Interview: Actor Charlotte Spencer on new BBC drama, The Living and the Dead

Charlotte Spencer. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Charlotte Spencer. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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Charlotte Spencer’s parents remortgaged their house so she could attend stage school. Their support and her talent has paid off for the Bafta nominated actor and star of new BBC supernatural drama The Living and the Dead, writes Janet Christie. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown

Charlotte Spencer is being upstaged by her Yorkshire terrier, Chips. She’s talking to me on her mobile as she walks through London, on her way to her friend and fellow actor Joy McAvoy’s house, and as she goes, she keeps breaking off. I hear people approach, they want to talk. No, not to her, but to Chips. No bigger than a fish supper, the diminutive canine is stealing the limelight and Charlotte is reduced to a supporting role.

The Living and the Dead. Picture: Robert Viglasky/BBC

The Living and the Dead. Picture: Robert Viglasky/BBC

“Everyone wants to talk to him,” she says. “They’re not interested in me at all.”

But Spencer doesn’t mind. Chips is a welcome diversion during the quiet times that plague every actor, even one whose career is taking off as nicely as Spencer’s.

“Sometimes you never know what’s next, so having something to concentrate on that gets you out of the house every day and meeting people is good. It’s nice having a dog. Ow,” she squeaks. “He’s nipping me.”

Chips doesn’t care that his owner had a best actress Bafta nomination for her role in the dark rural whodunnit, Glue, has taken the lead in the gritty Bypass opposite George MacKay and then again in TV’s Stonemouth, earning another Bafta nomination and praise for her Scottish accent from no less than Peter Mullan. No mean feat for the voice of the Angelina Ballerina audio books. She also did a turn with Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s vampire movie Dark Shadows in 2012 before Andrew Lloyd Webber cast her as Christine Keeler in his West End production of Stephen Ward.

Charlotte Spencer. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Charlotte Spencer. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Back on screen there was Broad Squad for ABC, playing a female cop in Boston in the 1970s, a role Spencer was disappointed didn’t get picked up because, as a period piece, it was too expensive to make. “I loved the Seventies outfits and playing a policewoman on the streets of Boston,” she says. Now she’s fulfilling an ambition in playing a BBC period piece set in the 1890s, with costumes galore, opposite Colin Morgan in The Living and The Dead.

Written by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, co-creators and writers of Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes and Eternal Law, it’s a six part supernatural drama set in Victorian England, due to transmit at the end of this month.

The Living and the Dead is definitely one you’ll be watching from behind a cushion and questioning why central characters feel a need to find out what’s making that strange noise in that dark room at the end of the scary corridor. Wondering why they can’t let their obsession with the occult and the afterlife lie and get on with some nice, safe farming or brewing instead.

But no, strange, unsettling and dangerous supernatural phenomena it is for Nathan Appleby, a reluctant gentleman farmer and member of the Society for Psychical Research, and his forward thinking wife Charlotte. The pair inherit an estate in Somerset, in a community torn between tradition and the future, where the old ways and science merge and no-one questions the existence of myths, poltergeists and demons.

As the hauntings, paranormal happenings and ghostly visitations stack up, the young couple’s marriage and sanity start to unravel before our very eyes in a series that sets out to wake the dead and scare the daylights out of the living.

“Yes, it’s scary,” says Spencer. “The first episode is scary and it gets even worse. The stories are scary to begin with, then the way they have filmed it adds to it. They have used some of the oldest tricks in the book; shadows, noises... It’s the little things that scare you, suggestions, rather than showing scary things. Your imagination is worse than what you can see. You begin to fear for the safety of the characters, for their lives.”

Part of the tension comes from the location for filming, an old farmhouse in the Somerset countryside, as opposed to mocked up sets in a studio. Those scratches on the fireplace to ward off witches: they’re real. They’ve been there as long as the house.

“They were from hundreds of years ago,” says Spencer. “Something to do with Henry VIII, in one of the oldest parts of the house.”

“It was really properly old,” she says. “It hadn’t been used for years and there was no electricity so we got a little bit spooked. On night shoots we were scared to go into rooms. But then you do it anyway, find yourself saying ‘let’s go into this room…’

“It might be in our imagination,” she says, “but there was definitely something there, although I never felt ‘it’s going to come and get me’. If ghosts exist, it makes sense they would be interested in what’s going on,” she reasons.

Both Charlottes share a sense of adventure, then, a curiosity and thirst to push boundaries and back in the 1890s, Charlotte Appleby is living at a time when women’s lives were changing fast.

“Charlotte is quite a modern woman in the 1890s, forward thinking,” says Spencer. “She’s a great character to play. Darwin’s Theory had just appeared and everyone was ‘what do you mean we come from monkeys?’ It was a time of exploring new ideas, and new technology was coming in, engines, machines. A lot was changing and that scared people too. The unfamiliar was frightening…

“And what’s lovely about her relationship with Nathan is that he allows her to be what she wants to be. Her enthusiasms are what he fell in love with.

“In each character you play, you always find an element of yourself, something that’s relevant to you. With Charlotte, it’s a wildness, a vulnerability. And I would like to have her strength, which is admirable. But I haven’t been tested like she is. I’ve had a pretty good life and the things I’ve gone through are different – they’re more about self belief.”

Raised in Harlow, Essex, by Peter and Karen, with a younger brother and sister, 24-year-old Spencer is chatty and enthusiastic about her chosen profession. “My brother is an estate agent and my sister’s a midwife. So when I try to tell her I’ve had a hard day, I don’t have a leg to stand on.”

When Spencer tells you she wanted to be an actor from the age of three, long before she knew what that was, you believe her.

“I just loved to perform and I had this confidence,” she says. “I don’t know where it came from. Obviously my parents would sort me out, but they didn’t want to stifle me either.”

Faced with a child who just wanted to act, Peter, a builder, and Karen, who works at a school, remortgaged their home when she was 12 so she could go to the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, necessitating 6am starts every day.

“I’m very lucky to have such supportive parents. I loved to perform and people would say maybe in future, she will lose it, but I never did. I can remember being a right little show off. I was a nightmare.

“I remember being at ballet lessons when I was three and figuring out that if I did the opposite of everybody else then people would watch me. So when the teacher said ‘get up and be fairies now’, I sat down, and when they sat down, I ran around. I figured if I didn’t go with the crowd, I’d get more attention. There’s a film of it and you can hear my mum telling me to sit down. Yes, I was a bit naughty.

“I loved it. Sometimes theatre school brats get a bad name, but actually I worked twice as hard at the academic work because if you didn’t, you got thrown out and I wanted to stay there.”

Spencer landed her first professional job in her first year at Sylvia Young, cast by Richard Eyre as Elizabeth Banks in Mary Poppins, “a dream fulfilled at 12-years-old,” she says. Eyre was later to cast her as Christine Keeler in Stephen Ward.

“I never thought in a million years that I would be cast in Mary Poppins, so it was amazing. And that started off my love for what I do. And my parents were pleased because I was actually doing it.”

Hotel Babylon followed, thanks to Dexter Fletcher who she also worked with on the 2011 British gangster film Wild Bill, then she was cast in Les Mis.

“That was fantastic. There were lots of girls from theatre school I knew in it so I was on set with my friends. We were all prostitutes, nasty little things from the 1700s, all cackling away.”

Then Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s vampire movie followed and Spencer was able to get up close to Johnny Depp. “I had a tiny part but it was a way of getting into film and meeting people,” she says. “I was really excited and he was very sweet, but he had really long fingernails and tried to stroke my hand. I didn’t know what to do.”

Spencer still lives at home when she’s between jobs and is glad that most of her friends are actors because that provides its own support network. “They ask you about auditions, and say things like, I’m not doing anything either so you feel OK. And you can hang out with them.”

Which is why she’s heading to Joy McAvoy’s house, the pair being friends since they met on the set of last year’s BBC dramatisation of the Iain Banks’ novel Stonemouth.

“That was great to do. I couldn’t believe when I got that part. With my accent. I thought they were joking. If Peter Mullan said the accents were OK, then I’m happy.”

As for the downside of acting, Spencer is philosophical about the sporadic nature of the profession.

“There’s a famous quote from Michael Caine where he says I do the job for free and get paid for the bits inbetween. I would do the job for free. I love the work so much, but the bits in between are quite hard. You have to keep yourself hopeful and believing that there’s another job coming.”

When she doesn’t have a job, Spencer also goes into the infant school where her mum works and helps out with the choir.

“I like teaching them singing, seeing their little faces singing ‘Joyful, Joyful’ from Sister Act.

Does she channel Whoopi Goldberg?

“No, more David Attenborough.”

Eh?

“He’s one of my heroes. And I’d love to go to something like an elephant sanctuary and help out there. But no, I do love strong women, like Helen McCrory, who play characters who are going through things. You should be able to show your true feelings, cry, break down. Just because you’re crying doesn’t mean you’re not strong.”

Spencer likes to get deep into her characters and to help her do that, is in the habit of constructing a playlist for each one.

“It could be anything to do with that character, but music is emotive. For Charlotte it was a lot of western type songs, country, bluegrass, [Danish singer/songwriter] Agnes Obel. And some classical music. Things that were quite eerie and for some reason I listened to old country songs. For me it was about America being founded at that time, and people going there and discovering new things and the Gold Rush. It was parallel to what was going on in England and America, that’s the scene I was setting.”

One of the joys of making a series set on a farm in Somerset in the 1890s for Spencer is that there were plenty of horses around and she was required to ride them.

“On Glue I was playing a jockey so it was horses everywhere. And in The Living and the Dead I get to ride a lot too, but it is side saddle, which is something I hadn’t done before. As long as you can keep your balance you’re OK, and I’m a dancer so it was easier for me. If you have those long skirts on, which I did as part of my costume, it is easier to ride side saddle than straddling the horse.”

It’s no surprise then, given her love of horses, that still do do on her wishlist is a western.

“Yes, I’d love to do that,” she says, “True Grit is one of my …” and she’s about to expand on the theme when there’s an “Ouch,” down the line. Then a “little bastard” as Chips, makes his presence felt.

That’s more than enough chat from her. There’s only one star in this relationship and it’s time for his walkies.

• The Living and the Dead starts on BBC1 on Tuesday 28 June at 9pm. The full series is also available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.