Sara Vickers on playing Endeavour's Joan Thursday: 'It's the gift that keeps giving'
The Scottish actor talks to Radio Times about ITV's long-running detective drama, as well as US superhero series Watchmen and BBC One thriller Guilt.
With Endeavour series eight recently ending on ITV and the show now available as an eight-series box set, the time is right for an overview with Sara Vickers, a mainstay of the show from its early days.
She is part of a slick operation that consistently draws seven million viewers with its twisty mysteries and absorbing character dynamics, having played Joan Thursday (daughter of DCI Fred Thursday) for eight years, and appeared in all but one season.
We've seen her character progress from bank employee in the mid-60s to assertive social-services crusader in 1971, so RadioTimes.com asked if she enjoyed working on the show? "Yes, and what I love about Joan is that we’ve gone on such an adventure with her.
"With the first series or so it was a bit more domestic, she was just in the house and with her family, but we’ve come on such a journey since then. There’s lots of different avenues that I’ve got to explore with her and that’s just a joy because it's variety, and always challenging as well."
Many fans felt that Joan was somehow destined to end up with the drama's hero DS Endeavour Morse, played by Shaun Evans, but series eight threw a curveball by creating in effect a love triangle for Morse, Joan and now DS Jim Strange (Sean Rigby), which sparked something of a meltdown on social media...
"I know there has been a bit of a mixed response to the Joan/Jim situation. Endeavour has had lots of dalliances along the way and Joan’s had one difficult relationship with a married man so you knew that was never going to end well... but it’s funny that the first time we’ve ventured into the possibility that she could go elsewhere and there’s a bit of an uproar! [laughs]"
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That said, Joan and Jim are very sweet together…
"They are. Actually he’s such a down-to-earth, dependable guy, he’s funny, he makes her laugh and he’s sweet and caring. With those scenes that we had together I was thinking, 'Is this going to work? Are people going to buy into this?' But as soon as we did the read-through, I was just like, 'Oh my God!' Sean just does it so well that you totally buy into it.
"There’s this odd game that Joan and Endeavour have been playing for a long time – with him being kind of closed off and not quite putting his cards on the table. When Shaun Evans and I talk about it he always says to me, 'This is clearly all Joan’s fault' and I’m like, 'No, no, no, this is all your fault!'"
While Morse is platonically protective towards Joan, torn perhaps by her being the daughter of his boss, and turns to alcohol when it seems she is interested in another man, writer Russell Lewis has turned the screw by creating professional conflict between them, too.
"Exactly and it’s funny because you think to yourself, they’ve both got a pretty astute moral compass and yet they see things differently. Morse is very much playing by his rulebook, coming from the police, and she’s able to be a bit more liberated because she’s not part of the police.
"Although she works for the welfare, she’s also doing these different bits on the side where she can be more attached to the women she looks after and to the children. So she and Morse do sometimes disagree with how things should be done. But that’s lovely because that brings out a different side of the relationship between the two of them and they challenge each other."
Joan got to go glam in a ball gown for her date with Jim, but how does Sara find the period costumes in general? "We’ve played it from the mid-60s right through to the 70s so I’d definitely say the costumes are getting more comfortable.
"There were a lot of uncomfortable pieces that were quite scratchy and they looked great but a lot of the shoes are proper vintage shoes, they really don’t have any support in them, and if you’re out on the street in the cold, it’s like you’re just stood on a bit of paper! I got to wear some jeans in the last episodes, which I was quite excited about...
"But the outfits are fantastic and we have a range of different costume designers throughout the series. It’s just a wonderful era to step into and with some of the pieces, I think, 'I would wear that now!'”
Joan is one of a formidable trio – with her mother Winifred, and newspaper editor Dorothea – who all have important stories to reflect the female experience both then and now. "It’s wonderful for their stories to be told and what I love about all three of them is they cover a different part of a female’s life, and of a particular time.
"For women back then – and it’s not even going back very far – things were different, and Russell doesn’t shy away from the fact that women had to play a certain role, but then you see the younger character, which is myself, pushing through and becoming more independent.
"Obviously I would like the ladies to have more of a storyline but these detective shows are difficult in the sense that they’ve got to set up the crime – but I’m just pleased that we have three really strong female characters."
The only run of episodes where Joan was absent was last year's "Venice trilogy" – but for a very special reason. "Just as they were starting to film I was very heavily pregnant. They did think about putting me in and I thought, 'You’re going to shoot around the bump and I want very flattering lighting [laughs].' I’d ballooned up by this point and then when they were shooting subsequent episodes I had my little boy and things were a bit… tight for time!"
Born in Strathaven, Scotland, in 1985, Sara grew up in Edinburgh, and worked in theatre after graduating in 2010 from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She's appeared on television in The Book Group, Taggart, Bert & Dickie, Man Down, Shetland and The Crown, as well as the film Sunshine on Leith.
Her first Endeavour was the episode Fugue, which aired in April 2013: "I was told when I first got the job that Joan was only going to be in series one for two episodes. I remember getting the call and was like, 'Oh, they’re going to bring me back!’
"Russell said the moment that Joan first opened the door to Endeavour, 'There’s something there and I think I’m going to run with this story,' so that’s lovely. This is the gift that keeps giving, for sure!"
In 2019 she had a regular role in the HBO DC Comics superhero series Watchmen – how does that compare with a British production? "Well, I did some stints in America... 'You’re going to Atlanta'... I was like 'Woo-hoo!' and then they said, 'Oh no, actually quite a bit of it’s in Wales!' But everything’s just a bit more scaled up over there: the catering’s nuts, there’s so many food trucks and catering options and things like that.
"At the same time there are filming days where you’re up to you knees in mud and you’re wheeled down the road in a wee buggy to a portaloo [laughs], so it’s definitely not all glamour. But the scale… and the cars that come and pick you up, that’s insane, you know?"
And television has really stretched her in a variety of roles – there was definitely more to her character in Shetland than met the eye in 2016, and now she can be seen in a surprising turn as Erin in the second series of Neil Forsyth's black comedy thriller Guilt.
So what attracted her to that project? "It’s unique in the sense that it’s a crime thriller but it’s got this dark humour that runs through. It makes you weirdly smile along and giggle and it’s a wonderful, specifically Scottish show but it’s also universal. There’s no clichés in there. It’s just beautifully nuanced and I thought, 'I’ve got to grab this chance' because it [the first series] went down so well.
"When I read the part it scared me – don’t get me wrong – because it is a departure, definitely, but I often think that’s a reason to do something. People are saying it’s the Scottish Fargo, so we’re happy to run with that!"
Shooting Guilt is all done and dusted, so does Sara have any other irons in the fire? "My husband’s away working – he’s an actor as well [Kerr Logan, who played Matthew Cunliffe in Strike and is soon to be seen in BBC One's Showtrial]. So I’m on baby duty. That keeps me very busy! We take it in turns as to who goes off and does the job. Hopefully I’ll find something when he gets back in the new year. It’s funny, when you’re super-busy it all comes at once, and then vamoose!"
But back to Endeavour, and after eight years, does Sara have a sense of ownership of the character, or have any discussions with the writer about her development? "I very much trust Russell in his writing and his journey for Joan. He says he takes a lot just from what I do, and he gets ideas from watching previous series. So it’s kind of an unsaid thing that just happens."
A favourite episode? "I think it’s called Home [Series one, episode five]: it’s the one where Joan goes on a date with DS Jakes, and Morse walks her home. I don’t know why, it’s quite classic, and they’ve done that kind of Oxford gangster thing... It was just a beautiful episode and I felt that was me finding my feet, so I think that’s maybe why I have such a strong feeling about it.
"I’d probably say the bank episode as well [Coda, series three, episode four]. We were really in the thick of the action, we were filming for a whole week in the bank and I got to know everyone."
And how does Sara get on with her screen mum and dad? "So well. Caroline is just delightful and we just chat away and catch up on each other’s lives and she gave me a little baby gift when I gave birth. I’ve a lot of love for Caroline ... and then Roger cracks me up, he’s so funny. He’s bone-dry and he’s just like the joker. He really does like to laugh and he brings a lightness and a fun factor to set, which I really appreciate.
"I will be so sad when I have to say goodbye because Joan’s a part of my life. As I watch the shows I see myself getting older and that’s kind of amazing to change and grow alongside your character. It’s a rare gift, really."
Endeavour Series Eight, and the Complete Series One to Eight, are now available on DVD from ITV Studios.