Jodie Whittaker talks 19 to the dozen in a northern accent softened but not obliterated by more than a decade in London. One of the joys of making The Smoke was that her character, Trish Tooley, also hails from Yorkshire.
“You get to hear my voice! For the first time in ages I had no dialect coach, no mad panic in case I forgot how to say a word.”
We last saw Whittaker playing the mother of a murdered child in Broadchurch: her raw performance was enough to make the blood of any parent run cold. “I am a pretty happy soul and I always seem to play people who aren’t,” she mock sighs, all modesty, vim and smiles. “So it was nice to play someone who can have a laugh.”
Not that Trish’s life is all sunshine. In an edge-of-the-seat opening sequence, Trish’s firefighter boyfriend — played by Jamie Bamber — braves the worst call-out of his career (and the most spectacular fire to light up the small screen in a while). The story then skips forward several months to where the couple are dealing with the fallout, emotionally and physically.
“It’s really unusual to have a lead guy who has an injury, but that’s not the whole story,” she says. “It felt real because people’s lives do go on, and they have to live with it.”
Like Broadchurch, the part involved some uncomfortable Googling for Whittaker, who takes her research seriously: from the practicalities of dressing wounds to the psychological scarring felt in such cases.
Yorkshire accent aside, Whittaker liked the fact that there was more to Trish than initially meets the eye. “You watch a lot of dramas where there’s one girl, one wife and that’s about it. It’s frustrating. I’ve been really lucky: The Smoke and Broadchurch were real pleasures because of the number of extraordinary characters they have.
“In The Smoke I wasn’t just there to serve the scene of someone else. Lucy [Kirkwood, who wrote Skins] knows what she’s doing when she’s writing a woman. I felt in very safe hands. Nothing is caked on.”
Kirkwood, 29, has been making waves in the theatre world for almost a decade, with her most recent play, Chimerica, winning ecstatic reviews, awards and a run in London’s West End.
“I’ve just turned 31,” says Whittaker, “and I was like, ‘What? How have you done all that? I’m still patting myself
on the back for moving out of my mum and dad’s house!”
Whittaker hasn’t done too badly herself. She landed her first plum role — opposite Peter O’Toole in 2006 film Venus — five weeks out of drama school. She’s since proved her versatility in highbrow plays, corsets (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Cranford) and blockbusters both acclaimed (Attack the Block) and plain daft (St Trinian’s).
The other attraction of The Smoke was that it’s that rare thing, a home-grown drama that promises to be a white-knuckle ride. “It doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen on British telly for a long time because it feels massive. Huge set pieces. We’re really good at drama in Britain — especially period drama — but it’s been exciting to branch out into action.”
The Smoke boasts an eye-popping stunt every single episode. “It’s not one of those things where they promised huge fire sequences and it’s a blue screen and a candle. The producers have really gone to town.”
What Whittaker hadn’t realised was that she’d be required to do her bit. “No one mentioned that! But I couldn’t be a wimp as everyone else had been so amazing.
“I was really brave!” she adds, mischievously. “That’s all I can say. I mean me, not my character — because I was really scared. As an actress I’ve never had to do anything like that.”
The Smoke has given her a fresh appreciation and respect for firefighters. “A lot of the extras are off-duty firefighters and chatting to them between scenes has been fascinating. I wouldn’t — couldn’t — take that job on.
Now when I see a fire engine go by, I look at it in a different light.”
Has it also made her more safety conscious? “I didn’t need to be! I’m an absolute coward. I might as well be the girl handing out the flyers saying, ‘Don’t forget to blow the candle out!’”