20 Years On, Clare Holman Still Delivers Sass and Science

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Clare Holman’s 20-year run as pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson is coming to a close. But before it does, Clare joins us to reminisce about her time on Morse and Inspector Lewis and to tease the explosive series finale.

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Jace Lacob (Jace): MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Audible. For a free trial, go to Audible.com/Masterpiece.

Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

20 years ago, actor Clare Holman joined the cast of Inspector Morse as forensic pathologist Laura Hobson.

Hobson: His attacker must have been very strong because it isn’t easy to strangle a man. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Jace: After just one day on set, Clare cemented Dr. Hobson as skillful, quick-witted, and bold.

Clare Holman: I mean, I did feel like I was constantly the kind of naughty schoolgirl in some respects, and so it was great fun for me.

Jace: Clare went on to star in four other Morse films before the long-running mystery series drew to a close.

But her time as Dr. Hobson wasn’t over.

A few years later, Clare joined forces with Kevin Whately — who plays Robbie Lewis — to bring their characters and suspenseful Oxford mysteries back to life in the Morse spin-off Lewis.

Clare Holman: And we had no idea that we will be going on for so long, you know, eight… or nine years.

Jace: On this episode, Clare Holman reflects on those past nine years, and the 20 years since she first started playing Dr. Laura Hobson as the final season of Lewis winds down. This week, we are joined by Clare Holman. Welcome.

Clare Holman (Clare): Thank you very much. I’m very pleased to be here.

Jace: Now, you joined the Morse universe in 1995 at the start of the specials as pathologist Laura Hobson. What did you make of the character at the time, and did you think that she’d have such longevity?

Clare: I certainly didn’t think that I would be playing Laura Hobson for such a long time. That’s for sure. But the character, when I first was introduced to her, was witty, interesting, feisty and, you know, to my mind was a small character that might bring a bit of lightness to the series of Morse at the time.

Jace: Now, as you say, Laura brought some dark humor along with her fierce intellect to those specials. In her first meeting with Morse, she even refers to him as “Mouse,” which still makes me laugh to this day. Did you get a sense in those early episodes how Hobson would shift the dynamic within the show?

Clare: A little bit of a sense because we had such a fantastic response to my introduction. And as you say, the first thing she called him was “Inspector Mouse.” And certainly on set, the crew really enjoyed her audaciousness, but it’s not how I felt inside. I felt quite nervous inside, because I was quite young and meeting John Thaw, and I’d always admired him as an actor. So, yeah, I was quite nervous, but it went down extremely well. And I thought, “Oh, this could be very interesting.”

Jace: What do you recall of your time working alongside John Thaw? Is there a favorite moment or memory that stands out to you?

Clare: Oh, there’s so many. But really that opening scene was– is very memorable because I was made very welcome.

And I think John had had a reputation — quite a reputation — for being quite grumpy. And I remember saying, “Hello” to him in the makeup bus, and he barely acknowledged me. And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be trouble. This is going to be a nightmare.”

And then it was almost like I just had to prove myself. So once I’d delivered the “mouse line” and it went down so well, I was suddenly in. And then– From then on, we, John and I, just got on extremely well.

Jace: Now, since Laura Hobson, television has seen quite a few female pathologists over the years. Do you feel that Hobson was a trailblazer in that respect, and what makes her stand out from the pack?

Clare: I think one of the … I think she is a trailblazer. I think one of the difficulties of playing the pathologist in any of those kind of series is how to deliver such complicated science, and sometimes quite gruesome information.

Hobson: If I was to strangle you — a not inconceivable prospect these days — I’d pull the ligature together like this, and it stays horizontal, see?
Lewis: Yeah.
Hobson: Whereas with hanging, the body hangs from the bottom of the noose, and the furrow slopes upwards.

Clare: Laura Hobson was fantastic because she… Really, it was about the relationships and she could be telling you the most gruesome thing, but you would like her, you’d want to know who she was, and you’d enjoyed if she was putting down Morse or Lewis, or developing a relationship with them. But I think– I hope anyway, that the character of Laura Hobson achieved that very well.

Jace: I think so. I mean, how many times did you have to say ligature over the course of the show? Uh, there was…

Clare: A lot.

Jace: There was a fantastically sarcastic rapport between Laura Hobson and Inspector Morse. And one of my favorite moments between the two of them was when she tells Morse, when asked if there’s anything that he needs know, that “He needed a haircut and that his tie didn’t match his jacket.” Did you enjoy the banter between the two of them?

Clare: I did enjoy it, enormously. I mean, I did feel like I was constantly the kind of naughty schoolgirl in some respects. And I… I found myself kind of crossing the boundaries of formality all the time with John, and so it was great fun for me.

Jace: Now, Laura Hobson stepped back into her jumpsuit in the pilot episode of Lewis. Did you have any concerns or trepidation at the time about returning to the Morse universe for a sequel?

Clare: Yes, very definitely. Both Kevin and I were very uncertain about whether a spin off would work. I mean, especially for Kevin having been the sidekick, he was now to take the lead. So, yeah. I think we were both very trepidatious about it. And, you know, we agreed to do the pilot, and we got received incredibly well. And we had no idea that we will be going on for so long, you know, eight… or nine years. Yeah, but we were nervous about it. I mean, it rarely works, I think. Spin offs rarely work. I don’t know why it did, but I think they got together a very good group of people including, of course, Laurence Fox. And I think that meant that we could continue telling stories that we believed in with interesting topics and, yeah, exciting relationships.

Hobson: Ah. The wanderer returns.
Lewis: Hello, doctor.
Hobson: Gah. Can you turn down the volume on that shirt?
Lewis: Good to see you.
Hobson: You too.

Jace: How did it feel to be reunited with Kevin Whately here?

Clare: It was great to be reunited with Kevin. I mean, we get on extremely well and I suppose, as holders of the banner, you know. We’d been through Morse together, and sadly John Thaw had died in between Morse and Lewis, and so, we had no idea of how they were going to be together without John, really. So it was all a bit of an experiment, but we did already have a bond.

Jace: One of the most surprising developments over the last few seasons was Laura and Robbie falling in love. Were you resistant at all to having the two of them get together or falling into “soapy” territory?

Clare: Yes. I think that’s been said quite a lot probably by Kevin especially; I think he was very worried about it.

I didn’t mind so much because I felt confident that we wouldn’t have to go into “soapy” territory, that we could still have her working and delivering all of that scientific stuff whilst having a relationship. Because it was about love in the workplace, and I think that kind of saved it in a way. For me, anyway.

Jace: In the episode “The Ramblin’ Boy,” Laura and Robbie’s relationship is made public and Laura kisses Robbie at the pub in front of Hathaway and Innocent. What did you make of how the reveal was handled?

Clare: I thought it was very funny. I mean, I hope everybody else did, but I thought… You know, I can still see Rebecca Front’s face. So, yeah. I think the shock for Lewis and Rebecca Front’s character was great, their reaction was great. And…so, yeah. I think it went down well.

Jace: Why do you think that viewers so desperately wanted to see Laura and Robbie end up together?

Clare: Oh, it’s incredible, you know.

I do a lot of traveling, and I would have people come up to me in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain somewhere and say, you know, “Are you going to get together with with Robbie Lewis?” And I’m like, “I’m on holiday, guys.”

I think because we were nearly, you know, just brushing all the time, it became a real tease, I think. And this was sort of the longest foreplay in history probably. But… You know, so we kept the audience thinking, “Maybe, maybe, you know.” I think they just got very involved in that. And there was a kind of loneliness about the pair of them. They kind of, yeah, maybe represented a lot of people.

Jace: What do you think makes them such a good match for each other, if you stepped back outside of the character?

Clare: I do think what’s a good match about them is they, they have a sense of reality in the face of crime. They both love their work. The character of Robbie is– he’s a man of the people. And I think probably Laura Hobson is a little bit the same.

They’re not highfalutin or… You know, they do their work, and they want to make the world a better place, probably.

Jace: What was it like playing the pair as a married couple in these last two seasons?

Clare: I want to say it was good, but it was– it was actually quite difficult because I didn’t want to lose this sense of the professional. I didn’t want it to become a series about “What…” you know, “What are they eating for dinner?” and “What are they watching on television?” “And who…” you know. That to me is pretty dull. So we… I think, we managed it well, and the little bits of domesticated stuff you got were related to the work.

I always felt that maybe Laura could be part of a case that she cracked as well, but that didn’t quite happen. But in terms of the relationship, I mean, Kevin, again, Kevin and I get on very well so that was fairly easy.

Hobson: A filament of goose down.
Lewis: Doctor, you bring me all this because you secretly love me.
Hobson: If I bring you anything at all Lewis, you cocky sod, it’s because I secretly love Hathaway.

Jace: We’ve talked now a lot about Laura and Robbie, but I’d love to turn our attention to another central dynamic within Lewis, that between Laura and Hathaway. What did you make of their rapport and working with Laurence Fox?

Clare: That was a kind of incredible journey really, because obviously Laurence came to us from the beginning and the idea that there was this sort of academic, young, other side of Lewis was fun.

And I think sometimes Laura and he would be kind of fighting for Robbie’s attention. I think both of them had a sort of strange, even early on, love affair with Lewis and were both slightly competing for him.

But I thought Laurence was fantastic in the role, and I think one of the many reasons people continue to watch was because the dynamic between Kevin and Laurence worked very well.

Jace: Looking back, how has Laura Hobson evolved since you first started playing her more than 20 years ago?

Clare: Okay. Well, I think Laura Hobson when she started was this feisty woman, you know, who didn’t want to be patronized by an older man, and I think as the role developed she became a confidant for Robbie and the only person who he really could talk to about very personal things…

Lewis: I’m allowed to say he’s a bit weird? Or do I have to say — I don’t know — differently normal?
Hobson: You can say anything you’d like to me.
Lewis: Well that’s something these days.

Clare: …and then that became a character he couldn’t be without.

Jace: In the episode “Expiation,” we learned that Laura carries cigarette as an indicator of stress.

Hobson: If I light the cigarette, you’ll know I’m about to scream.

Jace: What did you make of the little clues about Laura’s life outside of work that sort of peppered their way through these early episodes of Lewis?

Clare: I can’t quite remember because they did change quite a lot and, you know, sometimes they would give her different hobbies. I remember I was into chess I think, at one point. I think they would constantly try to give Laura an outside life and, you know, round her. So, I mean… I think …

What did I make of them? I don’t know. I think you get little teasers of how she might have been outside of work just enough to keep us interested, really.

Jace: One of my favorite all time Lewis episodes is “Falling Darkness” in which we learn a great deal more about Hobson’s past. What were your experiences filming this episode, and getting the opportunity to delve so deeply into Laura’s back story?

Clare: Was “Falling Darkness” the one where I was buried alive?

Jace: It was. We’ll talk about that, yes.

Clare: Okay. “Falling Darkness,” that was a great opportunity for me, and it was great fun just to round her out a bit and see a bit more of her and make her the central part.

I mean, a lot of the other work I’ve done separate from Lewis and Morse, you know, I get to play very different characters. I’m very lucky. But Laura has always kept it light and above a certain level. So to bring some of that emotion into Laura, and also for Kevin and I to play something completely different, that was great. I really enjoyed it.

Jace: Also, in that episode Dr. Hobson is very nearly buried alive. What was it like shooting that scene and were you actually down in that pit?

Clare: That was sort of horrific, being buried alive.

I was down in the pit. We had a body double for one part of it when they push her in, but when she’s actually in the pit, that was me. And then they start to shovel soil on top of her. And that, believe it or not, was a mixture of Coco Pops and something else. I can’t remember what they mixed it with.

But it was cereal basically, made to look like soil, so that wasn’t so bad. Quite tasty. That was fine, but it was a grueling idea and horrible being– your face being covered. But I kind of enjoyed it.

Jace: I read that you had a friend who is a pathologist. Has she helped you with some of the more technical aspects of Hobson’s scenes and has she ever said she would never do “such and such” as a pathologist?

Clare: Oh, yes. She has always. I mean, I think one of the things about the dramatization of pathologists is they become– they take on about three jobs which, in reality, doesn’t happen. But, you know, with costs of filming and so on and so forth, you wouldn’t have three characters.

So she’s often said to me, “Yeah, that’s nonsense.” And also, she has big qualms about makeup.

You know, pathologists wearing making, which she says doesn’t happen.

Jace: Is it true that you trained as a gymnast?

Clare: I did train as a gymnast. I represented South East England for a wee while. And, yeah. I can still do the splits.

Jace: Wow. And you play the ukulele?

Clare: Oh, no. Really badly. Really badly. Just a beginner.

Jace: You have a lengthy list of credits. One of my favorite roles that you played was in The Lakes as the adulteress teacher Simone Fisher who ends up being murdered by none other than Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle. Are you recognized on the street most for playing Hobson, and what is the strangest place you’ve been recognized?

Clare: Yes. I’m mainly recognized for Hobson. Occasionally people will come up with other things, and when they do I’m quite pleased, but mainly for Hobson.

I was in Myanmar, just in January, in a place called Old Bagan, which is stuffed full of temples, and somebody came out of a temple and said to me, “Hi, Laura. How are you doing?”

They were American actually, and yeah. That was quite strange. I was in a sort of slightly different landscape and… But it has happened all over the world actually. And people do stop me and say “Hello” and ask, “What’s going to happen next?” so…

Jace: Even in Myanmar.

Clare: Yeah, incredible.

Jace: What was the final scene you shot for the series and, and what went through your head when they said, “That’s a wrap for Clare Holman?”

Clare: The final scene that I shot was a row between Lewis and Laura Hobson. I won’t go into the details because it will spoil it, but yeah, a rather heartbreaking scene actually.

And what went through my head? It was incredible really, because I’ve grown up with this series, and it was weird to let her go and yet it felt absolutely right, the right time to let it go. I didn’t really want to see myself age in the same character any longer.

It’s been a family that I’ve been part of for many, many years, and that was going to obviously be very sad and… Yeah. There’s a loss there, but it also felt right to finish when we did.

Jace: The 30th anniversary of Morse is next year. Why do you think that this character continues to endure?

Clare: I think, everybody loves a mystery. The character is flawed, like all those good detectives, and I think they were just so well-written. I have to say that, you know, I think the best things come from good scripts, best dramas come from good scripts, and we had endlessly good writers, you know, directors who made it big, and actors certainly.

I had a little look at the list of actors and there were 33 pages worth of the most talented actors that this country has — all who’ve been in either Morse or Lewis. And then you look at the same, directors and the writers, it’s the same. I think it’s a classy act. Maybe a bit old fashioned, but I think it’s a classy act. I think people love that.

Jace: Morse ended with the death of its detective protagonist. Does Lewis resolve itself with a happier ending than its predecessor?

Clare: I’m not sure I can say that, can I?

Jace: You can tease. You can tease a little.

Clare: I don’t know. Who knows? I think we’ll see Robbie go through a bit of a trauma and probably Laura too, including an explosion, but yes. I will say that it ends happily.

Jace: In two weeks, Clare Holman takes her final bow as Dr. Laura Hobson in the series finale of Lewis.

Catch the last-ever episode — explosions and all — Sunday, August 21st at 9 pm.

Kevin Whately: Yeah I didn’t want him to die, but I’m glad that it finished the way it did.

And tune into MASTERPIECE Studio the next morning to hear from actor Kevin Whately after Robbie Lewis signs off for good.

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