I’ve had transformative conversations before, sure. But I think I may’ve just come out of an hour with Amanda Abbington a better person.
“Just be nice. Be nice, be nice. That’s what I say to everybody. That’s my mantra – just be nice. Pay it forward, send it out into the ether, be decent. It’s such a simple thing.”
She’s not holier-than-thou, all warm and wide-eyed and wringing her hands; Amanda is just very convincing about being nice. She’s even zen about cyberbullies (she’s faced her fair share on her ascension): “You meet it with, ‘Ok, that’s alright, you’re entitled to your opinion.’”
“It counts for a lot. Be nice and civil and respectful. I think we’ve lost that a bit. But I think, ‘I’m gonna set the benchmark a little higher, and at least say thank you.’”
Could I by any chance be talking to a parent? Someone in the midst of setting an example, say? “We do have a high moral code in our house – just about being considerate. I try to be a good parent, but who knows…”
Joe and Grace – Amanda’s children with partner Martin Freeman – aren’t here to vouch for Mum’s parenting skills, but the verdict’s back on one thing: ask any opinion of her, and you’re likely to get the same reply. “I love her!” I heard again and again. “I bet she’s really nice.”
Which is weird, when you think about it, because the last time most people would have seen Amanda Abbington, she was either at the powerful end of a pistol as the newly-wedded Mrs Mary Watson in Sherlock; copping off with a handsome young Belgian in Mr Selfridge; or as educational piety incarnate, Sali Rainer, in the Royal Court’s God Bless the Child. None of them nasty, but none straightforwardly ‘nice’.
But, of course, before a parent, Amanda was first an actress – one fast becoming a familiar face of British television. Until the offers dried up. Just as Freeman’s career was taking off (there was no resentment, though: “I can’t exactly play Tim from The Office”), the phone stopped ringing. “Stopped dead overnight. But I kept going.”
And things improved – but not, perhaps, her confidence. “I called it The Curse of Amanda Abbington,” she says. “Everything I ever did finished after one series. But it’s picking up a bit now – we’ve done three series of Mr Selfridge, and it’s my second run of Sherlock. So I think I’ve finally broken the curse.”
Indeed, if there ever was a Curse of Amanda Abbington, it seems to have lifted. This month sees her return to our screens in slick period drama Mr Selfridge as the ever-lovelorn head of accessories, Miss Mardle – who, now “an independent woman of means” with a love avowal under her neatly-belted belt, finally seems to be having a better time of it.
Equally, last year, Amanda defied critics to portray the perfect third wheel as Mary Morstan-turned-Watson in Sherlock. As Watson’s real-life partner and a potential obstruction to the adored Sherlock-Watson dynamic, Amanda faced much online opposition. When offered the part, in fact, she thought she’d been called on to advise on a good match for Martin (Emilia Fox or Maxine Peake, FYI). But there’s no doubt she’s proven her worth. With filming begun this month, Amanda goes into Sherlock series four as the strong, surprising Mary (for which she just received the Best Supporting Actress dagger at the Crime Thriller Awards) – transformed from Conan Doyle’s barely there bit part to an integral element of the show’s dynamic.
“It’s absolutely about John and Sherlock. It should be; it’s about their adventures. But I liked that there was this third wheel, and she was female and strong and could hold her own – she wasn’t there just to accommodate them. But, then, I think all the women in Sherlock are like that.”
Mr Selfridge’s Miss Mardle, too: “Beneath the wrong-footed exterior, she is determined, ambitious. And she shows that you can be ambitious and have a heart. She certainly holds her own. Mary and Miss Mardle are both strong women, and I don’t think they facilitate men – they’re there as equals.”
Is this something that’s evolved since her career began? “Yes, but I still think there’s a long way to go. If you play strong women, they have to be slight lunatics. You can’t have a funny, strong character without an element of strangeness.”
“But in this play [God Bless the Child, a smart educational satire directed by the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone], there are four women who don’t talk about men. Just four women on stage, none mad. It’s so healthy.”
The play marked Amanda’s first theatrical turn in ten years – and to say she was apprehensive is like saying 221B Baker Street is just an address. “I was terrified. I was pre-kids the last time I did it. You’re more fearless when you haven’t had children – I felt more fearless. I think your emotions come to the surface more. It makes everything so accessible.”
So which is scarier, parenthood or acting? “They’re both terrifying, but I’m more in control of acting. With parenting, you’re basically winging it – hoping you don’t cause too much permanent damage.”
And how do the kids feel about Mum and Dad’s line of work? “They love it – they find it fascinating. They’ve been on a film set or at a theatre since day dot, so they think parents who go to an office are really weird.”
“They love Mary. Grace wants to be Mary when she grows up. I said, ‘No, you can’t really be an assassin…’ And they love Bilbo [Freeman’s role in The Hobbit], just love him being Bilbo.”
And they can expect to enjoy a lot more Mum on screen soon: Mr Selfridge will take us through to autumn, then Sherlock kicks off with a special next Christmas, while she comes straight here from a read-through for a BBC sitcom, which, if it comes off, will be “so much fun”.
“I love doing comedy, I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, but I love it. And theatre. And after ten years off, I’ve got the bug again. I think what Vicky’s doing [at the Royal Court] is fantastic: bucking trends, doing stuff that’s challenging. I love people that take risks, that aren’t afraid of saying something controversial – something thought-provoking.”
A sentiment clear in her wish list: “I’d love to work with Abi Morgan, she’s amazing; Simon Stephens I love; Shane Meadows; Jack Thorne – they’re such brilliant writers. They have guts. And I’d love to do a horror film, like The Babadook. That’s on my wish list. Lady Macbeth is on my list too.”
Which, with a plethora of parts both actual and potential, plus Martin’s busy career, means getting time together can be tricky. “Family is much more important to us, but we also both want to work. It’s finding that balance. It’s hard work, making time for each other. But when you do it’s wonderful.”
Of course, filming Sherlock helps, but a studio isn’t quite the same. Quality time is, instead, spent at home in Hertfordshire or in town: “I love London – it’s where I grew up. Coming in on the train, going to the theatre, seeing the lights, was such a big deal. I love to look at it with fresh eyes. What we have here is amazing: parks, history, that skyline – it’s gorgeous. If I don’t see it too often, I miss it, I miss all it does.”
It’s this that makes Amanda’s ‘do unto others’ axiom so irresistible; adult and parent she may be, but she can be as sincerely awed as a child. And, sometimes, just the right side of childish. She seems as loved up as a teenager (“Martin’s my favourite actor,” she borderline gushes. “I’m desperately proud of him.”); argues with prepubescent trolls on Twitter; loves sneezing panda YouTube videos (this she acts out for me); and is just as amazed at London as she was at eight.
“A teacher once gave me the best piece of advice: ‘In London, always look up.’ Because you’ll see so much beauty. It’s quite a good metaphor for life, actually – always look up!”
With this final charge, Amanda heads backstage, and I buoyantly out onto the street – head tilted dutifully skywards – and into a postbox. With my newfound niceness, naturally I’m profusely apologetic, but I do wonder: is this, perhaps, the new Curse of Amanda Abbington?
Mr Selfridge airs on ITV this month