Interview: Kara Tointon jazzes it up

Why she's on song in ITV's new wartime drama The Halcyon

Kara Tointon plays Betsey Day in ITV's The Halcyon. Picture by Debra Hurford Brown

Kara Tointon, former EastEnder and Strictly Come Dancing winner, is flexing her vocal chords and practising her Scottish accent. Her Dumfries accent, to be precise, for the role of a Scottish florist in Gold’s new sitcom Henry IX. And when she’s not mastering that, she’s enunciating the clipped diction of a well-to-do lady in Victorian London for a production of Gaslight about to tour in January. And to top off her arsenal of accents, she’s fresh from recording the East End tones of Betsey Day, jazz singer, alleycat and vamp in ITV’s new year drama The Halcyon, which airs on Monday. It’s just as well she’s able to project as she’s speaking on a mobile in a car on her way to rehearsals and as it wends its way through London, she cuts in and out more often than a tango dancer’s leg.

“The florist’s Scottish accent is quite lilting, and lovely,” she says. “It was written that way, and they said ‘how do you feel about doing it?’ But I wanted to do it because this character was very locked in to where she was from, and I’m an actor and want to do different things. I’m great at Liverpudlian, but Scottish and Welsh are always a bit of a worry. Anyway, I went off to my voice coach and as soon as you get working on it, it all clicks in. I just love doing a Scottish accent now, and that’s another one on the list,” she says, her Basildon brogue warm down the phone.

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“‘I’ve been trying to iron out my Essex accent,” says the 33-year-old. “Not that you shouldn’t be proud of where you come from, but I just love that neutral RP voice. I’ve always liked it, so I’ve been working on mine a bit. But then you have to go home!” she laughs.

Kara Tointon as Betsey Day, with Jamie Blackley, Matt Ryan, Sope Dirisu and Edward Bluemel

Tointon would hate anyone to think she wasn’t proud of her Essex roots, the daughter of Ken, an accountant, and Carol, a housewife.

“It’s just that I’ve always loved voices and I’m a bit obsessed with them,” she says. “I love learning about them and doing theatre, you get to learn about breathing techniques and how people speak the way they do. It’s about tone as much as accent, people like David Attenborough and Anthony Hopkins, they have voices like silk. It’s about the quality of a voice, not just dialect. But I do like the RP,” she says.

Tointon was sent to drama classes at the weekend to help her build confidence after she was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of seven. She made a documentary about the condition, Kara Tointon: Don’t Call Me Stupid, in 2010 and she agrees that she may compensate by having a better memory for images or sounds, as opposed to lines.

“The short-term memory isn’t so good,” she says. “On set someone will give me a note and I tell the director, it will probably go in, but not today, probably tomorrow, because the long-term memory is fantastic. I can remember poems from when I was a kid. That’s just the way I’m wired.”

Kara Tointon as Betsey Day, with Jamie Blackley, Matt Ryan, Sope Dirisu and Edward Bluemel

After finding she loved drama classes and being inspired by Goldie Hawn, whom she admired for her comic timing, the young Tointon began appearing in TV adverts for Pringles, Woolworths and McDonald’s and won small parts in TV series like Jonathan Creek and Teachers. By 16 she was making a living from acting. But what really made her mark was landing the role of Dawn Swann at 21, playing the tart with a heart Queen Vic barmaid in EastEnders from 2005 to 2009. As well as acting and singing, and coming top of the poll for FHM’s Sexiest Woman of 2010 and 2011, Tointon knows her way around the dance floor. When she was written out of EastEnders she went for a year without working so jumped at the chance to do Strictly Come Dancing where she was paired with the hunky Russian Artem Chigvintsev and the pair salsa-ed off with the 2010 Glitterball trophy.

After that a stage version of Pygmalion with Rupert Everett won her plaudits for her Eliza Doolittle, followed by Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends and Relatively Speaking. She played the lead opposite Dougray Scott in The Last Passenger in 2013 and starred in a film version of The Sweeney. A part in the hit ITV series Mr Selfridge and live singing last Christmas as Maria in The Sound Of Music Live all kept the Essex girl working in TV, film and theatre.

For Tointon, whatever the part, the voice is always a way into the characters, and none more so than her latest TV outing in The Halcyon. In ITV’s new eight-part drama Tointon not only speaks, but gets to sing her way through a 1940s soundtrack as she stars as Betsey, sexy siren of The Halcyon hotel’s house jazz band. The glamorous five-star establishment is at the heart of 1940s London society and the drama follows the lives and relationships of the hotel workers and guests as the Second World War rages. As well as Tointon, it stars Alex Jennings (The Lady In The Van, The Queen), Matt Ryan (Constantine, Arrow), Hermione Corfield (Knights Of The Roundtable: King Arthur, Pride and Prejudice And Zombies) and Mark Benton (Eddie The Eagle, Waterloo Road) and there are cameos from singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum and singer Beverley Knight.

Tointon isn’t fazed by the singing, having won rave reviews for her Maria, and there’s a change of tempo that she has relished.

“I’ve always loved singing but this is jazz, and it’s quite different because you have to be so confident. There’s not a right or wrong way, you can go anywhere with it. All of the songs were written for the show by Chris Egan, who did all of the music with Samuel Sim, and it was a lot of fun to be part of that side of it. Normally as an actor you just go in and do your bit but it felt like I got to be involved in a whole other side of it. I got to see the orchestra recordings being done and it was really special.”

Tointon is bubbling with enthusiasm for her latest role, which she describes as “Downton on acid”.

“Although I don’t know what the producer will say about that description,” she laughs.

“It’s so fast paced, all sex, drugs and … jazz... set in such an incredible time and the atmosphere is electric. The first episode introduces all of the characters and it hits the ground running. They’re so well written you just fall in love with them from the off. You feel like you’re on a rollercoaster and it doesn’t let up. It is gritty and vibrant and having the hotel as a backdrop makes the storylines easy because anything is possible.”

Having a grandmother who lived through the war helped Tointon get into character and made the setting come alive for someone who is a self-confessed history junkie anyway.

“I lost my gran last year and what hits home is that this is our recent history. We’re still tied in with it, so although we’ve come a long way in terms of technology, in the human sense of things we haven’t come that far at all. The human race just goes round in circles and we think we’re getting somewhere, but we’re not.”

Tointon has a thing about period dramas, having explored the start of the 20th century in the third series of Mr Selfridge, when she played the daughter of the department store founder, alongside real life sister Hannah, who is also an actor and starred in The Inbetweeners. The pair played the Selfridge sisters Rosalie and Violette.

“We weren’t sure at the beginning because we’d always kept everything quite separate because it’s nice to do your own thing. So it was kind of a one-off, but it was fun. We thought if we didn’t get those parts playing sisters, that would have been bad: it was almost meant to be.

“Hannah had a grittier storyline than me and I would just roll up and do little bits,” she says. “But it was lovely to be part of that show and now I look at Selfridges in a whole different light. It was my favourite shop, but now I know about the history and the people involved I love it even more.

“What’s lovely about doing periods is that you get to soak it all up and learn about it in depth. I loved history at school. In The Halcyon, during the Second World War, people were living on a knife edge. They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring so their decision making was quick and they lived life to the full in that moment.”

No-one lives in the moment more than Tointon’s character, Betsey Day, who she describes as “frivolous, promiscuous and carefree. She’s the most fun you can have playing a character. She plays sexy when it suits her but she’s actually a bit of an alley cat and makes the best of everything, having fun on the way.

“Betsey has used her voice to get by and been discovered by the manager of the house band, Sonny Sullivan, singing in a pub. He thinks the world of her but she thinks she’s beneath him, a churchgoer who treats women with respect, whereas he’s seen her with every man coming and going in the hotel. But we’ll see where the relationship goes,” says Tointon. “There’s also the added element that he’s black and she’s white and a mixed race couple at the time wasn’t common or approved of. Thank God, that we’ve come quite far in many ways.”

A more contemporary setting is enjoyed by Tointon’s Scottish florist in Henry IX, a three-part, sitcom set in the fictitious, contemporary royal court. Dubbed a “Porridge-in-the-Palace” satire from Britcom classic writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, alongside Tointon it stars Sally Phillips, Annette Crosbie, Colin Salmon, Don Warrington, Pippa Haywood, Gina Bellman and Robert Portal.

“It feels really nostalgic and classic,” says Tointon, “yet it’s contemporary too, about a fictional modern day royal family and it’s funny.”

Tointon and her dog Winston, a schnauzer-pinscher cross, are currently living at home with her parents – well you need somewhere safe to stash your Glitterball.

“I’ve sort of moved in and probably outlasted my stay. I rented out my flat for a bit because I’m always on the run with work, but I have a plan to move into central London, just to say that I’ve done it. It hasn’t happened yet though. I’m not sure I’m ready to leave again; it’s scary out there.

“Yes, the Glitterball is there, but it’s now a bald Glitterball, like it was made on the Blue Peter set with Blu-Tack. All of the mirror tiles have fallen off so it’s grey and bald, but hey, it’s my pride and joy.

“I loved the whole Strictly experience. When in life do you get to just go in and dance every day? It was a lot more intense than I had expected, but it was a mad, one-off, crazy experience.”

It’s also where she met her former partner Chigvintsev but this and in fact any relationship (fellow EastEnder Joe Swash, Surprise Surprise’s Matt Johnson), is something Tointon doesn’t want to talk about. After visa issues Chigvintsev went to the US to do Dancing With the Stars and the pair remained friends.

“No, sorry, I don’t talk about any of that because I cringe when I read it,” she says. “In the past I just used to talk about everything, because well, why wouldn’t you? But then you have to read it and you just feel sick about yourself, so no, I don’t bother any more.”

With the talk turning personal Tointon changes the topic to her rehearsals for Gaslight, a return to theatre in the mystery thriller set in the 1880s. She plays a young woman whose mind is being manipulated by her sinister husband until help arrives in the form of Keith Allen playing a retired detective.

“It’s a little bit different, a psychological thriller, gritty and something to get my teeth into. It’s set in the winter in Victorian London so it’ll fit nicely in most of the old theatres we’re visiting. I’m really looking forward to it. If it does well with audiences, it may head to the West End, but sadly we don’t get further north than York,” she says.

No chance for Tointon to practise her Scottish accent, then.

“No, but your accent is good,” she says, ever the magpie for a new one to try out. “You’re very lucky, it has a twang. Where’s that from?” And then as she enters the rehearsal studio, the mobile cuts off and she disappears, no doubt trying out an Edinburgh accent for size. n