Lesley Sharp talks about her Edinburgh roots and new Channel 4 drama Before We Die
You don’t expect actor Lesley Sharp to talk pure Portobello but that’s what happens when she discusses her roots and her new TV crime thriller Before We Die
What would you do to protect your child? How far would you go? That’s the question facing detective inspector Hannah Laing played by Lesley Sharp in the six-part Channel 4 crime drama Before We Die, launching this week.
“The premise of the show is a well-meaning but catastrophic parenting mistake by a mother, which means that instead of enabling her son to scramble to a place of moral and societal safety, she puts him in the path of really dangerous people and their lives are impacted in a way that she could never have guessed,” says Sharp.
Taking the lead in the edge-of-the-seat series based on a Scandi noir TV drama, the stage, film and television actress is well known for Scott & Bailey (2011-16), Afterlife, The Full Monty, Living The Dream, Three Girls, Clocking Off, Bob & Rose (for which she was nominated for Best Actress BAFTA) and the smash hit teen drama WINX.
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Set in Bristol, Before We Die sees Sharp as a deeply conflicted policewoman, whose son becomes involved with East European drug gangs and embroiled in the investigation to find the killer of his mother’s colleague. With The OA’s Patrick Gibson playing her son Christian, it also stars Vincent Regan (Troy, 300, Wallander) who is convincing as Billy Murdoch, the Scottish investigator seconded to Hannah’s unit.
Sharp comes on the phone from her home in London, keen for feedback on the first episode and delighted to hear I was completely wrung out by the end.
“Great. That’s what we want,” she laughs.
If the other episodes are as tense and lively as the first, then viewers are in for a rollercoaster ride. Sharp confirms that they are.
“I was sent a cut-down version of the Swedish show while the scripts were being written and at the end of every single episode you're thinking, ‘Oh My God, how are they going to get out of that? Oh My God, they knew that all the time. Oh, they're dead? No, they're not dead.’ That's what the audience is in for.”
Before We Die isn’t a typical police procedural. From the beginning when it kicks off with a moral dilemma for the policewoman mother, it emphasises the states of mind and mental journey of individuals thrown into a terrifying action-packed scenario.
“It is a cop show; it’s within the police genre, but it's a psychological thriller as well,” says Sharp. “And it's quite unusual. It's about what happens outside of the police station. Scott & Bailey was very much forensically interested in the ins and outs of the way they went about cracking a case from the point of something happening to how they managed to arrest someone. And that's not our show at all. One of the aspirations for it was that it should be elevated above what you normally expect from a UK cop show. It's not a procedural police drama in any shape or form. It was already coming from a Scandinavian eye, but it has a Belgian director and was mostly shot in Belgium with a European crew.”
With Belgian locations standing in for Bristol, we watch Detective Laing kick off the action by making a decision for her son’s own good that turns out to have catastrophic consequences.
“You have to ask the question: what sort of woman would lose that thread with her son, be so involved with her work that she takes her eye off the ball then tries to fix it in the way that she does?” says Sharp.
So, a less than perfect person who pays the price for trying to do what she thinks is the right thing by her child.
“She believes that a strong adherence to morals, and maybe the environment that she's dedicated herself to, would help him at this point in his life. And she’s judged by others on that. Some go, ‘Yeah, absolutely the right thing to do. And then there are other people who are ‘Wow, that's a really strange thing for a mother to do.’”
For Sharp, Before We Die has elements that are reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, a tradition very close to her heart.
“There's some things that are very akin to Greek tragedy in that it's a point at the crossroads where someone has to make a decision about their lives, and they think the decision they're making based on all of their experience is going to be a good one. And then suddenly, they find that actually they've taken a path that led somewhere they just did not expect, where there is danger that bends and shapes them.”
“Christian and Hannah are in deep need of one another, they can’t stop coming back, but they're like two magnets that repel. The heart of our story is about a mother and a son desperate to connect and find a way of forgiveness, salvation and catharsis. You get to the end and both are completely changed. Whether they’re changed for the better, or whether the way the world has touched them means they're marked indelibly, is the question. So, you know, it's cracking, I think.”
Filmed towards the end of last year, in between lockdowns, the show doesn’t reference Covid, and as a mask-free zone is an entertaining view of a world we’ve lost sight of, with its busy clubs and restaurants, and ease of travel.
“I don't know about you,” says Sharp, “but I certainly feel so battered by seeing people wearing masks. It’s all we hear, all we talk about, so that actually when you watch TV, the last thing you want to see all the time is people wearing masks.” She laughs.
You won’t need a mask, but you might watch certain scenes from behind a cushion.
Sharp has spent lockdown in London with her husband Nicholas Gleaves - the actor and playwright she met on Scott & Bailey - and their two sons, writing a novel. She signed up to an online course with literary agency Curtis Brown then did a couple of residential writing weeks away with the Arvon Foundation.
“I really felt like I wanted to start writing and didn't quite know what, then I got this idea together for a novel and did the online course which really helped me through lockdown because there was a community there that I engaged with every day. I got feedback, I was still thinking about things, having ideas, talking to people, and it gave me a sense of purpose that I was still being creative, even though I was on my own in a room in my house.
“Now I belong to this fantastic group called The London Writers Salon, which runs Monday to Friday with sessions in London, New York and LA and you can log in to them all and basically write in the company of 300 other people, with nobody chatting. People are writing radio or theater plays, screenplays, PhDs, reports or whatever. It is incredible, just wonderful. It was an unlooked for treasure that came out of lockdown.”
And her debut novel, how is that going and what is it about?
“It's a coming of age story, and that’s probably as much as I should say, because I don’t want to jinx it because I’ve not finished it,” she says and laughs.
Not only was it a creative lifeline for Sharp but it confirmed a career-long affirmation that quality writing is key in any performance.
“I’ve been so grateful for writing, and writers and, actually I would say that that is the cornerstone of my career, the writing. That’s the truth of the work that I've done in theatre and it’s definitely the case for the work that I've been lucky enough to do on screen. I loved working with Mike Leigh, Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright, Jim Cartwright, Andrea Dunbar, Timberlake Wertenbaker, David Hare, Roy Williams, Clint Dyer, Jack Thorne - I’ve just done a very small role in Help which he's written for Channel Four, because I’d walk over hot coals to work with him, and I did his play The End of History at The Royal Court, where I also did The Woods by Robert Alan Evans, about postpartum psychosis, which was amazing.
“The common thread is great writing and great writing is at the heart of what I’m interested in and why I act. And it’s also really helped me during a difficult period for all of us.”
At this point in the conversation Sharp says ‘let’s talk about Scotland!’
Scotland, what’s the connection?
It turns out 61-year-old Sharp’s parents were from Edinburgh, and after her dad’s civil service job took them to Aberdeen, back to Edinburgh, then to Manchester and finally Formby in Merseyside where she grew up, she spent every summer back in the Scottish capital visiting friends and family. She always supports Scotland against England in a football match and is a Hearts fan, like both parents. In London she has many Scottish friends including the actor Iain Glen and many in Scotland.
Even though she hasn’t been for a while, Sharp’s Scottish keep her up to date with events north of the border and her accent on its taes.
“Iain Glen lives quite close to me and he’s an Edinburgh lad. We have great impatience with people who talk about weather that’s too cold to go out in, or water too cold to swim in. Both of us have that ‘oh don’t be ridiculous, you just jump in a swimming pool while it's raining, it's absolutely fine. Swimming when it’s a bit chilly, it’s not a big deal!”
“In my heart I’m Scottish,” she says. “That’s why I was thrilled to do this interview for The Scotsman.”
As she starts to tell me about her formative years the memories flood out and her voice changes. When she channels her parents, it’s pure Portobello. She talks about Jenner’s as if she’s just stepped out through the brass-handled doors onto Princes Street, and it’s Musselburgh this and Prestonpans that.
“They moved to Manchester before I was born,” she says, “but all my summer holidays were spent in Edinburgh. Every year we went back for two weeks to visit and so I learned to swim in North Berwick open air swimming pool - swimming in the rain is my biggest memory. I remember when the Commonwealth Swimming Pool opened up and I swam there too. I loved Greyfriars Bobby - I was very affected by the story and the statue - and the Tattoo and Arthur’s Seat - some of my dad's ashes are actually on Arthur’s Seat,” she says.
Married in Edinburgh in 1943, Sharp’s parents Jack and Ray [corr] stayed in touch with their wartime friends in the city.
“They made friends and never let them go. That’s why we came up every year. The comradeship after what they had been through and the fact that even though they didn't talk about what had happened but the person that they were with knew what had happened. It was huge for them, for them for that generation. My dad was all over in Europe with the Royal Scots Fusiliers - India, Italy, Madagascar, Persia, The Lebanon. Then after the war he was in the Inland Revenue and he ended up being a chief collector of taxes. My parents had that wartime generation comradeship and work ethic”
The last time Sharp was in Edinburgh for any length of time was in 2008 but she has plans to come back and explore.
“I've got this real yearning to go further up north, to venture into the Highlands, and I'd love to go to the islands where I’ve never been.”
As she talks about Edinburgh Sharp remembers she did have a flying visit more recently to take part in a performance with Theatre of War, an innovative public health project that presents readings from ancient Greek plays as a catalyst for exploring challenges faced by service members, veterans, and their families.
“It’s to help servicemen who might have issues with PTSD, and they teamed up with a Scottish charity called Bravehound [which provides dogs and training for former servicemen, women and their families, some of whom have post-traumatic stress, mental health issues and physical injury] and we performed at Edinburgh Castle. That was extraordinary. It was amazing going into the castle as a performer, having been there as a kid.”
With this involvement, it comes as no surprise that Sharp sees parallels between Before We Die and Greek tragedy, and it’s a form she is hoping to explore further in future.
At the moment she’s working on a feature film written and directed by Lena Dunham (creator, writer and star of multi-award winning HBO TV series Girls), based on the book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Sharp’s character, Morwenna is not in the original book and she has used this freedom to interpret her as Scottish.
“That’s just how I heard her when I read it, and it works really well. It’s delightful to play,” she says, then hesitates.
“I mean, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because you know... accents and… waahhh, Oh My God! I hope it sounds authentic. It’s kind of a love letter to my parents.”
Before We Die starts on Wednesday 26 May at 9pm on Channel 4