It took a dream job to get Anna Maxwell Martin to return to costume drama. Nick Ahad meets the actress as she films Death Comes To Pemberley.
Generally speaking, the word “cackles” isn’t considered a compliment.
In the case of Anna Maxwell Martin, there really is no better word to describe the sound which punctuates her speech with alarming regularity.
In a stunning upstairs room in St William’s College by York Minster, everything is refined. The outfits are refined, the costumes, the stellar cast who are bringing to life a major Christmas television show being shot around the Minster are incredibly refined.
Then one of the cast sits down and explodes the rarefied atmosphere around the shoot.
“I struggle with wafting around grand houses,” says Maxwell Martin – and there’s that cackle.
“And then you’re in a corset for 13 hours a day, who wants to do that? Well, I’m sure the people in Downton do – but I don’t.”
She is a lot of fun and the cackle, by the way, is a large part of it. Using the word to describe her laugh is by no means meant to be pejorative. It’s just accurate.
Maxwell Martin is the Hull-born actor who has cornered the market in playing characters in costume dramas that have something going on beneath the bonnets.
Although her CV is impressive, and includes movies with the likes of Daniel Craig (Enduring Love) and four stints at the National Theatre, including an Olivier award-winning role with her performance as Lyra in the adaptation of His Dark Materials, it is the BBC’s version of Dickens’ Bleak House that gave her a big break in TV.
Those actors who experience the phenomenon of the “breakthrough role” often quickly realise those parts can become something of an albatross. Maxwell Martin is too good an actor to become known for one single character type, but period drama, particularly when she added South Riding to her CV, was what she became known for.
“I haven’t done a costume drama for years actually, I’ve avoided them for the very reason that I won my first Bafta for doing one,” she says, (the second Bafta, in 2009, came for her portrayal of N in Poppy Shakespeare).
“Plus, I’m just not good with all the ‘stuff’ when it comes to period dramas. You know, the gear, the hair, god the gear. I’m not very good with all that. I like an anorak. Anything that takes time? I’d rather rub some chip fat into my hair.”
There’s no chip fat today. Not even in the catering trucks. Today for Maxwell Martin is Death Comes to Pemberley, a sumptuous period drama based on the PD James book of the same name.
Lady James, as she is known on set, took the liberty of purloining the characters created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. Set in 1803, Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and have two young sons. Elizabeth’s sister Jane lives nearby with her husband Bingley and all is well – until the eve of the family’s annual ball when Lydia Wickham arrives bringing the dramatic news that her husband has been murdered (this is PD James’s take on the characters after all).
So, the source material is classy. The adaptation, by Juliette Towhidi, credited with the screenplay for Calendar Girls, is classy. The cast includes Matthew Goode, Matthew Rhys, Jenna Coleman: classy. It was all too much for Maxwell Martin to resist.
“I am a massive fan of Austen. I really am the ultimate fan. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was a child – and then read it many, many times since. I read it again last year because my step-daughter was doing it for GCSEs. I’m a huge fan.
“I think Austen was a visionary. I think her female characters are so bright and witty, the themes are brilliant and the men are so sexy in Austen as well – but no man has ever fallen in love with an Austen woman because she is pretty or beautiful or because she has long blonde hair. They fall in love with them because of who they are, because of their vibrancy and intelligence. If only we taught that a little more in our schools.
“I think the book and the characters are still so relevant. Lizzie (when you play Elizabeth Bennett on screen, you probably get to call her ‘Lizzie’) is definitely my favourite because she makes mistakes. I think all Austen women do the thing I tried to do with my Lizzie – screw up, all the time, because she’s hot headed.”
Okay, we get it. She’s a fan. Presumably then, she loves PD James’s take on Darcy and Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley?
“I haven’t read it. No, don’t put that!” – and there’s the cackle. Despite being pretty angst-ridden on occasion on screen, not for her the navel-gazing that plagues many actors.
“I haven’t read the novel because when you’re doing a novel adaptation there’s often no point – what you’re doing on screen is what is on the page in front of you,” she says.
“And there is nothing more irritating than actors turning up on set and saying ‘well, in the book this happened and that happened’. I just think ‘well, it’s there on the page in front of you for a good reason’.
“You just have to play what’s in the screenplay, you have to play what’s there on the page.”
She has played some seriously intense roles over the years. In the Jimmy McGovern drama The Accused, she was almost unbearable-to-watch brilliant, as a prison officer raped by a young inmate.
“I’m really lucky in that I think it’s much harder if you are typically beautiful and you are forging your way down that road. I think it’s very easy to be offered parts that are overly sexualised, overly scrutinised, slightly dumbed-down.
“I’m lucky enough to be often offered character parts or misery-guts parts,” she says.
“Something with a bit of juice in them.”
You might expect an actor who takes on such roles to have something of the intense about them.
“Yeah, I have managed to get a fair bit of dark and intense in there. I’m only good at that really,” she says. “I’m not very good at all the laughing and smiling when it comes to acting. I remember a TV series I did on ITV and the producer said to me ‘are you going to smile?’.
“I said ‘no, I can’t, I’m not very good at that’. Why am I drawn to being miserable? I don’t know. Maybe I have a naturally sad face.”
At the point she pauses to fill the whole room with a cackle.
“I’m actually quite a happy person in real life.”
Death Comes to Pemberley is not just a dream job for Maxwell Martin,
it’s one of those dramas the BBC does so well. Christmas time, the nights are drawing in, all the budgets are aimed at these sorts of shows, this one being screened over three episodes.
It also sounds like it’s been a lot of fun.
“It’s been hell working with Matthew (presumably she means Rhys, as he’s the one in earshot).
“No, it’s honestly been a huge amount of fun. It’s like we’ve been on a big holiday.
“We’ve all been in the countryside in these amazing places, with amazing weather.
“Everyone has been lovely – honestly, there’s not a single diva. Well, apart from me.”
It might be hard to cast your minds back now, but this summer was a pretty hot one and it can’t have been much fun filming in period costume.
“You get used it, being in a corset and all the ‘gear’. You can’t eat very much, you’re so restricted you can’t lie down.
“You have to be careful not to squash your hair – poor Trevor has got a wig, a fur gilet thing and fur coat – and it’s been like 40 degrees,” she says.
So what will viewers actually get to see?
“Well, as you see at the end of Pride and Prejudice, it’s very passionate, very loving – and then it all goes horribly wrong with the re-emergence of Wickham into their lives,” she says.
“Then Darcy goes nuts – he gets dead moody.
“Then something happens and Lizzie stumbles across the truth of the mystery so she... hang on, am I allowed to say that? I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”
When the cast are of this calibre you might expect everyone to be on their best behaviour, but the truth is Maxwell Martin is too grounded for all that.
The Yorkshire family background might have a fair bit to do with that.
“My family still live in Beverley and later on this week we’re actually filming there, so that will be lovely,” she says.
She must be looking forward to sitting down with the family and being involved in a big Christmas show, though?
“Well, half the people are going to like it and half of them will hate it. It’s a big old Christmas thing and I think Matthew is worried we’re going to let people down at Christmas.
“What if we don’t work again?”
Maxwell Martin cackles once again. It’s a brilliant sound.
Death Comes to Pemberley will be screened by BBC1 this December.