For Scottish actor Morven Christie, like many others, lockdown became a time to reassess, to look at her career and life and work out what she wanted. The hiatus imposed on her industry saw her take time out to think about what she did and why she did it, emerging with a renewed sense of what mattered and what she wanted to achieve.
Well known from her long theatre, TV and film career in popular hit shows The Bay, The A Word, Grantchester and Hebrides based feature film The Road Dance, released in UK cinemas on May 20 by Parkland Entertainment, she’s back on our TV screens this week with BBC’s Floodlights, a factual drama about sexual abuse in the football world, and a new Netflix series with a supernatural slant due out later in the year.
Morven joins me over Zoom from her garden, away from the attentions of Pickle the cat who likes to stroll across her laptop as well as Ziggy Smalls the dog, both back indoors in the Glasgow home she shares with her partner.
“After the second season of The Bay we went into lockdown quite soon afterwards and it just felt like time for me to figure things out,” she says. “Because I never wanted to be an actor for the sake of being an actor. And I certainly didn’t want any role just because it was the lead or anything like that.
“I really wanted to jump inside other people’s experiences and show that to other people so they could maybe understand them better. It was all about me just trying to tune back into what this is for. I got to a point pre-pandemic where I was asking am I doing that? Does any of this have any real meaning? And I think like a lot of people, the beginning of that lockdown period was a real evaluation of so many things. That space for me was really brilliant and powerful because everything just stopped and I was able to tune back into what matters to me and what do I want? I split from my agents and didn’t have one for a few months. I wasn’t sure if I was going to act, I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do. I was just reading loads of books and spending lots of time in nature and just getting in touch with different parts of myself.”
She did, however, make a short film with Douglas Henshall for National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series, written by his wife Tena Štivičić, directed by Finn Den Hertog and filmed on his back green on a mobile phone.
She laughs. “That was fun. It was a really weird time for me because I was right in the heart of thinking I don’t really want a camera on me right now, even if it’s your phone. But it was a good laugh, in a shared back garden.”
It was fitting too, since feeling ‘weird’ was a common experience during the height of Covid, and the pared down nature of filming a two-hander without sets or costumes in a back garden, focused on a couple possibly spending too much time together, chimed with what many people were experiencing.
When lockdown lifted and with her renewed sense of purpose, Christie was drawn towards Floodlights, the true story of professional footballer Andy Woodward, who hit the headlines in 2016 by speaking out about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child from his youth coach Barry Bennell. From being a talented young player he turned professional but memories of the abuse haunted him, cutting his career short and affecting his adult life until he finally went public, bringing a national scandal out into the open. His courage saw hundreds of men, many also victims of Bennell, come forward and the former coach was jailed.
Christie plays Andy Woodward’s mother Jean, with Steven Edge as his father Terry, Max Fletcher as the young player and Gerard Kearns the adult, alongside Jonas Armstrong as Barry Bennell in the drama directed by Nick Rowland [Calm with Horses and Hard Sun].
“The story is just massive, watershed stuff, potentially quite a lot bigger than Savile, what this guy did. It’s really, really shocking,” she says.
“Andy has made it his mission to raise awareness, and you can do documentaries and be interviewed on news shows, but what drama has the capacity to do is put people in his shoes, and the shoes of his parents, and reach into that empathy. I think that’s what’s been done really brilliantly in this film. Nick has made the point of view singularly Andy’s and that means that you can’t look away. It’s one little kid, one young vulnerable boy.”
“The hope is to try and break that silence around sexual abuse so people talk to each other, because I think that’s how it stops. What needs to happen is people talking. A kid that feels threatened or in a situation like this needs to feel like they can talk about it, that they can go to someone.”
With twin timelines, one in the 1980s when Woodward was a teenager and another when he’s an adult, Floodlights goes beyond headlines to show how grooming and manipulation happens incrementally, and deals with the long-term effects on the lives of the abused and their families.
“With Andy’s family, his dad was out of work and mum Jean was working in a chip shop and they were really trying hard just to get by, so they were all vulnerable. They so much wanted their son to have this opportunity. Football gave him joy, was his passion and someone saying I can provide this opportunity that you can’t, it’s really intoxicating. This is absolutely Andy’s story, but once you get into the family story too it was so pervasive and all-encompassing what Bennell did to that family to get the things he wanted, that they are all victims of it.”
Made in collaboration with the Woodward family, the cast know it has their backing and approval, something that’s important to Christie.
“Andy was on set a bit and his sister too. And as much as he has talked about this a lot and he’s keeping talking about it, is very active, sitting passively watching his story being played back is really, really difficult. I hope that ultimately it will be really healing for them all - sadly Terry’s gone now - as a family.”
For Christie, having a small cast and crew made for a positive environment in which to make a film about such a sensitive issue, particularly with a young actor playing Andy as a child.
“It felt like a really tight collaboration. Everyone was very tuned in to each other, sensitive to each other’s energies at any given moment. I think we knew what we were making. Max, the boy that played the young Andy, was really comfortable and confident and happy to be there. We just kept it fun,” she smiles. “He was kind of, ‘what did you do before you had Deliveroo? And, ‘is this what TV used to look like?’ So those aspects were all quite entertaining. Also for that period, for Steve and me playing the parents, we’re playing joyful, loving parents that are just wanting the best for their kid.”
“The parts that we filmed with Gerard as the older Andy, there was another energy in the room that was about the responsibility of the story, and Gerard is a really sensitive actor. We’d come in to start doing a scene and walk through it a little bit then once the cameras would start to turn, it just sort of grew, things happened. We shot it in a very short space of time on a really low budget so there was a sense of really committed people trusting each other and going for it. I think we all were really conscious about Andy and his family and wanting to do right by them, to let the story tell itself.”
Prior to Floodlights, after lockdown saw her looking hard at the work she wanted to do, Christie took on the part of Mairi Macleod in The Road Dance, playing another mother trying to do right by her children in a world where they are under threat. Yet the context couldn’t be more different, the setting a small crofting community on Lewis on the eve of the First World War.
“They’re very different environments, different cultures,” says Christie. “In the The Road Dance Mairi’s whole being is ruled by grief and loneliness and that’s the opposite of Jean - if there was anything she was sad about it was that her boy was away from her more than she would have liked. Whereas Mairi was ruled by this fear of what was going to happen to her girls if they stepped out of what was expected of them, and she was frozen. That was what really appealed to me, that she was fossilised by grief and then when things started to happen with her daughter, it broke her back open again.
“I really loved that sense that the capacity for love and acceptance and empathy is never gone. It might just lock up a little bit, but it’s still there.”
Like Floodlights, a small crew and cast on a limited budget filming during a pandemic made for an all hands on deck atmosphere that Christie enjoyed.
“What was really great about Floodlights and The Road Dance was the really small skeleton-sized crews and more guerilla style productions… stripping everything back and just being people really talking to each other and not worrying too much about the lighting or your hair, or whatever,” she laughs. “I remember on the second season of The Bay we were filming on the Lancashire coast, it’s blowing a hoolie and the make-up department are plastering my hair down with hairspray and I’m like ‘just let it blow! Just let it be! This is what people look like!’
Such was the climate and landscape of Lewis that it’s an integral part of The Road Dance, and something that adds authenticity to the island tale and experience, which may have contributed to its popularity with audiences.
“It was a really singular Scottish story,” says Christie, “very much rooted in the place and community and its dynamics. I think the cast are really good and maybe it’s a little bit to do with that stripped back thing and the timing because it became quite hard to watch lots of bells and whistles during Covid. It really separated out the nonsense, didn’t it? Made it extraneous. And The Road Dance doesn’t have any of that. It’s kind of miraculous that they were able to make that period film on that budget at that time.”
From Floodlights to The Road Dance, to The Bay to The A Word, the variety of roles she is offered is one of the things Christie loves about her chosen occupation.
“It is what’s great about my job. There was definitely a period where it felt like I was doing really similar things all the time and I had sort of lost a little bit of really what made me want to do this in the first place, which is just telling stories from the perspective of empathy, exploring what it is to be human and having an audience maybe see something different about their own humanity.
“So The Road Dance was the first thing I did after and then Floodlights and then the Netflix series, so I’m definitely actively going in a direction of being able to tell lots of different experiences. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Fans of The A Word, the family drama set in the Lake District centred around a boy who has autism, which despite the challenges faced, is uplifting and often funny, will be sorry to hear there won’t be any more series.
“No, that’s done although there’s a spin off with Ralph and Katy which is great. Yeah, that show did a really good job, I think, of pitching a tone that kept it joyful and sort of celebratory even though the marriage breaks down and the family fall apart and lots of really dark things happen. The show itself has this kind of lightness of touch that I think really served it well. I think that that was the best way to tell that story.”
The Netflix series Christie refers to is Lockwood & Co, a supernatural thriller written and directed by Joe Cornish, based on a series of young adult books by Jonathan Stroud about a teenage psychic detective agency.
“I’ve never done anything like it before,” she says. “It’s fun and again a really great team, and a totally different style of thing. It’s quite a departure and was just a lovely thing to dip into. .
“The young leads are brilliant and so funny, and it’s got a wonderful edge to it - quite adult. I love the music it has and the parallels between this supernatural situation that’s going on in London and deeper themes…. I’m not allowed to say too much, but I think it’s really clever and ambitious. Going from shooting with 20 crew on an island to shooting with 120 crew at Ealing was quite like, woah, OK, we’re back.”
Christie plays Penelope Fittes, about whom she can only say “she’s the kind of public face of a very large company that oversees the world of ghost hunting. She is sort of iconic, but she’s other things too…”
And does she believe in the supernatural, since we’re on the topic?
“Do I believe in ghosts? I dunno… I definitely am quite a sort of spiritual person, not in a religious way or anything but definitely when I lost my grandmother I felt a lot closer to her in those weeks after her death than I did when she was alive in that I felt like she was actually present, like I could have conversations with her. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts exactly. But yeah, I think, you know, there’s meaning, there’s more than just jobs and money…
“Humans are so interesting because we, and particularly Western humans, really need to believe we understand and know everything because it’s scary to think about all of the things that we don’t know, but it’s also quite arrogant to think that way I think. And really, of course there’s more…
Speaking of more, after Floodlights and Lockwood & Co, what’s next for Christie?.
“I don’t know,” she says, sitting back on her seat in the garden with a smile.
“There are always a lot of things to read, especially now there’s a lot of content being made for a lot of different platforms, but I think more than ever it’s about being discerning about what you say no to. I’m not at a place in my life where I just want to work for the sake of working all the time. I think the balance is really important and I’m really mindful of the kinds of stories I want to tell and the meaning that they have to have for me. And those are quite rare. I’m interested in Scottish writers and books, and really want to tell more Scottish stories. There are lots of parts to this journey for me…”
Floodlights will be on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on Tuesday 17 May at 9pm.
The Road Dance is released in UK cinemas May 20 by Parkland Entertainment.