Say what you like about Siobhan Finneran, she certainly knows how to pick ’em. From Benidorm (ITV’s most successful comedy in decades) and Happy Valley (an award-hoovering, critical and ratings smash) to The Moorside (the most watched new TV drama for 15 years) and, of course, Downton Abbey – the biggest British television export of the century – everything she’s touched in the last 10 years has turned to gold. Not that she’s taking the credit for any of it, you understand.
‘I’m sure my agent would love me to say it’s all down to me,’ laughs the 51-year-old. ‘But I’ve just been very, very lucky with the jobs I’ve had.’
She obviously has a nose for a hit, though? ‘It depends what you mean by hit,’ she muses. ‘If something gets millions of viewers, it doesn’t necessarily means it’s my best work. But I do like to read a script. With Happy Valley, I read the whole series – six hours of television – in one night, then rang my agent the next morning and said, “just say yes”.’
In person, Finneran is as earthy and unpretentious as you’d hope from watching her as Clare, recovering addict sister of Sarah Lancashire’s lionhearted police sergeant, in Sally Wainwright’s sublime police drama. When we talk, it’s three days before the Bafta Television Awards, where she’s shortlisted for Best Supporting Actress, and though she’s ‘thrilled to bits just to be nominated’, she admits she’d be ‘devastated’ if she won and Lancashire didn’t.
‘I was devastated when she didn’t win for the first series, because I think her performance in Happy Valley is one of the best we’ve ever had on British telly,’ she says. ‘It’s a movie star performance. I’ve not seen acting of that class in a long, long time.’
In the event, Lancashire prevailed and Finneran didn’t, so any awkwardness was avoided. But she wouldn’t have been in with a shout in the first place if she hadn’t taken a flyer and quit her role as Downton Abbey’s Sarah O’Brien, scheming maid to Lady Grantham, at the height of the period drama’s success in 2012.
‘I didn’t feel it was a risk,’ she shrugs, matter-of-factly. ‘I was being offered jobs and not being able to take them because I was tied to Downton, so I made the decision to go.
‘It was a job,’ she adds. ‘A lovey job, but a job. There was no sense of loyalty – and no sense of disloyalty, I might add. I’d done what I wanted to do in it, had a fantastic time, and it was time to move on.’
She may have moved on, but Downton is still enjoyed by a global audience of 160 million in more than 250 countries, and remains the most watched British import ever in America, with Michelle Obama, Katy Perry and Dustin Hoffman among its celebrity fans. Is it odd to think she’s famous in every corner of the world?
‘It’s not something I’ve really thought about,’ she says, unassumingly. ‘I think the show became this monumental beast, internationally, the year I finished. I know the rest of the cast, who I’m still in touch with, have been over to America and they all get mobbed, but I’ve never had that. I tend to kind of skulk about a bit – I’m not sort of “Here I am!” And thankfully I don’t really look like Miss O’Brien, so people don’t always recognise me.’
Next, ITV will be hoping her talismanic presence works its charm on The Loch, a twisty, rather good new Highlands thriller set on the shores of Loch Ness. Finneran plays Lauren Quigley, an ambitious DCI drafted in from Glasgow to help the local police team, led by Laura Fraser and John Sessions, in the hunt for a serial killer. It’s a terrific role for the actress, who gets to shout things like ‘You’ve got a cold-blooded predator in your town!’
‘She was great fun to play – there’s no messing with her,’ says Finneran. ‘She thinks she’s going to have cracked the case in 10 minutes and be on her way back to Glasgow, but it’s a lot more complicated, obviously.’
We Brits do so love a combination of nice scenery and brutal murder, don’t we? ‘Yes, I have no idea what the fascination is with that. But we like a mystery, we like to watch a story unfold. And the scenery is breathtaking. It’s glorious. When the sun’s out, you can see for miles. Not that it was out much!’ And no, she adds, she didn’t spot Nessie. Shame.
It’s almost a surprise to hear Finneran, who has two children, Joseph and Poppy, from her 17-year marriage to Heartbeat actor Mark Jordon, using her natural accent in The Loch, as most of her major roles – Downton, Happy Valley and The Moorside among them – have seen her playing Yorkshirewomen. But she was born in Manchester, and still lives in the Lancashire countryside today. Isn’t that the greatest insult a Lancashire lass can bear – to keep being cast as someone from the wrong side of the Pennines?
‘I’m not insulted – a lot of my friends are from Yorkshire,’ she says, diplomatically. ‘I was born in Manchester, and that’s where my mum’s from, but where I live now was originally in Yorkshire, before the borders changed. I think my accent now is a mixture of Yorkshire and Lancashire – though if I’m with Mancunians, I’m full-on Manc in about five minutes.’
There are no actors, as far as she knows, in her family tree. ‘But my grandma loved the theatre, and I used to go with her, in Manchester and all over the place, so if the interest came from anywhere, it was probably from her.’
Finneran was still a teenager when the legendary director Alan Clarke (Scum, Made in Britain) cast her in the leading role of Bradford schoolgirl Rita (yes, another Yorkshirewoman) in his 1987 feature film Rita, Sue and Bob Too. ‘I was terrified all the way through it,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I didn’t realise what a name and what a man Alan was. It was my first job – I’d never been in front of a camera before. I had to learn every day. It was really daunting.
‘I don’t think I’ve watched it for about 20 years, and even then, it was like watching a different human being. I mean, I was 19. I’m 51 now. I think you can see that I didn’t know what I was doing. But I managed to get away with it,’ she adds, with typical humility. ‘And I’m still getting away with it now.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 1, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend