The influences on and experiences
of a woman writer and actor
by Clare Watson
Joanna Scanlan is an award-winning British writer and actress perhaps most widely known for her portrayals of strangely likeable yet flawed middle-aged characters in the television series The Thick of It (2005-2012) and Getting On (2009-2012). Her latest film role as the wife of Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (2013, dir. Ralph Fiennes), however, marks a break away from the darkly comic world of television’s imagined public sector and Scanlan’s depictions of the ineffectual and long-suffering civil servant, Terri Coverley, and the lazy and venal NHS Sister, Den Flixter. In a film that deals with the subjugation of women in the nineteenth century, Scanlan’s contained and emotionally charged performance as the tragic figure of Catherine Dickens has been met by critical acclaim and is gaining her a new visibility.
Perhaps a lesser known fact about Scanlan is that she once worked in academia and by age 25 was a Senior Lecturer teaching drama at De Montfort University (formerly Leicester Polytechnic). Scanlan recently returned to DMU to talk about her career in acting and writing, and what follows in this blog (including several audio extracts) comes out of that event hosted by the Cinema and Television History (CATH) research centre.
Correcting Wikipedia and the early years
Scanlan may be mystified by the workings of the web-based encyclopaedia, but she is well aware, and a little amused, by the inaccuracies written about her life on Wikipedia. Contrary to the opinion of Wikipedians everywhere, Scanlan was not born in North Wales, but in West Kirby in the Wirral. Her parents moved to North Wales when she was three and, later, when Scanlan was in her teens, they bought a hotel there. “So”, muses Scanlan, “I lived in a very rural place with just animals really, and that was about it”.
Keen on drama from a very early age, Scanlan applied to, and was rejected by, five universities to read English and Drama before being persuaded by her mother to apply to Cambridge because of Footlights. “…she didn’t know what that was,” teases Scanlan, “but she knew that it was some way into the industry. So she’d go, ‘Go on, why don’t you do Footlights?’” Fortunately for the former head girl Scanlan, the year in which she applied to Queen’s College Cambridge coincided with the first admittance of women into the college and the policy was to accept exclusively candidates who had been head girl at their school. One of a cohort of 39 ex-head girls, Scanlan started reading law, quickly changed to history, and spent the next three years doing 35 plays and three separate Edinburgh Festivals.
Audio clip one (3 mins 48 secs) In this first extract, Scanlan talks about her formative dramatic years from showbiz nuns and pantos to political theatre at Cambridge.
An Actor Prepares
After graduating from Cambridge, Scanlan tried briefly to launch a professional career as an actor. Having won prizes at the National Student Drama Festival, she and her boyfriend began touring plays until he met someone else and the plan came to an abrupt end. “I was brought up on a lot of 50s literature,” remembers Scanlan, “which was Margaret Drabble or Sylvia Plath, and they’d all gone to Cambridge and they’d met some soul mate, and, having done so, got married and that was their lives…the bit that I never really managed to read in those stories was that they never ended well! …I also didn’t know how I was going to be an actor if I wasn’t going to be in this theatre company”. Around the same time, her parents’ hotel went bust. With no visible means of support, Scanlan ended up living in a council flat in Surrey Docks near Rotherhithe.
Audio clip two (5 mins 8 secs) Here, Scanlan talks about her experience in community theatre and her rather unplanned transition into the world of academia at DMU.
Breaking down and Getting On
Scanlan’s time at DMU was clearly a formative period for her and she remembers the 1980s in Leicester as a truly cutting edge moment. Despite her enthusiasm for the degree, however, Scanlan’s DMU phase was brought to a halt almost as unexpectedly as it has begun. She is frank about the matter: “Well, really I had a nervous breakdown.” She attributes this collapse at age 29 to two things. Firstly, a combination of too much responsibility and too little experience, being overly conscientious and working to the best of her ability whilst not really having the architecture to support herself. She came to a realisation about the second cause of her breakdown during her year out when a doctor suggested to her that unless she went back to acting she would probably remain ill for the rest of her life. It wasn’t a welcome insight: “I thought there was something very special going on in that degree course. And I really didn’t want that to be true. But I knew in my heart of hearts that it was true. That I was a born practitioner really, and not really a born thinker even, let alone an academic.”
It was around a year later, in 1991, that Scanlan began writing. Yet it wasn’t until another eighteen years that her big break came in the form of the award-winning television comedy series Getting On, which is set in an NHS hospital and which she co-wrote and starred in with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine.
Audio clip three (4 sec 47 mins) In this extract, Scanlan talks about writing for television, the particular challenges facing women writers and actors in the industry, and how she got her big break.
Collaborations and the development process
The female-dominated workplace in Getting On is mirrored by the all-women trio of its writers. Conceived as an antidote to shows like Holby City in which, as Brand has commented, “everyone has got so much makeup on and they do nursing care for about 20 seconds then go and have an affair with a surgeon”, Getting On is noted for its raw and human qualities. Scanlan is well aware of the benefits of focusing on the female-centred space of the NHS, which has enabled the trio to sidestep traditional criticisms of “women doing comedy”, and Brand has alluded to the series’ feminist credentials, stating that medical drama is “a fantastic arena for women because the sad fact of the NHS is that it’s almost entirely populated by women, yet all the bosses tend to be men”.
Scanlan’s training and the influence of Stanislavski in her work is clear, as she and Vicki revealed in an interview about Getting On in 2012: “It is all rooted in character, starting with character first and then building into text via character.” Directed by Peter Capaldi, the women’s input extends far in to the production and post-production processes. Scanlan notes, for instance, their decision to use reaction shots, a source of much of the programme’s humour: “the edits come through to Vicki, myself and Jo as they’re editing…if there’s ever an edit on the person speaking we say take it off and put it on to someone else…we just have it as a kind of rule really. It just makes it funnier.”
Audio clip four (3 mins 30 secs) A lot of the planning and rehearsing for Getting On was done in the domestic space. Here, Scanlan discusses the importance of her collaborations with women and she describes the development process for Getting On.
Charles Dickens’ invisible women
Scanlan’s latest performance is seen in The Invisible Woman, which is based on the novel of the same name by Claire Tomalin and adapted for the screen by British writer Abi Morgan, and is a lesson in the abject position of women in the nineteenth century. It tells the story of Dickens’ secret – his young mistress, Nelly Ternan (played by Felicity Jones), who came from a single-parent family of struggling actresses and who was, according to the film, effectively prostituted to the author by her mother. Alongside the central narrative, we watch Dickens’ wife, Catherine, as she is forced to endure the humiliation of her husband’s adultery. In one particularly distressing scene, the women’s total suppression is laid bare as Catherine is made to deliver a birthday present to Nelly from Dickens. Dickens later confesses to Nelly that he did this to make clear to his wife that he no longer felt anything for her. Although not the woman of the title, Catherine was also obscured by the famous author who, after years of purported neglect and infidelity, abandoned her, publicly announcing their separation in the British press. Catherine died in 1879, aged 64, having been separated from her husband for over 20 years.
Audio clip five (3 mins 29 secs) Scanlan is modest about her performance in The Invisible Woman. In this final clip, she considers the various elements in the production process that went fed into her portrayal of Catherine Dickens.
‘Getting On: A Conversation with Joanna Scanlan’ (26 February 2014) was hosted by the Cinema and Television History research centre at De Montfort University. The interviewers were Prof. Steve Chibnall (Film) and Dr. Alissa Clarke (Drama) and images of the event are kindly supplied by Natasha Ferrari, courtesy of Communications at DMU.
Clare Watson is a long-standing member of WFTHN and is creator and manager of the Network’s website. Trained as an audiovisual archivist, she went on to complete a PhD before lecturing in film and television studies and archiving. She co-developed the Women and Silent British Cinema website and her interests include women film pioneers, early cinema, British cinema and the distribution and reception of film. She has worked as a film archivist and researcher on various projects and is an Associate Research Fellow in the Cinema and Television History research centre at De Montfort University.