By Daphne Lockyer
NELL HUDSON plays the monarch’s dresser in Victoria, a role that places her at the heart of the hotly anticipated new series. She gives Daphne Lockyer the latest royal gossip.
Nell Hudson is flattered by the ‘young Brigitte Bardot’ concept that has inspired our photo shoot; although she needn’t be – her long blonde hair, pillowy lips and killer curves definitely put you in mind of that most iconic of French actresses. ‘Who wouldn’t like that comparison?’ she laughs.
She has just posed in a range of glamorous 1960s outfits – a far cry from the austere, ‘upstairs, downstairs’ style of her current acting role. She’s doing ‘corset time’, filming the new series of Victoria – the jewel in the crown of ITV’s autumn schedule – and her costume for Miss Skerrett, the Queen’s dresser, could not be more different from today’s. ‘I’ve been wearing the same drab, grey dress on the show for two years now, while Jenna [Coleman, who plays Victoria] has one stunning outfit after another. It’s so unfair!’ she wails. ‘Although in the last couple of episodes of the new series, I do get two new outfits, probably in slightly different shades of grey. The audience will hardly recognise me!’
That audience, of course, happens to be huge: the 2016 series was watched, on average, by more than five million, beating even its big Sunday night BBC rival Poldark. The grand, sweeping backdrops, the glossy production values, Daisy Goodwin’s compelling script and, of course, the intense love story between the young Victoria and Albert which has, by the way, spilled over into real life between the actors Jenna and Tom Hughes, have all captured the public imagination.
‘If we knew exactly what makes the show a success we’d bottle it,’ Nell says, ‘but maybe people love it because, unlike contemporary drama, where everything is out there, Victoria is all about feelings brewing just beneath the surface. There is so much chemistry and subtext, which is a lot of fun to play – and to watch.’
That chemistry was also there, in series one, between Skerrett and the palace head chef Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley). Who could doubt it after the scene in which they sensuously shared Francatelli’s chocolate and ice cream creation? ‘Ah, the Bombe Surprise,’ Nell giggles. ‘That was a hoot. Mind you, I’m not one of those actresses who pretends to eat on screen – I really went for it. We did lots of takes and by the end I did feel pretty sick.’
The simmering relationship boiled over at the end of the last series when Francatelli quit the palace and asked Skerrett to go with him to London, where he had been offered a position as head chef of a gentlemen’s club.
‘Sadly, she turned him down because she has a cousin and a niece depending on her financially and it’s a big deal for someone like her to be employed at the palace.’ Unlike the real-life Skerrett, who came from the upper class, Nell’s character has been given a colourful background by Goodwin. ‘She grew up in a brothel and the palace job was her ticket out of that world and one she can’t relinquish.’
Professionally, at least, the choice pays off. ‘In the new series, she’s promoted to head dresser and is now Mrs Skerrett because, oddly, once you reach a certain level of seniority you become wedded to the royal household.
‘On the personal front, though, she’s still a bit in love with Francatelli and she’s delighted when the Queen hates the new Scottish chef’s food – all tripe and lumpy porridge. When Francatelli arrives back at the palace, Skerrett initially believes he’s come back for her, but it turns out the Queen has ordered his return. How sad for Skerrett that he didn’t come back for love.’
Nell clearly feels a lot of sympathy for Skerrett and finds playing her a pleasure. ‘I adore her and can’t help thinking she’s a lot nicer than me. She’s loyal, perceptive, intuitive, willing to take the bullet for other people without wanting anything in return.’ In the very first episode, for example, she took the rap for one of her colleagues, who was accused of reselling the Queen’s gloves. ‘It breaks my heart that such a good woman has had to choose between her job and her man.’
Not surprisingly, Nell, 26, finds it hard to see any advantages to life in the repressive Victorian era. ‘God, who’d have wanted to be around then?’ she asks. ‘The corsets women had to wear, even when pregnant, say it all; you can’t move or eat, your lungs can’t function properly. Your breath’s so shallow you feel permanently in panic mode. No wonder Victorian women were often called hysterical. Try wearing one and see how relaxed you feel.’
The fact that modern actresses must still wear corsets in period dramas strikes Nell as odd. ‘They give you incredible posture and shape and I’m glad I know how it feels to wear one. But, in time, surely the film and TV industry will let us try one on for 20 minutes and then we’ll all wear Spanx instead. It’s quite hard to wear the real thing for 15 hours of filming.’
Nell shares an anecdote about being cast as Skerrett. ‘You have to have a medical before filming starts, for insurance purposes, and when I told the doctor it was a period drama she said, “Oh, lots of corset wearing. At least you won’t be able to eat!”, followed by a conspiratorial “Yay!” And you think, “Are you kidding me? Is that what a doctor ought to say to a young actress?” It’s mind-boggling.’
Nell clearly knows her own mind and has learnt to reject the pressure on actresses to be unnaturally thin. ‘It’s a struggle because actresses face so much rejection and have so little control over their own lives. So you think, “OK, what are the factors I can control? I can dye my hair, I can cut it. I could lose a stone! Then maybe I’d get the job.” Since leaving drama school five years ago, I’m sure I’ve played with all those controllable factors. But, in the end, it comes down to whether you’re right for a role and whether you did a good job in your audition.’
It helps that Nell – whose other big break was playing beautiful Scot Laoghaire Mackenzie in the Amazon Prime historical fantasy series Outlander – comes from a supportive family. The second of three siblings, she remains close to her elder sister, Violet, a charity worker, and younger brother, Gabriel, who’s studying for his PhD.
‘Probably, becoming an actress is classic attention-seeking, middle-child behaviour,’ she laughs. ‘But, still, there were zero other actors in our family, and I didn’t have a clue how you became one.’ Nonetheless, both her parents have their own line in creativity – her mother Cressida (daughter of writer and critic Cyril Connolly) is an author; her father Charles converted a dairy farm into an organic rose-growing business. (He turns the flowers into petal confetti for stylish weddings: ‘It will be great when I get married,’ Nell says.)
Nell grew up in awe of her parents’ talents. ‘My mum was a brilliant role model and my dad struck me as Superman because there was nothing he couldn’t do. He taught me to draw and to play the piano. We went to the theatre and to foreign films at the cinema. Their view was always, “Do the thing you love.” So when I said I wanted to act, their response was, “Cool. What can we do to help?”’
Her mother drove her to drama school auditions. ‘We’d stay in hotels overnight and the next day she’d pack snacks to keep my energy up and wait for me outside in the car.’ Nell won a place at The Oxford School of Drama (other alumnae include Claire Foy and Catherine McCormack) and moved to London after graduating.
‘I love my London life, possibly because I grew up in the Worcestershire countryside. When I was a child it was idyllic – endless summers where we rode bikes and swam in rivers. There was so much freedom. But when I hit 13, I felt things closing in. I’m so happy to go back there now and see my parents, but at the time I longed for city life.’
It didn’t help that she loathed her teenage school days. She was privately educated at St Edward’s, a Catholic school in Cheltenham. ‘No offence to the school, but for me it felt a bit like a benevolent dictatorship. Everything was petty rules and I’m not good with those. At home, I was used to being treated as an equal and I really kicked against the system.’ The religious side was also uncomfortable. ‘By the age of ten, I didn’t really believe in God, so the morning assembly, praying and hymn singing, felt weird.’
She suffered, too, she says, with ‘square-peg-in-round-hole’ syndrome. ‘I didn’t conform to the provincial town stereotype. I’d be tempted to raise my own children in London or somewhere you can be whoever you want to be. I’d prefer the kind of school where boys can choose to wear skirts to the kind I went to, where top buttons must be done up at all times. Urgh!’
Her London life now is in Hackney, where she has recently bought her first flat and lives with her boyfriend of six years Will Taylor, frontman with up-and-coming band Flyte. They met when the band was playing at The Jericho Tavern in Oxford. ‘There were these good-looking guys sitting in the beer garden. I was, like, “Well, let’s go and talk to them,” and it turned out they were the band. Will and I connected immediately.’
She describes him as her anchor. ‘And I really need that because acting is such an unstable job, such an addiction. The best moments in your life are when you get the call and the worst are when you’re out of work, going cold turkey, sometimes for weeks. But Will is able to steady me and pull me out of it. All actors are mad to varying degrees, if you ask me, and it’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t want there to be two of us in a relationship. Awful!’
She was fresh out of drama school – and out of work – when they met, and Will’s band had yet to be signed. ‘Honestly,’ she says, ‘we had almost zero money. We went to Wahaca when it first opened with £2.50 between us. They said, “Like us on Facebook and we’ll give you free tacos.” We were reduced to bartering for food!’
Nell herself is no slouch in the music department. She’s a songwriter, singer, keyboard and ukulele player who supported Jools Holland’s 2014 tour. ‘But my heart lies more in acting than in music and I believe in the truth of the Chinese proverb, “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”’
Her role in Victoria shows that commitment is paying off. She’s delighted to find herself in the ensemble cast of such a successful drama and relishes every moment on set. ‘Skerrett experiences both upstairs and downstairs worlds – the Queen’s bedchamber and the servants’ quarters,’ she says. ‘And there’s a difference when you’re filming. Downstairs tends to be much sillier and smuttier and there’s a lot of laughter. Upstairs, it’s a bit more serious.’
The entire cast have bonded, though. ‘We have dinner together every night and on set we chat for hours in the green room while we’re waiting for our scenes. Among the topics – this being Victoria – they might share their thoughts on the modern royals. ‘I admire them for the responsibility they shoulder and the tourism they bring to the country, but I don’t envy them and I find the idea of monarchy indefensible in this day and age. I can afford to feel a bit affectionate about it, but if I were a single mother doing three jobs to make ends meet, I’d be furious about the level of privilege they enjoy.’
There’s also chat among the actresses about the issue of on-screen nudity. ‘Not that I have any experience of it yet, because no one has asked,’ she laughs. ‘But we talk about what would be acceptable, and about having to kiss certain actors that you might or might not fancy. Personally, I find that beforehand I might think, “Oh, no, I don’t fancy him at all!” But then something kicks in and afterwards you think, “Oh, maybe you are quite attractive after all!”’
Like all good millennials, they talk about the pressures on their generation, too: the way that youth is ‘the subject of a massive internet experiment that no one really knows the consequences of’, levels of student debt and financial inequality between the generations. ‘I’m lucky because at least I’m managing to buy my own property, even though I’ll now be in debt for the rest of my life!’
Her burgeoning career could put paid to the debt sooner than she thinks – especially as she’s also writing a comedy horror script with friend and fellow cast member Tilly Steele, who plays Skerrett’s assistant in the new series. ‘It’s a cross between Withnail and I and It Follows,’ she explains. ‘And it’s all about the weird world of penniless actors having to stay in awful digs. We’ve all been there,’ she concludes, although in the case of this funny, clever, talented actress, you can’t imagine she’ll be there for much longer.
Victoria returns to ITV on Sunday 27 August at 9.05pm
Styling: Indigo Goss at Era Management; Hair: Shukeel Murtaza at Frank Agency using Kevin Murphy; Make up: Louise Dartfrod at Stella Creative Artists using Ilia.