Ordeal by Innocence’s Anna Chancellor: as actors, we are all so replaceable

The star of the BBC Agatha Christie adaptation reflects on the reshoots that took place in the wake of Ed Westwick allegations, and why she ends up "always playing the bitch"

Ordeal by Innocence

Within ten minutes of meeting Anna Chancellor for the first time, she’s shared more than most actors share in an entire interview. She loses everything; she used to nick John Thaw’s cigarettes on set; she’s suffered from insomnia; her parents were generally clueless; she kissed Donald Sutherland last year – well, he thought it was a kiss, but she isn’t so sure.

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We meet at a café in Hove, East Sussex, not far from the house she and her husband Redha Debbah bought six months ago when they moved from London. In a big coat, a beanie, walking boots, dark shirt and trousers, Chancellor, 52, is almost incognito. But not quite: those limpid blue eyes and that warm, very English voice will always give her away.

First of all, why Hove? It turns out she fell madly in love with the south coast while filming Mapp & Lucia for the BBC in the scorching hot summer of 2014. “The rest of the cast and crew stayed in Rye, but I stayed in Hastings,” she explains, talking at great speed and with unbridled enthusiasm.

“I looked forward to swimming in the sea every night as the sun was going down. Hastings isn’t very big – it’s just got one nice high street – so we decided on Brighton and Hove instead. I adore seagulls. They make a cacophony, but I can happily give in to the noise. I’m very worried about what they’re eating. Aren’t you?”

Chancellor has a charming habit of asking questions (a rarity for interviewees) and leaning forwards eagerly to hear the answers. She’s a force of life, mildly eccentric and unafraid of speaking her mind.

Since playing “Duckface” in Four Weddings and a Funeral back in 1994 and memorably being jilted at the altar by Hugh Grant, she’s played capable, tenacious women in TV shows as wide-ranging as Kavanagh QC, Pride and Prejudice and The Hour. She is also a formidable presence on stage, equally at home acting in Anton Chekhov as Noël Coward.

“I nearly always play the bitch,” she says, sipping a flat white. “It must mean I am a bitch.” She is, of course, joking. At least, she’s smiling as she says it.

Actresses often talk about work drying up as they age, but Chancellor says she’s lucky. “You have to stop saying: ‘I’m not somebody who would do that.’ You have to be open to anything. I’m tall and dominant and quite masculine in a way, so I can play alpha female.”

Which is exactly what Chancellor does in Trust, the upcoming ten-part Danny Boyle series (starting later this year on Sky Atlantic) about the Getty kidnapping.

“Oh yes! John Paul Getty III has been abducted and his grandfather, John Paul Getty senior, has been asked to pay the ransom. Getty senior has four mistresses who provide light relief for quite a dark story – and I’m the alpha female mistress.”

Isn’t Donald Sutherland, who plays Getty senior, an incorrigible flirt? “Yes! I like that. I can completely take that. What was it he said? ‘Kissing you is so fantastic. I’ve never felt anything like this…’” She roars with laughter. “Really, Donald? You really think I’d go for that?”

Was he a good kisser? “I wouldn’t even have called it a kiss. It’s ridiculous! It was a brush of the lips. He is crazy about women. I did think it was rather marvellous and very 1970s of him.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to men’s behaviour on and off set. Chancellor was clearly amused by Sutherland, but she does add that she has had to learn to deal with “very dominant men on set”. When filming Kavanagh QC with John Thaw, she used to ask him for advice regarding certain scenes and he’d bark at her, “Read the f***ing script!”

To break the ice, she stole his cigarettes, which he didn’t seem to mind. Mildly flirtatious or grumpy actors are one thing, but of course everything has become far more delicate in the wake of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and a long list of other men.

Chancellor has been party to this herself, as one of the stars of Ordeal by Innocence, the three-part BBC1 Agatha Christie drama, originally scheduled to air on Boxing Day last year. The show was put on hold when cast member Ed Westwick was accused of sexual assault by two women (two more allegations have since been reported in the press). In January this year, Christian Cooke replaced Westwick and the entire cast took part in the reshoots in Scotland. “What can you say about the situation?” says Chancellor.

“When we did the reshoot, I realised that ultimately we are all so replaceable. Even the great, great Kevin Spacey [replaced by Christopher Plummer in the film, All the Money in the World after numerous sexual harassment allegations]. You almost don’t get a better actor than Spacey, but then Plummer takes his place and everyone is raving about his performance.”

Has sexual harassment ever been an issue for Chancellor? “I can’t say it has. I had older sisters and was on the loose very young. Too young. My parents were very, very absent. They divorced when I was young and my mother remarried. There were seven kids and step-kids and I think we were quite frightening. We were all sent off to boarding school, which is a bit like posh care.

“The point is, I’ve always been able to look after myself. I was quite attractive when I was young and I took it for granted that people were going to fancy me and make a few wrong passes when I was out and about. When I started working as an actress, I found everyone quite straight compared to the people I’d been hanging about with – I had a child, Poppy, when I was 22 with [the late poet] Jock Scot. We used to hang around with Shane MacGowan and Mario Testino…”

She pauses. “There is a vast difference between someone making a pass at you, which is slightly the game of men and women, and sexual harassment. I think the two have slightly merged.

“Even though I haven’t experienced sexual bullying, I’ve been in countless rehearsal rooms and on endless film sets where I just know I’m not going to be heard because I’m a woman. Some [male] directors just can’t help it. The man is the most important person. It’s just how things have been for so long. I can’t tell you how many boring scripts I’ve read in which the guys take the main parts and carry the central story…”

Is the landscape changing with the rise of movements against sexual harassment such as #MeToo and Time’s Up? She nods. “The next generation will have a different mindset. Any revolution is messy, but yes, I think those movements are forcing change. I hope and pray that, sooner rather than later, women are offered more interesting, radical and complex projects. And that it will no longer be unusual to see a female director, cinematographer, spark or even driver on set.”

In the meantime, Chancellor is focusing on the positive. She says there were “lots of women” working on Ordeal by Innocence, including director Sandra Goldbacher and writer Sarah Phelps. “People might imagine Agatha Christie to be chintzy and twee, but in fact this series is quite gothic and kitsch.”

Superlatives always tumble out for Bill Nighy and Chancellor is no different. As her on-screen husband in Ordeal by Innocence, he was “so lovely, so gracious, so kind. A very special person. He even lent me his Prada mac when it was raining particularly hard in Scotland. I was terrified I was going to lose it because I lose everything. I lost my wedding ring two weeks after I got married. I think I left it on the set of The Hour…”

Ordeal By Innocence -
Chancellor in Ordeal By Innocence

Chancellor met her husband in 1998, while she was appearing in the West End and he was her driver. Debbah had never seen her act on stage or screen – only in an advert. “He saw me in the Boddingtons TV commercial and said to his mate, ‘I really fancy that girl!’”

As well as doing up their home in Hove, Chancellor and Debbah are having a house built on a piece of land they bought in Crete. Debbah is training to be a yoga teacher and Chancellor is reading scripts and writing with her friend, the actress Sara Stewart.

“I’d love to write a musical at some stage, but for now Sara and I have written a script about two women our age. There are so many interesting things about women that are never written. In fact, I don’t know if anyone has quite captured the middle-aged woman and everything she has got to show the world. It’s uncharted territory really. And the bright, English, female mind is a very funny place to hang out.”

Chancellor never reads her own interviews, but if she did, she’d know that more than once she has been described as “nuts” or “crazy”, adjectives rarely used to describe men. “If people have said I was crazy or eccentric, maybe it’s true. You can’t be too conformist or polite and be good at acting. You can’t risk boring the audience. As an actor you’ve got to be able to jump out of a window and land a bit awkwardly.” She laughs.

“You’ve got to be prepared to mess up.”

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This article was originally published in the 31 March-6 April 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine