Interview : Joanne Froggatt, Dark Angel
Photo : Joanne Froggatt as serial killer Mary Ann Cotton | Credit : World Productions / ITV
Dark Angel is a new two-part drama based on the extraordinary true story of the Victorian serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, played by Golden Globe winner and Emmy award nominee Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey and Robin Hood). Mary Ann is a poisoner whose methods leave no visible scars, allowing her tally of victims to mount unsuspected by a Victorian society unable to conceive a woman capable of such terrible crimes. Travelling around the North East, she inveigles herself into the homes of unsuspecting families, marrying and creating new families of her own – before killing them, taking their money and moving on. Through adultery, bigamy, fraud and murder, Mary Ann betters herself socially and financially. But the more she kills, the greater the risk her heinous crimes will finally be exposed…
Were you still filming Downton Abbey when this role came up?
Yes, I was still doing Downton Abbey. They sent the script for the first episode and asked if I was interested in playing Mary Ann. The script was so good and I was hooked straight away. Gwyneth Hughes has done an amazing job of writing the scripts and depicting Mary Ann and her life.
I’m trying not to play her as a psychopath, because the story spans over 15 years where we see where she starts and then what she becomes.
Why did you want to play another period role straight after Anna Bates?
I was really excited about this role. Although Dark Angel is a period drama, Mary Ann could not be more different from Anna Bates. This is totally different to Downton. It’s a different time period as well.
Even though it’s all in Gwyneth’s scripts, Mary Ann is such a complex character to make sense of that I felt I needed to do some of my own research as well. I read a book about her which is a factual account, as far as we know, of what happened.
Then I did some research on female serial killers in general and the differences between male and female serial killers. Because to play somebody you have to make sense of what they’re doing in their head. Not only to make sense of it for you, but you have to make sense of their thought processes and their feelings. It’s very challenging with such serious subject matter.
Interestingly, according to the research I did, most female serial killers don’t start killing until their early thirties and nobody really knows the reason for that. Also, they will usually kill by poisoning or smothering or overdose or something quite clean and tidy.
While for men it’s often more of a sexual thing, for women it’s usually for financial or social gain. It was fascinating to find out about these things.
Is it important not to depict Mary Ann as a monster?
It’s not the story we’re telling and it’s not what anyone really believes was her story. We first meet her at the age of 25 when she has suffered the natural loss of four of her children. I guess she almost goes mad with grief at some points.
She is a working class woman in the Victorian era and there’s no opportunity, no choice. There’s no going out and having a career. Everything was simply marriage and babies. Washing, cleaning, cooking and rats. It was a horrendous life and she always felt that it was a life that wasn’t right. She always wanted more than that.
Mary Ann was quite modern thinking in feeling she deserved more, when a lot of people would have just accepted that life because there was no other choice. Today, thank goodness, we have lots of choices and women can achieve things. She can’t accept her lot but goes about seeking a better life in ways none of us would choose.
I was fascinated by the psychology behind it. She doesn’t feel emotions in the same way other people do. Mary Ann knew what she was doing was wrong but didn’t have any feelings of guilt about it.
She’s not mentally ill in the sense she sees or hears things. She doesn’t hallucinate. Mary Ann can manipulate people very easily and is very good at that. But it’s never a conscious decision. It’s something that comes naturally to her, is developed over the years and becomes a very honed skill.
But then in other ways she seems quite naive. In certain situations she doesn’t understand people’s emotions because she doesn’t feel them in the same way. I’ve loved playing all of those complications.
“She is always chasing the dream in her head. Chasing a fairy tale throughout her whole life. Mary Ann is capable of lust, sensation and caring but not of falling completely in love.”
Female killers of children always appear to attract added notoriety, given that women and mothers are supposed to protect them?
It’s extremely rare for a woman to carry a child for nine months and go through all those hormones and emotions of living and caring for that child and then want to harm them. But unfortunately there are people out there that do harm their children in lots of different ways.
It is shocking and unthinkable that she could harm her own child. But it’s her state of mind you have to look at. It’s hard to believe a woman was capable of that.
Mary Ann has intimate relations with Joe Nattrass, played by Jonas Armstrong. Did it help that you had worked with him before on Robin Hood?
Yes, it’s always easier when you’ve worked with somebody before. We got on so that was fine. Jonas and I have some intimate scenes together and it’s less awkward if you already know someone. You can have a shorthand about a scene.
Joe awakens the sexual desire in Mary Ann?
He was the love of her life. They had a 15-year affair on and off through the moving around to different towns and places. She first meets Joe when her life is really awful and she is miserable. Mary Ann’s husband is away at sea a lot of the time and the romance is long gone from that relationship. She has lost so many children and is more or less constantly pregnant and can barely feed her family. It’s a monotonous hell.
Then she meets this man from out of nowhere and he brings her joy. It’s as simple as that. Yes, it is a sexual awakening she’s never experienced before and a physical joy for the first time. But that is the key to her wanting more in life. Something she didn’t know about before.
She is always chasing the dream in her head. Chasing a fairy tale throughout her whole life. Mary Ann is capable of lust, sensation and caring but not of falling completely in love. Not after what she’s been through. But she wants that fairy tale, she wants status and wants to be respected. And Joe is the start of her wanting all of those things.
So that sexual desire is a very important part of who she is?
Apparently, again from researching this role, another trait of psychopathy is being promiscuous because they don’t have an emotional attachment to sex in the same way as other people do. There’s no right or wrong or guilt in that mind set. That is part of who Mary Ann is. You can’t tell the story without that.
Certainly I was a little nervous about those scenes. But the sexual content is not there to titillate the audience in any way, shape or form. There’s no nudity or anything like that. It simply helps to tell the story and makes perfect sense in the context. To that degree there are many stolen moments and affairs.
I think people who know me as Anna from Downton Abbey will be more shocked at other parts of this story, to be honest.
I was also nervous about having to sing. And having to deal with cockroaches. Plus I found out I don’t like being in the back of an old fashioned horse and cart because that feels very unstable. There are lots of things I found challenging. Lots of challenges to overcome.
But as long as I know they are there for the right reason, it’s not a problem. This was a role I couldn’t say no to and I totally believe every one of those moments needs to be included.
Tell us more about the singing?
Singing is the worst thing ever. I literally want to cry if I have to sing in public. I find it really hard. I have a real thing about it. I’ve never sung solo on screen before. I was dubbed doing it in a drama called Nature Boy and I’ve sung in a group. But never on my own.
I had two singing lessons just to manage to do this little ditty that Mary Ann can barely sing in tune. I was terrified of doing it but I think it actually turned out all right.
What accent have you used for Mary Ann?
It’s a general north east accent because she moved around. It’s not specific to any town. I made it quite a soft accent because they didn’t want her to be harsh or too difficult to understand. The actual accent of a working class woman of that time would probably be quite hard for our modern ears. I loved doing the accent.
A modern day audience may be surprised to learn arsenic was readily available to buy in general stores in Mary Ann’s time?
Women used it for all sorts of things then, including cleaning. It was everywhere in the Victorian era. Much more common than we would think. And apparently there were general social references and jokes about using arsenic on your husband or very sadly even your baby. Because with no birth control there were lots of unwanted babies. Some desperate women may well have resorted to getting rid of unwanted husbands, because they were able to get away with it.
That’s how Mary Ann starts out. When she has lost another child. She believes in God but wonders why he is doing this to her. Her husband can’t work and they have no way of paying the rent or feeding the family. While his life is insured. She does a terrible thing. And once she’s done that she’s not able to stop…
She thinks she’s going to Hell anyway so has nothing left to lose. But there are moments where she could have chosen to make a fresh start. It’s heartbreaking because this is a woman who is mentally ill. She’s not well.
People didn’t talk about things in the same way they do now. Nobody knew anything about mental health back then. If somebody was depressed, for example, and didn’t manage to cope with life they were just locked up in some terrible place. There was no education.
So Mary Ann doesn’t understand what’s happening to her and why she’s different. But then she has moments of clarity where she knows she’s different, she knows she’s done wrong and she’s devastated by it.
“When she has lost another child. She believes in God but wonders why he is doing this to her. Her husband can’t work and they have no way of paying the rent or feeding the family. While his life is insured. She does a terrible thing. And once she’s done that she’s not able to stop…”
Life insurance was a new concept at that time?
It was very new. It wasn’t her idea to insure her first husband’s life. It was her step-father’s idea, because they had lost children they wanted to make sure she would be protected in some way. She didn’t want him to be insured because she thought it was tempting fate.
How did Mary Ann get away with these murders for so long?
It was a mixture of things. She finally gets caught because of forensic science which previously hadn’t existed but it’s the early days of using basic technologies. Mary Ann lived during the Industrial Revolution so people were moving around a lot to find work. Moving from town to town.
Had she stayed in one place people may have become suspicious that all these people around her had died. But she made new starts in new places and she was good at building a new life for herself where people didn’t know her past.
There’s a picture of her looking very hard and haggard. You think, ‘How did she manage to get four husbands looking like that?’ But it shows her just before she went to the gallows. Apparently, they also doctored it in the newspapers to make her look even more evil.
Do you think she carried a terror of discovery through her life?
She appears to have that fear at one stage and knows she’s done a terrible thing and almost confesses to her step-father. But in later years she’s too deluded and past that point. Mary Ann feels like she’s on this island and it’s all too late for her to come to terms with what she has done.
Was there any question of her escaping the hangman’s noose?
She didn’t think she’d hang because she gave birth in prison and was nursing a child. But by that point she was so deluded by her own self-importance. I don’t know whether she was fully aware of her guilt but she certainly wasn’t letting anyone else know.
Coming from Whitby, was it a bonus that the Dark Angel locations were in Yorkshire and County Durham?
It’s been lovely to film here. Although Downton Abbey was set in Yorkshire it was filmed down south at Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios. We’ve been based in York a lot of the time and I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. We also had a couple of days at Saltburn, which is very close to home. So I got to stay with my parents for a few nights. And then filming at Beamish Museum in County Durham was good.
Mary Ann’s “poisoned” tea pot plays an important role in her story. At the outset she tells her mother it reminds her of home. What reminds you of home?
What says home for me? The people I love. My husband says home to me. Wherever he is, that’s home.
You were reunited on Dark Angel with Downton Abbey director Brian Percival. What is it like working with him?
Brian is an amazing and talented director. I knew if Brian took the job I would be in safe hands. I totally believed he could make Dark Angel something spectacular.
When he was working out his dates and whether he would be free to do it, his wife went to the local garden centre and came back with some plants. And when he went to plant one of them its name was ‘Dark Angel’. So he said that was a sign.
Again, it’s like working with an actor you’ve worked with before. Brian makes it so much easier. You have that shorthand where you know and understand each other. Everything is quicker. You have faith and trust in them so you throw yourself into it straight away in what is always a tight filming schedule.
Brian can bring out the best in me and I love his naturalistic style. The way he will take a great script and make it into something even better. I was excited to see what he did with Dark Angel.
Episode 1 of Dark Angel is available to watch on ITV/STV Player for a limited time. Episode 2 airs on ITV at 9pm on Monday 7th November 2016.