That surprising physicality comes out in her other new project, From Darkness: a BBC1 thriller set in Manchester and the Western Isles. Duff plays Claire Church, who was once a police officer in 19905 Manchester. Back then, Church was disturbed by the disappearance of local prostitutes, but her bosses dismissed her concerns. So she left, moved to Scotland and set up a new life with a hunky younger husband and daughter. For a long time, she’s been happy. But then her old boss, played by Johnny Harris, arrives to ask her to help them on the case dismissed all those years ago…
Early in From Darkness we see Church running, swimming, pushing herself hard: she’s training for an Iron Woman competition. She looks strong and inspiring, pounding over wild nature, pushing through the sea. This contributes to the show’s Scandinavian feel; its colours are muted, its feelings are complicated, there are lots of lovely landscapes as well as several horrible murders. Written by Katie Baxendale, From Darkness avoids the titillating violence of many of today’s TV thrillers: women die, but the camera doesn’t linger over their attractive yet mutilated bodies. Duff was pleased about that. Still, despite such discretion, the show is far from a laugh a minute.
“No,” she admits. “But we had proper fun making it. The more miserable a show is, the more you really, really need to behave like a complete idiot. The rubber band stretches the other way, and you tend to have more fun. It’s a curious thing.”
In Scotland, they were blessed with beautiful weather, helpful locals (“and the sheep acted us off the screen,” she jokes) and with scenes that weren’t too upsetting. Duff says she’d love to live there, “but you’d never see anybody, that would be the thing”. Whereas Manchester is already like a second home to her. “I’m insanely fond of it. It’s a city I really love, and the city that changed my life in so many ways [she met her husband James McAvoy on the Shameless set]. I love Mancunians, their peacockery, they’re hilarious. So different to Londoners. They’re ‘on’,
and there’s so much swagger.”
When Duff played Shameless’s Fiona, she was a 33-year-old playing 20. She still doesn’t look anywhere near her age (45) but is now old enough to remember a different time, a previous era, and has drawn on this for her work. For Lizzie Holroyd, she met out-of-work miners now employed in Wakefield’s mining museum, and during her research for From Darkness, she talked to a Mancunian policewoman, who told her in no uncertain terms how contemptuously female officers were treated in the 90s. “I was thinking, my God, when I was in my mid-20s, I really didn’t think we lived in such a world… I was really surprised at the way they were treated.”
Duff has been acting since she was 20. Brought up in Hayes, Middlesex, by a painter-and-decorator dad and a mum who worked in a shoe shop, there were no performers in her family, no role models to tell her what to do. And she didn’t have any idea of pursuing acting when young, though she joined a youth theatre at 12, and was always fond of stories. “I don’t know what happened, but suddenly I wanted to know all about the Royal Court in the 60s…” This, in a time when all her friends wanted a job for life. They were concerned with making money. “But I wanted to make art. Everyone thought I was mad.”