Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to drama school, but that, says Line of Duty star Vicky McClure, was the making of her. She tells Elizabeth Day why she won’t be leaving her hometown of Nottingham any time soon and how her close-knit family have supported each other through the toughest of times.
Recently, Vicky McClure decided to do some DIY. She had a new kitchen fitted in her Nottingham home two years ago and her father Mick, a joiner, had built an L-shaped wooden seating area in the corner. It had got ‘quite scuffed’ in the intervening time so Vicky took it upon herself to give it a fresh lick of white paint.
‘So I ordered some gloss on Amazon. When it came, it was black!’ Vicky recalls, eyes widening in horror. She thought about sending the paint back and what that would involve – a trip to the Post Office, at the very least, and no doubt some laborious administrative process – and then decided against it. She kept the paint: ‘I just went ahead and painted it anyway. I did that thing where I was, like, “Maybe it was fate? Like, everybody’s going for dark paint these days…”’
So she sanded down the surface, taped the edges and then painted her kitchen seating unit a shiny black. Vicky takes out her photo to show me the results.
‘It’s not bad, is it?’ she says. ‘And then when you’ve got cushions on it, it’s a bit better. So, yeah, I’m doing a bit of DIY. This is what you do when you’re unemployed. It’s great!’
This is stretching the truth a bit: at 35, Vicky is in the prime of her career and one of our most in-demand and versatile actresses. Over the past six years alone, she has played everything from a dogged tabloid newspaper reporter (in ITV’s hit series Broadchurch), a housewife campaigning for the peace process (BBC Two’s Mother’s Day) and an unsettling architect covering maternity leave in BBC One’s psychological drama The Replacement. She made her name with a riveting performance as Lol, the single mother who survived an abusive childhood, in Shane Meadows’s This Is England, which was first a 2006 film and then became a critically acclaimed spin-off Channel 4 drama. It was a part for which she cut her hair short and dyed it blonde. Today, the hair is still short, but a dark and lustrous brown, with a quiff Vicky runs her hands through while talking, moving it this way and that, saying she really needs to get it cut.
But perhaps the role for which Vicky is best known is Kate Fleming, the unflappable detective sergeant in screenwriter Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty. The gripping procedural thriller – set in AC-12, the police’s own anti-corruption unit – is about to return for its fifth series and, although the storylines are a closely guarded secret, the internet has been rife with speculation (observant fans spotted that in the trailer for season five, Kate’s epaulettes seem to signal that she has risen to the rank of inspector).
So, I ask Vicky, what else can she tell me? She breaks into a broad grin. ‘What can I tell you?’ she echoes, and then launches into a masterclass in equivocation. She tells me we will see the return of ‘Balaclava Man’ with links to an organised crime group who are known to have connections with corrupt police officers and suspected to be under direct command of the shadowy figure known only as ‘H’. Plus, we’ll see more of Kate’s ‘family life, which I was really keen to do because I find it interesting, no matter what, to see behind the scenes of work’.
It’s no surprise that Vicky feels like this about her characters when her own home life is so integral to who she is. This is the third time I have interviewed her and, on each occasion, I have felt the process ended up being more like a relaxed chat than the usual question-and-answer session. Vicky is funny, kind, generous and resolutely unstarry.
When I walk into the photographic studio where we are meeting, she is wearing trainers and a long blue cardigan, looking at the photos from the YOU photoshoot on the computer monitor. She loves them, but has also noticed that, ‘Oh God, yeah. There are more lines.’
When I ask if she’s ever been tempted by Botox, she physically recoils.
‘No. God, no. Don’t put a needle near my face. I can barely have my blood taken… I prefer people’s faces to look like human faces. Do you know what I mean? Where you can see where they’ve been. Rather than somebody that literally looks as though they’re frightened as they can’t move because of it.’
Perhaps she also has a particular perspective on the ageing process owing to her beloved maternal grandmother, Iris, who had dementia. Vicky watched it take hold and witnessed the awful impact it had on her family first-hand before Iris died in 2015.
‘It was a really horrible time and we learned as it went along how you deal with it,’ Vicky recalls. ‘My mum would sing to her, “When I was just a little girl…”’ she breaks into song. ‘And you’d see her change. Her face would change. Towards the later stages she couldn’t really communicate with us.’
Vicky has just finished filming a BBC documentary, Vicky McClure: My Dementia Choir, a two-part special which follows her recruiting former musicians and singers with dementia, supported by specialists, to put together a choir in her home town of Nottingham. ‘Music has made such a big difference to their lives,’ she says.
In all her interactions, Vicky exudes a sense of calm. She seems to be someone who has taken the time to know herself properly. She understands the ultimate frippery of the world she finds herself in (the evening we meet, she is due to present an award at the Brits. What’s she wearing, I ask? ‘I don’t know!’) and she knows how to separate this from the truly important things in life which bring her more lasting happiness. Things such as painting your own kitchen.
I spend the majority of my time in my normal world, in reality,’ Vicky explains. ‘Doing a photoshoot or going to a certain event or an occasion, I’ve got an idea of what to expect. It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily hugely comfortable in that situation, as comfortable as I would be in my joggers at home.’
Home is still Nottingham, the city in which she was born and raised. She lives with her fiancé, the Welsh actor and producer Jonny Owen, within walking distance of her elder sister Jenny, her two nephews, her parents Mick and Carol, an office worker, and her 93-year-old grandmother Jean.
Living in Nottingham has been an important part of her ability to stay grounded. She’s been asked in the past why she never moved to America to pursue her career: ‘And I’ve always said, “Because they haven’t asked me.” I’ve never been one to get on a plane and stand in the queue for pilot season. It’s just not been my bag.’
She has a similarly pragmatic approach to marriage. Although she’s been engaged for over a year (Jonny proposed on Christmas Day 2017), wedding plans are not yet in place.
‘We’re really struggling to find the right venue,’ she admits, half-embarrassed by the admission. She has loved being engaged because ‘I like the feeling of unity and I like commitment… and don’t get me wrong, the ring helps!’
Vicky proffers her left hand to show me a twinkling diamond.
‘He picked it,’ she says proudly. ‘He told me the story. He got the ring, then met his mates, and it was Christmas time, obviously, because we got engaged on Christmas Day. And he got absolutely wasted and was like, “I’ve got this b***** expensive ring in my pocket.” So he gave it to the barman who put it in the safe.’
At the end of a particularly liquid evening, Jonny left the pub forgetting to take the ring with him. ‘And then he remembered and got the tram back. Yeah, he made it. It made it in one piece.’
She smiles, and it is clear in every word she speaks about him that Vicky is deeply in love. ‘I don’t trust anyone more than I trust him. He supports me a thousand per cent in everything that I do.’
She credits Jonny with helping her find her voice and the strength to express her own opinions. She says that, in her mid-30s, she has found, ‘I’m just getting to a point where I go: “Well, I’m entitled to be here.”’
How has her family reacted to her fame? ‘When it all started to kick off, they would keep every cutting – you know, everything. Whereas now, we’ve all relaxed a bit. I’ll say, “Oh, did you watch that?” And they’ll go, “Oh no, sorry, I recorded it.”’ She gives a whoop of laughter. ‘It’s just become normalised, I guess.’
As a child, Vicky remembers being ‘into everything’. What was she like at eight years old? ‘Oh, God,’ she says, breaking off. ‘Just… DRAMA!’ Vicky does jazz hands and smiles. She has a beautiful, striking face that is simultaneously powerful and feminine.
Vicky continues: ‘My mum would always say, “You wanted to do everything. You were busy, busy, busy.” And I danced from the age of three until I was in my late teens [after a failed medical for the Royal Ballet revealed she had weak ankles]. So, you know, I had a lot of energy… I was just, you know: “Watch my dance. Watch my show. Watch me!” Annoying little s***, I guess.’
At 11 she started attending Nottingham’s Television Workshop, which counts Samantha Morton and Christopher Eccleston among its alumni, and at 15 was encouraged by her tutors to apply to the famed Italia Conti stage school in London. She did so, got a place and was then confronted by the reality that her parents could not afford the fees.
Recently, Vicky was doing a clear-out and stumbled across the acceptance letter from Italia Conti and alongside it, ‘all the letters that my dad had handwritten to the council, to, you know, the lottery, to charities, to family and friends – to everybody. It was really sweet. I’m glad I kept all these things because I think it’s healthy to see where it didn’t go your way.’
Despite her father’s best efforts, the funds were never raised and Vicky stayed on at her Nottingham comprehensive, which she loved for the friendships she forged there (she is still close to her former schoolmates) and where she admits she barely did any academic work. Was she upset that she couldn’t go to Italia Conti?
‘I genuinely don’t remember feeling heartbroken about it because I knew how hard my mum and dad worked. My dad was always at work. And I also knew how much my ballet costumes cost. I knew things like that. I understood… because we were penny-pinching to try to make sure I had everything I needed. To get the costumes and to constantly have new ballet shoes and all those things cost money. So, you know, I didn’t expect they had, like, thousands of pounds saved up. I already knew that it wasn’t free. So yeah. It just was what it was.’
If anything, these early experiences instilled in Vicky not a sense of bitterness, but rather a respect for the value of hard work.
‘I’ll always work,’ she says. ‘If I couldn’t act, I’d find another job. We all have to work – there is no pot of gold, there’s no estate waiting for me! And also I think there’s a real sense [that] I enjoy work.’
In fact, for many of the eight years that Vicky was starring in This Is England, she was holding down a day job at a local surveyors’ office, training new staff on the phones. One day, she was recognised while standing by a flip chart talking about data protection. Aman asked if she was in This Is England, and she said that, yes, she was, and went on with the training session.
‘I think the assumption that we [actors] are all loaded and swanning about, making films all the time, is just wrong,’ she says. ‘My dad’s always been, like, “Make sure you save.” You need money. And if you haven’t got it, you’ll really struggle. And if you have got it, you need to look after it because if you lose it, you’re f****d.’
She worries about the lack of working-class stories on screen. The last time we met, she said that she was worried about the scarcity of opportunity for actors to break into a notoriously fickle industry if they didn’t have independent means or a public-school education. Has it got any better?
‘I wouldn’t say it’s got better to the point where it’s smacking me in the face,’ she replies drily. She says it’s less likely ‘a story about a plumber’ will get made than ‘this incredible story about the royal family, [even though] to me, the plumber’s story is much more relatable’.
Is she talking about The Crown?
‘Possibly.’ She grins. ‘But I haven’t seen it, so I can’t really comment. It’s very difficult because I don’t want to bash people… I know that if I watched The Crown I’d be blown away by Claire [Foy] and Olivia [Colman] and I’d be in awe of the production and just the sheer enormity of it. And I’d enjoy it for what it is. But I’m not intrigued enough to go away and actually watch it… there’s never a point where I go, “Oh, I wish there was something to do with, like, a royal family.”’
Real people interest her. Real people like the ones she grew up with, who know what she’s really like, who understand the value of things and who build her kitchen seating units that she can paint in black gloss even though she thought she’d ordered the white. That’s who Vicky McClure is: a woman who just gets on with it and who is all the more remarkable for being so normal.
Line of Duty will return to BBC One soon. Vicky McClure: My Dementia Choir will air on BBC One later this year.