I’m happiest in athleisure from Beige, which is a plus-size shop for ladies like me.’
While Joanna’s size is hardly the most interesting thing about her, she acknowledges that her portrayal of Viv marks something of a watershed. In most comedies, bigger women tend to be the butt of the joke: think Miranda, pilloried as Queen Kong in her sitcom, or Rebel Wilson calling herself ‘Fat Amy’ in the Pitch Perfect franchise. ‘I do take on some of society’s prejudices about weight,’ admits Joanna. ‘I have worried a lot in the past about not fitting in, so playing Viv really gives me a boost. You can’t waste your whole life feeling “other” and wishing you were a size 12.’
Ironically, it was an oppressive feeling of ‘otherness’ that led Joanna to gain weight in the first place. She was accepted to study history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in 1980, the first year women were admitted. It may have been a progressive move but the new female undergraduates felt under siege.
‘I put on weight as a result of finding myself in a hostile male environment,’ she says. ‘It was literally a protective mechanism; I was one of 39 women in a college of about 500 male students and there was a sexually aggressive atmosphere: intimidating, frightening. I remember walking with a friend who was suddenly goosed; some man pushed his hand up between her legs and it was just assumed she wouldn’t report it. And she didn’t, because it was 1980 not 2018. My extra padding prevented me being an obvious target; I did have relationships, but with men who got to know me first. I’ve intermittently attempted to lose weight since, but it’s never worked.’
At Cambridge, Joanna joined Footlights, that uber-competitive crucible of comedy talent, where Tilda Swinton became a friend. Then, as Tilda’s career went stratospheric (she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company within a year of graduation), Joanna floundered professionally. For the first time she started to doubt herself.
Growing up in North Wales, the eldest of three (she has two brothers), she had always known she wanted to act. Her parents bought a hotel in Ruthin when Joanna was 14 and she would help out during the holidays, taking on every role thrown at her. ‘I imagined I was on stage playing a barmaid, a dogsbody, the waitress who served morning coffee and afternoon tea – it was brilliant fun. Acting meant I wasn’t shy; I immersed myself in the character. I even ordered a couple to leave the premises; I can’t recall why but I think they had been rude to my little brother. I must have looked like a right uppity brat; I do remember demanding the £1.70 they owed me for coffee before they left.’
After Cambridge, Joanna’s self-belief deserted her. She found herself lecturing in drama at Leicester Polytechnic, and then working in a similar role at the Arts Council. Both were great jobs, she says, but neither made her happy. She became very stressed which led to depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, prompting her to move back in with her parents, who by then had left the hospitality industry. For several years, taking the dog for a walk or going to the shop was as much as she could manage. ‘My parents were wonderful, concerned and supportive. They just wanted to see me well again.
‘My illness was hard but it also brought me something valuable. I became a softer, more open person. I was in a supermarket once and a complete stranger started telling me about her treatment for cancer. I listened and afterwards I remember thinking that wouldn’t have occurred if I’d been well. At work I was so preoccupied with putting on a brave front when inside I was feeling wretched that there wasn’t much room for empathy and kindness. I draw on these, and on my experience, when I write characters,’ Joanna says.
During her lowest period, Joanna made another life-changing discovery; she went to see a GP who effectively prescribed acting as medication. After asking a few salient questions, the doctor swiftly concluded that Joanna would never be happy or fulfilled unless she pursued her dream to be an actor. It was the diagnosis she desperately needed. After her recovery, and aged 34, she relaunched herself as an actress and quickly landed a role as a nurse in the 1990s doctors drama Peak Practice.
More small roles followed but she was also writing and submitting scripts and keeping the rejection letters stacked in a drawer. She was 46 before something was commissioned: a devastatingly comic sitcom about the NHS called Getting On (think The Office but with catheters and gallows humour) which she co-wrote and co-starred in with Vicki Pepperdine and Jo Brand (and which included a guest appearance by Tilda, who has remained a friend since Cambridge). It ran for three series on BBC Four, garnered awards yet never transferred to BBC Two. ‘If it had been written by men and starred men I think the response would have been very different,’ says Joanna, pursing her lips. ‘But it was taken up by HBO in the US and ran for three series there, which was nice.’
Other standout roles include an un-Christian cost-cutting cleric in the church comedy Rev, and a conspicuously useless Whitehall press officer in the biting political satire The Thick of It – Terri, who is too dim to be scared of foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. ‘When I met my husband, he claimed to be a huge fan of The Thick of It,’ muses Joanna with an indulgent smile. ‘But he didn’t remember me because he “must have missed” that episode. I was upside down in a field at the time and hadn’t had a bath for days, so I really appreciated any interest at all.’
To explain: Joanna and Neil, an accountant from Croydon, met at a yoga festival in Devon, when she was 46, and married two years later. They share a love of outdoor activities (hence their latest passion for paddleboarding), take part in weekly park runs and their ideal holiday would include whitewater rafting. They have a rescue dog called Millie, but no children, although Joanna had always hoped she would be a mother.
‘I just didn’t meet the right person at the right time,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘When I was 38 and single, I wanted to adopt. I had some interviews with social services but I was rejected on the grounds that I had insufficient family around me in London to help out, and that was a real blow. I also thought about donor sperm but truthfully I found that I couldn’t make that choice on behalf of the child, to have a father who would not be part of his or her life.
‘Not that I consider there’s anything wrong with doing that, but personally I was fearful of making the wrong choice. I didn’t want that responsibility – which was probably, on reflection, cowardice. If you have a burning desire to do something you will somehow make it work; I didn’t overcome every obstacle, which speaks for itself.’
There is no wistfulness in her tone; she has long since come to terms with her situation, and admits that she would have found it nigh on impossible to combine work and child-rearing. ‘The advantage is that I have a lot of time for my friends, their children, my niece and the rest of my family. And, of course, it means I’ve been able to work at quite an intense pace for the past 15 or 20 years.’
Other high-profile roles have included Charles Dickens’s long-suffering wife in The Invisible Woman (opposite Ralph Fiennes and with Felicity Jones playing his much younger mistress) and this year’s critically acclaimed British film Pin Cushion, an eccentric, surreal and terrifying coming-of-age story in which Joanna plays a mother forced to relinquish the hold she has on her teenage daughter and who struggles with feelings of abandonment. Her most recent success was the whimsical Puppy Love, a six-part comedy she co-wrote and starred in with Vicki Pepperdine, both of them giving unforgettable performances. That series, too, was taken up by HBO.
‘I do feel that life has got better and better; my 50s are a fantastic, happy time,’ says Joanna. ‘I have achieved the right balance between energy and experience and I love to do new things. I took part in the World Naked Bike Ride in London recently, which was set up to protest against cars and celebrate the human body. I wore big underwear and it was wonderful to be part of something so joyful and nonjudgmental. Neil and I are also planning to do the classic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela next year, but I’ll have to leave my phone behind because if I get a call and have to choose between Scorsese and St James, I can’t be relied upon to make the right choice.’
By her own account, Neil is the sensible, reliable and consistent one (all reassuring attributes in an accountant as well as a spouse) who views the world in black and white. Joanna, by contrast, sees only grey, which is an essential part of an actor’s and writer’s toolbox. But the ability to acknowledge different points of view and accept the validity of opposing motivations can be hard work.
‘I can be ridiculously indecisive,’ she sighs. ‘A few years ago we realised our house urgently needed work done so I got in three different architects. Then I decided we should solve the problem by moving house so I started looking everywhere – and I mean everywhere: Yorkshire, North Wales, Oxfordshire. I think even Location, Location, Location’s Phil and Kirstie would have been hard-pressed to figure out what I wanted. In the end, I realised I didn’t want to be on trains constantly travelling to work, so we settled on the suburban bliss of Croydon and we love it.’
Joanna is too busy for trains these days. She has just set up a production company with Vicki, called George & George – an enigmatic name that salutes the 19th-century female rebels behind the noms de plume George Eliot and George Sand, women who could only get published by pretending to be men. It’s also a tribute to tomboy George from The Famous Five, who could easily beat the boys at their own game. ‘We’ve just signed a deal with BBC Worldwide and we’re joining forces with Steve Coogan’s company Baby Cow for a three-year deal to make new comedy and drama for television. It’s all very exciting stuff.’
Meanwhile, the third series of No Offence is about to explode into our sitting rooms with a first episode so shocking it ought to come with a health warning and possibly a helpline. It’s not pretty, but it reeks of four-letter-word authenticity. Moreover, the exhilarating, quickfire quality of writing means the fact that Viv’s top team is female – Alexandra Roach and Elaine Cassidy are her right-hand women – comes across as purely coincidental rather than any tub-thumping feminist statement.
‘We would all like to think there was someone like Viv out there who had our best interests at heart and who would go through blood, sweat and tears to see justice being done,’ says Joanna. ‘Yes, her methods are a bit old school, but she’s on the side of the vulnerable and is out to stop those who are exploiting them. So she demands respect and she gets it; frankly I think Viv should be put in charge of every public inquiry going.’
When you witness DI Deering’s barnstorming determination in the new series of No Offence, you’ll find it impossible to disagree.
Handbag essential: Stamps, because I like sending random cards to people.
Heels or flats: Ash trainers in silver leather with stars.
If you had a windfall… I would add to my collection of Welsh landscapes, particularly by women painters.
Listening to: Dear Sugars, an agony aunt podcast from the US.
Reading: Claire Tomalin’s deeply moving memoir A Life of My Own.
Beauty must-have: Ren Moroccan rose oil: it’s chemical-free and gorgeous.
No Offence returns to Channel 4 on Thursday 13 September at 9pm.