Kiri star Sarah Lancashire: “The work I like to do is the work I’m most afraid of”

The Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax actress has won two Baftas and received an OBE – but says she is still “driven by fear”

Sarah Lancashire, Kiri (Channel 4, EH)

Having a conversation with Sarah Lancashire is nothing like you might expect. For a start, there’s the voice. She’s much posher, more softly spoken, more measured than she often sounds on screen. Born in Oldham, there’s barely a trace of the North in her accent at all, in contrast to her characters Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley and Caroline Dawson in Last Tango in Halifax.

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Then there’s the way she carries herself. She’s utterly unstarry; swathed in a woolly polo neck, hair tied unfussily on top of her head, cup of tea in hand, slightly slouched in her seat. She tends to play outwardly no-nonsense, straight-speaking types, yet she is, she confesses, a permanent bag of nerves.

She finds watching herself on screen “torture – abject torture” and, despite stealing the screen in everything she stars in, refers to herself as “the hired hand”.

“It’s that weird thing,” she adds, “where you arrive for the middle bit: you’re not there in preproduction or post-production. You are left in a sort of tortured state because you don’t quite know what you’ve done or whether tonally it fits in with everybody else. You have no idea.”

This seems astonishingly modest for a woman who has won two Baftas and in November received an OBE from Prince William for services to the entertainment industry.

Sarah Lancashire receives an OBE (Getty, EH)
Sarah Lancashire receives an OBE (Getty)

Lancashire laughs loudly at how bizarre it is to be so successful and yet so uncertain, and admits, “I do prep. I’m a big prepper, but only because of fear. I’m driven by fear.”

Having shot to fame as dizzy Raquel in Coronation Street, there has never been a time when Lancashire was not hugely in demand. In 2000, she signed a £1.3 million “golden handcuffs” deal with ITV, which made her then the highest-paid female star on television.

Her hits over the years included soapy dramas such as Where the Heart Is, as well as the classic Paul Abbott factory drama Clocking Off, followed by a series of period pieces such as Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise.

But her most recent roles in Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax marked a seismic shift from the cosy and warm to something darker and deeper.

Lancashire, 53, agrees there has been a change, but insists it isn’t something she chased. “I’m not particularly forceful or instrumental in any of it,” she says. “But I’m very fortunate in that the pieces that most interest me are coming my way, and it’s lovely to be able to get emotionally involved in the work. It’s actually about being entrusted with pieces. I think some people get that very early on in their career.”

Why does she think that has only just happened for her? “You’ll have to ask the people who dole the work out,” she shrugs, enigmatically adding: “I’ve got my own ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself…”

Her latest role in Channel 4’s new four-part drama Kiri is probably her most serious to date, and is likely to lead to more silverware for her mantelpiece. It’s written by Jack Thorne, who wrote the BAFTA-winning National Treasure for the broadcaster last year. Like that drama, Kiri focuses on what happens after a scandal breaks and those involved are put under the intense pressure of the media spotlight.

Lancashire plays Miriam, a largely brilliant social worker who makes a catastrophic and ultimately tragic decision to allow a little black girl to spend unsupervised time with her birth grandparents ahead of her adoption by a white middle-class family. The drama asks questions not only about accountability and blame, but also about race, class, wealth and privilege.

It’s a role that terrified Lancashire when she took it on. “Miriam is a divorced social worker,” she explains. “She lost her son when he was 12 years old, so it’s just her and her dog. I suppose her purpose in life now is to mend things. She couldn’t do that for her son, so she needs to spend her energies saving other people instead. But in the process of that, she neglects herself. She’s a drinker.

“All the best parts are flawed, and that’s what I like about Miriam. The work I like to do is the work I’m most afraid of. When something is so multifaceted, it can often put the fear of God into you because you really don’t know how to process it, how to translate it. But they are always the best pieces of writing, and at times fiercely difficult to confront. It was terribly intense.”

Like her role in Happy Valley, Miriam is an example of a strong woman, not defined by her relationships with men. She has a female boss, she refuses to be bound by red tape and she frequently pushes the envelope in her profession; she has a maverick approach towards some of those under her care, but is ultimately kind and well meaning.

It’s a complex, well-rounded role that could prove to be as career-defining and make as great an impression as her part in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, which co-stars James Norton. It’s a role that Lancashire is rightly proud of, not least because it afforded her the opportunity to appear without make-up, in a move that many feminists praised.

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley
Happy Valley

“That had such an impact,” recalls Lancashire. “It’s very liberating to be able to stand in front of a camera without the adornments, and Sally’s way of writing is about being as transparent as possible.

“I do have a slightly rebellious streak in me, I’m afraid. I think women have not been terribly kind to other women for a very long time. And I think we’re brilliant. Really brilliant and really special. And it’s just not about what we look like, it really, really isn’t.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t use that [role] as an opportunity, but actually I think, more than anything, it was a homage to the strength and beauty of women.”

Lancashire has said she’ll reprise her roles in Happy Valley and Last Tango, but she may have a while to wait before the in-demand Wainwright can complete the scripts. In the meantime, Lancashire will have her pick of roles after Kiri. Jack and Harry Williams, who wrote The Missing, Rellik and Liar, have said they are desperate to work with her.

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Told this, Lancashire grins. “Wow, have they? How lovely! Well, for a middle-aged woman – to say they are desperate – that’s nice. I’ve never been confident enough to… I’ve always believed that actors should never cast themselves. Others see far more in us than we see in ourselves.”