Caroline Quentin: 'Being so nasty comes really easily to me'
Charles Dickens created some of the world's best-known fictional characters, but only now will viewers see their worlds intertwined in BBC One's new 20-part series, Dickensian. Actress Caroline Quentin tells Gemma Dunn of her joy at playing the 'horrible' Mrs Bumble.
It's a re-imagined world drawing together stories that were never intended to co-exist and yet Dickensian - the BBC's big-budget Christmas offering - does just that, uniting Charles Dickens' iconic characters on one bustling Victorian street.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was actually a bit of a cheek - taking Dickens' work and creating one big story out of it," says Caroline Quentin of the audacious undertaking.
"But it works, because the characters are so fascinating and interesting and the story is so gripping and has such great cliffhangers. I think people will become addicted to it and won't be able to stop watching."
Penned by Tony Jordan (EastEnders, Life on Mars), the 20-part drama transports viewers to 19th-century London and into the fictional realms of Dickens' critically acclaimed novels. Yet it was Jordan's ability to "sell a story", Quentin claims, that saw the unique series commissioned.
"After all, that's all we're interested in on television, isn't it? We want stories told well and we want to meet characters we become fascinated with. Tony can really do that, and Dickens could really do that, so it's a good combination."
The Surrey-born actress, celebrated for her roles in Men Behaving Badly and Jonathan Creek, plays Mr Bumble's "social climber" of a wife, Mrs Bumble, from Oliver Twist.
Quentin explains: "He's the beadle and I run the workhouse in this story. We're not happy with our lot, because we don't feel as though we've reached the social class that we should be at, so we're trying to clamber up to the top of the pile.
"She wants money, position and power. At the moment, she has none of those things, but will do anything to get them."
And in this tale of epic proportions, "anything" really does mean anything.
"She abuses her husband and nags him daily to get him to try and be promoted to a better workhouse. She's not afraid of offering sexual favours to the trustees of the workhouse group to try and get them to promote her husband; she'll flirt with just about anybody who can do her a favour.
"We all know people like that in the real world, don't we? It still goes on today."
Does Mrs Bumble's improper behaviour get her anywhere?
"There is some success," says the 55-year-old with a wink.
Aside from her husband, portrayed by Common As Muck star Richard Ridings, Mrs Bumble shares the street with the likes of Mrs Gamp (Pauline Collins), Nancy (Bethany Muir), Bill Sikes (Mark Stanley), Fagin (Anton Lesser), Bob Cratchit (Robert Wilfort), Tiny Tim (Zaak Conway), Ebenezer Scrooge (Ned Dennehy), Jacob Marley (Peter Firth) and Amelia and Arthur Havisham (Tuppence Middleton and Joseph Quinn) who, generally speaking, know each other's business pretty well.
"In the books, we'd have never met at all, so there's something quite wonderful about that. It's kind of rewriting the Dickensian history."
Episode one opens on a wintry scene in Market Street, where the festive hustle and bustle is hushed as the body of wealthy brewer Mr Havisham is driven to his final resting place.
Meanwhile, will free-spirited Honoria Barbary's clandestine love affair with her young love Captain James Hawdon survive the scheming of her sister Frances? And how will Nancy fare when gang-master and pimp Fagin "lends" her to Jacob Marley for his evening's entertainment?
Secrets are lurking around every corner and as the bell tolls 9pm on Christmas Eve, tragedy strikes as a dead body is found lying in the snow. As the deceased was not short of enemies, can the newly appointed Inspector Bucket determine the murderer?
Shot on a specially commissioned set in London, Dickensian features a 90-metre cobbled high street with a fully functioning inn at one end and a 16-column colonnade, church and law courts at the other. Overall, there are 27 two-storey buildings on the street and seven back alleys that lead to a parallel 30-metre street.
"It's the largest set I have ever worked on. It's so detailed that sometimes you almost get lost. It takes you to another place and another time; it's beautiful and fascinating and then you suddenly reach out to take a bit of cake or something, and you realise it's made out of plaster!" says Quentin, awed.
As for the period attire, Quentin credits the series with giving her "a real insight into what it was like to be a woman at this time".
"It's desperately uncomfortable," she protests. "It's very hot and, of course, they wouldn't have had access to hot water or any of the delightful things that we take for granted, so it's quite an insight into how grim it was back then."
One thing the seasoned actress is accustomed to, however, is the corsets - and there are no complaints there.
"I've worn corsets on stage before and I'd been longing for someone to get me in a corset on TV, so I was really thrilled when this came up. I thought, 'oh great, someone's finally going to use another side to my personality'.
"As much as it's lovely to be in a modern-day TV series, it's nice to explore another part of time, and as an actor, it's a challenge to do something different and play somebody from a different world."
And in comparison to Quentin's often mumsy roles, she's embracing the opportunity to rebel, acknowledging: "It's so nice to be horrible all day."
"The inspiration to become unpleasant comes terribly easy to me. It must be something that's just below the surface all the time. I'm loving it and I'm having no trouble at all."
The mother-of-two is adamant she's much nicer to her own children than she is to the orphans in the workhouses, but she says she will be laying down the law when it comes to her family's communal viewing come Boxing Day.
"There's something about the nation gathering around and watching a bit of Christmas TV and knowing that you'll be there. It's nice to be part of that, and indeed my children will be forced to watch me whether they want to or not."
- Dickensian, BBC 1, Boxing Day double bill begins 7pm