Katherine Parkinson on Humans, xenophobia, and a career in comedy

“Humans is clearly so relevant to things like immigration”

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Saying Channel 4’s elegant sci-fi drama Humans is a hit show is like saying robots are cool. Dude, they are so cool and it is such a hit.

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Based in a parallel near-present where domestic humanoid robots, or synths, are as ubiquitous as iPads, series one was the channel’s biggest drama hit of the past 20 years – rating higher than any drama since 1992, earning numerous award nominations, four gongs and proving just as successful in the US.

The plot dealt with these perfect machines gradually becoming conscious, but the beauty of the show was the family drama at its heart. Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) brought a synth called Anita (Gemma Chan) into the family home and we watched the emotional aftershocks – and key to those was working mum and lawyer Laura, played by Katherine Parkinson.

Best known for her performances in The IT Crowd, The Honourable Woman and Doc Martin, Parkinson brought a quiet sense of worry and guilt to Laura – “Well, she was worried she’d be usurped in her family’s affections by this perfect, patient computer,” says Parkinson. “Wouldn’t you be? I would.”

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Playing the goofy and eccentric Jen Barber in The IT Crowd

Her sense of guilt was almost real – Parkinson had given birth to her second child three weeks before she was offered the part and was breastfeeding during filming. “I still don’t really know why I said yes,” she shakes her head and laughs. “She was weeks old and I was very happy to say no because I didn’t think it would be that successful, but my husband [actor Harry Peacock] said I should. And then season two,” she gives a quiet smile. “Well, they only needed me for ten days a month. It was like a part-time job – I could be properly artistically engaged and all that… but at home.”

Joe and Laura “start season two in almost opposite positions to season one,” Parkinson explains. “He wants to live in a synth-free community and she wants to fight for synth rights. She talks about years previously when they had the kids in the car and drove past two blokes who had broken down on a rainy night. She wanted to stop and see if they were all right and he wanted to drive on.

“So there’s two different types of people in the same relationship and you’re one or the other.” She pauses and gives a guilty smile. “I’m worried I’m a drive-past person. There are some people who have a mixture of naivety and courage that makes them not just talk about how awful it is in Calais but go out there to help, like we all should. I used to be like that, but being a mum…”

She mentions Calais for a particular reason. “I just think, apart from all the sci-fi weirdness, Humans is clearly so relevant to things like immigration… I’m not saying the show is directly about hate crimes, but I think the political edge of the show has become far sharper given current headlines, don’t you think?” She leans forward. “It’s basically about the way we treat people that we nominate as second-class citizens. The parallels with Mexicans and America are obvious.”

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The issues in Humans resonate with current headlines surrounding the migrant crisis

If Parkinson thinks she might be a drive-past person, Laura isn’t. In season two, she brings her lawyer skills to the synth rights cause – out on the road with Chan’s freedom fighters while Joe stays home with the kids. As before, Parkinson seems to be the calm focus of every scene she’s in. It’s an unusual switch for a comedy actress, but one she carries off with ease – and yet it was never the plan.

“I genuinely never thought I’d be in a show like Humans – that’s what’s been so nice about it… it’s a real surprise. When I was 25 at drama school, I was always described as being too unusual. It was said very nicely – I was ‘quirky’. So I always thought I would end up doing period drama – character parts around the edges.”

Sitting in the last of the autumn sun,
 dressed in simple 
black with a big 
bobbly pink jacket, those drama school
 comments seem 
unfathomable. She’s 
quick to dissemble: “I
 did enjoy going in for those
 broader roles,” she says hastily.
 “At drama school when the other girls were fighting over who’d play Viola in Twelfth Night and they gave me Maria, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I am really grateful that I’m getting to be more in the centre but I will be very happy when that’s passed and I can go to the edges and have some fake teeth. That’s what I miss. I love comedy.”

Growing up in Kingston upon Thames with her university lecturer father, teacher mother and two brothers, laughter was her family’s way of communicating. “Watching television for me and my family was all about watching really funny people – I’m sure that’s why I wanted to do it,” she muses. “That was the one thing in the house that was approved of by everybody. Not that I’m damaged and needing of approval,” she laughs. “Although if you put that, say I really want to play a proper psychopath next.”

Certainly her career owes a lot to laughter. Fresh out of drama school she was cast as Pauline, Martin Clunes’s wild-haired receptionist in Doc Martin. From there, college pal Chris O’Dowd suggested she audition for a new sitcom he’d just been cast in – Graham Linehan’s The IT Crowd. Her character Jen began as a hardcore straight woman – “I was supposed to be the eye of the audience. Graham said he wanted me to look like Ally McBeal. They even straightened my hair – and I thought, like a comedy Samson, have they taken my funniness out of me by straightening my hair?”

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Embracing the frizz in Doc Martin

As it turned out, they hadn’t. As Linehan realised Parkinson had comedy chops, he subtly changed Jen until her quirks were as much a part of the comedy that she won a Bafta in 2014 for the role.

“The IT Crowd was a useful introduction to the world of the die-hard fan,” she gives a wry grin. “I discovered that men like women in suits. A lot. And I’ve never worn a suit since. I did get some… nice… letters. I’ve still got them somewhere but I think maybe now I’m a mother I should get rid of them before the kids can read.”

Her next role is an affectionate riff on those die-hard comedy fans – she’s playing Eleanor in the West End revival of Terry Johnson’s 1994 play Dead Funny, with co-stars Steve Pemberton, Ralf Little, Rufus Jones and Humans alumnus Emily Berrington. Eleanor wants a child but husband Richard is so taken up with running a comedy heroes society that their marriage is in danger. Set at a society meeting on the night Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill died, it’s part farce, part drama, as Eleanor struggles for her husband’s attention. Having worked in comedy, does she recognise the society’s members?

“Yes, without naming any names, I do,” she laughs. “I have felt like Eleanor does – where you just worry whether your humour has gone because you just feel completely alienated. There was a whole brigade when I was growing up at school who learnt Monty Python off by heart. There’s nothing wrong with being a fan, but it’s just the avoidance tactic that allows you to avoid real relationships and real problems…”

That’s no reflection on her own marriage, she’s keen to stress. Harry, for instance, is only too happy to look after the kids while she’s filming. Indeed, she thinks gender relations have changed so fundamentally in the past 20 years that when she watched some Benny Hill Show clips to prepare for the role, she wasn’t offended by the scantily-clad women and sexist jokes. “It’s funny, I switched them on thinking I’d be outraged, but in the end I didn’t find it offensive so much as not very funny,” she shrugs. “And, as a comedy professional let me tell you – you don’t mind if people are offended. But if they don’t think you’re funny… that’s the cruellest cut of all.”

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Humans is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm