I’ve been lucky enough this summer to write the interviews for four ITV Drama press packs – otherwise known as production notes.
One of the projects was Mrs Biggs, a superb five-part series which begins on ITV1 at 9pm on Wednesday September 5 with a 90 minute opening episode.
Back in February I interviewed the real Mrs Biggs – Charmian – who acted as a consultant on the drama.
And followed that with later interviews involving Sheridan Smith, who plays her on screen, Daniel Mays (Ronnie Biggs) plus writer and executive producer Jeff Pope.
As its title suggests, Mrs Biggs tells Charmian’s story in a TV drama for the first time.
It also happens to be one of the best things I’ve seen in recent years.
My interview with Danny is here.
And click on the following link for all my interviews (PDF document):
Sheridan Smith shed plenty of tears when she played the role of Charmian Biggs.
“I remember bawling my eyes out just reading the script before I even auditioned. It’s such a moving story,” she says.
“I’d heard about Ronnie Biggs and I thought Charmian would be a gangster’s moll type character. Then I read the script and realised she wasn’t. I was fascinated by how Charmian and Ron were world’s apart and met – ironically – on a train and fell madly in love.
“I’m such a hopeless romantic and at the heart of Mrs Biggs is a love story. I just could not put the scripts down. I’ve never read something that I’ve wanted so much to play. I don’t think anyone really knows her story.”
Sheridan was working on another job when she went for the audition. “I was still really blonde but a lovely make-up lady on this other job gave me a little mini beehive hairstyle to give the illusion of, ‘Look, I can do period,’” she laughs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous before an audition. I was terrified and really didn’t think I’d get it. I thought, ‘A role like this, they’ll be seeing so many brilliant actresses and I don’t stand a chance.’
“When I got the phone call I almost burst into tears because it was something I was really passionate about and so wanted to do it. I was thrilled that they chose me.”
Daniel Mays plays Ronnie in the drama.
“We’d met before but hadn’t worked together,” explains Sheridan. “Working with Danny was a joy. He’s a phenomenal actor and we got on really well.”
They bonded over early filming in and around Manchester including scenes where police are chasing them after Ron and an accomplice have committed a crime.
“Danny and I had to lie flat in a freezing cold stream. They filmed it and said, ‘OK, great, let’s get you out…oh, can we just keep you there for a minute to do some stills.’ We’d just started to get up and the water took us under and we almost went downstream. Danny was hanging on to the side and I was nearly under the water. All just to get a quick still shot. It was very funny,” she laughs.
Sheridan plays Charmian from an impressionable teenage girl to a mother in her thirties.
“It’s a huge age jump over the five episodes but it was really clever how they aged both Danny and I. The hair, make up and costume also helps you get into the feel of each period. Lesley Brennan was my brilliant make up artist. She did so many different looks for me. From aged 18 when I had this little short hairstyle to then a big beehive and big back-combed hair later on in the Seventies.
“That was the fun of it because it went from Fifties’ outfits to all the Sixties’ and then into the Seventies. You feel so completely different to yourself and hold yourself differently. I loved wearing the dresses and the hairstyles and make up. It all made me feel much more like Charmian.
“Of course you never film a drama in order. It’s all out of sequence. So we’d have quick changes. One day I gradually aged down scene by scene from 33 to 18. I was like, ‘I could get used to this. I’m getting younger by the scene!’
“We also had many different age groups of children because they go from babies to toddlers to early teenagers. I became quite broody by the end of it because they were all so gorgeous.”
Her hair was dyed red to play Charmian but she had to revert to blonde for other work once filming was finished. “I would have loved to keep the red hair. I loved it. My favourite yet. Maybe I’ll be able to go back to it for another job in the future.”
Sheridan felt an extra responsibility playing a real person who is still alive.
“I think Charmian’s story is one of the greatest untold stories. There’s an added layer of pressure when you’re playing somebody real. It’s their life and you want to do it justice. I was very nervous about meeting Charmian. Because I’d read the scripts and about her life I felt so close to her. But she was just amazing and such a help during the whole process. What she went through touched me so much that I wanted to make her proud.”
Charmian acted as a consultant to the production.
“Charmian was next to me at the script read through in London before we started filming. I was so aware that she was sitting next to me and how surreal it must have been for her to hear these actors saying lines that were her life.
“She was just the loveliest lady and put me completely at ease. And we became really good friends. We saw a lot of each other during the filming and I was in tears on the last day when I had to say goodbye.”
Charmian was a teenager on her way to work in London when she met Ron on that train in October 1957.
“She was from a middle class family and her dad was a headmaster. Ron was a cheeky-chappie charmer and this different world, which was exciting for her. She had a hard time with her dad and Ron wanted to take her away from it all. And she ran away with him.”
Charmian’s father did not approve of their relationship and she eventually found herself cut off from her family. “I have a very northern family and we’re very close. So I can’t imagine that. She had nobody but Ron then and must have felt so alone at times, especially when he went to prison.”
Ron’s involvement in the Great Train Robbery was to change her life forever.
“A lot of people will probably think she knew about the robbery. But she had no idea and then had to make a decision. Charmian wanted her children to have a father, so she went on the run with him.
“Of course Ron was involved but most people don’t really know the details of what happened. I think this series will explain a lot of things.
“I understand why she did what she did. When you know her side of the story it’s heartbreaking. Because they were in love, she was an incredible mum with a lovely little family. But they were always looking over their shoulder. They were never free.”
Sheridan stresses that this is Charmian’s story, being told in a drama for the first time.
“It is called Mrs Biggs. Her husband committed a crime and was on the run from the law. But she’d made her vows to him and was incredibly loyal. It may be partly because she’s of that certain generation. But also because of her love for him and the fact she wanted their children to have a father.
“My interest is in the fact that Charmian is an amazing lady and when I read her story I wanted to tell it and was honoured to be asked to do it. I hope that people will understand more about Charmian’s side of things.
“It’s important to me that people see what she had to go through. Charmian was trying to be a loyal wife and mother. You can’t know what you would have done in that situation at that time, being that woman. She was a single mum a lot of the time when Ron wasn’t around. I was inspired reading her story.”
The first part of the series was filmed in the UK before production switched to Australia.
“Suddenly we’re in the boiling Outback covered in flies and doing this sunset shot with nothing for miles around. At the time we said, ‘This is insane. We were on Blackpool Pier two days ago.’
“It gave you a feeling of how they must have felt all those years ago. You’re in this strange country where you don’t know a soul. It must have been scary for Charmian when she arrived on her own with the children.
“It was amazing filming in the Outback. I’d never been anywhere like that. That was one of the highlights because it was so alien to me. We stayed in this little hotel in the middle of nowhere.”
Adds Sheridan: “Charmian made Ron want to be a better person. When they got to Australia he got regular jobs and worked hard. For all his faults he had many good points as well. That’s the reason she loved him. She saw the good in him and how, because of his upbringing, he had got into the wrong crowd.
“Once they were on the other side of the world they made the best of what they had and tried to be happy for the sake of their kids and each other. I’m such a worrier, I don’t know how they got on with that. But they did.”
Sheridan and Danny visited Charmian’s home during filming where she showed them her personal archives.
“We got to read the letters between her and Ron and them corresponding once he had gone to Rio. Danny and I were both crying. It was just so wonderful to let us have a window into that personal world and see the real handwriting – when we had been reading out some of those lines in the script. It was really moving.”
Charmian and Ron’s eldest son Nicky, aged 10, was killed in a car accident in Australia. Sheridan found those scenes particularly emotional to play.
“No mother should have to experience that. I lost my eldest brother so my mum went through that. Because I don’t have children, I tried to use that, I guess, when I was playing those scenes. It was really traumatic because I felt for Charmian so much.”
Ron was by this time living in Brazil, having been forced to leave Charmian and his children behind in Australia to evade arrest.
In 1974 Charmian visited her husband in Rio where she learned he had a young girlfriend who was pregnant with his child. Both Sheridan and Danny found these later scenes especially challenging.
“She’d been so good and so strong and they’d been so in love up to that point. Then when he started misbehaving and womanising in Rio, I found that quite difficult. But she’s still trying to make it work and hold on to that little glimmer of hope. He’d changed so much by that point. He’d become another man.”
Looking back, Sheridan concludes: “I’ll never forget the day I first read the script. It was a really special job to work on plus the fact that we all went away to Australia together and became like a family.
“Charmian has a great outlook on it all today. She’s a very positive lady. You see her growing from this young girl to an incredibly strong woman. It’s a very empowering story.
“They were so much happier when they had no money at the beginning of their relationship when they were struggling and also when they first got to Australia. The money didn’t make them happy.
“There’s a real big lesson in that. If you love each other that should be enough.”
Sheridan’s credits include The Scapegoat, Jonathan Creek, Gavin & Stacey and Two Pints of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. She’s also won Olivier Awards for her West End stage roles in Legally Blonde and Flare Path.
Sheridan plays the title role in Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic Theatre from September and in the autumn of 2013 is due to play Titania, co-starring with David Walliams in a West End production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.