Television dramatists are good at preying on our darkest fears, and what can be worse than your child vanishing into thin air? From Kiri to Stranger Things and The Missing, the abducted child storyline keeps returning to our screens. BBC1’s new drama The Cry, opens with the mother of a missing baby stepping out of her front door into a scrum of journalists and TV reporters.
The parallels with Madeleine McCann’s disappearance jump out of the screen. The couple involved are attractive, middle class and articulate, but they left their child alone, they say, just for a moment, and he vanished. The young mother – played by Jenna Coleman – is beautiful, tragic and dignified, perhaps a little too controlled. Here viewers are left to ponder whether she might have had a hand in her own child’s disappearance.
It’s radically different from anything Jenna Coleman has done before. After cutting her teeth in soaps including Emmerdale and Waterloo Road, she went on to make her name in Doctor Who, and after that the young Queen in ITV’s successful Sunday-night drama, Victoria.
“The Cry is a real contrast to Victoria and Victoria was a contrast to Doctor Who,” says Coleman. “That was the attraction for me. If I’d been offered something sci-fi after Doctor Who I probably would have turned it down. I’ve never done anything like a psychological thriller before, so that made it interesting.”
Coleman is currently shooting the third series of Victoria, and when we meet during a break in filming she expresses relief about not being in a corset. Instead she’s wearing a large white ruffled collar under a velvet trouser suit. She’s petite with huge eyes and sits on the chair opposite me with her back ramrod straight, feet in black strappy high heels. She’s 32 but looks younger.
She’s keen to know what I thought of The Cry and whether I had figured out the plot after seeing the first episode. I outline my theory about whodunnit and she smiles. “There are a lot of red herrings,” she warns. “The challenge is trying to be truthful to the audience while hiding stuff at the same time. The performance you are giving has to be seen from several different perspectives so it’s like acting under a micro scope – playing the plot without giving away the plot.”
Filmed in Scotland and Australia, The Cry is a four-part series adapted from the novel by Helen FitzGerald. It’s similar to other popular psychological novels-turned-films such as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train that feature unreliable narrators and the same story being told from multiple perspectives, leaving the viewer or reader wondering who to believe.
In the first episode, Joanna (Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie) travel with their baby from Scotland to Australia where he is to attend a custody hearing for his daughter from a previous marriage. The baby screams during the entire flight. Joanna paces up and down the aisle while the other passengers make clear their disapproval and her husband sleeps soundly thanks to his eye mask and headphones.
“We filmed the airplane scene in a hanger in Maidenhead with an adapted plane. After two days with these twin babies in an enclosed space, we all felt like we had been to Australia and back. The babies were genius actors, they would cry as soon as the director called action. I have seven children on Victoria in the new series, so I know how difficult it can be to film with young kids.”
I confess an urge to berate Jenna’s fictional husband for sleeping through the nightmare flight to Australia. Why does your character put up with him? “Joanna has lost her confidence and her identity since the baby was born, she doesn’t have family around and she’s isolated. When a friend asks why he doesn’t help with the baby, she says, ‘He earns the money, he goes to work, he needs the sleep and I’ve got the boobs’.”
As the pressure on Joanna’s mental health mounts, the viewer senses something awful is going to happen. Sure enough, a few hours after they land in Australia, baby Noah vanishes from the couple’s hire car. They had left him momentarily as they popped into a convenience store in the small town where his ex-wife and daughter are living. A massive police search follows, with all the attendant pressures on the couple includ – ing a storm of media interest.
Does Coleman find it easy to cry on demand, like her baby co-stars? “No, not really, but fortunately there isn’t a lot of crying in this. That’s where the shock comes in, but then again because Joanna doesn’t cry a lot, people pose questions about how a grieving mother should behave.”
The shy fragility of Coleman’s character in The Cry is in contrast to Victoria. She portrays the young Queen as someone in control of her emotions. “She was a tough nut to crack. It was hard to get access into her but once I started reading the books and doing the research, I was surprised at what I didn’t know. In her diaries, she writes about her violent fits of temper and how as a child she once threw scissors at her governess.”
It’s a testament to Coleman’s confidence that she turned down the role of Victoria twice before finally agreeing to do it. “I had just finished doing nearly four years on Doctor Who and I didn’t want to do another long TV project. I wanted to do lots of different things, but now I’m doing Victoria, I find her quite addictive.”
How long will she carry on doing it? “We’re deciding on a series-by-series basis. In the next one [which is due to be broadcast next year], she’s starting to look a bit more matronly, she’s had six or seven children, so a bit wider, bit more of a bust, the make-up is more drawn… but there will come a point in her story when no amount of prosthetic make-up or me lowering my voice will be convincing enough.”
Born in Blackpool, Coleman got her first professional acting role, aged 11, in the stage musical Summer Holiday starring the TV presenter, singer and panto favourite, Darren Day. She looks slightly embarrassed when I ask about it. “Yeah, Peter Capaldi (her co-star in Doctor Who) found that piece of information hilarious.”
Was that the moment she decided to become an actress?
“No, I wasn’t a child actor. I just did it over the course of a summer holiday, and it was wonderful. I had always liked dancing and I loved being on the stage of the Blackpool Opera House, which is huge and beautiful. But it wasn’t until I was about 15 at secondary school that I got interested in acting.”
Her school drama teacher, Colin Snell, gets the credit for that. “He set up a small, semiprofessional theatre company within the school and we would take shows on tour from a basement in Buxton to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There’s a lot of us actors from up North who have been taught by him. He’s a great teacher.”
She was on the waiting list for a place at drama school when she was offered her first professional role in Emmerdale aged 19. She did four years playing schoolgirl Jasmine – a character who made headlines due to a lesbian kiss, and battering an off-duty policeman to death with a chair leg.
“Emmerdale was great training, but I do sometimes feel like I missed out by not going to drama school.” It’s the reason she’d now like to do theatre. “I missed the opportunity to have that rehearsalroom training time to explore.”
She was still only 25 when Steven Moffat cast her as Clara, the companion to the 11th and then the 12th Doctor (Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, respectively).
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who (BBC, PJ)
“I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t watched it. I remember getting the audition and thinking this could be interesting. But nothing really prepared me for what it would be like. Then I read Steven Moffat’s script and it was like being a child again and stepping into a fantastic storybook. The sci-fi aspect was a mystery to me. I had to use Google a lot during the first script to find out what all the jargon meant.”
She’s excited about the prospect of the 13th Doctor Who, the first female incarnation with Jodie Whittaker, which will also air on Sundays when it launches on 7th October. “The thing I most want to know is if she’s going to be Northern, if she’s using her own accent, whether we’re going to have another Northern Doctor Who.” [We can confirm that she does.]
I’d been warned that Coleman was reluctant to talk about her boyfriend and co-star in Victoria, Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert. An innocent inquiry from me about whether they’d met on the set of Victoria is rebuffed with “I won’t talk about him in interviews”.
Undeterred, I ask about a previous boyfriend, Richard Madden, who at the time of our interview is starring in Bodyguard. The actor’s buff good looks and naked posterior have been the subject of many column inches. I want to know whether she thinks, in light of the #MeToo movement, it’s OK for the media to objectify a man’s body but not a woman’s? However, the moment his name passes my lips, a press officer – one of two in the room, sitting behind Coleman during our entire conversation – interrupts and brings the interview to an end.
As I get up to leave, I ask Coleman about her 773,000 followers on Instagram. Does she have to post all the time to maintain her profile as an actress, or does she do it for enjoyment? “I love photography and interior design so that’s what I post. It’s an interesting dilemma for an actress. You don’t want people to know too much about your personal life, because they can confuse that with the roles you are playing. I think there is a line about how much you reveal.”
If this interview is anything to go by, that defensive line is maintained at all costs. She’s clearly determined to maintain a sense of glamorous mystery about her personal life. Many will say, “Who can blame her?”
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine in September 2018