She had a breakdown in her 20s, tried to adopt alone in her 30s and finally married in her 40s. As The Thick Of It star Joanna Scanlan is crowned Best Actress ALISON BOSHOFF reveals how the deadpan comic had the last laugh at 60
Some stories have surprising endings, don’t they?’ she said, with signature understatement. But on this occasion, no one could accuse the woman who fought back the tears as she made her way to the podium to accept her Best Actress award of false modesty.
Joanna Scanlan, 60, beloved for television roles in The Thick Of It and ITV’s The Larkins, was the rank outsider at Sunday night’s Bafta awards. The bookies had her on odds of 7 to 1.
She beat competition from a furious-looking Lady Gaga (House Of Gucci), Emilia Jones (Coda), Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza) and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person In The World) — and no one could have looked more stunned that Scanlan, whose triumph crowns an amazing late-blooming career.
Joanna Scanlan, 60, (pictured) beloved for television roles in The Thick Of It and ITV’s The Larkins, was the rank outsider at Sunday night’s Bafta awards
For although she had been part of the elite 1980s Footlights crew that included Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the glittering success that came so effortlessly to her contemporaries eluded her.
Floored by a ‘sort of’ breakdown in her 20s, when she had given up all hopes of becoming an actress and was working as a drama teacher at Leicester Poly and for the Arts Council, Scanlan struggled with depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
At one point it was so severe that she struggled to get out of bed, and moved back in with her parents.
It was only when, at the age of 34, she saw her GP and was advised that not following her dreams was making her sick that she revived her acting ambition.
Even then, it would take another 11 years for her finally to taste acclaim in the political comedy The Thick Of It, where she played hopeless press officer Terri Coverley.
From here on, she was most often cast because of her considerable talent for deadpan comedy — until After Love, in which she mines the full complexity of a woman whose life and assumptions have been destroyed.
No wonder she said, after leaving the stage, that she felt ‘disbelieving’.
Clutching the Bafta mask, she said: ‘To be perfectly honest, I feel shaky. I feel like reality has yet to catch up with me. I’m a bit behind the beat.
‘To be honoured by Bafta in film as a leading actress is the highest accolade I could ever aspire to. I never imagined that I would ever receive this honour. Genuinely.’
Although Scanlan (pictured with husband Nick Bicknell) had been part of the elite 1980s Footlights crew that included Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the glittering success that came so effortlessly to her contemporaries eluded her
She added: ‘I’m 60. I’m older; I’m not the normal shape and size. I’m lots of things you wouldn’t expect necessarily to be honoured in this way.’
The award was given for her lauded performance as Mary, a Muslim convert who discovers after the death of her ferry-captain husband, Ahmed, that he has another woman — and a son — in France.
Scanlan remarked that the film is a ‘story about hidden depths’. She added: ‘I once hoped to swim the Channel — and in a strange way I have.’
While some of the younger crowd went party-hopping after the ceremony, Scanlan and her accountant husband Neil Bicknell — 6ft 7in to her 5ft 1in — opted to mingle at the Savoy Hotel, where nominees and their entourages were watching the Critics Choice Awards unfolding in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
Eventually, she and Bicknell went back home to their £900,000 semi-detached Victorian house in suburban South Croydon.
It was back to work as normal yesterday, filming The Light In The Hall, a psychological TV drama for Channel Four, in Wales.
The eldest of three children, Joanna was born in Cheshire but raised in Ruthin, North Wales, where her parents, Pat and Mike, ran a hotel.
She went to an independent boarding school, Howells, where she was eventually the head girl.
The eldest of three children, Joanna (pictured on The Thick Of It) was born in Cheshire but raised in Ruthin, North Wales, where her parents, Pat and Mike, ran a hotel
Acting was something that she always wanted to do.
‘I felt like I was put on Earth to act, so I worked hard at it,’ she has said.
‘As a child, I did plays and pantomimes at school, and I did all the associated board exams. It was a huge part of who I was, and I got up every morning and did it every day.’
In 1980, she accepted a place to read history at Queens’ College, Cambridge.
It was the first year that the college admitted female undergraduates and there were only 39 women among 500 men. After the joyfully feminist environment of an all-girls school, she found herself equally terrified and appalled by the atmosphere.
‘It was frankly an ordeal,’ she said. ‘I had been at a girls’ boarding school and did not know anything very much about how to deal with male culture.
‘Men would do things like come into the bar, stand on the table, pull down their flies and p*** into a beer glass that was on your table.’
She felt unsafe and hid away.
‘I just stayed in my room, smoking, drinking and avoiding everything, avoiding people completely.
‘I put on weight as a result of finding myself in a hostile male environment. It was literally a protective mechanism. There was a sexually aggressive atmosphere: intimidating, frightening.
Joanna Scanlan, winner of the Best Actress award for “After Love”, poses in the winners room at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2022 at Royal Albert Hall on March 13
‘I remember walking with a friend who was suddenly goosed. Some man pushed his hand up between her legs and it was just assumed she wouldn’t report it. And she didn’t, because it was 1980 not 2018. My extra padding prevented me being an obvious target.
‘I did have relationships, but with men who got to know me first. I’ve intermittently attempted to lose weight since, but it’s never worked.’
She joined Footlights briefly before taking up with another more serious theatre group. Here she became friends with peers including actress Tilda Swinton.
But while some went on to stardom after university, Joanna was filled with self-doubt and took a job lecturing in drama at Leicester Poly.
In her late 20s she suffered ‘a sort of a breakdown’.
While some went on to stardom after university, Joanna was filled with self-doubt and took a job lecturing in drama at Leicester Poly
‘During all of that time, I kept thinking: “But aren’t I supposed to be being an actress?”’
She switched to a job at the Arts Council, which she hoped would allow her still to write scripts and act in her spare time, but was struck by depression. For several years, she wasn’t physically able to do much more than take the dog for a walk.
‘It was like a complete battery drain. I remember being able to mark the distinction between the effort required to sit up as opposed to lie down,’ she said.
It was her GP who suggested she try to return to acting. She decided that even if she never ‘made it’ by conventional standards, she would still be happier pursuing her dreams.
Her ‘wonderful, concerned’ parents backed her. ‘When I told them that I was giving up a really good job with a pension, they said: “Go for it.” ’
Aged 34, she relaunched herself as an actress and landed a role as a nurse in the medical drama Peak Practice. Twelve years later, she had her first script commissioned — a comic sitcom, Getting On, on BBC Four — and also starred in Rev. with Tom Hollander on BBC 2.
But although success was budding on the professional front, Scanlan was yet to find personal happiness.
Single at 38, she found herself longing to start a family of her own.
‘When I was 38 and single, I wanted to adopt. I had some interviews with social services but I was rejected on the grounds that I had insufficient family around me in London to help out, and that was a real blow.
‘I also thought about donor sperm, but, truthfully, I found that I couldn’t make that choice on behalf of the child — to have a father who would not be part of his or her life.
‘Not that I consider there’s anything wrong with doing that, but personally I was fearful of making the wrong choice.’
On Sunday night, Scanlan said of her ambitions for the future: ‘What will be will be. Of course you look for opportunities and for work with exciting creative people, but it’s important to keep a sense of the whole range of cinema. I hope I get a really exciting chunky short film and also a Bond audition’
She finally met Neil, the man who would become her husband, at a yoga festival in Devon. She was 46 and within two years they were married.
She said: ‘If I could live just one day over again, it would be my wedding day. That was something — to get married to a man I completely trusted and knew I was going to be happy with.
‘We got from the church to the wedding venue before anyone else and there was a big mirror in the empty room. And we just paused and looked at each other in the mirror.
‘Afterwards, I misremembered that moment as a photograph.
‘I kept saying: “Where’s that photograph?” And then I remembered that it wasn’t a photograph, it was just a frozen image I had in my mind of us looking at each other in the mirror.’
They have a rescue dog, Millie, but no children — her one regret in life. Recognition may have also come later than hoped. ‘I feel very long in the tooth to be coming to this sort of prominence,’ she said.
‘All that kind of cliched Hollywood glamour doesn’t feel like me at all. I feel like I’m just a working character actor. It’s lovely, of course, but it’s hard to place yourself inside that.’
It may usher in a new era for her, though. This is the path trodden so brilliantly by actress Olivia Colman, whose Oscar win for The Favourite has supercharged her career.
On Sunday night, Scanlan said of her ambitions for the future: ‘What will be will be. Of course you look for opportunities and for work with exciting creative people, but it’s important to keep a sense of the whole range of cinema. I hope I get a really exciting chunky short film and also a Bond audition.
‘It’s doing your thing and working in a way that means something to people. That’s what I want to do until the day I die.’
JAN MOIR: Joanna Scanlan’s portrayal of love and loss is quietly transcendent
Joanna Scanlan, known to most British audiences for her comic roles in television series, has never before been given such a plum lead role in a film. In After Love she does not disappoint. Her performance is extraordinary, a quiet but unforgettable portrayal of grief and betrayal.
She plays Mary, a kindly, placid woman who converted to Islam after falling in love with childhood sweetheart Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). He is a ferry captain, sailing back and forth between their home in Dover and Calais.
Their marriage has been long and childless but happy and devout. Or so Mary thinks.
After his sudden death she discovers that her husband led a double life, with a French mistress and another home in Calais. Not only is his lover Genevieve younger and prettier than Mary, she and Ahmed have a son together.
Mary sails off to confront Genevieve, who assumes this veiled woman in a salwar kameez snooping around her front door is her new cleaning lady. Mary says yes and takes the job, giving her access to her late husband’s secret second home.
There isn’t a huge amount of dialogue in the scenes that follow. No breast-beating, no tear-drenched angst, no clenched histrionics. Instead, Mary’s scrubbed, plain face reveals every mote of her pain as she drifts from room to room. She finds a photograph of Ahmed drinking beer, and her eyes widen at this deeper layer of betrayal.
She examines her pudgy body in the mirror, comparing it to Genevieve’s smooth curves. She finds her dead husband’s shirts in the laundry basket of another woman’s home, and nearly breaks down.
In all of this, Joanna Scanlan is quietly transcendent, depicting a woman who must face the truth that all her assumptions about her world were wrong, and that she must now negotiate a new reality.
After Love was one of the first films I saw after lockdown last year. Although it might sound rather depressing, the opposite is true.
I left the cinema with more faith in humanity rather than less, and this was due to Joanna Scanlan’s dazzling turn as a woman who finds that after love there can be more love, if you look hard enough.
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