The Ark’s Joanne Whalley on bringing life to Noah’s wife

The Wolf Hall star talks bringing realism to the Bible, career peaks and troughs - and the touchy subject of her favourite football team...

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“I’ve been to Sunday school, I know my Bible stories,” Joanne Whalley says with an air of mischief. “Quite often you’ll find they feature some bloke who talks to God then comes back and explains things to his wife, who has to consider if her husband has gone crazy.”

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Whalley goes on to the Old Testament problem faced by Noah’s wife. “He tells her he’s got to build a boat in the desert that’s the size of eight football pitches and she decides, in the end, to go with it. I think the only way you can play that is someone who’s very much in love with her husband.”

Whalley plays Noah’s wife in The Ark and you can get an instant sense of Tony Jordan’s twining of the extravagant with a soap-style cosiness when you hear that, in this version, Noah’s wife is called Emmie.

“When I first read the script I thought it was refreshing to find a Biblical drama that wasn’t all thee, thy and thou,” she laughs. “It just felt very modern, which is, oddly, what you want from period drama.”

And she should know — right now she’s having a bit of a moment and period drama is at the heart of it. A Pope’s mistress in The Borgias and a put-upon Aunt Patience in Jamaica Inn, she aced Wolf Hall as the pious, spurned and heartbroken Katherine of Aragon, and she’s just been cast as Rheda in ITV’s 13-part adaptation of the warrior epic Beowulf. Perhaps because she’s had a career dotted with spectacular peaks and quiet troughs, she sounds
cautious.

Whalley as Katherine of Aragon in Wolf Hall

“I’m not into moments,” she says carefully. “I’d be mad to say I wasn’t enjoying the work and I’m loving the great parts. My kids are pretty much grown up so I can travel more and not feel guilty — although who am I kidding, mothers always feel guilty — so it’s an amazing time. But I’m much happier in the background, part of the cast and just working.”

It’s very hard for Whalley to disappear into the background, however. Today, for instance, she’s in effervescent and hilarious form, despite a touch of jet lag. She apologises for Americanisms in her answers — saying “zee” instead of “zed”, calling yoghurt “yo-gurt” and basil “bay-sil” — all delivered with a light Mancunian twang.

Although Whalley’s elegance seems an unlikely fit with her Ark co-star, David Threlfall, in a pairing that appears to out-odd the Odd Couple, they got on like houses blazing. “We had the same Mancunian rhythms,” she grins. “We had such a laugh. We’ve got the same childhood references — all sorts in common.”

They even support the same football team — a subject that almost loses me the interview.

Which of the two Manchester teams would that be, Joanne? “There’s only one team in Manchester,” she says, firmly. I hazard a guess. So that would be… United? There is a pause that can only be described as icy. Joanne Whalley — the entire Whalley family — has always supported City.

A little grovelling and she laughs, which is for the best. If her TV roles are anything to go by, bad things happen to people who fall out with her. 

The Ark is on BBC1 tonight (Monday 30th March) at 8:30pm

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