Do you find yourself an unlikely Lord Palmerston enthusiast, a fan of the cane-twirling bad-boy in spite of your better angels? If you haven’t already made a Palmerston conversion, this exclusive interview with actor Laurence Fox is certain to do the trick. Because Fox’s affection for the cast, fun with the role, and admiration for the script is utterly endearing, and will have you, like Queen Victoria, enjoying “good ol’ Pam” after all!
MASTERPIECE: First off: Are you having the time of your life playing this role?
FOX: I read it and I thought it was just the funniest part. You know, he’s so rude to everybody. And it’s so nice that you get to be like that on the screen, and then be friends with people off screen. I remember doing my first line to Jenna, and she just gave this really long pause. And I was like why is she pausing? And then I watched the video, and I realized she was just looking at me like, how dare you say that to me. And we just carried on like that! So it was a lot of fun to play. But also quite daunting, because these things are always quite daunting. I take the work quite seriously, but I also try to keep it quite light.
MASTERPIECE: What was it like for you joining the cast of Victoria as a new character in Season 3?
FOX: Joining the cast was great. I did nearly ten years of Inspector Lewis, and we had people come in, and join, and you just try and make everyone welcome. And they did make me feel welcome. It’s nice—you know, you come in and you shake it up a bit. But it was nice to play that character, because he’s a very confident man. So I sort of just pretended to be him…when I was not him, and when I was him. I made some really good friends, and it was fun. It’s a well-run show, you know. It was lovely.
He genuinely admires her, and he listens to her, and he cares deeply what she thinks. And that’s what true love it, isn’t it, it’s really valuing the other person, loving them. And he loves her, deeply.–Laurence Fox on Palmerston’s relationship with his wife, Emily
MASTERPIECE: Is there any Palmerston in you?
FOX: Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah. My mom will testify to the fact that I’m a lippy bastard. Yeah, she would say that. I answer back…My school teachers would probably tell you that I was probably a bit Palmerstonian as well. I’m probably more like Palmerston than I am like Hathaway, if you know what I mean.
MASTERPIECE: Did you do much preparation, or research for playing him?
FOX: I bustle with this over the years, how to “do” acting. And I’ve come down now on the side of thinking that if you’re making a huge historical epic, and it’s really important that you know exactly what happened, then great. But I read his biography, and how he was as a man, relevant to the era, is reflected very well in Daisy’s script. So, I just I thought: my job as an actor is to deliver the lines that the writer wrote, as clearly, and with the intention that the writer intended—more like a cog in a wheel—than trying to deliver some Grand Performance that’s incredibly well researched. The best results I’ve had from acting, in my career, have been from trying to serve the script, and not trying to impose myself, and my own feelings of the script, but just trying to deliver the writer’s vision—I think that’s the best way of approaching acting. So, we researched some…Did it help? Not massively.
MASTERPIECE: Palmerston is loved by the British public, and he lives and dies by his popularity. So what do you think the secret is to Palmerston’s likably?
FOX: Well, he’s very British, isn’t he? It’s a very good exploration of what it we struggle with in this country, with what “Britishness” is. I think Britishness is, sort of, the common touch, and is what he’s after the whole time. And that is to say what you think, whether you’re talking to the queen, or you’re talking to a chimney sweep. There’s no graces in Britain. You know, he’s incredibly rude to Louis Philippe, isn’t he? That’s how it is—it’s that great sanctity of the individual, which is the cornerstone of, I think, what British culture is about. And, I think, that’s what he cares about. And I also think he came into politics later, and therefore he was a bit worldly wise. You know, this was a time when people did things before they became politicians, and they became politicians as a service to the society that they lived in, rather than the professional politicians we get today.
MASTERPIECE: It’s not until we meet Palmerston’s better half, Emily, that we gain a deeper understanding of his character. Can you describe their relationship? And what does she bring out in him?
FOX: Their relationship is beautiful, actually. Because you expect him to be a total rogue. Not able to have a serious thought or feeling about any female. You know, that everything is just a notch on the bedpost for him. But he genuinely admires her, and he listens to her, and he cares deeply what she thinks. And that’s what true love it, isn’t it, it’s really valuing the other person, loving them. And he loves her, deeply.
Pandora Clifford, who plays Lady P, is so brilliant—she’s so measured and so wonderful, I really enjoyed playing that with her. It was the most natural stuff to do. He’s madly in love.
MASTERPIECE: How about a spinoff? Pam & Em?
FOX: Pam & Em, yes. I think Pandora would appreciate that, and I think I would as well…
MASTERPIECE: Well, we’re all for it, as long as there’s beekeeping outfits and shoes outside the door.
FOX: Yes. The shoes outside the door is brilliant, isn’t it. And Daisy’s so great at putting in those little details. She finds it fun, as well, Daisy. You know, if the writer finds it fun, then the acting is usually fun. When the writer takes it all very seriously, it can be very, very hard to act, whereas whenever Daisy was on set, she would always encourage me. She’d say, “More! Do more!” I’d be, “Really?”
MASTERPIECE: Palmerston gets some of the very best lines. Do you have a favorite of his?
FOX: I do like that “If I were not an Englishman, I should like to be an Englishman.”
MASTERPIECE: Yes! It’s brilliant! And did he actually say that?
FOX: He did. He actually said it.
MASTERPIECE: Palmerston is described at one point as an Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Do you agree with that?
FOX: Well, I think anybody who’s brilliant is an Icarus, aren’t they? You know, you only have to open up a motivational quote book to find those, “If it’s easy, and it ain’t worth doing” [messages]. And it’s how I raise my children. It’s like, “Say what you think, man. It’s who you are, there’s only one of you, so get on with it.” Yeah, he is an Icarus…I don’t think he cares too much, actually. I think he genuinely wants to serve his country, and if it doesn’t go well for him, then he’s misjudged it, and he’ll learn. I don’t think he takes it too personally.
MASTERPIECE: And speaking of your children, I understand that you brought your boys on the Victoria set at times. What was that like for them? And for you, coming from an acting family, was it gratifying to have them see what you do? Or is it just like another day with Dad?
FOX: They’re used to it now. They’re great, you know? It was the summer holidays, it was difficult to get childcare. I was like, you’re coming to work with me, and it was great. They were looked after, and they were gorgeous. And they got to see me at work. My oldest son doesn’t care so much about acting. He’s like my mother, you know—you mention show show business to my mother and she yawns. She has so little interest in anything to with acting. Unless it’s her children, and then she just thinks that we’re all wonderful. My oldest son is the same. Who knows? He may change. But he seems less interested.
My youngest son, the lovely sound department gave him a set of earphones and stuck him in front of the monitor and I got him to give me marks out of 10 for my performance with a thumbs up, or a thumbs down, or a thumbs in the middle. And I got a couple of thumbs up, but mostly it was thumbs in the middle. “Can do better, Dad.” He sat there for four or five hours, watching me acting, and really paying attention. He’s just curious in that way. My oldest son was upstairs, looking around the library, because we were in some interesting locations. So, he was more interested in the history, as it was, rather than us pretending.
MASTERPIECE: Palmerston is completely natural on his horse as though his horse, like everybody else, just can’t get enough of him. How did you like riding in the series? Do you have any stories about working with your horse?
FOX: I love horses, you see. So, secretly, there wasn’t so much riding in the script. And I used to say to them, “I think I should be on my horse in this scene.” Actually, there’s a scene later on where it said that he arrives on his horse, gets off the horse, goes and speaks to Albert. And I was like, “No, no, I think I’ll just ride through his office.” Because he has his office outside. And the director’s like, “No you can’t do that.” And I was like, “No, I’m going to do that.”
There was another scene when—Daisy was furious about it—when she said, “You have to get off the horse when you speak to Feodora.” She said, “You know, she’s a princess.” And I’m like, I don’t care. I’m not getting off the horse. So I became Palmerston. And a bit gunboat on the whole thing.