Annabel Scholey:
key to lockdown

Annabel Scholey stars in a new TV series about the Salisbury poisonings that has parallels with the current pandemic

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Annabel Scholey is using this interview to cash in some hard-earned adult time. The actor, 36, best known for her roles in BBC One’s legal drama The Split and musical romcom Walking on Sunshine, gave birth to her daughter Marnie 18 months ago, and has clearly closed the door for the occasion. There’s no background noise on the phone line, no chromatic tones of Peppa Pig or the crashing of hard plastics followed by a wail – only silence.

“It’s so unbelievable that the plot actually happened. It felt like it had been made-up.”

They are navigating lockdown in County Sligo, Ireland, with husband and father, screenwriter and novelist Ciarán McMenamin. “If you’ve just watched Normal People, we’re exactly where Marianne and Connell are from. Their local beach is our local beach,” Scholey explains in her soft Yorkshire twang. “We were over here visiting Ciarán’s family and realised we were going to get stuck [when lockdown was implemented]. I’d never have imagined spending this amount of time here before but it’s fantastic. There’s loads of fresh air, which is like gold dust at the moment, we’ve been able to cycle by the sea with Marnie in her little carriage, and there’s no one around.

“Marnie has been keeping me busy to the degree that sometimes I’m like: ‘Oh my god, I need nursery!’ Her attention span isn’t great, so she’ll do Play-doh for about five minutes and then either eat it or throw it on the floor. It’s a chaotic but fun age and she’s a proper little friend. We’ve got it really good.”

Ordinarily living in south-east London, Scholey left her home town of Wakefield at 18 to attend Oxford School of Drama, having worked tirelessly for a scholarship. “My parents took me all over to audition and they saved and saved in case I didn’t get a grant. They knew I wanted to do it and made it happen.

“All my family are northern, they’re all up there – my sister, my mum and dad, everyone. I’m a real family girl so when I moved to Oxford, I struggled. It was the first time I’d been away from home and I badly missed it. Luckily I lived in a brilliant house of girls who were in the second year, and they looked after me. This house was called Hagbourne so we called ourselves the witches of Hagbourne,” she laughs.”And the girls were just like older sisters to me. But I was also really ready [to leave home]. There was a real lack of drama at my high school and we didn’t do a lot of music, so when I got to drama school, the whole world opened up.”

Humble, good natured and quick to laugh, her amiability disguises the ambition and grit that enabled her to succeed in a merciless profession. “I tried so hard to get into drama school and got turned down so many times. It was gutting. I knew what I wanted to do – I didn’t want to take a year out, I didn’t want to wait.

“I went to dance schools from a young age and had private drama lessons with a lady called Mrs Sharp who taught me how to speak RP. I didn’t get nervous – I used to be crippled with nerves when I danced and sang but with drama I just felt really good.”

Scholey got her first job on Poirot the same year she graduated and had bit parts in Holby City, Doctors and EastEnders. But she spent much of her time on stage, cutting her teeth on Shakespeare.

“I spent most of my twenties beating my head against a wall because it wasn’t happening fast enough – I don’t even know what ‘it’ was because really, when I look back, I worked consistently. I had other jobs on the side – I was a nanny for a few years – but I remember ringing my mum on a weekly basis bawling my eyes out saying ‘I just can’t do this’, because there’s only so much rejection a person can take.”

She says her decade in theatre helped prepare her for the challenges and exposure that comes with being on screen. “I came out of drama school at 21 and – when I think about it now – had no idea who I was. I was still really babyish and didn’t really grow into myself until I was about 28. It totally makes sense to me now that that’s what I had to do, and I had the best time and learned loads from some truly amazing actors. I’d turned 30 by the time my TV career started. It felt like the right time to make a go of it.”

Scholey played Contessina de’ Bardi in the 2016 historical drama Medici: Masters of Florence before securing a role in Sky’s bombastic historical fantasy series Britannia, alongside David Morrissey, Zoë Wanamaker and Mackenzie Crook. Her most recent part is in BBC Two’s Salisbury, a three-part factual drama based on the 2018 events when a former Russian double agent and his daughter were covertly poisoned in the Wiltshire city. Scholey plays a lead role as Sarah Bailey, wife of police officer Nick Bailey, who was hospitalised after being exposed to remnants of the poison during investigation.

The series comes at a delicate time, with scenes depicting international emergency on a local level and the familiar imagery of masks, gloves and social distancing mirroring what we have all come to regard as the new normal.

“Reading the script, it felt like the plot had been made up – it’s so unbelievable and outrageous that it actually happened. The series definitely has similarities [to the current pandemic] and I know the BBC has put a lot of thought into putting it out. It’s about normal people fighting for their safety and showing the ordinary heroes in the nurses and the teachers and the bus drivers. People want to watch things they can relate to.

“I visited the real Sarah at her home before we started filming and was very nervous. It was so important to me that I portrayed her in the way she wanted to be portrayed. Salisbury was brilliant because it’s the first time I’ve played somebody real. You don’t learn an awful lot about my character other than that she’s a great mum and wife; it’s all about the situation she finds herself in and how she reacts in this particular moment in her life.”

At this moment in her own life, she is content with her lot, safe in the knowledge that whatever she decides, her family will support her.

“I’m not sure I want any more children. I’m quite an impatient person so pregnancy annoyed me. I had carpal tunnel and nausea and I was working and I was just cross! There’s so much pressure to have more than one and I’m not going to let that be a thing. I’ve only ever wanted a little girl and I have her. This time together in Sligo has been really lovely and novel.”

For her return to London, it’s the little things that have the most appeal. “I can be a bit square, so I’m not looking forward to doing anything out of the ordinary. Going to the cinema by myself in the day is my favourite thing. People can’t get you in there. Sometimes I’ll watch two films in a row at the Crystal Palace Everyman. It’s got this absolutely amazing 1930s New York-style bar that makes you want to have a cocktail at noon.”

She’ll miss some things about Sligo though, including her father-in-law’s visits.

“He lives nearby and comes to sit at the end of the drive with a cup of tea a couple of times a week. Marnie loves it. I’ll miss that.”

Salisbury is on BBC iPlayer

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