Dawn French talks The Trouble With Maggie Cole

Where did the idea for The Trouble with Maggie Cole come from?

I was due to write The Trouble with Maggie Cole as my next novel. Sophie (Clarke-Jervoise, Exec Producer, Genial Productions) came down to see me as a friend and asked me what I was doing. So I told her the story and she said, ‘Please don’t write that as a novel. Please can we have it for telly?’ I told her I hadn’t any time to write it for telly and she said, ‘I know exactly the right person.’ And she was right.

What do you think Mark Brotherhood (writer) captures so well about village life in his scripts?

Pretty much everything. He’s looked at all the little corners. There’s a bit of darkness in how everybody responds to each other and how you can be entrenched in your thinking with very little knowledge about the subject. And his dialogue is just very good. It’s very character led. It’s hard to learn because he writes a lot of broken sentences, like natural speech. But that’s a good thing. It’s good to have a challenge.

Can you explain the dramatic event that kicks off each episode?

There is a montage at the beginning of each episode. There has been an accident in the village. We don’t quite know who is involved in it and as each week goes by we find out a little bit more about who is involved and the series of events leading up to it. The accident kind of draws all the various characters together. So that’s a bit of tension that runs through it all.

What sort of person is Maggie?

She’s got a high opinion of herself. Let’s put it that way. But I think she’s the kind of person who is like that because she actually is the opposite. She has a low opinion of herself. She feels like she doesn’t matter very much. When Maggie is asked what she does she describes herself as an historian. She’s not really an historian. She’s a person who runs the gift shop at the castle. She does know the history of the castle. In the past she worked at the school where her husband Peter is the headmaster.

I’m imagining she probably had Karen’s job, the headmaster’s secretary who Vicki Pepperdine plays. Then when Peter became HM she took the gift shop job and regards that as a sort of promotion. In her own mind she’s got a job that matters.

It’s all about that for Maggie. Maggie wants to matter. So, when she is asked if she would like to do an interview for local radio she couldn’t think of anything better. It ticks all the boxes. Suddenly someone is listening to her. Somebody thinks that she matters. In fact they don’t think that. The journalist does not think that she matters at all.

He thinks that she is the conduit to the gossip in the village and indeed she is. What happens to Maggie is a kind of moral dilemma that any of us could get into. All of us tell stories. All of us enjoy elaborating. All of us are open to flattery and hubris. In a way Maggie is betrayed by the journalist but she also led herself into that. So, there is some responsibility for her to take.

Before all that happens though Maggie has got a funny, lovely, ordinary marriage. She and Peter have a son who is married and a slightly spiky daughter-in-law. They’re just a family muddling along. But Maggie is somebody who interferes. She’s got a need to control things. I think many of us will recognise that. She was born and raised in this village so she knows all the families and knows everybody’s business and she likes it like that.

Have you met many Maggies in your time?

Yeah, I think we’re all a bit Maggie, to be honest. Human beings have told stories since the beginning of time. You don’t need to tell stories to survive. It’s not food or water or shelter or clothing. And yet we’ve all done it because it intrigues us. It wakes our imagination up and it connects us. But the danger with the elaboration of stories is the damage you can cause by doing that. We live in a society where reputation is all. And Maggie carelessly throws people’s reputations down the toilet, because she’s had a few too many gins and because she’s been flattered.

Where it used to be possible to say that ‘today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’ that’s now not the case with social media.

Absolutely. And in fact a small story, which it could have remained and just done a bit of damage in that village and then been mended somehow, because of social media it starts to trend. It becomes more national and it’s more embarrassing for everybody involved. She wouldn’t have wished that and she wouldn’t have considered that. None of us know now what we’re getting into until you’re in it.

How do you feel about social media?

I’m not really on it except for Twitter. Jennifer (Saunders) encouraged me to go on that. She said I’d have fun on it because there’s lots of good jokes. That’s really why I do it. I’m also aware that there is some of my work that is hard to let people know about. There’s an in-built system. When you write a novel or do a play or a one-woman show there is no such thing. You need to let people know. To be able to tell the very people who have got an interest in you – that’s all it is, an immediate connection to people who are interested in you – I like that. But I wouldn’t ever want to be just selling on social media. I think if you’re going to be on it you need to entertain people a bit or connect properly.

Once Maggie has made her terrible mistake she’s very quick to try and rectify the situation, isn’t she?

Well, she’s a good-hearted person actually. I think that’s a key thing. Being a gossip doesn’t make you a dreadful person. We’re all gossipers. It’s how you handle the gossip and how you handle the aftermath. If you’re quick to be contrite. She does have a moment of shock and pride, if you like, where she is a bit numb. But then she very quickly realises that she has to apologise and she does with the help of her husband who guides her with that. He’s a teacher so he just says, ‘You have to make it right with everyone.’

Thus begins her pilgrimage to the door of each person to apologise. And like any good drama, and certainly like any good gossip, there’s a bit of truth in some of the stories and a lot of untruth. In some cases she finds out the story is ten times as big or it is about something completely different.

Some people it genuinely helps them. Not that she set out to do that but that is the result. For others it is just a massive learning curve for them and for Maggie about how people are perceived.

Are you a big believer in forgiveness? Are we too quick to condemn these days?

We are. I can be just like anyone else and be quick to condemn. But I know we all know in our hearts that there is no future to anything unless you can forgive. It’s just some things are harder to forgive than others. Very personal things are very hard to forgive. Being misrepresented can feel very closely akin to bullying. That’s the feeling of being helpless and needy and all the things you hope you aren’t ordinarily. Certainly a big untruth or a big injustice about you out there publicly is a horrible thing to have to deal with.

You and Julie Hesmondhalgh feel like a casting match made in heaven. How has this never happened before?

I know. That’s the good thing about this trade actually. At moments like this these worlds can collide. You’ve admired somebody from afar and thought, ‘I love that actress. I’m sure they’d be great. I like their politics. I like their attitude. I like everything that they’ve done. I’m sure I’d like that person’. Then you need to find a best friend for a part and you think, ‘Oh God, wouldn’t it be great if it was her?’ I was really chuffed when she said yes.

You tweeted your love for Vicki Pepperdine’s Dear Joan and Jericha podcast with Julia Davis. Had you been wanting to work with her for a while?

Absolutely. I love Vicki, I’ve seen so much of her work and it is so good. She is a supreme funny woman. She is also a great actress. Dear Joan and Jericha is just utterly hilarious. I didn’t know about it until we started making The Trouble with Maggie Cole. Then I listened to it in one big splurge. Bloody hilarious. Again with Julia Davis. How marvellous is she? We are living in a very rich time for women in comedy. And for women generally in this trade. We are spoilt for choice. We of course need more. We need to come to a time where usually the men who are in charge of channels don’t say things like, ‘Well, we’ve got a double act that are women. We don’t need any more.’ You don’t say that about the male double acts. There isn’t a quota for them. We need to stop being token and just be plentiful until we are ruling the world.

Maggie likes an 80s tune and you’ve played your fair share of 80s popstars. Do you have a favourite? Madonna? Bananarama? Bros?

That Bros documentary did take me back to our one when we did them (for Star Test on French & Saunders). The unfortunate thing is you are talking to the wrong person because I have a very bad memory, which anyone who knows me will attest to. I can’t remember anybody or anything I’ve ever done. All I can say is that when Mark Brotherhood wanted me to always have Aha playing on the radio for Maggie that slightly rankled because that was not my taste particularly. But I think it is his taste and he does get to have those little prerogatives every now and again. I remember a lot of 80s music being awful and a lot of it being brilliant. I did go and see the Bananarama girls on tour last year when Siobhan (Fahey) was back and that was wonderful.

Have there been stunning locations on this that you’d not visited before?

We’ve filmed on beaches that I went on as a kid like Mothecombe. Launceston Castle is somewhere I also spent time as a kid. We did film in a lot of places that are my manor. Of all the cast I am the one who does know this area a bit. But there are still little bits in Cargreen where I had never been down a particular road. There was a whole little village there that I had never seen. So that was exciting.

If Maggie survives would you like to explore the villager’s lives more in a second series?

Oh definitely. Our little family has worked very well together. I liked working with these actors very much. I love Mark Heap such a lot. It’s a very natural relationship. I knew it would be. It’s very easy to play his wife and see how a marriage would be with his character.

What we need to decide is what would happen next in the village to authentically explode it again? So that’s exciting. Funnily enough Sophie ran one of Mark’s ideas passed me the other day and I said, ‘Oh my God, that happened up the road from where I live.’ So that felt truly authentic. I know the people who it happened to. I love that when you can verify something. I’m really happy with The Trouble with Maggie Cole. It feels unique. The tone is quite particular. It’s drama, it’s comedy, but it’s got a big, big pulsing heart at the centre of it with true friendships and proper relationships.

The Trouble With Maggie Cole | Wednesday’s on ITV at 9:00pm starting 4 March