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Ruby Speaking star Katherine Kelly on starting out, family and Happy Valley

© PipKatherine Kelly, who stars in new comedy Ruby Speaking.
Katherine Kelly, who stars in new comedy Ruby Speaking.

Katherine Kelly has a vivid snapshot of a memory from childhood, of gazing at the television in the family living room and wondering how she could be on the screen.

It’s a puzzle she solved long ago, with the 43-year-old now one of British television’s most in-demand character actors with an impressive list of primetime dramas on her CV: Happy Valley, Mr Selfridge, Liar, Gentleman Jack, Innocent, The Guilty, and several years as Becky McDonald on Coronation Street, to name a few.

Her latest role is in the ITVX comedy Ruby Speaking, which launched last week, and she will next be seen in true-life drama The Long Shadow, about serial killer Peter Sutcliffe.

“I used to look at the TV and had no idea how to ever get on it. How would I? Where are the steps towards it? I grew up in Barnsley, a place where I never met an actor,” Katherine explained.

That wasn’t strictly true, even if she didn’t realise it at the time. Her parents were in am-dram groups as Katherine grew up and, rather than pay a babysitter, she and her three brothers were dragged along to rehearsals and performances, and soon Katherine was up on stage along with them.

By the time she was 18, she was in London training at Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), and she has worked ever since, first in classical theatre, and then, for fear of becoming pigeonholed, she made the decision to keep one step ahead of people’s expectations.

“I’ve always resisted the tyranny of definition,” she said. “I’ve done it instinctively throughout childhood and life. I quickly realised the only power you have is to say no, and if you want to move around the genres and mediums and class systems you’re cast in, then you have to duck and dive, and I think my job as an artist is to deepen the mystery.

“Anytime anyone thinks they have me figured out, it’s my job to confuse the situation.”


There is no confusion over why Katherine has become such an in-demand actor. Her performances in dramas such as Lady Mae in Mr Selfridge, Sally Wright in Innocent and DI Jodie Shackleton in Happy Valley have all been stand-outs.

Twenty years have passed since she made her first television appearance, guest starring in Last Of The Summer Wine, but it was her 704 episodes on Coronation Street between 2006 and 2012 that made her a household name.

“I had been offered another season at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed to classical theatre, so I said to my agent in London that I’d never been seen for Coronation Street or Emmerdale. My agent said, ‘Do you want to see them?’ They presumed I wouldn’t be interested, but that’s what I grew up watching. My dad’s Irish and Corrie is huge in the south of Ireland.

“A role came up, it was only about a dozen episodes, and I said perfect. If I’d realised how long it was going to be I probably would have said no, because I like to keep moving around. But my nan had been saying I was at the RAC when I was with the RSC and now, being on Corrie, she could work out what I was doing.”

Katherine Kelly with Jayde Adams in Ruby Speaking © ITV
Katherine Kelly with Jayde Adams in Ruby Speaking

The influence of her parents and her surroundings as she was growing up had a huge impact on the path Katherine followed. Her dad came over from Ireland at four years old and was down the Yorkshire pits by 15, but his creative talents couldn’t be buried, and he and Katherine’s mum would perform on the club circuit.

“They both had proper jobs – my mum in NHS offices and my dad became a nurse after mining – but they were club singers and would do it every weekend. It was good money. My dad’s untrained but could play the guitar and banjo, saying it was down to his Irish genetics, and mum has a beautiful voice.

“When kids came along – I’m the oldest of four – it wasn’t conducive to having a big family, so they moved into am-dram. Me and my brothers would go along to watch – it was a way of not having to get babysitters – and I remember sitting in church halls watching all these musicals. Eventually, we joined in.”

Katherine was doing her A levels (no drama class though, as it wasn’t taught at her school) when her dad came home one evening with a little A5-sized booklet, called The Conference Of Drama Schools.

“I can still see it in my mind to this day,” she said. “There were all these different schools listed and I couldn’t believe it. You could learn about acting for three years? What could you possibly do for three years? “My dad said, ‘Why don’t we have a go?’ He said he thought I had to be in London, so we picked three or four we’d vaguely heard of, did the auditions during my A levels, and got into Rada first time.”

After spending 20 years in London, Katherine now splits her time between the capital and Yorkshire. It’s a move that hasn’t slowed her career trajectory. Neither did taking two years out to have her children, Orla, in 2014, and Rose in 2016.

“I took maternity leave when everyone around me was saying do you really want to step away for a year when your career is up here, but I didn’t think twice about it,” she explained. “I wanted the full experience of being with my children.”

Happy Valley

One of her first roles after coming back from her initial pregnancy was in series two of Happy Valley, which also gave her the chance to shoot in her home county. “I was filming Mr Selfridge at the time when Sally Wainwright sent me the script and we had a look at a few parts. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Did you know you were part of a monumental TV show?’ but when you’re doing it, you don’t. You don’t know if something will capture the audience’s imagination.”

Katherine was shooting in Yorkshire again recently for The Long Shadow, the upcoming dramatisation of Peter Sutcliffe’s murders. It’s a project that means a lot to her. “I turned down a job – a big shiny lead in something – because I wanted to work with the people involved in this and also because it’s set in Leeds. It’s not in my memory but it’s still something that’s present here, and I didn’t want to say no.”

Katherine with Jayd Johnson and David Morrissey in Field of Blood: The Dead Hour © PA
Katherine with Jayd Johnson and David Morrissey in Field of Blood: The Dead Hour

She’s currently playing it for laughs, having recently guest-starred in Black Ops – “I was really proud to be part of it and their talent knows no bounds” – and in new comedy, Ruby Speaking, created and starring Jayde Adams, who based it on her experiences of working in a call centre. Katherine plays area boss Vicki.

“I was sent the script and they asked me to come in to meet Jayde. They said they wanted me to play Vicki because they thought I would do something different with her, and that’s like catnip to me.

“Vicki doesn’t have an original thought in her head and is a bad boss because she’s just not listening. She’s the opposite of Ruby, but she doesn’t dislike her. She was fun and delicious to play. She’s Ruby’s nemesis, but hopefully in the execution of it she doesn’t come across that way.”

She added: “I try to keep a variety to my work, which is harder than it looks because you’re always sent something similar to what you’ve just done. But hopefully my body of work proves that variety is key to me.”

Ruby Speaking is available on ITVX

Class act was missed opportunity

Katherine Kelly in Class © BBC
Katherine Kelly in Class

It’s Katherine Kelly’s mantra to keep looking forward rather than reflecting on the past, but there is one show she worked on that she feels should have been given more of a run.

Class was a Doctor Who spin-off and I really felt it wasn’t given the outing it deserved,” she commented. “It was written by Patrick Ness, a terrific author of teen fiction, and it was diverse before everyone else was doing it.

“It was explosive, exciting, and packed full of themes. I played the teacher who was an alien. I feel it was ahead of its time and it wasn’t in the best time slot. Had it been released a couple of years later, there would have been a different outcome for the show.

“It’s the only show that comes back to me every now and again, and I feel it didn’t get a chance. I think it’s better to try and fail than never try. I’d rather be in something that has a chance of making a huge impact on an audience and Class was one of those.”

As well as keeping busy with primetime network shows, Katherine has set-up a production company with writer Tony Pitts, with a slate of TV, podcasts and films lined up.

“It’s been great to bring people together and I’m enjoying the creativity of it all,” she added.