Leanne Best talks RIPPER STREET

Damian Michael Barcroft previews tonight’s episode of RIPPER STREET in an exclusive interview with Leanne Best

Leanne Best plays Jane Cobden, the first woman to be elected to the London County Council as councillor for Bromley and Bow and upon whose shoulders the suffragette movement was formed. Cobden returns in tonight’s episode which its writer, Jamie Crichton, tells me will also feature the War of Currents, Irish Home Rule (championed by Parnell and Gladstone – one of the most divisive and consequential political issues of the time), Special Branch (now Counter Terrorism Command – formed in 1883 to combat The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – a precursor to the IRA. The IRB’s bombing campaign of England in the 1860s has been described as the inception of republican terrorism…

“Episode 4 concerns two compelling conflicts: the War of Currents and the police’s struggle to win the war against Irish republican terrorism. Detective Constable Flight plays a critical role but will he pass the test…?”

Jamie Crichton, writer of Ripper Street: Dynamite and a Woman



Photo copyright: Matthias Heurich

Photo copyright: Matthias Heurich

Damian: Hi Leanne and thanks for this. I wanted to begin by saying how lovely you looked in last week’s episode but I’m afraid you might go all Women’s Lib and hit me with your handbag…

Leanne: Thanks very much! I can’t take much of the credit I’m afraid as there is a whole lot of talented people responsible for my appearance in Ripper Street… and for the record I’ve got one hell of an aim with the ole hand-bag.

Damian: If I were to take you out on a date – and I’m not promising anything! – is it still OK for a gentleman to open the door for a lady and pay for the meal or is this so last century?

Leanne: It’s tricky isn’t it gender politics in the modern age! I think I’ll go with ‘if you ask me out you pay, if I ask you out I pay, if we end up going out let’s take turns o’ piece’. And I’ll open my own door ta.

Damian: Miley Cyrus – feminist icon or twerking twit?

Leanne: Oh Miley! Well I’m not fussed on twerking twit, but feminist icon makes me want to weep!

Damian: Before we talk about Ripper Street, I really want to ask you about your critically acclaimed one-woman play, The Match Box, which was written by the celebrated Irish playwright and poet Frank McGuinness and directed by BAFTA nominated Lia Williams. Can you tell me about your character Sal, because there were aspects of the story which were quite ambiguous at times?

Leanne: Sal is a single mother who was born in England to Irish parents. When the play begins she is living alone in a house on Valencia Island after her only daughter has been murdered in crossfire during a shooting whilst walking home from school. Sal strikes matches continually throughout the play referencing hell and the smell of sulphur and as the story unfolds the audience learn that the boys who are suspected of the shooting have died in sinister circumstances, and that something more than grief may be compelling Sal to share her story. There is something terrifying and dark about what the death of her child has done to her and what she may or may not have done to avenge her.

Got a light? Leanne as Sal in The Match Box

Got a light? Leanne as Sal in The Match Box

Damian: I just want to make this clear to the readers; there were no other actors, no props (except a single box of matches) so you were alone on stage for about 1 hour and forty minutes with only accompanying lighting and music. As someone who did quite a bit of acting myself during my student days, I’m both intrigued and terrified by this – was there ever a point where you wondered if you were up to this enormous challenge?

Leanne: Only every day! When I first read it I was floored by Frank’s astonishing play and Sal, so I was pretty consumed with landing the job as I really felt that I had to play her. It was only after I’d been cast, (and had a little jump up and down!), I realised I’d have to do it at some point in front of an actual audience… and cue panic attack! Seriously though, it was the challenge of it that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it and I learnt so much from it as an actor. I miss it and Sal a lot.

Damian: Describe the minutes leading up to the very first performance – just how nervous were you?

Leanne: Lia Williams is the most amazing director and we had a pretty intense bond working together so she gave me the most inspiring pep talk before I went on stage, but that final hour before the first preview was one of the loneliest of my life! I think I went into some sort of trance because I genuinely don’t remember the walk from the dressing room to the stage! Once the lights snapped up it was like someone clicked their fingers and I was off. It was one of the most special nights of my life.

Damian: You’ve said in a previous interview about the play that your body was registering grief during every night of the performance, what exactly did you mean by this?

Leanne: It was a pretty all consuming process, and the story was so devastating that it was one of only a few jobs where I carried the play around with me all the time. The final moment on stage embodied of all of the pain and anger and despair this woman felt at the murder of her daughter and it culminated in a sort of primal scream and a total physical collapse. After the show every night I would have to take a bit of time to steady myself as I felt sick and dizzy, and just a bit out of it. I think going it alone every night made it unlike anything I’d ever had to do before.

Damian: What’s this I hear about you performing on stage for Ben Elton in your pants?

Leanne: Aha! Where did you find that! It was my first job out of drama school in a production of Ben Elton’s play Popcorn. I played a news anchor covering a hostage situation and came out about 10 minutes before the end in my knickers and bra. Just to clarify it was a stage direction not a character choice and there was a good reason!

Damian: In addition to receiving rave reviews for your tour de force performance, you were the only female nominated for best performance in a play category at the Theatre Awards UK for your role as Sal in The Match Box, did this lead directly to your part in Ripper Street?

Leanne: The award nomination didn’t but the play definitely did. We had opened at the Liverpool  Playhouse sold out and extended for a month, then we transferred to the Tricycle Theatre in London the following summer.  The brilliant Kate Rhodes James who casts Ripper Street was at our press night in London and brought me in a few days later to meet for the part of Jane Cobden. I love that this job which I loved, came from The Match Box.

Leanne at the Theatre Awards the bloody show-off!

Damian: Let’s talk about Jane Cobden. I understand that she was quite a complex character who is perhaps best remembered for her pioneering political work in women’s rights and highlighting late Victorian concepts of gender. However, there was a lot more to her than that wasn’t there? – for example, she was never a single-issue politician and displayed an equal passion for causes such as Irish independence, anti-imperialism, free trade and Congo reform to name but a few. Given the much discussed shortage of strong female characters in television, it must be a huge thrill to play such an iconic figure in Victorian history?

Leanne:  It really was! My Auntie Nelly was a Suffragette, and it’s become a bit of a running joke in my family which is full of very strong, independant, eccentric women, ( I have a picture of my mum with Germaine Greer on my wall!). The lovely thing about researching Jane is exactly as you said, she was really complicated. As well as being a socialist and a feminist, she was also a bit of a card, whose social circle was full of artists and bohemians and people who were really frowned upon by ‘decent’ society. Lots of what I read painted a picture of someone devoted to her causes, and really bloody good fun! I’d like to sit down with our Jane over a few lemonades and chew the fat.

The real Jane Cobden – not bad but not as fit as our Leanne!

Damian: I’ve mentioned Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s work, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), before in my writing on Ripper Street but I think it’s worth highlighting here again with reference to your character. Their text examines Victorian literature from a feminist perspective and highlights the male writer’s propensity to portray female characters as either “angel” or “monster”. It argues that women were written as either pure and angelic or rebellious and a threat to the more “reasoned and intellectual” man. Given the diverse range of female characters in Ripper Street, what would Gilbert and Gubar make of Long Susan, Rose and Jane Cobden?

Leanne: Well for the record I’m not sure that’s just a Victorian issue, or even one confined to drama! I think Ripper Street is really clever in it’s approach to female characters. At a glance they do conform to a stereotype, the prostitute and the madam for example, but the writing immediately subverts that. Yes they are  women who are defined by their circumstances and often the men around them, but they are striving constantly to break away from those constraints as best they can with what they have, in what is very definitely a man’s world, whilst the actresses who play them, (MyAnna and Charlene), do it with a grace, strength and complexity that makes them anything but cliches. I also think context is really important. The show is set during a period in history where there was little or no help for those born into poverty, and social mobility was almost non existent. Most likely if you were born poor you died poor and violence towards women especially those who were most vulnerable whether they worked in a brothel or the workhouse was commonplace. People like Jane Cobden devoted their lives to social reform to try to change that and I’m glad it’s touched upon as it can’t all be bonnets and high tea on the lawn. I also think it’s great that we see Jane Cobden not only as a politician, but as a woman who isn’t afraid to be forthright in her personal life at a time when the ideal woman was supposed to resemble a shrinking violet.

Damian: What can you tell us about tonight’s episode?

Leanne: I won’t give too much away but Reid and the boys are working on a case that involves the Irish independence movement and the ideologies that pitted the ballot box against the bomb. Flight goes undercover trying to infiltrate the organisation in London, and Reid finds himself in need of information that takes him back to the offices of a certain Jane Cobden.

Damian: Did you know that one of Jane Cobden’s sisters, Ellen Millicent Ashburner, was married to the artist Walter Sickert who is now a popular Jack the Ripper suspect?

Leanne:  I did not know that, and it makes me feel a bit icky.

Damian: Could make for an interesting spin-off – shall I have a word with Richard?

Leanne: Do it. Do it now. Do it quickly.

Jack the Ripper suspect Walter Sickert

Jack the Ripper suspect Walter Sickert

Damian: Now there was more than a little chemistry going on between Jane and Inspector Reid in last week’s episode. The good inspector has been particularly morose of late, could you be the one to finally lift his spirits?

Leanne: Listen, our Jane is all about public service and if the good Inspector is in need of a lift, I’m sure she’s the woman for the job.

Damian: What can we look forward to seeing you in next?

Leanne: I’ĺl be appearing in ‘Lucan’ as Sandra Rivett at the end of the year, and I pop up in the third installment of David Hare’s ‘Worricker Trilogy’ with Billl Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter. I’m currently filming The Woman in Black: Angel of Death in London playing the Woman herself. Back in a corset again except this time I’m dead!

Damien in a scene from tonight's episode, Dynamite and a Woman

Damien with Charlie Murphy in a scene from tonight’s episode, Dynamite and a Woman

Damian: Final question and possibly the most important. Whitechapel just ain’t big enough for two chaps with the same first name – so, it’s either Damien Molony or me! Let’s dish some dirt and be rid of him – tell me something bad about him – does he kick puppies or steal sweets from little children perhaps?

Leanne: All of the above. What else begins with D??? Diva that’s what… (actually the rumours are true… he’s a lovely bloke and a brilliant actor but don’t tell him i said so).

Damian: Leanne, thank you so much indeed for this interview – you’re the best!

Leanne: B’Boom! (love what you did there D…thanks) xx

I would also like to express my thanks to Jamie Crichton

 ~ Damian Michael Barcroft ~



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