The setting is as charming as the Tissot-inspired rooms of The Paradise: immaculate white tablecloths and plates with duck-egg blue trim, crimson roses in silver bowls, gorgeous oriental wallpaper. Into the tea salon of Fortnum & Mason strides Emun Elliott (who plays John Moray, the punctiliously attired department store owner in the BBC1 series) in torn jeans, biker boots and T-shirt, and promptly orders a pale ale to go with his afternoon tea.
His co-star, Joanna Vanderham, is already sitting at the table with me and the two greet each other as old mates. They live a few minutes’ walk from one another in east London and she’s agreed to babysit his new puppy. At least, I think that’s what she says; her soft Scottish accent is occasionally obscured by the enthusiastic chatter from our neighbouring tea-partakers.
The beer arrives in a brown bottle with a classy Fortnum & Mason Pale Ale label. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Elliott exclaims. “I could finish it, fill it up with Tennants, recap it and give it to someone as a Christmas present. Bonus! You know, usually they don’t let me into this kind of place.”
If we were sipping tea in The Paradise, our conversation may have revolved around the big news of the day: perhaps the shocking idea of a female axe murderer (Lizzie Borden) or the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York. In Fortnum’s, however, the topics are: equal-opportunity nudity, something vile-sounding called “The Sock”, tattoos and Cheryl Cole’s bottom.
But first, I endeavour to find out a little bit about my tea companions. Elliott is almost 30, Vanderham a dewy 22. Both actors have Scottish mothers and non-Scots fathers: Joanna’s father is a Dutch businessman and her mother, Mr Vanderham’s ex-wife, is a professor of cardiovascular research; Emun (pronounced Eeem’n – a Persian name) has an Iranian father, who lectures in computers and robotics, while his mother is a social worker. His father was 17 and working for a shipping line exporting rice from Iran, which had stopped off in Edinburgh, when he met a local girl who’d just left school and whisked her off to sail the seas: “My grandparents were strangely cool with her going away with this strange Middle Eastern man to sail the world. I was conceived, I believe, somewhere around Damascus.”
I wonder what impact being half-Iranian had on Elliott growing up in Edinburgh? “When you’re young at primary school, it’s a confusing thing. Initially, I felt pulled apart. You’re growing up and reading the papers and it’s constantly: ‘Iran this and Iran that… axis of evil… Gulf Wars.’ You just try and shove it aside and hope people forget about it, so that every time you meet someone you don’t have to get into a political debate about the Middle East.
But when you get older and start building up your knowledge and exploring the culture, the prouder you become. I now see it as a strength and a powerful thing to have roots in both of these really ancient cultures.”
Then he cannot resist lowering the tone: “And I’ve got ginger in my beard.” Vanderham: “Why ginger?” Elliott: “Because I’ve got a bit of Scots in me and everyone Scottish has a ginger hair somewhere.” Vanderham: “I definitely don’t.” Elliott: “It’ll be somewhere… maybe on your back!”
Vanderham: “Eeeewwwwww – you’re gross!” Ahem – moving onto The Paradise. The series, loosely based on Emile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise, follows the lives of the staff at a Victorian department store – the first of its kind in a city in the north east of England. Denise, Vanderham’s character, is a bright sales assistant who falls for the charismatic owner, Moray (Elliott), whose wife died three years earlier in rather ambiguous circumstances.
At the end of the last series, Moray jilted his fiancée, Katherine Glendenning, on their wedding day, with doubtless terrible consequences for him since the store is bankrolled by his spurned fiancée’s financier father. “The second series starts a year later – that’s important to know,” Elliott says. “Moray has been banished and the Paradise is starting to fall into disrepair because sales are plummeting…” “So Denise has been left to pick up the pieces,” Vanderham joins in.
Suddenly, we hear the familiar swooping strains of Downton Abbey’s opening credits being played on the piano, which leaves me struggling to recall the theme tune of The Paradise. Vanderham: “Well, as long as you don’t sing the tune to Mr Selfridge!”
You could say that you wait for ever for a period drama about a department store, and then two come along at once. Neither of them watched the rival show, but Elliott says his girlfriend did and really enjoyed it: “Apparently; there were a lot of really strong female performances.”
I mention that when I interviewed Andrew Davies, writer of Mr Selfridge, around the time he put Mr Darcy in a wet shirt, he told me that whenever possible he put a bath scene in his period dramas to spice things up. Elliott responds with such warmth – “I love a bath scene” – that I’m prompted to ask him about his own bathing ritual.
“I find the most fun part of having a bath is filling it and setting up the space, but once I’m in there I don’t know what to do with myself. I light the candles and put the music on, maybe a little towel where your head’s going to be… that’s the fun part. I like running baths for other people. I’m going to be really w***y but I read this book about Oscar Wilde and one of his quotes was something like: there should be no shame in the appreciation of beauty.”
Vanderham celebrated her 21st birthday while filming Stephen Poliakoff ’s TV drama Dancing on the Edge about a jazz band in London in the 30s. She played a socialite who has a relationship with a music journalist. The first episode required her to be nude while having sex on a train.
She told Poliakoff that it wasn’t on: “It’s sort of been turned into a story of me standing up and being quite forthright when actually it came more out of embarrassment than anything else. It was more a case of ‘I really don’t want to do that’ than ‘Women should not be asked to do this.’ That scene was written 20 minutes into the first episode, you barely knew my character. I would have had to spend the rest of the series trying to convince the viewers that I wasn’t just the naked one.”
It takes self-assurance to be so young and yet so determined to persuade someone of Poliakoff’s stature to change his script. There were a number of conversations – and she pointed out that in her first job, The Runaway, in which she played a drugged-up model (earning her an international Emmy nomination), in three of the six episodes there were sex scenes and in the first episode, she was raped: “So I view scenes like that as talking points, always open to discussion.”
In the end, she wore a little black cami and Poliakoff paid her the compliment that it was clear from her voice that the couple were actually having sex. Elliott feels just as strongly about doing nude scenes and fills me in on the nitty-gritty.
“This might be too graphic – so stop me if it is – but there’s a thing called ‘The Sock’. It’s a horrible-looking thing like a kind of pale-pink, flesh-coloured sack to cover your modesty, which literally ties around. I’ve done that before but I would never go the whole way for anyone. If you’re an actor, emotionally you’re trying to show everything you have to give so, physically, if I can allow one part to remain a mystery that’s quite important to me… that little bit of privacy.”
As well as appearing in Filth, the current film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Elliot seems to be a favourite of Ridley Scott, having been in Prometheus, Labyrinth and the forthcoming Exodus. Are you playing Moses? “No, I’m far too shifty to play a biblical prophet. Christian Bale’s playing Moses.” Vanderham: “And he’s not shifty?” Elliott: “He is pretty shifty. I play a shifty Hebrew traitor who gets Moses into a lot of trouble.”
Vanderham played the nanny-cum-step-parent in the updated version of the Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew, released this summer, alongside Julianne Moore as an aging rock star and her divorced art dealer husband (Steve Coogan). She was awestruck to meet Moore and becomes a teenager describing it: “Bear in mind, I was only 20 and I was, like, ‘Oh my God! It’s so nice to meet you!’ and she was so cool and chilled and she had dyed her hair black and had tattoos all up her arm – she really went for it for the part – and she said, ‘Hey, you look like an angel!’” (Which she sort of does.)
At this point Elliott turns to me and asks: “Do you have any tattoos?” Er, no, I don’t, actually. I explain that I have zero-tattoo-tolerance and think they look particularly tragic on older women. “I’ll get them,” he responds. “I think it’s b******s that actors shouldn’t get tattoos because you’re not going to get a job if you have a tattoo. You just cover it up. All my favourite actors are all covered in tattoos – Sean Penn, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hardy.” Vanderham: “But it’s different for women… by the way, have you seen Cheryl Cole’s tattoo?”
I’ll draw a discreet veil over the commentary on the tattoo – a thorn bush of roses covering the derriere – which Cole has posted herself on Twitter. Suffice to say, neither actor is impressed by the posting or the body decoration.
These two actors are in that category of “almost famous” and they’re both immensely attractive, smart and engaged. But what if things don’t work out? Have they considered any alternatives? Elliott: “If I didn’t get into drama school [which he dropped out of university for], I thought I’d apply to cruise ships – I just wanted to be some sort of entertainer.”
Vanderham: “Well, my mum made me promise that if I reached 28 and hadn’t made it, I’d go back to university and study law. That was my back-up – to be a barrister.”
Are both sets of parents proud? Elliott: “They were very supportive when I left university because when they were younger they were both stuck in jobs for a long time in which they weren’t happy but now, yes, I guess they’re proud but they’re not shouting it from the rooftops.”
Vanderham: “Oh my mum is! For this year’s National Television Awards, we’re up for Best Actor and Best Actress and Paradise is up for Best Drama, and my mum voted for us both and the show, and she’s voted three times with three different email addresses!”
It’s time for them to go. Vanderham reminds me of a glamorous foal, so tall and slim in her platform suede boots and little skirt; Elliott with his deep and sexy, smoke-tinged voice and expres- sive eyes. Who knew tea could be such fun?
See The Paradise Sunday at 8:00pm, BBC1