“I haven’t had a quiet time at all,” says Monica Dolan. “Right at the beginning of the lockdown I felt this strange sense of calm and I thought I’m going to be able to read that gardening book my aunty gave me in 2010 and finally sort out my garden – and then Headlong got in touch for Unprecedented.”
“We need people looking after us who are independent and concerned with our safety.”
Headlong is the production company which approached Dolan in March as it put together a series of drama shorts in response to the pandemic, all filmed via Zoom. It was the start of what turned out to be a busy few months for the versatile actor known for, among many things, playing terse Welsh communications officer Tracey Pritchard in the BBC comedy W1A and her Bafta award-winning role as Rose West in the 2011 drama Appropriate Adult.
Over the last three months Dolan has filmed, alongside the short film for Unprecedented, a new Talking Heads monologue and a special Zoom episode of W1A. She’s also helped launch
Days of the Bagnold Summer, a new feature film directed by Inbetweeners star Simon Bird, in which she takes the lead role as Sue, a dowdy middle-aged woman who is stuck at home with her miserable teenage son over the summer holidays, when his plans to visit his father in Florida are cancelled.
The film, a gentle comedy driven by some great performances, is adapted from the graphic novel by Joff Winterhart. Bird sent Dolan the novel with the script. “The graphic novel is really a series of vignettes,” she explains. “It’s beautifully drawn. The images are really evocative. I thought it was such a beautifully told story and having the graphic novel
as well meant there were some other layers that I could contribute to the
script to deepen the characterisation more.
“Sue is stuck with her teenage son, not understanding him very well. So she starts looking back and playing some music from her teenage years. It’s a coming of age story for both of them. There are a lot of things in Sue’s life that wouldn’t have surfaced unless she’d been forced to spend that time with her son. And particularly at the moment, when people might be looking at their situation and who they are stuck with and thinking this isn’t really where I want to be or who I want to be with, it shows that there can be great benefit from it. They both reassess their lives from spending that time together.”
Sue is just one of a long string of characters that Dolan has played on stage and screen over the years and it’s her interest in people that keeps her interest in the work going.
“If you have a good writer then you are dealing with real people and you can look at how they behave and what makes them tick.”
Born in Middlesbrough, the 51 year old is the youngest of four children in an Irish family “where it was all about educating yourself and trying to get a job somewhere else”. Her siblings did well academically in the sciences but Dolan chose a different path.
“I found I was playful in acting. I could let myself go in it. And pretty quickly it was getting people’s attention. I feel a bit of a fraud really, because I’m just playing and having fun – people seem to like it.”
Another character that caught Dolan’s imagination was Lorna, the bereaved woman at the heart of Alan Bennett’s monologue The Shrine, part of the new Talking Heads series that was filmed during the lockdown.
A new cast of actors reprises monologues first seen in 1988-98, when Talking Heads first aired on the BBC. Martin Freeman plays Graham, for example, a role Bennett himself played in the original series. Dolan, however, took a role in an entirely new play for this revived series, which was put together and filmed at short notice when the lockdown was announced.
“I would have been very daunted to be doing a piece that had been done before,” she admits. But taking part in Talking Heads, whose original monologues are held in high esteem, was still a “terrifying prospect”.
“The thing I love about these pieces is that the characters are telling a story but they don’t realise that they are. They are just letting bits of information slip and it’s actually the audience putting the story together.
“And I really liked the part. Lorna’s dealing with her grief, but not doing it in a conventional way. There’s something very strong about her and she has a great sort of faith, but not in a religious way.”
Dolan rehearsed over Zoom with director Nicholas Hytner, had a costume fitting and make-up test also over the internet and then took herself off to Elstree studios and the set of the EastEnders, where the monologues were filmed with a minimal crew working to social distancing guidelines.
Filming under these conditions meant “everything took so much longer than usual to do”, says Dolan. “It must have been really frustrating for the make-up people, not being able to touch my hair. So if there was a bit poking out they would have to explain exactly where it was and what I needed to do to get it right.”
The monologues are, says Dolan, “an investigation inside the heads” of the characters and, like Sue and Daniel in Days of the Bagnold Summer, their stories resonate with current circumstances. “All of these characters are socially distanced, because there’s somebody that they can’t talk to and that’s why they are talking to us. They are results of how people are if they spend too much time on their own.”
Talking Heads shows it is possible to make great television during the current difficult conditions, but Dolan realises this was an exceptional case and, like many in her profession, worries for the future of television, cinema and, most of all, theatre.
“Britain is second to none when it comes to theatre and these institutions, these buildings, these great companies – we have to look after them. They are a big bit of the economy of this country so there has be a way for them to be revived and protected.”
But although Dolan is aware of the financial pressure to open things up, she also knows the health risks associated with the coronavirus, having lost her brother to it in April.
“I think a lot of people who want things to happen soon possibly aren’t the people who work on the ground and who it will affect in a practical way. We need people looking after us who are independent and concerned with our safety, making sure that it’s done properly.”
And while Days of the Bagnold Summer may have missed its cinema slot due to the pandemic, Dolan hopes that it will still get the viewers it deserves.
“I’d like as many people to see it as possible. It’s a kind film and that’s what we need right now – kindness.”
Days of the Bagnold Summer is available on the BFI player (bfi.org.uk) and other streaming services. Talking Heads is on BBC iPlayer
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