Katherine Parkinson tells Eleanor Steafel why she holds no truck with the hypocrisy of her scrupulously right-on colleague
Katherine Parkinson thinks we have become all too evangelical, and she doesn’t mean in the religious sense. The actor best known for her pitch-perfect, Bafta-winning portrayal of hapless IT manager Jen Barber in The IT Crowd holds no truck with what is now fashionably referred to as wokeness - the state of being scrupulously right-on. And those in her profession are as guilty as anyone, she notes. “Actors who aren’t that informed going on about their politics in interviews makes me squirm,” she says, with a dramatic eye-roll. “A lot do it on Twitter...It’s very easy to call yourself a feminist, and often the men that might say it the loudest are the first to stick their hand on someone who’s not their girlfriend’s knee.” She quickly adds: “But that’s obviously a massive generalisation.”
Parkinson does not appear to share in this preoccuption with saying the “right” thing. Off-screen at least, she is gratifyingly willing to stray from the script, but is as brilliantly offbeat, authentic, warm and funny as the characters she so often plays. Previous roles have also included that of Laura Hawkins, a harried working mother in Channel 4’s Humans, and the eccentric Isola in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, in which she appeared alongside Lily James and Penelope Wilton. She returns to television screens tonight in Defending the Guilty, BBC Two’s new legal comedy, in which she plays a ruthless, high-flying barrister called Caroline. Caroline has little time for sentimentality and takes no prisoners, particularly when it comes to the millennial men training under her. “She’s funny and she’s got a point,” says Parkinson, 41. “‘Keep feelings out of it, this is no place for your ideals, this is the law, and we’ve got an obligation to be objective.’
“I think I was drawn to playing someone with no redeemable qualities whatsoever because she’s quite, well, obnoxious really. She’s anti-culture, anti-empathy and has a really sort of grim sex life. But I think it’s refreshing to see somebody who is quite realistic.”
She particularly enjoys how the softer, more obviously “good” characters, like her unbearably earnest trainee Will (a “gutless snowflake”) are revealed to be deeply flawed. Will mistakenly believes his role is to serve justice (“No, Will, a Barrister’s job is to win,” says Caroline) but he proves to be less than virtuous in his private life.
“I think it is quite of its time from that point of view,” says Parkinson. “You’ve got this idealistic do-gooder but at the end of the day he’s as vulnerable as all of us. It’s about the hypocrisy, the generalised idealism. ‘You’re woke but you’re a c*** like the rest of us’.”
We’re chatting over coffee in a Marylebone hotel in London, an experience that quickly comes to feel more like putting the world to rights with an old friend than doing an interview. She confides her irritation with what she calls the “actor Twitterati” who are guilty of behaving like “scornful” gatekeepers in the conversation around Brexit. “As somebody from an extended family who maybe voted not the way that the actor Twitterati might have voted, I found it hurtful, because they’re good people too,” she says.
Humour meanwhile has been the first casualty of the relentless pressure to say the right thing, she suggests. “I was rehearsing at the National [Theatre] under the brilliant [director] Rufus Norris, who is a massive champion of women, and he’s got this safe space thing and you can report to whatever… But when I was rehearsing the play I did recently, Home I’m Darling, with Richard Harrington who played my husband – he wouldn’t know the word woke because he’s my age. He’s extremely respectful and all that, but he will make appalling jokes in a rehearsal room. But I’m not feeling compromised by it, because in a much more profound way, there are men who are feminists like my husband, who will also call me his bird.”
Growing up in south west London, the state school-educated daughter of an English teacher mother and historian father, Parkinson once thought she’d become a diplomat. “My knowledge of diplomacy was based on the Ferrero Rocher adverts. Honestly, I’m an idiot about everything,” she insists.
At Oxford, where she studied Classics at St Hilda’s, she felt like an imposter, “a pseudo intellectual”. It was only when she discovered acting that she finally felt her “full self”. It’s still the case now, she adds.
Parkinson’s talent is huge. She possess that rare gift of being as memorable in, say, a bit part in Sherlock as in a far meatier role. Now, in Defending the Guilty, she truly leads the young cast. Yet her formula for a good career sounds deceptively simple. “I think if you go with instinct then you never regret anything. I’ve regretted maybe a couple of plays that I didn’t do just because I was knackered and I’m quite lazy.”
The idea of trying her luck in America has never appealed. “I’m basically from the A3, and I always wanted to do a job that was just going to be in London because all my family are [here]. I didn’t do [America] when I was 25, when I started out. It would be a bit odd now that my children are settled in school to go ‘right, come on, let’s go and do pilot season in LA’.
“I’ve had opportunities to go out there and I have said no, so I have actively chickened out. But let’s repack that and say it was a really calculated decision and not that I’m scared of the brutality over there.”
In any case, her husband - the actor Harry Peacock, whom she met while doing a play with him at the National - has lupus, “and you’re supposed to avoid the sunlight, so that’s a reason not to go”.
The couple currently live in South East London with their daughters Dora, six, and Gwen, four, and take turns working so one of them can be at home. Juggling it all can be tricky: “We don’t have any formal childcare, we manage ourselves.” But although the hours on set can be brutal, they somehow make it work.
Parkinson returned to work six weeks after the birth of her second daughter, which was interpreted at the time as some great feminist statement when, she says, really it was nothing of the sort. “I think I talked about it a lot in interviews because it was my way of apologising for what I looked like. My baby was six weeks old and I hadn’t known I was going to work and I really had let myself go quite wilfully. I think I went on and on about it to sort of go, ‘I do apologise that I look so dreadful and I can look better than this’.”
She is bracing herself for the day one of her daughters announces she wishes to act. “I want to make sure they don’t think that’s the only thing,” she says.
In fact, her eldest has already been sounded out to play a film star’s daughter in a movie, but Parkinson was having none of it. “I said no because I don’t want her to be in an adult environment like that just because I’ve decided that’s ok.
“When she’s 18, if that’s what she wants to do – and I wouldn’t be surprised – but I also want to make sure it’s definitely her choice.”
Parkinson has just finished Uncle Vanya, in which she appeared alongside Rupert Everett at Bath’s Theatre Royal, and is preparing to take on the role of Catherine Tate’s sister in the Josie Rourke-directed film This Nan’s Life. It all sounds like a lot of hard work, and I’m finding it hard to believe in the laziness she professes. “No really,” she says. “My nickname is part-time Parky among my friends.”
For the foreseeable future at least, part-time Parky sounds pretty booked up.
Defending the Guilty begins on BBC Two at 10pm on Tuesday September 17