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‘I felt a bit sorry for the old me’: Katherine Parkinson on exploring love and loneliness in Significant Other

© Heathcliff O'Malley/ShutterstockKatherine Parkinson
Katherine Parkinson

Taking on her latest role, Katherine Parkinson found herself feeling a bit sorry for herself. Or, at least, her past self.

In Significant Other, ITV’s new comedy drama, her character finds herself adrift, alone and with a heart that is sick in more ways than one.

While a hectic schedule encompassing TV, theatre, interviews and the school run has her, perhaps, longing for a little solitude once in a while, playing Anna allowed her to cast her mind back to her university days where the company she kept extended to cigarettes and chocolate.

“I was a student for a long time,” she recalls. “I lived from the chip vans and I would have my quite dry work, piles of books, and I would deliberately cut myself off from people.

“I would quite often, to my shame, buy the big pack of cigarettes, loads of Dairy Milk, some chocolate milk and that was sort of my diet.

“I think when you’re living in student accommodation and you’re all on top of each other, sometimes there is a kind of detachment. There’s so many people but you’re keeping yourself to yourself almost as a consequence of that.

“[Co-star] Youssef Kerkour and I both said we could relate to our characters at different pre-children and partners times. That was very much my existence and I didn’t think of myself as lonely back then. I looked back and I feel a bit sorry for the person I was for a few years.”

Significant Other's Sam (Youssef Kerkour) and Anna (Katherine Parkinson) © ITV
Significant Other’s Sam (Youssef Kerkour) and Anna (Katherine Parkinson)

Adapted from an award-winning Israeli series of the same name, Significant Other tells the strange love story that unfolds between two neighbours used to keeping themselves to themselves.

Across six episodes, we see a pair of deeply flawed characters with baggage aplenty wrestle with their loneliness at a time in their lives where change is difficult and rarely expected.

Drastic but fateful life events bring them together and, despite having lost all faith in love, they embark on a fairly hesitant and tentative relationship.

Urban solitude

“What’s quite nice is that I don’t think Anna would describe herself as lonely,” Parkinson says of her character. “She’s got a job as a subtitler and literally doesn’t have to leave her house. Working from home is lovely in so many ways, but it does mean that you can go for days where your only interaction, in her case, is with the person she buys all her junk food and fags off.

“I think it’s about the very specific urban solitude that can be the case nowadays, where you are working alone, you’re not necessarily socialising. She’s also lost both her parents, so I think she is living a pretty lonely life.”

The series has, to say the least, a dramatic start. The opening scenes of a captivating first episode see Parkinson’s character seeking help from next door as she’s in the middle of having a heart attack.

However, her neighbour, played by Kerkour, is having his own struggles. He’s just written a note for the wife he has recently left and is attempting to end his life.

“It’s a very original, arresting beginning,” Parkinson says. “It sets you into the kind of world that we’re in, which is not a dark drama.

“The knock at the door and then a woman saying she’s having a heart attack, somebody he’s never spoken to before but probably has lived alongside for quite a while, and then the strange way she lies on the floor. This is the least sexy way for a couple of people to meet. I found it very touching really, people’s vulnerabilities.

“Anna’s always trying to pretend. I feel a bit sorry for her, but I don’t think she feels sorry for herself.

“She just lives this quite solitary existence and hasn’t been valued. And heart disease at 45, that’s a short straw isn’t it?”

Parkinson was delighted to be a part of something that was “very un-Richard Curtis” in its delivery.

While viewers are used to seeing glossy, love-at-first-sight romcoms, this one, she believes, reflects the gritty, perhaps bleaker, reality more accurately.

“It’s somehow more familiar to me,” she says. “They’re middle-aged people, they’ve got baggage and are both kind of distracted by former relationships and take a while to see what’s happening in front of them.

“I like the comedy that comes from slightly tragic moments, the Chekhovian sort of thing where you’re recognising and sympathising with the character when you laugh.

“It’s that sort of laugh rather than just witty lines. Sometimes, when you get to play witty characters it can get a little bit boring. It’s nicer to do things that are funny because they’re truthful.”

Stage and screen

That variety has been evident throughout Parkinson’s acting career. Best known for a Bafta-winning turn as hapless technophobe Jen in The IT Crowd, she began on stage at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe and has been a regular treading the boards ever since.

Her first TV role was in Doc Martin, playing Pauline Lamb, for four years, and she reflects fondly on her time spent alongside Martin Clunes on the Cornish coast in the early days of the drama, which concluded last year.

“That was a turning point and my first proper telly job,” she says, “the first time I thought I might be able to stay in this industry because I did a lot of theatre but it wasn’t enough to sustain me financially, living in London.

“It meant I could reassure my parents that I might be able to make it work. I also gave up smoking because of the Cornish air.

“Martin was my paradigm for how to behave on set and I’m a huge fan of what he does as an actor. I really loved working with him. I feel very grateful to that job and to him.

“I emailed him in lockdown, actually, because I thought the world was going to end so I was contacting people just to say ‘bye, it’s been great!’”

Katherine Parkinson and husband Harry Peacock © Dan Wooller/Shutterstock
Katherine Parkinson and husband Harry Peacock

Parkinson, who is married to fellow actor Harry Peacock, has recently taken on a rare role as herself on Channel 4’s Taskmaster.

From making a short film upside down to catapulting a shoe into a bathtub, her calamities won her a new legion of fans.

“I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed doing it,” she says, despite having finished in last place. “I love nothing more than having my incapabilities highlighted in the public space. I enjoyed it very much.

“We were all pretty hysterical because we hadn’t been out the house. There were periods where we couldn’t breathe for laughing.

“Some people were worried that I was crying, but I promise they were tears of laughter.

“I don’t do many shows as myself. I’ve always been a bit shy of it. I don’t know why.”

“I think I’ve been asked to do 8 Out of 10 Cats honestly about 50 times but I’m just too scared. Taskmaster was different, they were such a friendly group of people.”

Katherine with Chris O'Dowd and Richard Ayoade in The IT Crowd © Hal Shinnie
Katherine with Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade in The IT Crowd

Parkinson also made a writing debut with a play, Sitting, at the Fringe in 2019, and it’s something she’s keen to keep ticking along, particularly if and when acting roles become harder to come by.

“I’m trying to do a bit more of that because it was a really great start. It’s a different type of pleasure, writing, and I would really like to be allowed to do more.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be given acting, so I think the idea of actually having something else on the go is very appealing and something that means I can stay at home because I like loneliness.

“I’ve been, touch wood, very fortunate but I’ve reminded myself that I probably shouldn’t take that for granted. Forty five is often the age that’s cited for women as when work dries up.

“And I am now weeks away from my 46th birthday. But also, variety is the spice of life, right? I found that when I did my bit of writing, it was such a thrill to do something new.”

Meals fit for a king

She started her acting career at the Edinburgh Fringe but Katherine Parkinson has plenty more special memories from north of the border.

Inverlochy Castle was the destination for her honeymoon but it became more like a stag do.

“He (husband Harry) organised it all,” she recalls. “We did tomahawk throwing, white water rafting, then went to a whiskey distillery. And this is my honeymoon!

“That’s the last time he organised a holiday. But I did enjoy it all. He didn’t like it when I was better than him at the tomahawk throwing. It’s not what you want on your honeymoon.”

The cuisine on offer in the Highlands also proved popular.

“I think Queen Victoria had stayed in that hotel at the foot of Ben Nevis but I have to say I ate like Henry the 8th,” Parkinson laughs.

“I think I got the beginning stages of gout. The food there was just so rich and I found out too late that you were allowed to just have a bit of room service. We kept going downstairs and having all these kind of various types of meat and it was a bit much.

“We went to Cameron House at Loch Lomond as well. Before it I had been filming something called The Old Guys in Glasgow, written by Sam Bain and [Succession creator] Jesse Armstrong – I don’t know where they are now…”

Significant Other is available to stream on ITVX now