The Casual Vacancy centres on Pagford, a seemingly idyllic English village with a cobbled market square and ancient abbey. Behind the pretty façade however, is a town at war: rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils. Pagford is not what it first seems. . .
We talked to stars Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie.
Michael, Can you start by telling us who Howard is?
“He’s Chairman on the Parish Council and he helps run the place. He heads up the faction that wants to see an end to the Legacy. Howard regards Sweetlove House, which houses the projects run by the Legacy, as a ghastly eyesore. He’s not a very nice bloke and is quite cunning. He wants to do well in the world and is not nice to people who aren’t like him. He has a son, Miles (Rufus Jones); a very tall, handsome son, who is a solicitor.
“He has done quite well, mainly with the help of his father who has pushed him. Miles is a very nice man. He’s married to Samantha (Keeley Hawes) with two children, but Howard doesn’t particularly like Miles being married to her.
“Howard and his wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie) are a double act. She’s worse than him. She comes out with terrible things and she’s very, very ambitious. She’s the main force behind all of it.”
You’ve played characters of similar ilk to Howard before?
“Yes, I’m quite good at villainous characters. There’s more meat in them. I’ve played lots of tough characters and heavies, horrible parts.”
Do you know people like Howard?
“I’ve been an actor for so many years now; the only people I ever meet are actors and kindred spirits. My whole world is actors, really. We’re all very nice.”
The casting in this is superb. How was it during filming?
“It’s a big cast, and the young cast especially are brilliant. I didn’t work with them all and I didn’t get to meet everyone. When you’re filming your scenes you live in a little world and you’re not always aware of what’s going on with the rest of the cast. Which is where Howard and Shirley are in a way - they are quite cut off, living in their little flat. They just want to expand and get more power, particularly for their son, Miles.”
And the locations are stunning, are you familiar with the Cotswolds and West Country where filming took place?
“It was breathtakingly beautiful, I don’t know how I’d get on living somewhere like Pagford, I like a lot of noise around me which is why I like living in London. That’s where I exist.”
Julia, How would you describe Shirley Mollison?
“She’s the mother-in-law from hell and one of the village’s leading lights. Everybody in the village seems to want to be the leading player, but she certainly is. Her husband of course is wonderful, avuncular Howard, and everybody thinks, good old Howard, but they are Machiavellian really.”
She’s so against the grain of the types of characters you’ve generally played.
“She’s violently different, so this has been wonderful fun for me. You can see through this woman in a second - the whole front, the face, the outfits - she thinks it gives the village tone. She’s a great social climber.
But what I like about it is that she appears to be in control. She lives on her nerves. She obviously manages Howard, and this is her anchor. There’s a great deal of jealousy directed towards her daughter-in-law, Samantha (Keeley Hawes), which is why she grabs hold of Miles and Samantha’s children whenever she can. In any situation Shirley takes control before Samantha can”.
Shirley’s relationship with Keeley Hawes’ character, Samantha, is a wonderful dynamic. How was playing that together?
“The pair of us laughed so much that we had to get that out of our systems. That anyone would have the nerve to say some of the things that Shirley says to Samantha.
“It’s very good comedy writing, but you also have to put it into context with the character, otherwise you’d be firing off one-liners here and there. You’ve got to be within the scene and aware of who you’re talking to. They’re wonderful characters, we were very grateful for them.”
How much do you draw on your experiences with other people to play this type of role?
“It’s an excellent script and the character does jump off the page, so there was hardly any research to do. I have to say, I have known a couple of people like this. What Sarah Phelps has done is to make it funny and also quite real - but there are some devastating lines.”
On the one hand the narrative is incredibly dark, but then is populated by moments of humour. How important is it to have that spectrum would you say?
“It’s important to any viewer, this balance. It enlivens it a good deal. A very good description was given me by the director Jonny Campbell, that it’s a sort of modern Dickens. Sarah has certainly given a great deal of life to the characters.”
You and Michael have a wonderful on-screen marriage. Have you worked together before?
“I’ve done a couple of productions with Michael. When the script came along and I told my manager that it looked very nice, but I didn’t want to work - I was going to take the summer off because I’d been working pretty heftily. He said I’d be playing Michael’s wife and I said, well I’ll do it then! The trouble is that Michael makes me laugh so much.
“He’s a pleasure to be with and makes such a lovely atmosphere on set.”