Victoria Hamilton says she was “very slow on the uptake” to realise her character, Belle, in new BBC One drama series Life is the same character, Anna, from Doctor Foster.
Life is a partial Doctor Foster spin-off, in that both series were written by Mike Bartlett and two characters from the hit BBC One drama reappear in the new series set in Manchester – Anna and her ex-husband Neil (Adam James).
“I just thought this is a wonderful character,” she told Radio Times, while thinking that Belle in Life seemed quite similar to Anna. “I mentioned this in an email to Mike and he wrote back saying: ‘It is Anna. She’s calling herself Belle, as in Anna-Belle.’ I was very slow on the uptake.”
Life is set in a redbrick mansion which has been sub-divided into four flats and is the perfect setting for Bartlett’s particular kind of “domestic noir” – the residents in each flat have their own stories to tell, which eventually become entwined over the course of the six episodes.
Life explores birth, death, marriage, infidelity and mental health and Bartlett said: “Everyone has secrets and dark stuff going on and you don’t need to go too far through the wall or behind the curtain to glimpse them. I look at my neighbours and think they seem so sorted, why can’t our family be more normal? We all think that.”
Hamilton said the house “looks beautiful from the outside, cosy and lovely, but when you meet these people who’ve been living there for a long time, you realise they don’t know each other, apart from a nodding acquaintance in the hall”.
Belle’s new life is about to be upset quickly in episode one. We know that husband Neil arrives later in the series, but before that her life is compromised by the arrival of teenage niece Maya (Erin Kellyman).
“Mike is brilliant at sending his characters the worst challenge possible,” said Hamilton. “Mine is a control freak and suddenly she’s in a situation she cannot control and that makes for very good drama.”
At the end of Doctor Foster, Anna discovered Neil’s infidelity inspiring the pilates instructor to leave for a new life.
Bartlett revealed why he was so keen to continue Anna’s story: “I was desperate to work with Victoria more on screen not just as a supporting actor but as a lead, which I know she can be. She is one of this country’s leading stage actors.”
Hamilton was delighted to be offered the role and at age 49 has found she’s getting the leading roles denied to her as a younger actress. “It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I’m offered roles like this, so I’m just praying it continues.”
As an actress starting out in the ’90s the window of opportunity was short. “If you hadn’t made it by the time you were 35, it was time to get properly frightened,” she said. “The change started with series like The Killing and Borgen, which had strong female leads in their 40s. It opened people’s eyes to the fact that older women still have sexuality, passion, drive and ambition and have a rich life story to tell, so I thank God for writers like Mike Bartlett, who create great parts for women.”
That kind of sexism was underlined by an encounter she had with Harvey Weinstein on the set of 1999 movie Mansfield Park. She was preparing for her first nude scene when he burst into her trailer.
“He looked me up and down in my robe and said: ‘D’you know what? We spent hours in rooms with people saying this part has to go to a beautiful actress. And I was the one who kept saying: No, no, give it to the funny kid…’”
The actress who played the Queen Mother in the first two episodes of Netflix’s The Crown was keen to expand her horizons while she had the opportunity.
“I’m desperate to do comedy,” she said. “I love it. It’s the first thing I ever did in front of a live audience, but I somehow got this serious theatre actress tag.”
Life premieres on BBC One on Tuesday 29th September at 9pm.
Interview by Dominic Lobley