Quite…extreme.” These are the words Monica Dolan chooses to describe the characters she plays. In Appropriate adultShe trembled, spat, seethed and raged as serial killer Rose West. therapy comedy hang up saw her portray a breathless woman named Alison Jones, who for 20 years has been unable to shake the emotional shock of losing her idol, Princess Diana. And in the BBC parody W1Aher Welsh, somber communications officer, Tracey Pritchard, spoke almost exclusively in these sentence constructions: “I’m not funny or anything, but…” and “I have a bad feeling about it…”
Dolan’s chameleon-like ability to step into the shoes of so many different people – real and fictional – has earned her the reputation of critics and viewers as one of Britain’s finest ‘character actresses’. But she would never use those words herself. “I think ‘character actor’ is a pretty old-fashioned term,” she says. “I do not like it. It comes with the idea that people blow their noses too often or have funny limp.” She chuckles. “Characters are just characters and sometimes they say a lot and do a lot and sometimes they don’t. It’s never a term I would apply to myself or to other actors. It implies you’re playing smaller roles, but it’s always changing.” It does. Dolan was nominated for a Bafta for her performance as Marion, Jeremy Thorpe’s stoic second wife A very English scandal, although it is not introduced until the end of the series. She was equally brilliant in the lead role of an introverted librarian who spent the holidays with her heavy metal-loving teenage son in the 2019 indie film Days of Bagnold Summer.
In the 53-year-old’s latest role, she plays a real (and rather extreme) person: Anne Darwin in The thief, his wife and the canoe. The ITV drama tells the true story of John Darwin (played with glee by Eddie Marsan), a former Hartlepool science teacher who, with the help of his wife Anne, faked his own death to apply for life insurance and avoid bankruptcy . The couple pretended to the world that John set out in his canoe on a windy day in March 2002 and never returned. He was declared missing, presumed dead. They lied to their two sons, who were grieving for the father they thought they had lost forever. In 2007, John got bored of going into hiding and showed up at a London police station, claiming he had amnesia and couldn’t remember anything from the previous five years. The story exploded and John was soon dubbed “the risen canoeist”. But the deception of him and Anne came back to haunt them just days later when a Cheshire housewife found online a photo of the couple smiling in a real estate agent’s office in Panama, taken in 2006 – the year before he had given himself up.
“There are so many parts of the story that wouldn’t make it out of the development room if they weren’t true,” Dolan says via video call from her home in Hammersmith, smartly dressed in a champagne blouse and gold necklace. “I thought Anne would be a very interesting character, because what makes someone do something like that?” Dolan didn’t get to meet Anne before playing her — “Anne didn’t want to” — but did Thief she is very likeable. Dolan’s Anne narrates the series and is portrayed as a victim of John’s coercion and bullying. While he’s hiding and enjoying a full English in a hotel, she’s at home sobbing, her house full of cops. When she tries to oppose his insane plan, he tells her that she has to go along or else she’ll end up alone. “Nobody’s lining up to marry a woman like you, Anne,” he says. She later realizes, “Actually, I was just an extension of him my entire adult life. Well, not even that, just nothing.” They’d met at school and she’s been his ever since.
The show, like ITV’s cough major drama quiz and Sky’s offbeat true crime series landscaperShe brings to light the quirks of everyday Brits to show how they got themselves into extraordinary situations. The aesthetic is floral wallpaper and stained cardigans. Rainy days and whistling cauldrons. Dolan plays Anne with her characteristic shyness: the burning, flaring nostrils, trembling lower lip, and jiggling chin that we are now so familiar with. But the only mannerism I’ve seen in her characters that occurs when she’s herself is a kind of squint that makes her look at the ceiling when she’s trying to find the right words or remember a certain part .
In Anne’s story in Thief, when she is found guilty of six counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering before being sentenced to six and a half years in prison, she says: “It took three months longer than John, but after all I was her mother. I think most people felt like I got what I deserved.” It’s an amazing moment. Although John is portrayed as the driving force behind the lies, and he abandoned his sons seemingly without a second thought while their betrayal tore Anne apart, in the end her failure as a mother was the most unforgivable crime.
“Society expects a lot of women and they’re usually right about that because we’re quite caring…” says Dolan. “We have certain ideas about motherhood, don’t we? And what we expect from mothers and how we idealize them. Woe to a mother who falls short. The pressure on the parents is enormous.”
Dolan says it “didn’t matter” to her Thief Anne looks on kindly – if anything, she was “concerned about letting her off the hook too much” and pushed for more scenes in which she repeatedly lies. “I wasn’t interested in doing something where we see her as a little bunny who doesn’t know what she’s doing or isn’t at fault in any way,” she says. “I never worry about whether someone is compassionate or not. The exciting thing for me – and I’m quite a curious person, or rather curious – is how people behave. If you try to find the reasons people do things and move on from there, the audience will see that and either empathize or not.”
Dolan has made a name for herself playing characters that many would find difficult to sympathize with, or who are entirely despised – serial killer Rose West being the most notorious. Dolan won a Bafta for her chilling portrayal of the woman who collaborated with her husband Fred in the torture and murder of young women and children. One critic said of her performance, “Dolan appears to have been possessed, even against her will. It is an extraordinary spectacle, compelling and frightening at the same time.”
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If Dolan’s approach is to get to the bottom of why people do terrible things, what was West’s reason? “Sometimes they’re pretty simple, and for her, the motivation was sex and trying to stay alive with a husband like that. Rosemary West was the only person Fred met at a bus stop that he didn’t kill and she somehow managed to make their relationship dynamic and survive and find a way to live in it and enjoy that relationship I think . ”
West served most of her life sentence in Durham’s Low Newton prison, where Anne Darwin spent her time. The eerie coincidence makes Dolan smile. “Chris [Lang, screenwriter] teased me and said we could have a scene where I play both of them because apparently they bumped into each other at the gym,” she says. “What was quite interesting to me was that in Anne’s book [Out of My Depth], she says, ‘Oh my god, I was in prison and there were horrible people like Rosemary West.’ It’s almost like wrong isn’t wrong when done by nice people like her.”
When Dolan West acted, her friends and family initially asked many questions about her research before they heard it too much. “It got to a point where people were like, ‘Oh, actually no thanks,'” says Dolan. How did she manage to keep all the dark details in her head? “It crept into my nightmares. I remember waking up and having images of the victims in my head.”
Dolan dives headfirst into her characters. For West, she went to the killer’s attorney and got a transcript of the entire trial. She read Brian Masters’ study of West’s sexual obsession, She must have known, and trawled through her own mum’s NHS eyewear collection to find the perfect pair. They hardly come off. They’re an integral part, as is West’s thick, sleek bangs and hard gaze. When Dolan performed a new monologue for Alan Bennett talking heads At the Bridge Theater she began learning her lines for the role of a bereaved relative the day she found out her brother had died of Covid. And for W1AAccording to her co-star Sarah Parrish, Dolan stayed Welsh for the role of Tracey from reading to the end of filming. She maintained her Northeastern accent throughout the shoot Thiefto.
What does she think of recent reports of American actors staying in roles for nine months or not speaking to each other because their characters don’t get along? “I find that ridiculous,” she says. “Think of how many relationships you can have in your head at once. Also, your character isn’t in a situation where he’s queuing for his lunch or getting dressed or sitting in a Winnebago getting notes. this happens to you You have to be outside too, otherwise you can’t talk about what’s going on.” Laughing, she adds that she and she Thief Co-star Marsan would go to the method that “he would tell me what to do all the time.”
“What worries me at the moment is that many of the imaginative aspects of acting seem to be underestimated and more emphasis placed on experience, whether it’s x, y or z in real life. I think imagination is an actor’s most useful tool, and truth and authenticity are two different things. Truth is more important.” She shrugs. “It’s too exhausting to stay in character all the time anyway.”
“The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe” opens on Sunday April 17 at 9pm on ITV
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/monica-dolan-thief-wife-canoe-b2058235.html Monica Dolan: “I don’t like the term character actress – I would never call myself that”