Ashley Jensen: 'It's nice to take on the lead role'
After years playing the best friend, Ashley Jensen is putting her comic timing centre stage. The Scottish actress tells Ella Walker why Agatha Raisin is a 'dream part'
Ashley Jensen is a right laugh. The former Extras actress is reliably hilarious, as well as moving, subtle and - at times - quite madcap, in her performances and choice of roles.
Her latest, as Agatha Raisin, a PR exec-turned-countryside detective in a new eight-part Sky 1 series, is no different.
Jensen says Agatha, whose first outing was in the one-off, Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death in 2014, is "an amazing character".
"On the surface, she is pushy, a little bit vulgar, confident - people might call her arrogant - but I think she wears all that as armour, as she does the sharp haircut, the lipstick, the tight-fitting clothes, the stiletto heels," says the Scottish star.
"Underneath it all, she's actually quite fragile, and there's this vulnerability to her that I hope people can relate to. She's a proper modern woman."
It's this, combined with scripts that delicately balance humour and drama, which the actress believes makes the show work.
"We've tried to move between emotions that are real - we are dealing with murder - so a lot of the wonderful guest actors that came in were having to suddenly break down and cry, and then that would be turned on its head by a funny line a couple of beats later."
Agatha has also been Jensen's first opportunity to play the protagonist in a series - and it's about time, following years of stellar performances in supporting roles.
Ugly Betty is a prime example, the US comedy series which saw Jensen shine as Christina, colleague and partner in crime to main gal Betty, played by America Ferrara.
"I've been the best friend all my life, haven't I? It's quite nice actually," she adds of having the chance to tackle the lead. "A bit of a responsibility, though, being Agatha Raisin in Agatha Raisin."
Jensen is adamant she'd make a dreadful detective in real life, though.
"One of my problems these days is I do occasionally get recognised, and one of the most annoying things for me is I used to stare at people all the time. I'm fascinated by people and listening to what they're saying, and I can't do that anymore.
"I used to sit on the Tube and casually watch people. My husband says I'm the worst starer in the world; he'll be like, 'Ashley, stop staring!' I'll move my head and my body, but my eyes will still be there. So I think I'd get found out."
Gavin & Stacey actor Matt Horne plays Agatha's camp sidekick, Roy.
"He was an absolute delight," Jensen buzzes. "His portrayal of Roy was so convincing, to the point that I'd sort my underwear on set. I'd have my hand down my top and Matt Horne would say to me, 'Ashley, I'm not Roy!'
"He's great - not since Extras have I been on a set where I've had to stop because I've been laughing."
Filmed on location in the Cotswolds, one of the main challenges faced by the cast and crew was, bizarrely, the local wildfowl.
"The ducks would quack at quite strategic moments," Jensen recalls with a laugh. "At one time, when I was about to go in for a kiss with a handsome young man, it's like these ducks had comic timing, because they could punctuate with a quack, quack! It was often like they were laughing at us."
Another strange moment was when Chancellor George Osborne arrived on set. "Which I thought was a bit odd," admits Jensen. "But it was fine, he was unobtrusive."
Since childhood, Jensen says she's known she wanted to become an actor.
"In the days of tape decks, I used to do little radio shows, and I did impressions of the wonderful Terry Wogan. I'd have little guests that would come on, and I'd do Miss Piggy and Frank Spencer - Michael Crawford is my ultimate hero.
"He was the reason I wanted to act; I thought his performance as Frank Spencer was just genius. I love comedy when it can be physical as well as written. For me, nobody did that better than Michael Crawford."
Clocking Off, Extras - for which she earned an Emmy nomination - and Ugly Betty, as well as films How To Train Your Dragon, A Cock and Bull Story and The Lobster, shine on Jensen's CV.
But when it comes to "dream" roles, she says "it'd be hard to top Agatha".
"Extras was up there as my top job; that was the one that put me on the map and put me in an enviable position of being able to pick and choose, and that took me to America.
"Then I bounced into Ugly Betty - for which we are going to a 10-year reunion in June. I'm more than a little excited about that I have to say. And then Agatha, that's my top three."
Jensen has also recently wowed in Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's hit sitcom Catastrophe, as the tightly-strung, slightly sociopathic, Fran.
"Her and her husband's characters are an odd little pair, aren't they? You can't quite put your finger on them," says Jensen, with a grin.
"Will there be a third series? I remember being on the set and Sharon was going, 'Oh, no, we need more Fran, we need more Fran; we need a little bit more of her!' So, hopefully."
When Jensen isn't making people's faces ache with laughter on television, the mum-of-one (she has a seven-year-old son with actor husband Terence Beesley) will often be found in the kitchen.
"Whenever I don't know what to do, I make a pot of soup," Jensen says happily. "Rock and roll, eh?
"Chicken and rice is my little pot of soup at the moment."
- Agatha Raisin, Sky 1, Tuesday, 9pm