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I TALK TO Katherine Parkinson

"You don't even know if they're good for each other. I'm not sure that they are and I think that's really interesting."

Since bursting onto our screens in 2015 as Dr Ellingham's secretary, Pauline, in the ITV drama Doc Martin, Katherine Parkinson has become one of the UK's most recognisable actors with many career-defining roles along the way including Jen in Channel 4 sitcom The It Crowd, Rachel in BBC Two drama The Honorable Woman, Laura in Channel 4 drama Humans and more recently as Rachel in BBC One sitcom Here We Go.

This week she's teaming up with Youssef Kerkour, who made a name for himself in Channel 4 comedy Home, in ITVX's new comedy-drama Significant Other, playing Anna and Sam, two lonely neighbours who have each hit rock bottom and are brought together in the most unexpected ways.

Having swallowed a cabinet full of pills, we first meet Sam as he waits to die, until he's interrupted by neighbour Anna who is having a heart attack and needs to wait with him until help arrives.

Both lonely neighbours have lost all faith in love, and across the series embark on a hilarious, obstacle-filled relationship. Along the way, they discover that even when life seems to have passed them by, there are still surprises to be had.

I recently caught up with Katherine Parkinson to discuss why she didn't want to watch the Israeli original that this is based on before filming, how she sees her character Anna and her relationship with Sam and how she and co-star Youssef Kerkour almost worked together once before.

First of all, I've been lucky enough to watch the entire series and loved how warm, authentic and funny it was. What was it about Significant Other that drew you to it?

Well, I'm delighted that you've watched the whole thing because you look lovely and young and I'm hoping it will appeal across the ages.

What appealed to me about the script, as you say, is this authentic, arrestingly truthful, version of a relationship. It's not sugar-coated or romantically drawn. As soon as you think things are going nicely, he's weeping in bed and accidentally elbows her!

I just felt like it constantly surprised me when I read it, and I thought this is great.

Some comedy dramas struggle with finding the funny, but also the drama. Significant Other seems to be able to manage both effortlessly. How did you approach that balance? For example, a comedy starting with a heart attack and suicide attempt isn't your traditional sitcom opening.

That's so true! And actually, I think it's relevant then, that it's an Israeli show because there was never a pitch at ITV. It would have just been "This show is all there for you to look at, and has done well."

And I think you're right. Sometimes when you have a comedy-drama, it can end up being neither comedy nor drama and I've definitely been in those shows. This felt like the comedy came from what happened, rather than a witty line and then a dramatic bit.

Also, sometimes in comedy dramas, you can have the comedy moment with the tinkly music and then a dramatic moment and they can both feel quite separated, whereas I felt in Significant Other, both happened at the same time in the same moment. That's always what I like most, because I think it suits what I do, the most.

It's that almost Chekhovian vibe where you don't know whether to laugh or cry and I felt like this had that in droves. I think that's why I loved it so much. Because you didn't always know where the funny would come from.

We had an early screening and I love hearing that sort of laugh where they don't know whether they should be laughing when I'm lying on the ground and he doesn't know what to do. It's just definitely my taste.

Who is your character Anna, then? How would you best describe her?

I think Anna is quite defensive and cut off, but she's very un-self-pitying and I wanted to make sure that you never got the impression she felt sorry for herself, even though I feel sorry for her from afar. Even though she smokes and eats all the wrong food, she's only 45 and it's pretty bad luck to have the heart condition that she's settled with.

When I think back to various times in my life, I realise that I was quite lonely because I can remember deliberately going out to be amongst people because we're gregarious ultimately, aren't we? And sometimes, your work life - in my case, it was student life - you can cut yourself off deliberately to get things done. But at the end of the day, you find you need a conversation with somebody.

She's lost her parents. She works in a very modern way, completely alone, and doesn't have to see anyone - unless she wants to - which is when she goes to get her food. She's really commendable really because she's quite proud of her flat. She's quite upbeat and positive, but also set in her ways, defensive and shut off.

I just think she's not been well served by her relationship with Damien and hasn't been dealt a great hand in some respects, but she's got on with it. But it means that she's definitely not looking for love.

Their first kind of get-together, her and Sam, is purely on medical advice! I like that. It's so un-sexy in a way.

They sort of save each other, don't they? In that, they're there for each other when they need to be.

They are. There are some beautiful moments where you realise that actually, they are better off with each other.

One of the writers, Dana Fainaru, said it's about hope. And I think when you see what happens right at the end, I think it is about hope. And that's why I don't find it remotely depressing.

When I told my husband the setup, he was like "That sounds really depressing" and I had to tell him that I didn't think it was. I think it's the opposite really.

What was it like working opposite the gentleman that is Youssef Kerkour, who was magnificent in Home and superb again in this?

I love Youssef too. He is a gentleman. He's really solicitous of people. I really noticed that. He really looks out for people who might be cold, things that would never occur to me! I also admired him in Home. We very nearly worked together and it didn't happen and I was very disappointed so we were very aware of each other because of that.

We have both also worked with David (Sant) the director, who's amazing and I think was the one who got us together. I sort of knew it was going to work with Youssef. You just kind of know, I think because I admire what he does, so much. He's so subtle and intelligent and soulful. We're very good friends now.

It's a will-they-won't-they story, but told rather differently, isn't it?

It is. You don't even know if they're good for each other. I'm not sure that they are and I think that's really interesting because it's so often the case where you watch something and go "Well clearly, they're meant to be together" and the reality is, especially at 45, that most people have baggage. Most people are complicated and a bit disappointing sometimes, in their behaviour.

Throughout the series, I think both of them are so obsessed with other relationships that they don't see what's in front of them. I also love the way it dealt with this very specific urban loneliness.

Manchester became sort of another character in it. I feel like that's very familiar. Where you deliberately don't say hello to your neighbour, because you're living on top of each other and it's a sort of politeness really. It's not a coldness. It comes from a "look, we're sharing a small space here. I better respect your privacy." - I loved that about it as well. There's a bleak beauty to the way they've shot it.

Love stories on television tend to focus on younger characters, Anna and Sam are both said to be in their mid-40s. Was that also refreshing to play?

Yeah, I think from the start, it was clear that these were the least likely romantic comedy players. He's taking pills to mainly get back at his wife and she's having a heart attack! But what I loved about the show was its quite subtle poetry that isn't heavy-handed.

He has her keys. Key to her heart. And then the end of the first episode, when I open the taxi door to let him in, I kept seeing it and thinking she's literally heartsick at the beginning. I felt that was done with such a light touch. It was elevated to this quite poetic piece of television.

Ultimately, you want them to be together, but you want them to both not be too disappointed. You've watched the whole thing so you know how at the end, when... he goes "Oh..." - that's SO the wrong thing to say. It's people behaving like people, rather than how you want them to behave.

Seeing as you mentioned it there... that final episode. Without obviously giving anything away, what was your reaction to what happens? Because I didn't see it coming.

No, nor did I! I just thought that was wonderful. Again, a complete curveball. The writers just manage to keep challenging your expectations and I think if we went again, there would be other ways of doing that. And it happens. But also, when I say this show is about hope, that moment proves that, I think.

What were some of your favourite scenes to film throughout the series?

I really enjoyed doing the scenes with Youssef which were long real-time scenes. One of the ones I loved filming was in episode five when we have very brief sex and then he gets the hoover out. I mean... I just... the thing is, you completely get it psychologically from his point of view.

He's done that and now he's thinking about his wife, the row he's just had, Malique, alergic to dust, I'm going to hoover up. And I just love the truthfulness of that. But also, where does that leave Anna? And that's why she's then really cross that he's locked her out. Locked her out of his heart!

So I really liked all those scenes and the first scene where they get it on as well, when she's talking about what she did to her flat and then her heart goes. I really enjoyed all that because when you're given a long run at something, you can get really lost in the scene.

I love the moment when Anna goes on a date with Ray, played by the magnificent Mark Heap. You've worked together before, right? What was it like working with him again?

We have! I know Mark from before. I hadn't seen him for a while, but I'm so fond of him and he makes me laugh so much. He made us all laugh. I think that was the first day that we filmed that scene.

He's so good. I think he's really good in that episode because he really underplays it. You really don't know whether he's telling the truth or not, which is really cleverly done, and she is being a bit unfair. But yeah, he's great and hasn't aged since I worked with him either!

And what was it like filming in Manchester?

Well, I didn't know Manchester that well. I think I'd done a play there at the Lowry for a week, but my in-laws know it really well. My later father-in-law was very involved with the (Royal) Exchange, knew it really well and had said how wonderful it was.

I really fell in love with it. My family came up and me and my husband returned to London as if we'd had a midlife crisis. We were both in short, turn-up corduroys and hoodies, looking like really cool Manchester twenty-somethings.

The coffee shops are amazing. It was just really nice because we filmed the whole thing in a place called Native on Duty Street - quite often when you're filming, you're in the middle of a field somewhere - but with this job, we were right in the middle of it, so we were quite pleased, Youssef and I, because we take our coffee very seriously.

Significant Other is based on an Israeli series of the same name. Did you watch it before filming the UK version? Or were you very keen not to?

So, Youssef did and advised me not to, because it's so good and performed by the creators and obviously, we are making it for a British audience. He said to watch it at the end, and I have. I have also then hoovered up something else that Dana Modan performed in, which is Ananda, which is about her going to India. I really think she's an immense talent. A really original talent. And I'm a big fan.

In the past, when you're trying to remake something, it can sometimes be, intimidating frankly, to watch the original. It's about ownership and owning the material. I think some people would be fine with doing that but I responded so much to the script that I knew I'd be better off just doing my thing and then watching it.

I was struck by both the similarities and the differences. She (Dana) is really pleased anyway, and that's all I care about really. She's been really supportive and came on set and everything.

Are you hopeful that Anna and Sam's story can continue?

I really hope so! It was such a joy and I really hope people like it. And not just people in my age group. That's why I'm so pleased that you say you've watched it all and enjoyed it. For me, it resonates when I was younger. It tells my story when I was younger so I'm hoping it well have a broad appeal.

All episodes will be available straight away as this premieres on ITVX first so people can binge if they want to. Is that how you watch television?

Well, I like to watch something with my husband of an evening and we'd watch it nightly and have quite a strict rule not to... I mean, it would be a very radical day, if we pushed the boat out and watched more than one episode.

But, when I watch things on my own. Things like Normal People. I watched it, three episodes a night, on my own. He's very strict about bedtimes! That sounds so sexy!

What's next for you? I know Here We Go is coming back, which I love.

I love that series. We're doing that in September. I'm currently filming a Jilly Cooper remake for Disney+ called Rivals. That's a really fun cast and we're all having a lot of fun doing that. Because there's a lot of us, that's quite pleasingly part-time, so I'm getting a lot of time at home which is good.

Is there anything left on your career bucket list?

I feel like I haven't done many films. But the trouble with films and being a film actor, is you have to go all over the place quite often. You would have to be very jet-setty.

What I feel very fortunate about is that I seem to be doing stuff that's mostly very workable with family life. And I feel really grateful for that because it's not been something I've been able to control, but it's working, so that's good.

Significant Other launches Thursday 8th June on ITVX and you can read my interview with Youssef Kerkour on Wednesday


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