Tessa Peake-Jones Interview: Grantchester’s Splendid Mrs. C
Tessa Peake-Jones, the actress behind Grantchester‘s Mrs. C, shares insights about her character’s backstory, and reveals bad behavior off camera, potential storylines, and what really goes on in those car rides to and from the Grantchester set! Find out in her exclusive interview from June, 2020 with MASTERPIECE.
What do you like most about playing Mrs. C?
We do a little count each series, as to how many times per episode she might smile. And I love that, because as a human being, I’m a very, very smiley, laughing person—I find it very hard to take much of life seriously, apart from very serious things. But she, of course, hardly ever smiles. And it’s bliss to play because it’s so unlike me. I love it.
Certainly, early on, she almost never smiled. It’s slightly better now that she’s got married; she’ll smile a little bit more in the church scenes when she’s sitting with her husband. But it’s still not a lot; she’s just not one of those people. And I love playing that about her, I love her firmness. I love her commitment to what she believes in—it wouldn’t necessarily be what I believe in, but I love the fact that she does it with great panache. She’s a joy to play, actually. She really is.
Is there a backstory for Mrs. C, that might explain why she’s so hard on the people that she loves the most?
Obviously, this is making some of it up because we don’t actually have anything in writing, but I have a feeling she didn’t have a very happy childhood. I feel she probably had quite a dominant, bullying father, and I think that might explain her first attraction to her first husband, who was a bit of a blighter himself…You never had any mention of brothers, sisters, cousins, so I have a feeling she was quite an isolated, lonely child. And along with that, if she saw parents that weren’t happy, perhaps she developed a sort of toughness to protect herself, maybe even protect her mother. And then it looks like she married Ronnie Maguire quite quickly. I imagine it was the first time ever somebody had said lovely things to her, wooed her, and I think she perhaps fell madly for that, thinking this is it. And of course, it turned out to be such a disappointment, and a really not very good marriage…
Sometimes those sort of backgrounds explain why somebody will make very quick judgements—not necessarily keep to them—and I think she’s someone who makes a judgment very quickly. But I think in time, with thought and the right people talking things through, she does alter her opinions. And I always think that’s a great show of character, if you can actually go, “Yes. Do you know what? I’m not right about this,” and move over. If only all of us could do that in life! And I think that, again, perhaps comes from someone who’s quick to judge because of her background of defense. It takes her longer to think things through and let them simmer before she, perhaps, then alters her opinion.
Al Weaver is very, very naughty because he does all his stuff beautifully and brilliantly when the camera’s on him. And then when it turns around onto me, he starts to giggle.
How does this play out in her relationship with Leonard?
I wonder if she, at some point with Ronnie, had a miscarriage…I don’t know, there’s more to explore in all of that background, perhaps in future series. But she certainly hasn’t got any children. So I think the vicars that have come and gone—certainly the younger ones, and Leonard—have become almost like substitute sons for her. Particularly Leonard, because when they first got to know each other, he was quite a loner, too. I think she recognized something in him, and I don’t mean his sexuality, I mean an isolation about him. And how his belief meant more than how many friends he had, I think she recognized that in herself, too. So I think that gave them a sort of connection that’s then, over the series, been challenged by his sexuality and her feelings about that. And that’s almost beaten them at one point, because of her doggedness.
Making Grantchester, every season, you and Al Weaver (Leondard Finch) shared a car to and from set. The two of you go way back, as you were his mentor when he was at drama school. What were those rides like?
Now, he’ll have a different take on this, but mine is, I loved it. We’d meet in the morning, and once I’m up, I’m quite a chirpy, early morning person. Al Weaver is the exact opposite. So he would like to just travel in silence with his cap over his face, and be very rude and not speak. [laughs] Well, he wasn’t allowed to do that when we were in the car together because I would get in, I’d buy him a coffee, a cappuccino—yes, I was very kind to him! And then we’d chatter on, because I would insist on asking him questions. And he did, I think, find it quite irritating.
But he also, at the end of each series, would say, “What will I do without you now in the car?” So I think somewhere, he quite liked it. We go back a long way, we’re very dear friends. Yes, I taught him everything he knows at drama school. In fact, he needed no help at all. He was one of the most talented youngsters that I ever had to mentor. And I did very little for him because he didn’t need it. He was great. And last summer, we worked together on a film that he’d done. He asked if I’d play his mom in it, so I was absolutely thrilled. It was really nice because we were actually being different people—instead of Leonard and Mrs. C, we were being mom and son in a completely different, very modern film. So that was lovely. He’s a delight. He’s delightful. He says he’s fed up with me, but I think he would be very sad if we weren’t in the car together!
What is it like working with Al during those very funny scenes you share, and the powerful ones, too? You’re far too professional to ever just start laughing, I imagine, but what’s it like working together?
No, can I just correct you there? One of us is too professional for it to affect, the other one is not. Al Weaver is very, very naughty because he does all his stuff beautifully and brilliantly when the camera is on him. And then when it turns around onto me, he starts to giggle. So he’s very naughty and we’ve had to have words about it in the past! Of course, you wouldn’t dare to do that with someone you didn’t like or get on with. It’s done because you mutually respect each other. And I love laughter on set…There are two things, I think, that really help when you’re acting. One, which sadly I’m missing at the moment, is hugs. I think to be able to hold people and go, “Hi” and greet the crew and hug them is a really lovely way of starting days, where you’re just going, hey, we’re all equal, here we are together. And the other one is laughter. So I think when you’ve got that on a set, you’ve got a pretty good working relationship! This is everyone, not just Al and I.
But he can be quite naughty! He wouldn’t do it to muck me up when I’m speaking, obviously. He wouldn’t do that, he’s very professional. But when there are things like, maybe, a shot on me and it’s just a reaction, when I’m looking, perhaps looking stern…sometimes he’ll have to leave the room and I’ll have to do it on my own, without him, because he finds it so difficult to look at me being so stern. So we did have some times where we will speak to each other or shout and scream—hilariously, not horribly. But I love stuff with him because I just think he’s so brilliant as Leonard. And I do think that dynamic they have, the two of them, is slightly reflective now of how the two of us go on and on at each other. It’s the ’50s and we’re meant to be playing different characters, but obviously those themes of what you build up in relationships with actors are very important because they really, I think, do affect the way scenes are then played.
Is there any particular storyline you would like for Mrs C in the future?
I have wondered about something in her past coming back, something perhaps that she’s never spoken about that comes back to haunt her. Whether somebody comes back to the village, or perhaps does a slight blackmail with her, or there’s some part of her life she’s never shared that then comes. It would be nice to think there was some sort of, not exactly secret, but something she’s walked away from, that perhaps comes back to meet her. And that might be interesting, partly because it would be great to play the guilt of it, and to see how she’d worked her way around it.
Do you think that she has any particular skill set that would make her good at helping to solve a murder? I’d like to see her pitch in and be instrumental in solving a murder. Everyone else in the vicarage has gotten a chance!
Well, she’s quite bright. She knows Grantchester very, very well, as she’s been there all her life. So I think if it was [a question of] where could somebody hide a piece of evidence, she might be quite good at that. She’s quite organized, she’s very bossy. She might boss people into giving clues up. So, yeah, I think she might well be quite helpful!
What are you most looking forward to when Grantchester can finally begin filming a new season?
Hugging everyone again, if we’re allowed to touch. That will be really good. And just the community, family feel of getting back to work…I quite like my work and I want to get back to it! So I would really like to get back to the storylines and the acting and the watching other people. And the magic. The magic, again, of television and film, which I always find astounding to walk into sets and go, “Oh!” Because it is, make-believe. And I really look forward to that.