Love, Nina star Jason Watkins: The nice guy who plays a lot of baddies
PUBLISHED: 08:00 03 June 2016
Joanna Deakin meets a busy actor with roles in TV drama Love Nina, a remake of Watership Down and the new movie Hampstead starring Diane Keaton.
For such a nice man, actor Jason Watkins plays a lot of baddies.
These range from a sadistic bunny in the BBC’s upcoming new TV version of Watership Down, a vampire in a comedy-drama series about twenty-something housemates to a creepy pastor in ITV’s chilling The Secret, which is set in Ulster.
Not forgetting, too, the role of the rather intimidating Scottish poet Malcolm Tanner – with his stringent views on the best way to cook rice pudding – in the current BBC north London-based, TV series Love, Nina.
According to Jason, the key to playing a rotter is to make the character seem normal at first.
“That’s much more frightening,” he says.
In real life, he is anything but a rotter. Indeed, his acting skills are in great demand.
As a student, he was advised that jobs would ‘flood in during the middle years’. Jason, now in his late-40s, says the advice was spot on.
His desk is piled high with scripts. He’s perhaps best-known for playing the devious ‘Head of strategic governance’ in W1A (the BBC’s satire of its own sclerotic management) or for his BAFTA award-winning performance in The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (the real-life story of retired schoolteacher wrongly believed to have murdered a female neighbour).
Jason says: “I’m working on four different projects at the moment so my mind is exploding somewhat.”
Thankfully, filming Love, Nina wasn’t such a problem. It was mostly shot a 15-minute stroll from his Kentish Town home.
The set was in Islington’s Thornhill Square – despite Nina Stibbe’s book being set in grander Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town.
The story begins in 1982 and is Nina’s true account of how she moved from Leicester as a 20-year-old to London to care for the two young boys of film director Stephen Frears and their single mother Mary Kay Wilmers editor of a top literary magazine.
Opposite Helena Bonham Carter, Jason plays their finicky neighbour (in the book it is playwright Alan Bennett who comes to dinner) and says he based the character on a Scot he once knew who ‘was very neat and contained, and who wore a tweed suit and was very socially committed.’
He says the Islington square was chosen partly because it looked more like ‘Gloucester Crescent of the 1980s’ than ultra-gentrified Gloucester Crescent does today.
The actor is due to work near home again this month – in a movie called Hampstead, a starry feature film which could make NW3 as well-known to global audiences as Richard Curtis’s rom-com Notting Hill did for W11.
The project (billed as a “charming and funny life-affirming tale” about how love can be found in the most unexpected places, and that age is no barrier to second chances) also features Leslie Manville and Simon Callow.
Oscar-winning Diane Keaton is also in the cast – ‘a thrill and a delight’ to work with, says Jason.
She plays a widow who becomes involved with an unkempt man (played by Brendan Gleeson) who lives in a shack on Hampstead Heath after she sees him attacked by thugs employed by a property company.
The script was inspired by the real-life story of Harry Hallowes, 79, who, in 2007, used squatters’ rights to become legal owner of his 90ft-square patch in the grounds of the Athlone House nursing home, despite frustrated property developers trying to evict him.
Harry’s strip of land, where he stills lives, is now estimated to be worth more than £2million.
Ironically, the story has resonances for Jason Watkins, who plays an accountant in the film. For his first screen role was as a dodgy estate agent, Gerry Fairweather, in BBC1’s EastEnders.
Queen Vic landlady Angie Watts (Anita Dobson) was so enraged by his sexist jibes and cynical plans to try to posh-up Walford that she knocked him out during a Christmas party.
Watkins, who got the part in the long-running soap straight after RADA, grew up the other side of London in Hounslow. His engineer father and teacher mother were initially anxious about their son’s ambition to be an actor.
He says his mum ‘was shocked and not particularly pleased”, while his dad was both “excited and appalled”.
Arriving at RADA in 1982 (around the same time as Nina Stibbe first set foot in Gloucester Crescent), together with fellow future stars Ralph Fiennes, Imogen Stubbs and Jane Horrocks, it was, he recalls, a “huge adventure”.
“I remember these exotic teachers with different ways of thinking who did yoga and discussed ‘auras’.”
Jason, who struggled with dyslexia, often found it difficult reading scripts but discovered improvising and the craft of what he describes as “getting characters off the page.’
‘Once I get them off the page, they start living and breathing.”
For his next role Jason will be seen as the late comedy legend John Inman in a movie-length re-boot of Are You Being Served?, to be aired later this summer.
Playing the camp Mr Humphries whose catchphrase is: ‘I’m free!’
Jason is intrigued by the Blackpool-born Inman, whose accent was over-layered with elocution lessons.
‘Basically, I had fun with the part and let any impersonation go.
“The character of Mr Humphries is a celebration of camp. He loves entertaining people with his wit and vocabulary. He loves his job and is very good at it. All the double-entendres are rooted and they mean something. I loved playing him.”
The show, like the 70s’ original, was filmed in front of a live audience. Jason says this was one of the ‘most extraordinary nights of his life’, adding: ‘When the music was pumped into the studio, my heart was in my mouth.”
Jason is proud that his 19-year-old son Freddie is following in his footsteps – performing in last year’s production of Lord Of The Flies at the Regent’s Park Theatre during his gap-year; he was keen to take another year off to be part of the production when it went on tour.
His dad was on the verge of discouraging him, admitting being torn between “wanting to parent” his son and “letting him make his own decisions”.
Eventually, Freddie got his way and picked up a top agent who advised him to take up his place at King’s College London this September while also securing a role for him in a First World War drama, First Light, at Chichester Theatre.
Jason is chuffed by Freddie success – bravely putting his family into the public spotlight after the death of his two-year-old daughter Maude just over five years ago from sepsis (a life-threatening illness caused when the body is overcome by infection).
Jason and Maude’s mother (his second wife, the noted jewellery designer Clara Francis) are both tireless ambassadors for the Sepsis Trust.
They believe they are making progress and pleased that health secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised to commit to a national campaign of awareness.
‘Sadly, as in so many cases, our tragedy could have been prevented,’ says Jason.
‘It’s a complex syndrome and we were caught up, like others, in an information gap.”
He felt he had to discuss his own family tragedy to raise awareness of a condition that kills about 44,000 people every year – more than bowel, breast and prostate cancer combined.
Jason says: ‘You cannot go through something like that and not want to do everything you can to prevent other families enduring what we did and still endure.”
Email the UK Sepsis Trust for information: firstname.lastname@example.org.