5 minutes with Steve Pemberton, actor, comedian and screenwriter

Steve Pemberton
Steve Pemberton

FOR THOSE WHO MISSED THE SHOW AT CHRISTMAS, WHAT IS MAPP AND LUCIA ABOUT?

Lucia is a snobbish character who lives in a town called Riseholme where she runs all the cultural events and is a very indomitable spirit. When her husband dies, she feels she has to get out and find a new place to conquer. There’s a town called Tilling where Miss Mapp lives. She is the absolute queen of her village, so what EF Benson did is bring these two characters together and sparks fly as they have this war to see who will be dominant in the town’s cultural life. It’s all set in the 1920s and 1930s.

HOW DID YOU COME TO DO THE ADAPTATION?

It had been adapted previously in the 1980s and I loved it. I went out and bought all the books - they’re the kind of books you genuinely want to read again; I’ve read them all about three or four times, and I already had before I even knew the BBC wanted to do another adaptation. I had the passion for it and they gave me the job. It was a labour of love.

YOU MUST HAVE BEEN THRILLED WITH THE CAST

Absolutely. Anna Chancellor was born to play Lucia, she brings this grace and wit, and she just looks amazing. She perfectly fits the role and was absolutely top of the list. And then Miranda Richardson is just dazzling. We all knew she could do comedy from watching Blackadder, but she hasn’t done a lot of it of late, and I think she really relished this role. Mapp is a brilliant part because she’s a real schemer, she’s someone who acts without thinking, and there’s a lot of pathos there. What Miranda brought out brilliantly is how painful it is to be top dog one minute, and then to see all your friends going off to somebody else’s house instead of going to yours.

DID YOU ALWAYS PLAN TO BE IN IT?

Yes. Georgie Pillson is such a lovely role. He’s this very camp, fey companion of Lucia’s. Her husband has always welcomed Georgie into the house because he causes no threat whatsoever. He’s described in the books as not obtrusively masculine; he loves doing piano duets, needlework and art. It was very daring of Benson to write these characters at the time. He doesn’t put any labels on it, but it’s clear what he means.

YOU’RE A BIG HORROR FAN, SO DID YOU FIND MAPP AND LUCIA AFTER READING EF BENSON’S GHOST STORIES?

I’ve never actually read his ghost stories, I just came to it via the other TV series. I know he was a very prolific writer. His whole family are really interesting. There were six brothers and sisters, and it’s purported that they were all gay, although we can’t prove that. Their father was the Archbishop of Canterbury. All were artistic, writers or achaeologists. I think of all of them, the one who’s stayed the course is EF Benson, because 90 years on, these stories are still much loved.

ARE YOU RECORDING THE NEW SEASON OF MYSTERY SERIES INSIDE NO 9 AT THE MOMENT?

Yes, we are. Last week we were doing a witch-hunt in a barn, which was freezing, and this week we’re doing a spooky seance.

DO YOU HAVE A DREAM PROJECT, OR SOMEONE YOU’D LOVE TO WORK WITH?Not really. The brilliant thing about doing Inside Number 9 is that it’s a different cast every week. I probably shouldn’t say who yet, but there are some really funny actors and actresses. I don’t ever plan my career in any way. This whole Mapp and Lucia thing didn’t come from me, I just reacted to the news that the BBC wanted to do it. I suppose I feel I’m in a stronger position now, not just as an actor but as a writer as well. But having just come out of Benidorm and Whitechapel, I’m going to enjoy having nothing on the slate and see what comes up. Doing something like Happy Valley was brilliant for me because until then, I hadn’t had time to do any different things, and that came out of the blue. So I want to see what else crops up.

IS VARIETY IMPORTANT TO YOU?

I love it. I love the fact I went from these bleak Yorkshire Moors to this very camp 1920s summer, which was an absolute joy, and now I’m doing six different things with Inside Number 9. So looking back at that as 12 months of work, that’s pretty good.

Mapp And Lucia is out now on DVD.