MIDNIGHT TRYST AND BLACK MAGNETISM
An exclusive Ripper Street interview with Leanne Best
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2015
My first interview with Leanne Best was in November 2013 as the second series of Ripper Street was broadcast on BBC1. While she was a respected, and indeed award-nominated stage actor, she was less well known to television audiences at that point despite screen credits that included Casualty, Wire in the Blood and Doctors. Since then however, and with appearances in such high-profile projects as The Worricker Trilogy, Lucan, Fortitude and, most recently, The Outcast and Home Fires to name but a few, there has been an explosion of love for the increasingly prolific Leanne who seems hell-bent on turning up in almost every TV show – not to mention a promising new career in the movies, having played the title role in last year’s The Woman in Black: Angel of Death and soon to be seen in some exciting new films that are either currently filming or in post-production.
I wanted to interview Leanne for a second time to discuss the third series of Ripper Street, on being a Hammer Horror Monster and breaking bread with Bryan Cranston. Most of all, however, I just wanted to speak to her again while she’s still answering my calls because I predict Leanne Best is going to be something of a star…
Damian: Hello again Leanne and thanks for doing this. So much has happened in your career since our first interview but the last time we chatted was over drinks at the Brown Bear while we drowned our sorrows lamenting the demise of Ripper Street. Not only has Ripper Street returned for a third series (with the promise of two more!) but you have managed to land roles in many well-received and much-admired television dramas, big-budget Hollywood films and, if all this were not enough, also been Willy Russell’s personal choice to star in the 35th anniversary stage production of Educating Rita! – what’s going on?
Leanne: Ah that’s all very lovely of you to say! There’s a fair bit going on at the minute… Second series of Homefires is underway and I’m filming a drama for the BBC in London.
Damian: How much of this success would you put down to the exposure gained from Ripper Street?
Leanne: Well it certainly didn’t do me any harm I’m sure! Ripper Street is such a classy production and so loved by its viewers. I felt very grateful to be in such good company across the board from the actors to the writing, the direction and design. The whole thing is impressive so to be a part of that I’m sure has served me well.
Damian: Before we discuss series three, I’d like to talk about your character Jane Cobden (daughter of Richard Cobden) of Bow and Bromley Division and the adopted candidate of Liberal and Radical Association for the London County Council Election. We first meet her around the time of the public meeting of electors in the Bromley Vestry Hall, Bow Road so, at a very rough guesstimate, I’d say this was Wednesday, January 14th 1890. Your character is, of course, based on the real Jane Cobden (1851 – 1947), who was indeed the first elected female councillor and is best remembered as a pioneer of the suffragette movement. Let’s remind ourselves of how she was introduced in the third episode of the second series, Become Man (written by Marnie Dickens)…
JACKSON: I just saw the damnedest thing. This woman I just passed in the street. No, scratch that. She was not a woman. Uh-uh. She was a goddess, Reid, to make even a heathen like you believe… You should have seen her. She had gentle eyes, perfect face and the body that one imagines under the…
REID: Yes. Thank you, Captain.
COBDEN: Oh, no, please – do continue on, sir.
REID: I apologise, Councillor Cobden. He is American and therefore lacking in manners or propriety.
COBDEN: Well, then, we shall get along famously.
Jane Cobden could have possibly been an overbearingly moralistic and righteous character but the way in which she is written, and indeed performed, is simply a joy to watch and, even in her first episode, there is an immediate chemistry between her and Reid. It must have been so much fun to play her?
Leanne: I love playing Jane. In reality she was quite a firebrand who bucked most trends of the time for a woman so that coupled with the writing allowed me to be quite free with her. Part of her attraction for Reid I think was her lightness and willingness to be open to what life has to offer.
Damian: Another scene which I love and think is so indicative of your character is the following scene that comes towards the end of Threads of Silk and Gold (S2: 05 written by Toby Finlay):
REID: It is a rare thing to find a friend in this world, a true friend. Rarer still one that might become more. There are some that do and risk all for it and, even though the world and all its might may seek to snuff out their love they burn with it, fierce and bright, like the sun. The love that I have known, the strength needed of me was not there. I failed my wife Miss Cobden. I would not have that pain visited upon you. You said the past was naught but black magnetism. If I allowed, you would help me resist it. I have had enough of the darkness if you would help me know the sun.
COBDEN: Well, Edmund, I do hope you’re not going to launch into sonnets every time you wish to take me for dinner and a dance. I should find all the swooning quite tiresome.
Quite understandably, Reid is such a sombre and melancholy character but I wonder if you could tell us what it is like to work with Matthew Macfadyen during such scenes and give us a general sense of the atmosphere on set?
Leanne: He’s a brilliant actor and a lovely presence on set and it really is a pleasure to work with him. He also does a pristine scouse accent which cracks me up.
Damian: In the grand finale of series two, Our Betrayal, thanks to the odious Fred Best (David Dawson) having written a charming little piece for The Star with the headline, “Councillor Cobden and Detective Inspector Reid in Midnight Tryst”, Chief Inspector Abberline orders Reid to end the relationship. I suppose considering this and Reid’s later dark journey, it was perhaps inevitable but do you share my disappointment that there wasn’t more scenes that showcased the delightfully playful and flirty banter between the two of you in series three?
Leanne: I think it’s an interesting dynamic. Although I’m sure she still has feelings for Reid it’s perhaps more dramatically honest at this juncture to see how they are with each other as friends and allies when he has made it clear he can’t or won’t ever be able to be with her because of a world in which they both have very different paths to tread… I’m an old romantic but this is Ripper Street so I’m not too surprised they didn’t skip off into the sunset together, or not yet they haven’t anyway!
Damian: Reid writes Cobden a letter which we see her read presumably breaking off the relationship, can you remember if there was anything actually written on it – I’m just wondering if there was any information regarding the contents that might have been cut?
Leanne: I can’t remember what day it is most of the time so I couldn’t tell you to be honest! No content was cut as I recall. It was simply that he didn’t feel he could be with her.
Damian: The final moments of series two were stunning with Drake and the villainous Jedediah Shine (Joseph Mawle) slugging it out in the boxing ring with Reid screaming at Drake to finish him off. There is no dialogue between you and Matthew but the scene is just so powerful. Cobden simply stares at Reid as he shouts “No, Sergeant! You kill him!”. Was it a look of disappointment, disbelief or even disgust – what was going on inside Cobden’s head at that point?
Leanne: Despite what Reid had told Jane about who he was and the world he inhabited she refused to ever see him as a monster. In that moment I imagine she did see, and was devastated by it.
Damian: It’s crazy to look back and consider this scene could very well have been the last we saw of Reid and friends. At what point did you find out that Ripper Street had been saved by Amazon much to the delight of the thousands of fans who petitioned for its return?
Leanne: I heard through my agent. I was genuinely chuffed to bits. Irrespective of my connection to the show or whether we’d see Jane again, I felt it was the wrong thing to take away from its very loyal fan base, the opportunity to see what would happen to a world they had really invested in. It’s a great drama, and what a testament to that that its fans saved it from the chopping block!
Damian: I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of your other work. How flattering was it to be cast as a Hammer Horror Monster?
Leanne: I’ve played a few dead women now… I must have that glow! It was really good fun. Hammer Horror is an iconic part of British cinema so it was a lovely thing to have the opportunity to do.
Damian: Given the intense make-up effects and FX prosthesis, were you not worried about your eyebrows?
Leanne: My eyebrows were OK surprisingly but I lost a layer of my epidermis I’m sure when the face came off after a long day.
Damian: Is it true that the original script was quite different from the film that was shot in that the idea involved the government acquiring the Eel Marsh House and converting it into a military hospital for the insane?
Leanne: I’m not sure about that. The draft I worked on was the one that made it on screen. It’s based on the second Susan Hill book but how that idea was developed for the film I don’t know.
Damian: Were some scenes cut because I’m sure I saw images either from the trailers or stills that featured you, particularly a scene at the grave in the woods where we see you quite closer than the way the scene appeared in the film?
Leanne: I think I know the still you mean and I think that was a press shot not an actual scene from the film. That being said there are always things that are lost in the edit so maybe?
Damian: Do you believe in ghosts?
Leanne: I do actually, yes.
Damian: What can you tell us about your role in Bryan Cranston’s new film The Infiltrator and how you became involved?
Leanne: I’m not sure I’m allowed to say too much about the film but it was a pinch myself moment working with him as I’m a proper fan. And he was such a gent. Bloody brilliant. And it was a good old fashioned audition that got me the gig. I did a self tape on a matinee day doing Educating Rita so no one was more surprised than me when I got the gig!
Damian: I want to talk more about Educating Rita because I’m a fan of Willy Russell and along with Blood Brothers and other plays, I think his writing still has some very powerful things to say about social mobility and class structure. I imagine from our previous interview that some of the themes and motifs of Rita have a special resonance with you personally?
Leanne: I could write a thesis on why it’s still a vital beautiful tragic essential piece of work. I was given that play at drama school to read when I was really struggling. I hadn’t done much acting and was on a scholarship to study drama when I didn’t have a clue who I was or what I was doing there. I sat in my college library and cried as it resonated with me on so many levels, and it does that with so many people for so many reasons. I loved it.
Damian: What is Willy Russell like in person and why did he want you specifically to play Rita?
Leanne: Willy is amazing. He’s a brilliant fascinating man with so many stories and a hero of mine. I was thrilled to be the choice for the anniversary production with Con O’Neil who is an extraordinary actor but far be it from me to guess why. Maybe he’s a Ripper Street fan!
COBDEN: Five acres, in which reside 6,000 individuals, and the rate at which they die here is four times that of the rest of this city. As you know, I plan to replace these shanties with modern and sanitary dwellings in which people might live out of choice, not obligation. However, this I cannot do unless the party, or parties, that own these lands permit it. Currently, all our surveyors encounter is violence from hired thugs. It is for this reason, ladies and gentlemen, that I invite you here today – to urge you, in print, to shame these opaque and hidden powers into good faith and negotiation. To ask them to stand forward and have a care for the future lives of their tenants. I thank you.
REID: Councillor. The investigations I have made for you. You wish to cause men shame, it’s better for you to have a name with which to do so – Obsidian Estates…
(Our Betrayal Part I – Richard Warlow)
SUSAN HART: Know this Duggan. Every moment I felt your foul breath on my face, your murderous fingers on my body, I thought of this. Dreamt of it. Your lawyers, your estates and holdings – all will now be made to work for me. Everything that you have built, I will make it mine…
(Our Betrayal Part II – Richard Warlow)
Damian: And so back to Ripper Street. What can you tell us about Obsidian in series three and Jane Cobden’s part in it?
Leanne: Long Susan is now the sole owner of Obsidian estates in series three and has used the money and prestige to create many opportunities to educate and employ vulnerable women in Whitechapel. She has sought Jane’s council and support to legitimise the enterprise.
Damian: I discussed the role of women in Ripper Street in my interview with MyAnna Buring. She said that characters like Susan and Cobden were integral characters in the show and that they challenged the perceptions of what women can do. However, I’m wondering how the completely incorruptible Cobden could justify going into business with Susan given her unforgivable actions in series three?
Leanne: There’s a lot of information that Jane isn’t privy to about Susan’s past and her actions. In her haste to help her do good she may be guilty of being naive about the situation. Fundamentally she respects Susan and the work she has undertaken to improve the lives of the impoverished of Whitechapel and may be guilty of having done harm in order to do good. As a woman in a man’s world I’m sure she sees Susan as a kindred spirit.
Damian: Seeds were planted for series three’s story arc as early as episode four in the second series (Dynamite and a Woman) with particular reference to Cobden’s mission to improve working class education, the renovation of St. Paul’s Wharfside and housing for the poor. Were you aware of Richard Warlow’s grand plan for Cobden when you first joined the show?
Leanne: I wasn’t no, but it’s been great to watch it all unfold and always nice to be asked back.
Damian: In discussing the character of Cobden and her battle to protect the poor, the reader may be forgiven for drawing contemporary political parallels with many of the issues highlighted in Ripper Street. With the recent Conservative victory at the general election still fresh in their minds, issues such as relocating the poor away from London to more “suitable and appropriate” areas or “social cleansing” as some might call it, in addition to what some perceive as an ideological war against welfare might resonate more than perhaps they should. I wonder who you consider to be the Jane Cobden’s of today?
Leanne: Well that’s a question! I’m a firm believer that whether it’s the front bench, back bench or park bench, you will always find inspiring women from all walks of life trying to make a difference in or out of the public eye… I’ve come across many and it’s always galvanising I have to say. Give it time and I might have a go myself!
Damian: Miss Best, my thanks. Time with you is, as ever, educative.
Leanne: Always lovely to talk to you.
Ripper Street series three concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC1
My first interview with Leanne Best can be found on the link below: