Granite Harbour: Hannah Donaldson talks BBC One crime drama Granite Harbour and walking the walk

How the Dundonian actor turned to a life of crime

Dundonian actor Hannah Donaldson's first screen lead sees her playing an Aberdonian detective in BBC's Granite Harbour. Pic: Lisa Ferguson
Dundonian actor Hannah Donaldson's first screen lead sees her playing an Aberdonian detective in BBC's Granite Harbour. Pic: Lisa Ferguson

In Hannah Donaldson’s new BBC Aberdeen-set crime drama, Granite Harbour, there’s a line about an ex-soldier having the walk of a military man and when we meet in her Glasgow flat she talks about police officers also having a certain body language, a way of entering a room. Given that she’s played a police officer three times this year, it appears Donaldson can walk the walk.

“It’s like a quiet assurance they have about them. You feel that you’re in safe hands,” says the actor who plays DS Lara Bartlett in the three part series which launches this week. She goes on to recount how fellow cast member Michelle Jeram is a former police officer, as is her actor partner’s cousin, and they were able to share insights into working in that environment.

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“You want to ensure that you are being respectful of the people who do that job. And while other elements of Lara’s personality I can relate to, there are big elements of the job she does that are a stretch for me.”

“Michelle said when a detective sergeant enters the room they carry themselves in such a way that you can’t help but be aware; they have an aura, an authority that commands respect, or maybe there’s just something reassuring about their presence. You feel you’re in safe hands.”

This could be useful so has Donaldson tried walking about her home city like this, exuding authority?

She laughs: I mean I try and do it every time I walk into a room, but I don’t think it’s having much effect. Certainly not in this household!”

This household is Donaldson, the thirtysomething Dundonian actor, partner Ryan Fletcher (Pennyworth for HBO Max, the Batman prequel), their nursery-school age son and dog Roxy.

Hannah Donaldson stars in BBC's crime drama Granite Harbour. At home with dog Roxy. Pic: Lisa Ferguson

It’s a haven of warmth and cheer on a rain-lashed Glasgow morning (points to Fletcher for the welcoming towel and hairdryer) and with a photoshoot underway and lamps bathing the stylish living room in light, the flat looks like something out of an interiors magazine. The lights are their own, as Donaldson and Fletcher use them to do audition self tapes for themselves and increasingly for friends.

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“We’re doing three for pals this afternoon. It’s become like a factory, we’re churning them out. It’s good that we can all help each other out,” says Donaldson.

Granite Harbour, to be shown on BBC Scotland, BBC One and iPlayer also stars

Romario Simpson as DC Davis Lindo, as well as Dawn Steele, Gary Lewis, Fiona Bell, Bhav Joshi, Michelle Jeram and Andrew Still and was filmed in Aberdeen as well as Glasgow.

Hannah Donaldson as DS Lara Bartlett and Romario Simpson as DC Davis Lindo in BBC's Granite Harbour. Pic: LA Productions, Robert Pereira Hind
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“When we filmed there it really helped root us in the story to be in Aberdeen and around Aberdonians driving to work, looking out to the North Sea and seeing the rigs, or those that are being dismantled, it just, it really coloured the work that we were doing,” says Donaldson.

When former military policeman Lance Corporal Davis Lindo (Romario Simpson) arrives in Aberdeen as a new recruit to Police Scotland he’s teamed up with DCI Bartlett and after an uneasy start the pair have to work together to solve the murder of an oil industry figure.

“There’s friction in the beginning because Lindo is incapable of taking orders and struggles with authority. He has a wealth of combative experience but isn’t willing to play by the rule book and Bart has to constantly pull him back over the line. Nevertheless there’s something about the other that appeals and they recognise they could be a really good partnership. I think that’s why, without giving too much away, Bart is forced to question who she is going to side with. Is it her police team or her partner Lindo?”

A streetwise Aberdonian Bart has been passed over for promotion in the job that she loves.

Hannah Donaldson in action as Lara Bartlett in BBC's new crime drama Granite Harbour. Pic: LA Productions,Robert Pereira Hind

“She’s sharp, career driven, and has sacrificed a lot to have the career she has. She has given herself over to her job, eats, lives and breathes it, and that’s why she struggles with not getting promotion. She’s fiercely loyal and will overstep the line to defend her partner if she believes in them. You’d want someone like Lara on your side.”

“She’s also very front footed, not afraid to say what she thinks and can be quite cutting. I think I’m too polite. Lara will just say what’s on her mind, Hannah not so much,” she says.

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So much for the differences but are there any similarities that Donaldson could draw on to ground the role of Bartlett?

“I think the ambition of Lara I definitely have had. There are periods where you dedicated so much to your career and it perhaps hasn’t given you back in return what you would have hoped for and I think I can absolutely empathise with that. Maybe not in my thirties, but definitely in my twenties. So I know what that feels like and how frustrating that can be, but also feeling like you have no choice but to give more.”

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On graduating from the then RSAMD after amateur dramatics and the Scottish Youth Theatre Donaldson went on to a year at Dundee Rep and has worked consistently on stage and screen ever since, notably in last year’s National Theatre Scotland production of Enemy and in recently on TV in Annika but this is her first screen lead.

“And what a role to jump in with,” she says. “It’s a gift. Quite often I get auditions for things and there are lots of great supporting roles of course, but you can’t help as an actor to look to those lead roles and think ‘when am I going to get a crack at that?’ So when this came through, and after round after round of auditions, to finally be offered it was really a big moment for me where I just thought, oh wow, I can’t believe it. I mean I waited, I did, I’ve been around the block a few times, so yeah, it was great to finally get a crack of the whip. And she’s such a joy to play.”

While Bartlett has been passed over for promotion, without a tangible career ladder in the acting profession Donaldson has had more of a personal furrow to plough as she made her way.

“You could have the best job you are ever likely to have straight out of drama school or your first job as an actor and feel like that scale didn’t continue upwards. But the job we do is SO great and every job is entirely different, and there have been jobs I wasn’t particularly looking forward to that I’ve got so much out of and others that I really set all my hopes on and they just maybe didn’t quite live up to my expectations, so if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt it is that you never know what the job is going to entail and every job’s a learning experience as well.

“You just view the kind of trajectory of your career differently because you’re not always looking onwards and up. It comes from all angles, you never quite know what’s around the corner. One phone call could completely change how your next year’s going to pan out, for better or worse. So you have to get really good at being adaptable and living with the highs and the lows and finding some sort of equilibrium in the middle so that you can keep yourself and your mental health mostly in a sort of happy and secure place.

“Because of that I feel actors are really good at dealing with rejection. You lose more jobs than you win, so I probably wouldn’t be as annoyed as Lara is about missing out on promotion. Maybe I’m more resilient than I thought,” she says. .

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“I’ve got friends who will cite the reason they dropped out of acting and have gone on to other careers as that very thing, the rejections. They felt the highs too high and the lows too low and weren’t able to find that middle ground, and that can be really toxic.

“Maybe drama schools are more aware now and actively encourage students to find other outlets for their creativity - writing or directing or producing.”

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Again Donaldson walks the talk and she and Fletcher produce a pantomime together, born of a period between jobs.

“Our son was three months old in a sling and we were like, what…? You have to find things. It’s in Blantyre and we did two sell out shows during 2018/19 and then Covid got in the way, but we’re back this year with Jock and the Blantyre Beanstalk.

Starring Outlander’s Keith Fleming as the Dame, River City’s Charlene Boyd as the Fairy and CBeebies Molly & Mack’s Joshua Haynes, it also features Fletcher as Fleshcreeper, the baddie.

“And I do everything else,” laughs Donaldson.”Costumes, music, the sets, build a house…”

Not a problem for the actor whose home shows a flair for interiors, something she loves, and as well as the panto and show reel ‘factory’, she developed another side hustle during Covid.

“Because the theatre world had completely shut down I set up a small business doing bell tent events, and that has kind of ticked over. It’s seasonal and something that satisfied that creative urge I had in lockdown where I wasn’t able to do my day job. It’s mostly garden parties, weddings, baby showers, hen parties, kids’ parties. I’ve got four enormous bell tents that are the size of this room,” she says. “I bought one and by the end of the summer I had four because they had been so popular.”

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So not a person to sit and brood about the inevitable rejections of the job.

“Yeah, or I think it could take a real toll on your mental health. There have definitely been periods in the earlier stages of my career where I massively struggled with that - who’s doing what, why wasn’t I seen for that role?, why didn’t I get a recall for that one?, but the older you get the more other elements of your life flourish. Like being a mum; I have to say that has been a BIG thing in terms of ‘I might get this role but if I don’t that’s OK because I get to go home and spend more quality time with my family’. And that's amazing.

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Playing a police officer who mentors another prompts the question, has Donaldson ever mentored or had a mentor herself?

“Yes, when you leave drama school you get a mentor and mine was the actress Annie Louise Ross. (Granny Island in CBeebies hit series Katie Morag and River City gangland godmother Martina Kennedy). I absolutely love Annie. I’ve known her since I was about 15 because I’m best friends with her son Finn who I went to youth theatre with in Dundee. So I was paired up with Annie and she was at The Rep when I was there. She was my mentor - but she’s always kind of been a mentor and will continue to be.”

And what’s the best advice Ross has ever given her?

Donaldson laughs. “Bearing in mind that I’ve mostly worked with her onstage, she was like ‘you must ALWAYS find yourself downstage centre’. Don’t let anybody upstage you.’ Basically just get to the front middle and stand there so that everyone has to turn to face you and you never have your back to the audience.”

And Donaldson herself had to give advice to a mentee?

“Probably find other things that make you happy as well. That doesn’t mean turning your back on your career. It just means finding other things that complement your acting.”

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Meanwhile, Donaldson has been busy with the acting this year, filming as well as Granite Harbour, another two crime series.

“I had a little role in Payback, Jed Mercurio’s new show for ITV, with Peter Mullan and Morven Christie. I’m playing a DCI so I’ve got a promotion. And then I’m another police officer in the second series of Irvine Welsh’s Crime. So it’s a hat trick. Yeah, there’s definitely a theme to my acting work this year.”

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And what role would she like next?

“Er Rebus? Ha, ha. Why not? But you know I’ve never had a plan because it’s impossible to make one. If I continue to work with good people on exciting projects I will be over the moon. Especially after Covid, any job is a bonus. I think also I fell in love with my job again after Covid, massively so.

How come?

“Because I didn’t work for a long time. I’d had my son and was about to go back to work after auditioning for ages and not getting anything then got this amazing role with the National Theatre of Scotland in Kieran Hurley’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. But just before we started the country went into lockdown. My son was 18 months old and I really was ready to go back and do something, for me, then I had to wait another two years.”

As it turned out Finn den Hertog’s production of The Enemy, a contemporary re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s iconic play about corruption, politics and the media in the light of a health scare, was given extra relevance against a backdrop of Covid.

“So before that there was a big period where I didn’t work at all and I so missed it and felt a bit lost. Although I’d become a mum and that was amazing because we’d been trying for years to have a baby and for a long time I thought that wasn’t going to happen so when it did I wanted so desperately to just enjoy being a mum. But I was also feeling ‘oh god, this job that has been my life since 18 has just disappeared’, and I really struggled. I just was like, ‘I WANT that, I need something for me as well.’

Now that Donaldson has her career and life on track, she takes each audition if it comes and as well as listening to her mentor, has adopted the advice of another crime series actor.

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“There’s a Bryan Cranston video I watch every time I go in to audition,” she says. “Someone asks him, what’s the best advice you were given as an actor and essentially what he is saying is, for years I would try and second guess what they wanted from me, and then I realised all I can do is prepare my work, go in, show them what I’m capable of and then leave. Once I did that, I realised I couldn't control what anybody else thought or anything behind the scenes, and there was something very freeing about that. I listen to that often.”

Oh yes she does.

Granite Harbour debuts on the BBC Scotland channel on Thursday 1 December, 10pm followed by BBC One on Fridays. All episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer from the 1st.

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Jock and the Blantyre Beanstalk, is at Carrigan’s, Blantyre, from Dec 18–Dec 31, 2022. Tickets via the Ticket Tailor link on the Blantyre Panto Facebook page.

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