Jace Lacob (Jace): MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Viking Cruises. See the world differently by exploring differently. Learn more at vrc.com.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
If you’re a MASTERPIECE fan, you’d recognize actor Joanne Froggatt for her work as Anna Bates, Downton Abbey’s dependable ladiesmaid.
Now, Joanne Froggatt is back on MASTERPIECE as Mary Ann Cotton.
Both Anna Bates and Mary Ann Cotton deal with their fair share of trauma… and murder.
But while Downton Abbey’s Anna Bates has a heart of gold, Dark Angel’s Mary Ann Cotton, has… Well, something else inside her.
Margaret: There’s a darkness in you, Mary Ann.
Jace: Unlike Anna Bates, Mary Ann Cotton actually was a murderer, and one even more prolific than Jack the Ripper.
By some estimates Mary Ann Cotton killed as many as 21 people!
Under Mary Ann’s watch, four husbands, 14 children, her lover, her mother, and her friend all got sick and died.
And though some of those deaths may have been natural, others were more sinister.
Joanne Froggatt: 1 minute you’re going, “Oh my goodness, this poor woman,” and then the next minute you’re going, “Oh my goodness, what is she doing?”
Jace: Just after Downton Abbey ended, we caught up with Joanne Froggatt to talk to her about playing Britain’s first known female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton.
Jace: This week we’re joined by Joanne Froggatt, welcome.
Joanne: Thank you.
Jace: Now, notorious poisoner Mary Ann Cotton is such a different role than that of Anna Bates. Is that what initially attracted you to the role as your follow up to Downton?
Joanne: Yeah, people kept asking me what I wanted to do after Downton, as they were asking all of us, “What would be your ideal role?” I was jokingly saying for about a year, “Oh, just something totally different. I don’t know what. Maybe, a murderer or something.”
Jace: You can’t escape the murder.
Joanne: I know, I know! Then, this script came along for Dark Angel about 7 weeks before we finished Downton and there it was on the page. I thought, “Oh, okay. I better put my money where my mouth is and give this a go.”
Jace: Now, you’re from Northeast England which is Mary Ann Cotton territory. Did you grow up with an awareness of her?
Joanne: No, I hadn’t heard of her at all. She’s not very well known. I was really surprised to find out about her and how many people she’d murdered. It’s slightly vague between 11 and 17, probably more likely between 13 and 17.
Jace: Which makes her a more prolific killer than Jack the Ripper.
Joanne: Yes, much more. And she was just before Jack the Ripper time-wise, but because she was a woman, and she was a poisoner, and she was up north, people didn’t want to believe that a woman was capable of such terrible things. The full extent of her crimes wasn’t really pieced together until way after her death if not more modern times. The Jack the Ripper story was very gruesome, very visceral killings that were widely reported, and it got a life of its own, whereas that didn’t happen with Mary Ann’s story.
Jace: Now, there’s no denying that her crimes are particularly heinous…
Joanne: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Jace: But there’s something inherently sad about Mary Ann in the sense that she’s trapped by circumstance as much as by her actions.
Jace: Is it as though her true crime was being born a woman at this time?
Joanne: It’s a difficult one. This is what made the role and the project so interesting to me when I read the script because all those questions were thrown up in my mind. Because of the time period she was in, there was no opportunity for women really at all.
You had to get married. You didn’t marry for love necessarily, you married for the situation, for security, for somebody to provide for you. And, putting it in context of the time, there were no fallbacks for families in poverty. There was no social security. Life insurance was just coming up but, apart from that, there was no insurance for anything. It was a fine line between starvation and not.
It was incredibly common- not incredibly but much more common than you would expect for women to poison unwanted babies because there was no birth control and an extra mouth to feed in a family that was starving was impossible.
Mary Ann: Four shillings?
George: It’ll put food on the table just until I get the chance…
Mary Ann: You told me that job was near done.
George: It’ll all be alright.
Mary Ann: I am sick and tired of men telling me it’ll be alright but it never is.
Joanne: It was getting my head around that as well, how desperate life could be for a woman in that situation. So many women lived that life and didn’t turn and do the terrible deeds that Mary Ann did. Obviously, she was wired in a very different way to other people.
Maggie: I’m sure poor Mr. Ward meant to do his best by you.
Mary Ann: Whose side are you on?
Maggie: Did you have no feelings for him at all, Mary Ann?
Mary Ann: I don’t know what I was thinking. Just that I had to be married to someone, anyone.
Joanne: After speaking with David Wilson, he’s a criminologist who wrote a book about Mary Ann which is the book that we referenced, it was interesting– he was telling me that lots of people can be on the spectrum of psychopathy but never kill anybody. Somebody could be quite ruthless or not have a great deal of empathy, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and murder people. Then, obviously, the extreme is, say, a serial killer.
It’s where we start Mary Ann. We don’t start her in our story as a psychopath but she certainly must have been on that spectrum somewhere because she made very impulsive decisions even from a young age. She got pregnant before she got married, she ran off and eloped, and she came back.
She was married to her first husband for 11 years before she murdered him and that was the first person that she murdered as we know, that we can prove. You could argue it was a moment of desperation. Although, ‘moment…’ Actually being poisoned by arsenic is quite a long, drawn out, awful death. But I think, she has lost such a huge part of her humanity and she’s very angry at God for the grief she has been through already, once she has done it once, it becomes a very real option to get out of certain situations in her future life.
Mary Ann: There’s a sickness coming to this house, my love, but it’ll not come for you. Even if you start to feel a little bit poorly, don’t you worry. You will get better. And afterwards, no one will look down their nose at us again.
Joanne: Doing some research on the difference between male and female serial killers, female serial killers usually kill for social or economic gain; male serial killers usually kill for some sort of sexual gratification. And, male serial killers usually kill in a very visceral, messy way; female serial killers usually- it’s a very clean and tidy.
Jace: She’s tidy at least.
Joanne: She’s tidy.
Another thing is that female serial killers usually don’t start killing people until their early 30s. Nobody can really explain that. What makes somebody wait all that time before they start doing that? Why, at that age, does it seem to be…? That was certainly the age that Mary Ann seemed to have started as well.
Jace: With her, you definitely see that there is a progression here and she is a very avoricious social climber.
Maggie: I know how hard this life is for you, love. I do know.
Mary Ann: how could you know? You were born to it. It’s all wrong for me.
Jace: She’s definitely looking to move up but she’s also a victim of sorts of a male dominated society, of circumstance, of having so many children, of grief. How do you get into the headspace of someone like Mary Ann and create a sympathetic character who is committing heinous acts?
Joanne: It was an interesting one because there needed to be enough there to keep those who are watching interested and wanting to know what happens to her. You don’t have to like her but as a viewer and as an actress reading the script, I have to want to know what happens to her, and I did when I read it.
The way I approached it after trying lots of different avenues was to think that, “I don’t have to like her or dislike her, I just have to try and make sense of what, possibly, is going on in her head.”
From my point of view she becomes maddened with grief to a certain extent and then she commits this first murder, and then, as I say, a part of her…
Jace: Like a gateway killing?
Joanne: Yeah. It’s like she has done one of the worst things you could ever do. And she’s extremely selfish but she has no concept of her own selfishness. She knows it’s wrong, but she doesn’t feel guilt about it. She’s living in this very confusing world because she’s mentally ill but she doesn’t know that. That was how I tried to connect with it. That’s the way I tried to find an in for her.
Jace: Before this question, a brief word from our sponsors.
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Jace: When we first meet Mary Ann, she’s a young mother who has lost 4 of her 5 children to Gastric fever, which, to me, is very interesting given the fate that she dishes out to most of her victims. Is the prevalence of Typhoid fever how she was able to get away with these killings for so long?
Joanne: Yes, absolutely. It was a mixture of things why she was able to get away with what she did for so long. Medical science wasn’t what it is today, obviously. Unexplained deaths happened all the time from a flu, a Gastric flu, it could be any number of things, and doctors would put on the death certificate, “Well, it’s probably Typhus or it’s this or it’s that.” Nobody could really tell because the science wasn’t there to be able to prove it. There’s that aspect.
There’s also- it was the start of the industrial revolution in England. It was a time where, for the first time, families were moving from mine to mine, or to the sea to do fishing, or whatever it was. They were moving around to wherever the work was. That also meant that Mary Ann wasn’t committing all these crimes in a very small community because, obviously, you’d be found out much quicker. She moved around a lot.
She was a bigamist as well, by the end. Again, public records weren’t kept in the same way, obviously. There was no…
Jace: There was no computer system where you could look up and see, “Is this woman married?”
Joanne: There’s nothing to say, Is this woman already married?” Or, “Where is she from?” Basically, you could move in and out of a community and reinvent yourself.
Jace: One of the things that I love is that the instrument of of Mary Ann’s murders is actually her mother’s teapot.
Joanne: The teapot.
Jace: Which seems so perfectly rooted in femininity. How symbolic is this teapot of doom that she lugs out?
Joanne: It’s very symbolic, yeah. It is. It apparently was her mother’s teapot. There is a teapot at Beamish Museum actually that is supposedly Mary Ann’s actual teapot but I didn’t get to see it when we were filming there.
Jace: Don’t drink from it.
Joanne: Yeah, no. No.
Jace: Don’t drink.
Even as the victims and husbands start to pile up, Mary Ann keeps going back to Joe.
Joe: To think, you said you’d never be a miner’s lass.
Mary Ann: I’ll be your lass, Joe. Here in the woods where nothing’s real and anything’s possible.
Jace: What do you make of the constant pull between the two of them?
Joanne: Yeah, Joe Nattrass was… I mean, if there was a love of Mary Ann’s life, it was definitely Joe Nattrass. He’s the one person that she kept going back to.
They did, in real life, have an affair for 15 years or more on and off.
He awakens something in her which is just sort of a pure joyous feeling that she never knew existed. It’s the start of her thinking, “There has got to be more to life than this.”
I think, maybe in my head, she doesn’t feel emotions in the same way. People on the spectrum of psychopaths or sociopaths, they like to take risks. Joe excites her. He’s the only thing in her life that is exciting, until they end up being able to be together and then it stops being exciting for her. What she was getting out of it is gone, and it just becomes the mundane again. And that’s what she doesn’t want. She just doesn’t want that mundane life.
Jace: Now, she’s sometimes pushed to kill out of need. Sometimes it’s financial. Other times the motives are far more murky, such as with her mother and Maggie. At that point, is she just so far over the line to even feel any sense of conflict about their deaths?
Joanne: Yeah, I think so. I mean, certainly with her mum, it’s because her mum has found her out.
Maggie: Married twice, widowed twice, and neither a tear shed for either of them.
Mary Ann: You should watch that sharp tongue of your before my dad finds someone kinder.
Maggie: Got life insurance on this new one?
Joanne: The fact that she can do this and get away with it gives Mary Ann a great sense of power and control. That’s what she hangs onto all the time. For her mum to be able to take that away from her, it’s not going to happen. As I said, even though it’s her mum, she doesn’t really feel that connection with her the same way we do with our parents. The same with Maggie. She goes to Maggie at a point of desperation, and she sees what Maggie has got.
Mary Ann: turns out you’re the one who got a happy family without even trying.
Maggie: I did.
Joanne: Basically, the death of Maggie is because she wants to take her place. She just sees it as like, “Well, that’s my only option.”
Jace: There are some people who say that Mary Ann Cotton was innocent of her crimes, that she was another victim. Do you have any thoughts about her innocence or guilt?
Joanne: Yeah. I don’t believe she was innocent. Yeah, she protested her innocence to her dying day, but that doesn’t mean she was actually innocent. No, I don’t believe she was innocent. I believe she was…
Jace: Guilty as sin (laughs).
Joanne: (Laughs) Yeah.
Jace: What is it about period roles that continue to hold such an appeal for you?
Joanne: This one was the psychology of the character. I also did love that it was a period piece because it makes it feel removed enough from where we are now to be able to look at this woman slightly more objectively, but at the same time, it feels incredibly relevant and close to us as well. I like period drama. I like the fact that you put on the clothes, and you feel extremely different. It certainly helps build as character. I enjoy doing period drama. I enjoy dressing up I guess, or down.
Jace: Or down.
Jace: Next up on MASTERPIECE, more mystery and murder…
Everyone’s favorite vicar-cop duo, Sidney Chambers and Geordie Keating, return to MASTERPIECE and Grantchester on June 18th to catch criminals and mess up their personal lives.
Jace: Last year, we welcomed many of Grantchester’s stars onto the podcast.
Morven Christie: Hello, thank you very much.
Robson Green: Hello, how are you?
James Norton: Hello.
James Runcie: Thank you so much.
Jace: And heard lots of Season 2 gossip.
James Norton: You know it has all been in just looks and just general brushes of the hand or whatever so it was great to finally be able to kiss her, weirdly.
Jace: This year, we’re doing it all over again.
If you want to relive the Grantchester, Season 2 drama before the Season 3 premiere, go back and listen to our interviews with James Norton, Robson Green, Morven Christie, and author James Runcie over on iTunes, Stitcher, or on our website, pbs.org/masterpiecepodcast.
And if you find yourself on iTunes or Stitcher, be sure to subscribe to MASTERPIECE Studio so that you don’t miss any upcoming interviews that’ll take you behind-the-scenes of Grantchester, Season 3.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Rachel Aronoff. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises, Farmers Insurance, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.