There is something about Joanna Scanlan that makes me grin like a chimp whenever I see her on screen. It’s not because she’s always playing happy, punch-line heavy parts – far from it – but because she makes all her characters so brilliantly deadpan, that they are always hilarious, and often quite moving. If I were a TV writer I would probably stalk her until she agreed to be in my show.
In her most high-profile role to date, after years of smaller parts, Scanlan was hilarious as fed-up jobsworth PR Terri in The Thick of It. It was a spot-on performance, both painful and glorious to watch. You could really feel her despair as she was forced to write yet another terrible, jargon-packed press release for a bunch of squabbling nightmarish ministers. One of her best lines is when she’s asked to put together an official press release by 6pm for the “Networked Nation” policy (No, not even Terri knows what that is). “I know you think I’m being obstructive but I cannot and will not do as you ask,” she says flatly. I’m certain half the country cheered her on in solidarity with this fellow put-upon office worker.
Scanlan has said she always researches her parts to get a real feel for how her character would think and behave. And you can tell. In preparation for playing the commanding, sensual DI Viv Deering in Paul Abbott’s black comedy No Offence, she went to quite some lengths to understand what it means to be a police officer.
“I’ve always been a bit leftie and a bit ‘fascist pigs,” she said at the launch of the Channel 4 show. “And I’d met these police officers and spent quite a lot of time with them and I was in awe of them. All the solidity they have, the way their feet were firmly planted on the ground, and a sense they were able to take control of a situation. I spent time thinking what it is to be a police officer, how you stand, how you meet out justice…”
So when Viv sings ballads as she pees, and mixes up her minty mouth spray and vaginal deodorant, and has a practical joke played on her in the second episode (just wait, it’s a great scene), we’re never laughing at her so much as quietly admiring her total unflappability. There’s a bit of Scanlan in Viv, just daring you to mock her. Of course, lots of the respect the character commands is down to the writing, but the same part in another actor’s hands would be far less affecting.
Perhaps the greatest of Scanlan’s roles, however, is as ward sister Den Flixter in her co-written NHS sitcom Getting On. She is truly irritating, status-obsessed and delusional in the BBC4 show, occasionally annoying even the calm, good natured nurse Kim Wilde (Jo Brand). Den isn’t a bad person, but she is a bad nurse. Yet even as someone you’d quite like to throttle, Scanlan’s Den is played with great humanity as well as comedy. When, for a while, Den fancies matron Hilary Loftus, the rejection she suffers is surprisingly sad.
And then there’s Scanlan’s greatness not just as a comic actress, but as a real-life person. She seems like the sort of woman you could happily have round to a family Christmas lunch, however awkward. When pondering her role as a nurse on BBC’s website, Scanlan said: “I am forced to conclude that fleshly proportions are often misconstrued as signs of selfless altruistic beneficence, kindness and care. This is ironic, because in real life I am not that nice. I am the bad Samaritan who didn’t answer the phone. Whilst I still cling on to my BMI of 39 I remain stonily unmoved by the plight of the unfortunate. As my few friends and many enemies will tell you, I am as grasping as the next woman, primarily motivated by sex, money and power.”
And that exemplifies Scanlan’s knack for deadpan comedy, but also her refreshing lack of vanity. Her feet firmly on the ground, she didn’t get her big break until her 40s and says she still doesn’t really think of herself as funny. Perhaps with yet another spot-on role in No Offence, she’ll realise that the whole country begs to differ. I can’t believe it took TV land quite so long to catch on.