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How Abbey's friendly maid found a taste for murder

She won herself a legion of fans as Downton's kind-hearted Anna Bates, but Joanne Froggatt is thrilled her next character is considerably more sinister. She tells Susan Griffin about bringing the chilling story of the UK's first female serial killer to the small screen

As Downton Abbey neared its conclusion, Joanne Froggatt, known to fans as the compassionate lady's maid Anna Bates, was often asked what role she would like to play next. "I jokingly said a murderer," reveals the actress. "And then the script for Dark Angel came through."

The two-part drama for ITV tells the tale of Mary Ann Cotton, who was hanged in 1873 for the murder of her seven-year-old stepson, though it's believed she actually killed many more, including three of her four husbands (biographer David Wilson believes her total victim tally to be 16 or 17).

Yet remarkably, no one really knows her name.

"She was from the North East and I'm from Whitby, which isn't that far away, and I hadn't heard of her," admits Froggatt (36).

"It's quite a fascinating story in that respect, because she's the first recorded female serial killer in Britain that we know of."

She has a theory as to how Mary Ann got away with the killings for so long, and doesn't have the notoriety of someone like Jack the Ripper, who terrorised Victorian London.

"I learnt that female serial killers tend to poison or overdose or smother people, clean and tidy ways," says the actress.

"Men like to make a mess and it's often a sexually-driven crime. For women, it's more to move up, in either social or financial status."

This was the case for Mary Ann, who moved from town to town in Sunderland, marrying and creating new families before killing them and taking what money she could. "Had she stayed in one place, people may have become suspicious that all these people around her had died," notes Froggatt, who's appeared in TV series Bad Girls, Life On Mars and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.

Then there's the simple fact that she was a woman.

"People didn't really think a woman was capable of it," the actress points out.

"Even when she was imprisoned, there were high-profile people who wrote letters on her behalf, saying she can't possibly be capable of it."

In Dark Angel, we meet Mary Ann when she's 25, and has already suffered the natural loss of four children.

"She's a working class woman in the Victorian era and there's no opportunity, no choice. She was more or less constantly pregnant.

"It's a monotonous hell and she always felt that it was a life that wasn't right. She always wanted more than that," comments Froggatt, who credits screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes for the nuanced script.

"At the beginning, you do feel for this women and the tragedy she's been through. You understand this need she has for more than what she's allowed to have as a woman at that time."

When her first husband, Bill, is injured and can no longer work, they have no way of paying the rent or feeding the family. But he does have life insurance, which was a new concept at the time.

"It wasn't her idea to insure her first husband's life, it was her stepfather's [George Stott, played by Alun Armstrong]," reveals Froggatt.

Mary Ann poisons Bill with arsenic, which was readily available to buy and left no visible scars.

"Once she's done that, she's not able to stop," Froggatt adds. "And yes, by the end of it, she's a very different person than when she started. She certainly chooses a path that most people wouldn't and there's obviously a reason for that, and it has to do with the way she's wired."

Mary Ann must have been quite an actress to feign emotion and empathy and keep her crimes hidden for so long - something the actress found fascinating to learn about.

"I did a lot of research, and serial killers are often extremely charming; that's how they gain trust and connect with people," she says.

"It's not like she's thinking, 'I'm going to manipulate this pesrson'. It just comes naturally to her. You've got to find those levels, so you're not sitting there going, 'Wah, ha, ha'," she adds, mimicking a panto villain. "She wouldn't have thought like that."

She also discovered how promiscuity can be another trait of psychopathy."They don't have an emotional attachment to sex in the same way other people do," she says. "There's no right, wrong or guilt in that mindset. That is part of who Mary Ann is. You can't tell the story without that."

Mary Ann was married four times, once as a bigamist, but the love of her life was Joe Nattrass, played by Jonas Armstrong.

"We have some intimate scenes together; it's less awkward if you already know someone," admits Froggatt, who previously worked with the actor on the series Robin Hood in 2009.

"But the sexual content is not there to titillate the audience in any way, shape or form. There's no nudity or anything like that. It simply helps to tell the story and makes perfect sense in the context."

Downton Abbey ended last Christmas after six series, in which time Froggatt won a Golden Globe for her performance.

She describes that night in 2015 as "like a little fairy tale".

"It was the biggest shock of my life, it really was. I used to watch those award shows as a child and think, 'Wow, imagine being there', so it certainly was the dream come true."

She also got to meet one of her idols. "I was lucky enough to meet Kathy Bates, who I'm a huge fan of, outside the ladies' loos," the actress recalls, laughing.

"She was absolutely lovely. It's moments like that which are very special."

  • Dark Angel is a two-part drama beginning on ITV on Monday, 9pm

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