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I wouldn’t be here without the Fringe: Doc Martin star Jessica Ransom recalls her big break before return to stage as ’50s-obsessed housewife

© David Fisher/ShutterstockJessica Ransom
Jessica Ransom

Having spent so much time in Cornwall filming Doc Martin over the past 11 years, Jessica Ransom is enjoying the opportunity to visit other parts of the UK in her first theatre tour.

The actress and writer, who played kooky, colourfully dressed secretary Morwenna Newcross for six series of the much-loved and recently departed drama, is on her way to Glasgow this week, where she will perform Home, I’m Darling at the King’s from Valentine’s Day.

It just so happens to coincide with half-term, which means her stay will turn into a working holiday with her two sons – Frank and Arthur – and husband, producer and director Ben Wilson, coming north to join her.

“We’re all excited about it and we’re planning on visiting some museums and going to the swimming pool,” she said. “My son does what I’d say is an offensive Scottish accent, which he’s planning on busting out while he’s here. It’s pretty dreadful but he’s only six so hopefully he’ll get away with it!”

It will be a change of pace for Ransom. She reckons she has spent at least three years in Cornwall since 2011 while filming Doc Martin in the beautiful Port Isaac. The series came to an end with a Christmas Day special, following the conclusion of the 10th series of the drama which starred Martin Clunes as the title character, a London surgeon who moves to the sleepy Cornish village of Portwenn to become the local GP after he develops a fear of blood.

Ransom, 41, joined the cast from series five, replacing Doc Martin’s previous secretary Pauline Lamb, played by Katherine Parkinson. Ransom believed it was a short-term part but instead it became a life-changing role.

“I auditioned for it in 2011 and it was supposed to be the final series; six series on from that and we have actually now done the last series,” she explained. “It’s been a lot more than I anticipated it would be. It became a massive part of my life, shooting the series every other year.

“I did that job in my 20s, 30s and 40s, yet I think the character only aged about three years, but you try to throw a veil over that! I started working on the series not married and with no children, and I finished it married, with two kids and having moved house however many times.

“Also, you look at the other people who were working on the show, and you go back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, your child was just a little midge when I last saw them and now they’re 6ft 4’. Initially there was less for the character to do, but as it grew, the writers gave her more and I think the relationship with Martin was really nice. She wouldn’t take any rubbish from him, and she was good at her job. She was a good receptionist and that was proven when she left and had to be asked back.

© Neil Genower
In Doc Martin with co-star Martin Clunes.

“I really liked that relationship. It felt like I developed the character, so did the writers, and she grew and grew as the series went on. It was such a special thing to be part of and I have really good mates from it. You keep the people and the place means so much, too. It’s such a lovely part of the world and I don’t know if I would have ever gone there had it not been for the job. When I tot it all up, I lived there for about three years and I plan to go back to Port Isaac once I’m finished on this job.”

Home, I’m Darling, playwright Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning comedy, has enjoyed a number of seasons at the National Theatre and in the West End.

“It’s about a couple called Judy and Johnny who are completely obsessed by the 1950s – the ethos, aesthetics, everything – so they decide to live life as if it is the ’50s,” Ransom said. “He goes out to work every day as an estate agent and when he comes home at night, he puts his mobile in the drawer and they live their ’50s life.

“Judy’s an incredibly proud housewife. Their clothes, all the appliances and furniture, the recipes; it’s all from the ’50s or earlier.”

Researching the role, Ransom discovered there are people who attempt to live their lives as if it’s the ’50s but they usually share it online on Instagram or blogs.

“Judy and Johnny are cut off from the world in that way,” she continued. “They only use the internet to buy vintage stuff from eBay. I’ve been reading a lot about how women were expected to act in the ’50s.

“For example, you were supposed to do your washing on a Monday, and if your sheets were out on a Tuesday then other people judged you. The house was cleaned thoroughly every week, everything was baked from scratch, and good wives listened more than they talked, so it’s very strange and very different from most of our lives now.

“There is a lot of it to be envied – Judy always looks much more well turned out than I do, with immaculate hair and make-up, and big poofy skirts and dresses. And I’d love my house to be that clean! Fortunately I’m quite different from her, but there’s probably a few things I could learn about keeping my house tidy.

“Audiences find different things from the play and it leads to interesting discussions. Couples talk about the roles within the relationship, but also about making the choice of working versus not working, having kids versus not having kids, and there’s stuff about infidelity in the play and that ’50s attitude of turning a blind eye.

“Is that healthy? It doesn’t seem like it to me. We joke it’s a play about love and hoovering, because it’s about sweeping things under the carpet.

“The other interesting thing for Judy is she loves it – this is what she wants to do and she isn’t doing it under duress. I read accounts of women in the ’50s and they hated it and wanted to go to university but fell in love with a man and so had to stay at home.

“This is Judy and Johnny contemporarily making the choice together and she enjoys it – dressing nicely, listening to the stories of his day and making piccalilli. She’s very happy, so it’s an interesting mindset, because I think we feel now that it sounds awful but she is very happy.”

© Jack Merriman
Jessica Ransom with co-star Diane Keen in Home, I’m Darling

This is Ransom’s first play in 10 years and her first time at the King’s but she does have plenty of stage experience, none more so than in Edinburgh, where she credits the Fringe with providing her with her big break.

Born in Sheffield in 1981, Ransom began sketch writing and comedy after graduating from university and made the familiar pilgrimage to Edinburgh every August in an attempt to make her performing dreams come true.

“I did it lots of times so I certainly paid my due diligence in tiny venues with three people and a sleeping child in the audience. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the Fringe; writing and performing shows there is what got me my first agent and first telly job. I also met amazing people and it was such a brilliant opportunity to see other people’s work. Everything stemmed from there and it’s funny that it’s all traceable from having a bag of wigs in a cellar venue in Edinburgh and being able to show off. Now I’m doing a bigger version of showing off on larger stages.”

Ransom went on to play various characters in sketch series The Armstrong & Miller Show and in improvisation show Fast And Loose before landing the role of Morwenna in Doc Martin. But she has continued to write, mostly for children’s TV, including Danger Mouse, The Amazing World Of Gumball and Horrible Histories, in which she also stars – she won a Children’s Bafta Award in 2015 for her portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots.

“It’s really nice to have this other thing to do and to have the brain ticking over with when the acting jobs aren’t there. I’m starting work on a new animation soon as a gigging writer. I write my own material as well, and at some point I’d like to appear in the things I’ve written and bring them back together.

“We filmed the 10th and 11th series of Horrible Histories between August and December and in that I think I played about 150 characters. It’s such a fast turnaround and it’s a mighty machine to be part of. Since I write on it as well, I’m there from the beginning. Our researchers do these incredible lectures for us, where they tell us everything we need to know for a certain topic and then the writers pitch sketches based on that.

“It’s such a magical process to be involved in. And we’ll never run out of history, so there will always be plenty of material!”

Home, I’m Darling, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tuesday-Saturday