Beating a retreat
As Merseybeat's tough police boss Susan Blake, she has been bullied, shot at and raped. Has it all become too much for Haydn Gwynne?
Interview by Jo Wiltshire
Haydn Gwynne is to television what crisp, white linen is to restaurants. The actress, who is to leave police drama Merseybeat after a blistering run of storylines, including rape, and revenge, elevates whatever show she is in as surely as a sea of starchy cloth elevates bare Formica. Her long, mobile face and low, warmly modulated voice convince and add depth. She is, in a nutshell, a touch of class.
She would query this. In fact, when I tell her that she was once described as a pretender to Emma Thompson's 'Queen of the Blue-stockings' crown, and is widely considered to be someone whom producers - from those of Drop the Dead Donkey to Peak Practice and, of course, Merseybeat - call when they need a shot of erudition with which to woo the critics, she is commendably flabbergasted.
'Well, if it's true, it's not something I think about,' she says. 'I suppose it's a useful quality to have. Television tends to stereotype people - female leading roles tend to be about strong, intelligent women with a professional background - and once you've been convincing in one role you tend to be offered others like it. If I've got that believability factor, obviously I will exploit that, although whether it says anything about me personally, I'm not so sure.
Gwynne is a former linguist who decided, at the age of 26, to fulfil a secret desire to act. Everything about her screams taste and intelligence. Bluestocking, however, is too dull a label - she is much more fun than that. She has a ready laugh and a confident wit and there is 'no arrogance about her whatsoever. As we speak, she devours a croissant with a cup of coffee that has taken several minutes to pour, both of us flummoxed by the screw-top pot. 'This is going to sound lovely on your tape recorder,' she mumbles, mouth full. Five minutes of me munching.'
Although the makers describe Merseybeat as an 'ensemble" show, there is no doubt that Gwynne's character, Superintendent Susan Blake, is the linchpin of the series and has had all the best plot lines. At the beginning of series two, Blake was brutally raped in a car park. Nearing the end of the series, she was having an affair with her ex-husband, unaware that he had been her attacker. By the end, she had found out and embarked on a course of retribution - the last episode ending with a gunshot, leaving viewers unsure who had died. 'We had Susan going a little bit bananas,' says Gwynne. 'That whole series was intense. I got the script, saw the rape at the end of episode one and thought, "Bloody hell, she won't crack a smile for about six episodes".
'Although it's nice to have an interesting story line, I'd just been doing The Secret [a dark drama about women haunted by a murderous past], which was very intense. I was worried that the audience would go, "Oh, not her again, get that miserable cow off the screen".' She laughs. 'What happened? People used to hire me to be funny.'
She needn't have worried: the rape storyline proved a talking point that was all grist to the mill in the BBC's attempt to trounce ITV's The Bill as the best cop drama. The third series opened with the knowledge that Blake survived, the ex-husband shot himself, and a cover-up has ensured that Blake's vigilante actions are glossed over and her career is intact.
'We see her getting things back together,' says Gwynne. 'But I don't think anybody can go through that sort of trauma without there being a knock-on effect. Then she is responsible for ordering the shooting of somebody who appears to be about to fire at one of her officers. But it turns out to be a teenage mother, and the gun was a replica. She seems to be coping well, believing she did the right thing, but this is just another problem on the pile, and the only way she can handle it is to cut herself off from her feelings.
'This throws up another question: if she's got to bury her feelings that deep just to function in the job, should she look for something else? She's questioning whether this is what she wants to do with her life. 'When a case comes up in her last episode that leads her to behave in a very surprising way, she ends up deliberately engineering her own downfall.'
Gwynne says that her sole reason for leaving Merseybeat was because she could no longer combine working on the series with looking after her two children, Orlando, four, and Harry, two, who live with her in Cheshire while she is filming. Her partner, Jason Phipps, who is studying for an MA in psychoanalysis, remains in London and visits at weekends. 'It is totally for family reasons,' she says. 'The children have always been with me. Jason has to commute. I have, a wonderful nanny, and the show is based in one area, so I don't have to fly all over the country. But now Orlando is of school age, so moving back to London seems the natural thing to do. I'll come back, sort him out, and then my choices will-be different.'
It is ironic that Gwynne's major storyline at the beginning of Merseybeat was Blake's struggle to combine work with children. 'Coincidentally, my children and hers are exactly the same age,' says Gwynne. 'When I started, Orlando was three and Harry just under six months, the same as the children I was working with. The first episode started on Blake's first day back after maternity leave - the chaos - at home, the trying to find your clothes and rushing out and getting in the car and crying all the way to work. I didn't need much research for that side of the job, or a lot of make-up for the scenes about sleepless nights!'
Gwynne is not one for talking much about her family. She was born 40 years ago in Sussex into a large family, who all traipsed supportively to remote theatres to see her when she was starting out in her career, but who now 'kind of make fun' of her celebrity status. In her early thirties she lost her father, Guy, who ran a printing business, to leukaemia, and her sister, Jane, also to cancer.
Her secret ambition to act is something she describes as though it were an embarrassing ailment. 'If acting had ever popped into my mind, I had suppressed it,' she says. She was teaching languages in Rome when she found herself torn between two job offers, unable to make up her mind between them because her heart was set on the stage. She found the courage to make the leap, however - the only problem was how to tell her father.
'I thought he might be disappointed that I wasn't going to be doing something where I'd use my brain,' she says. 'Of course, it is a total misapprehension that acting doesn't require any intelligence. I told him I'd got the proverbial bombshell to drop. He went pale. I said, "No, I'm not pregnant!" He was so relieved that it was all, "Oh, right, fine, go for it!"'
She applied to drama schools and also applied for hundreds of acting jobs, receiving only rejections. Just as she was gritting her teeth to start a postgraduate drama course, she was offered a part in an Alan Ayckbourn play at his theatre in Scarborough -a dream debut.
She went on to take one of the starring roles in the ill-fated multimillion-pound musical, Ziegfeld, which gave her several long-standing friends who found themselves united in an 'overwhelming' cycle of script revisions, cast changes and constant rehearsals as the show foundered. 'Those jobs toughen you up,' she says.
When Ziegfeld ended Gwynne headed to America to 'get away from it all'. While she was there, the BBC offered her the part of university teacher Robyn Penrose opposite Warren Clarke in the 1989 adaptation of David Lodge's Nice Work. It catapulted her into the public consciousness. In 1990 came Drop the Dead Donkey, the satirical newsroom show in which she played sharp tongued news editor Alex, and which proved she could do comedy, too, A succession of TV drama parts and stage roles followed - she was a high-profile name-with the Royal Shakespeare Company - most of which featured Gwynne as a foreign innocent.
'When I started out on TV, I didn't use my own accent for about two years,' she says. She took small roles in series such as Dangerfield and Poirot, and in 1997 appeared in the film Remember Me? with Robert Lindsay, Imelda Staunton and Rik Mayall. She is best known for her role as Dr Joanna Graham in Peak Practice, which she joined in 1998 for a reported £350.000, making her the highest paid woman on TV at the time. She was contracted for two series and did three before leaving to have her second child. Her character was 'bumped off' by being gunned down, and Gwynne was anxious that her Merseybeat character shouldn't go the same way. At one point it looked as though she would be shot dead,' she says, 'and I thought, "You Can't do this to me again." If I died in this programme, any viewer seeing me in something else won't bother waiting for the end, they'll just think, "Oh, dead woman walking".'
The producers of Merseybeat could have been forgiven for plotting a gory end for Susan Blake. After all Gwynne's character was such. an integral part of show that it is difficult to see how she will be replaced 'they always knew the length of contract was an issue because of my children. It was their suggestion that I just think about doing the two series. And while on the one hand they were sorry I was going - I hope! - on the other they were happy I was staying into the third series.'
Lesley Ash, of Men Behaving Badly fame, will be joining Merseybeat as no-nonsense Inspector Charlie Eden. 'She's not coming in and taking over my role,' says Gwynne. 'They're bringing in a different character and tackling it that way.'
So, will the emphasis on women struggling at the top of the police force change? 'Well, in real life, women in the force is still an issue, but times are changing,' she says. 'Programmes like Prime Suspect started in the early Nineties, and those guys who were giving DCI Jane Tennison (played by Helen Mirren) a really tough time have retired. A lot of the guys for whom it was an issue are not in the force any more. We did a bit of shadowing for Merseybeat and there was a female superintendent with two children. Her colleagues said that they would rather have a boss they perceived as being sensible and a good listener than an arrogant one who always thought he knew best.'
Life now for Gwynne will revolve around Orlando and Harry, which will mean that jobs out side London will have to be short and sharp. It will be nice for Jason to have you back, I say 'either that, or we'll split up in three months,' she replies. He'll be thinking, "You mean I've got to live with you all Week?"' Whatever the restrictions, it won't be long before producers are lining up to add Gwynne's touch of class to their programmes, but she is determined not to stick to a formula.
'I'd love to do more theatre but Jason is still training so finance, unfortunately, is an issue. I suppose I could consider a short run at the Almeida or the Domar if I were lucky enough, because although there's no money, they'd be quite short term jobs. I'd also like to do comedy again. After my recent roles, if I see a script with so much as a sniffle in it, I'll run away.'
So there are no plans to tackle Hollywood then? She muses. 'If I were younger and doing a different sort of work, who knows? There was a friend of Jason's who used to say I'd make a great Star Trek character. And I'd get to work with the lovely Patrick Stewart...'
For now, it seems, her claim to global fame must remain that she once beat Tim Henman at tennis. 'oh God!' she moans. 'I wish I'd never mentioned that - it follows me everywhere. Let me set the record straight. It was a pro-celebrity charity event, and Tim Henman and some weather girl played me and Peter Fleming (John McEnroe's former doubles partner). It was just a few games. Anyway, Pete and I won. I mentioned it in one of those questionnaire interviews that asks for a surprising fact about you - and now it won't go away'
By now, she has polished off the croissant on her tray, but left the banana, which makes me warm to her. Any woman who eats pure butter for a mid-morning snack has my vote. And if she can't open a screw-top plastic pot, who cares? Despite her protestations, Gwynne is every inch a fresh-roasted-beans-and-silver-coffee-set kind of a woman. Served on white linen, of course.