A funny thing happens during one of the episodes of the new BBC2 series, Inside Number 9. Well, many funny things happen since it is the work of League of Gentlemen veterans Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, but I am thinking of one particular cause for amusement. No-one is talking, least of all the presumably married couple at the heart of the action, yet much is being conveyed by the rich vocabularies of face and body. It is in effect a silent movie, made all the more poignant as the woman we are watching is the grand-daughter of that medium’s legendary practitioner, Charlie Chaplin.
Meet Oona Chaplin, a compulsively watchable 27-year-old who, geographically and genealogically, seems to come from everywhere. Indeed, the influences shaping her life are so cosmopolitan that she happily admits to living in a state of virtual statelessness. Her mother Geraldine Chaplin had an equally illustrious grandfather in the shape of the Nobel-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill.
The daughter of Chilean film-maker Patricio Castilla, Oona spent much of her childhood in Cuba, Spain and Switzerland before going as a fifteen-year-old to Prince Charles’s old school, Gordonstoun. The place may once have had a rather forbidding reputation, but during her time it also had an inspirational teacher called Lesley Tattersall, praised by former pupils, including Olympic rowing champion Heather Stanning, for motivating her charges to determination and achievement.
Even in those schooldays she was almost courting the question of her grandfather’s influence when she took part in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Edinburgh Fringe and impersonated his portrayal of Bottom. A decade on, she acknowledges a boundless admiration for “the universal truth of the body of his work.”
She also notes a continuing sadness in that relevance since “it means that humanity hasn’t advanced since the time when he was making his films.”
She considers her famous forbear more humanist than political, and says that if she does exist in his shadow herself, then it is a benign place to be and besides “it is what it is. It has never been any different. I am, and have always been, a great fan of his.”
This silent-movie episode of Inside Number 9; was there some kind of in-joke at play when she was given the part? She says not, although it may well have been the case with earlier invitations to play wordless roles. “There was no significance,” concurs executive producer Jon Plowman. “It was more of a coincidence.” And, as she says herself, the rest of the episode is far from soundless. “It’s a comedic device. There are other reasons for the people not talking to each other.”
There is no disputing this. Her character is so at war with her husband that even a difference of opinion about who has executive power over the TV remote turns into a blackly hilarious fall-out, with the sofa doubling as a theatre of war. She says her enjoyment of such a part is increased by being “as different from myself as I can be. The big boobs, the heels, the blonde wig… all these things freed me up amazingly.”
Even without such artifice, she is exoticism personified, with a voice that fools you into thinking you’ve got it placed, and comic, quizzical expression that can flash into a flamenco rage in the blink of an eye. She is unmarried and says that although she has been out with men, she has never actually been on what could be called a date. In the past two years her face has become fairly familiar through her TV appearances in The Hour, Sherlock and Game of Thrones, and her profile is set to increase this year with her portrayal of Kitty Trevelyan in a new BBC One series, The Ark, set in a First War military hospital.
Her influences, she says, are “whoever I am working with at the time,” plus the crucial figure of her mother, Geraldine, whom she describes as “the best woman in the world, ever.” What makes her so special? “She has the biggest ever sense of humour. Also, she is able to laugh at herself while at the same time taking whatever she’s involved in very seriously indeed. From what she has told me about my grandfather, I think he was very similar in that respect.”
Inside Number 9 is a series of half-hour films featuring the goings-on within a disparate range of premises. One involves a group of actors packed like sardines into a wardrobe; another concerns the unexpected visit of a tramp returning a found wallet to a teacher; a third tells the surreal tale of a girl babysitting in a house whose temperature is kept at minus three degrees because of the resident’s brother having been born inside-out.
Plowman says that because of the authors’ “abundance of inventiveness” a second series has been commissioned even before the airing of the first. In exercising the right, or indeed duty, to throw themselves with absolute commitment into whatever idea takes their imagination, they have much in common with Oona Chaplin’s vision of her future. Asked what her grandfather would have made of it, she replies that she can’t be sure as she never met him. She pauses and says: “I hope he would have been proud.” Then she adds “I think he would have been,” and sounds fairly certain.