It should probably come as no surprise that such a prolific actor as Jessica Hynes has spent lockdown being equally prolific, albeit not in front of the camera. “I’m gardening, I’m cooking, and I volunteered to do some work for a local community group here in Folkestone,” she says, speaking over the phone from her home on the Kent coast. “We have an older population here, and a lot of people who couldn’t get around and didn’t have any way of getting out. We get their shopping and pick up their prescriptions. My son is back from uni, so I have all my family here. There is a lot of cooking. And washing. My current memoir title is I Fought the Laundry and the Laundry Won.”
Hynes was appearing in Far Away at London’s Donmar Warehouse when lockdown happened – “I got my things from my dressing room, bought some doughnuts for front-of-house and took my daughter and niece to the Ivy for one last cheese and marmite parmentier,” she recalls. It was a return to theatre after an impressive run of TV that saw her play Edith Lyons in Russell T Davies’s Years and Years and Emily Yates in There She Goes, the BBC drama in which she stars – alongside David Tennant – as the mother of a learning-disabled daughter, a role for which she won a Bafta.
First broadcast in 2018, There She Goes is back for the second series it so richly deserves, given the paucity of TV shows tackling disability, even if recent dramas such as Years and Years and The A Word have helped redress the balance. Written by Shaun Pye and Sarah Crawford (see overleaf) and based on their own experiences of parenting their daughter Joey, who has a rare chromosomal disorder, There She Goes is at once humorous and unflinching, searingly honest and warmly endearing in its portrayal of chaotic family life, and the specific challenges of parenting Rosie, played brilliantly by Miley Locke.
Hynes had no hesitation about taking the role. “Everything about the project stood out. It was just unique. It was such an unusual script and it felt unlike any job I’d ever done,” says the 47-year-old. “Whenever I do a role, initially I’m always looking out for the skeletons in the cupboard, and what’s really going on with a character that isn’t obvious. Is everything on the page as it seems, or is the writer reaching for something else? With Emily, initially I wondered if there was a stress or strain of parenting that was present but not overt. But then I met Sarah and realised there wasn’t. So much of Emily is based on her, and so much of Simon [played by Tennant] is based on Shaun. And Sarah is a very high-functioning, happy, well-adjusted, lovely, loving woman and mum. She’s just getting on with it. After meeting her, I knew how to move forward with it [the part].”
The show has been praised by parents of learning-disabled children for the way it finds humour in the challenging situations that Emily and Simon find themselves in. “Shaun and Sarah were inspired by their unique experience of parenting a learning-disabled child, but in being faithful to their own experience, they’ve captured an absolute truth of all parenting experiences,” says Hynes. “They were overwhelmed by the response when it came out, which was amazing, and very moving.”
As well as dealing with difficult subjects like depression and infidelity, series two sees Rosie starting a new school and asserting her independence, a move that provokes mixed feelings in Emily. “It’s a challenge when Emily finds that there are teachers at school that seem to be doing a lot better than she was in communicating with Rosie, Hynes explains. “She kind of gets her nose put out of joint.”
One of the many honest facets of There She Goes is that it doesn’t flinch from depicting how Emily takes on the brunt of the parenting – a theme to which many locked-down mothers will surely relate, I suggest, after countless days of making breakfast, lunch and dinner for their families. Hynes guffaws. “I wrote a letter recently saying, ‘Dear Children, it is difficult to know exactly how to ask this of you, but if you could, you know, wash up your plate or clean your room….’ They’re definitely getting better.”
I wonder what she feels about recent reports that lockdown has set women back many years, since surveys have suggested they’re more likely to have shouldered the extra burdens of child-care and home schooling. “I haven’t read that, to be honest. I’ve been getting information about how storks nest. The major difficulty that people are facing is very bad relationships. It’s gratifying to know there are so many groups who are trying to help and be there for those people.
“When our local volunteer group was answering calls from people needing help, I know there were women who were really struggling… You can tell because they’ll go brown on top.”
“And don’t open the door too much.”
Is someone… baking?
“Sorry,” says Hynes. “My son has taken over because I had to do this call. I’m so embarrassed. He’s baking scones. God, I love scones.”
I ask her to name the worst lockdown lunch she’s served up, offering that mine is microwaved spaghetti hoops with a side of pickled gherkin.
“There have been some really weird combos,” she admits. “I once tried to make deep-fried fish balls. We’re not going to repeat that. We decided it was a bit like Japanese street food. That was the spin. Obviously if my kids were still in the zone of [eating] fish fingers, then that would make things a lot easier, but I’m grateful that they’re happy to try my Japanese-style fish balls, and be kind about them.”
Hynes’s son Gabriel is 21; her daughters, Bee and Freda, 17 and 14 respectively. She shares them with husband Adam, whom she met at 18 and married when she was nearly 30, in 2002. In 2007, she changed from her maiden name, Stevenson, to her married name – an unusual decision for an actress, perhaps, but such is Hynes’s standing after 30 years in the profession (she was a member of the National Youth Theatre aged 14, made her stage debut in 1990 and by 1999 had written and starred in cult comedy Spaced, alongside Simon Pegg) that “brand awareness” probably didn’t need to come into it.
Which brings us neatly to Siobhan Sharpe, the character she played in Twenty Twelve, the 2011 comedy lampooning the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics (she reprised the role in the equally hilarious sequel, W1A, for which she also won a Bafta). Of all the wonderful comedic roles Hynes has delivered throughout her career – the perpetually fat-shamed Cheryl in The Royle Family; Magda in Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason; Daisy in Spaced – Siobhan is arguably the funniest, a grotesque yet endearing character who is a product of her time.
“When I was younger, I was always at pains to make people at ease,” she says of the inspiration behind Siobhan. “If someone was implacable and composed, I would always double my effort and end up going puce – practically breaking into song and dance – anything to loosen them up when they weren’t interested. How does anyone become like that, and have that confidence? It seemed like a good quality to adopt for this character. Her implacable confidence was so enjoyable to play because it’s really not how I am. To play Siobhan was a liberation almost, a coming of age.”
As any Years and Years fan will attest, Hynes is equally gifted at playing serious roles, bringing a depth of character to every part. She describes the Years and Years cast as “a lovely family. All the actors were so good, and Russell [T Davies] is so brilliant. He’s a fan of humanity and everything that means. And it was one of those things that my kids were so proud that I did. They don’t watch everything I’m in and connect with everything I do, but they loved it.”
While some actresses lament the quality of roles they’ve been offered, Hynes admits that she’s been very lucky. “I’ve had some great shots. I feel there was a time maybe in my 30s when I had young children and did become a bit unsure. I wanted to be making my own things, but it seemed such a challenge. With young children, it was hard to do that. I wasn’t sure how things would go. Probably when I moved from London [she moved to Folkestone in 2013], I was more able [financially] to wait for something that made me go, ‘Wow, yes!’ So I’ve tried to do that as far as possible.”
In 2019 (“That was a good year. One of the best”) she starred in The Fight, a film that she also wrote and directed. “Directing felt like an unattainable dream,” she admits, “and then when it happened, I was like, ‘Wow! I’m doing it!’ And it was on such a shoestring, but I didn’t care. So now if I’m not making scones or doing the laundry, maybe I’ll write a script. It’s good to keep dreaming.”
We talk about the post-virus challenges facing the arts (No awards ceremonies! No sex scenes!) and what the industry can do to adapt. “It’s not going to be for ever,” she says of the social-distancing rules. “Like everybody, we’ll have to adjust to the new world. Big-budget productions presumably have big money to test everyone.”
Talking of testing – as someone who in response to being asked who she would invite to her dream dinner party once said: “The Conservative Party, so I could poison them” – is there anything she’d like to say about the Government’s handling of the situation? She sighs the sigh of a person who would like to say much but is refraining. “Oh, well. I think what I’d like to say, having done some volunteering at the beginning, is how amazing all those people are, and how amazing that we live in a country where people are giving their time. It gives me faith in us all, in our innate kindness and compassion for each other. Thank God for that. Thank God for each other.”
There She Goes – what you need to know
- Jessica Hynes stars in There She Goes alongside David Tennant and it follows the life of a family looking after their severely learning disabled nine-year-old.
- There She Goes cast: Miley Locke stars as nine-year-old Rosie, Jessica Hynes plays Emily, David Tennant plays Simon and Edan Hayhurst plays Ben.
- How to watch There She Goes: The BBC comedy drama is currently airing on the BBC, Thursdays at 9.30pm.
This Jessica Hynes interview appears in the latest issue of Radio Times magazine, along with interviews with Prue Leith and Cate Blanchett, on sale now. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.