'It doesn’t pull any punches' – Irish actress Niamh Walsh gives the lowdown on Jamestown
If you missed the first series of ballsy period drama Jamestown on Sky 1 you missed a treat. It has already been commissioned for a second series and you can catch up on the first on DVD as it releases tomorrow.
Set in 1619, the drama focuses on the arrival of a group of women at an English colony in Jamestown The women had been shipped out as "maids to make wives" for male workers who had made the journey there 12 years earlier.
Irish actress Niamh Walsh plays one of those women, Verity, and she gave us the lowdown on her character and how she slots into the Jamestown landscape...
Q: Is your character, Verity, like a mail-order bride?
A: She is. She is like an anonymous mail-order bride. It was like a lucky dip because the men didn't know what they were getting. I was on discount! (laughs) No, my character was a thief back in England and my husband bought me at a cut price.
Q: What is the relationship like between bride and husband? Is it like slave-master?
A: It is in theory but my husband,played by Dean Lennox Kelly, is very quickly disabused of that notion. As a character Verity is a ballbuster. She is contrary and loud-mouthed and sarcastic. I call my husband a ‘pustulous toad’ at one point. Dean and I have the best lines, I think. Bill Gallagher, the writer, has got this cool lexicon and language that binds us together. It’s not archaic. It’s modern but with unfamiliar speech patterns, and it has a cool vocabulary that makes it seem different from nowadays.
Q: What’s Verity’s relationship like with the other two main girls in the story
A: It’s a cool set up because though it follows all three of us, we’re all on different levels of the social order. And I’m very much at the bottom. Alice and I become friends on the ship over to America. And when we do all come across each other around Jamestown there’s a real sisterhood and a real bond because although our circumstances have put us in very different positions in life, there is something that joins us together. Character-wise they’re all quite independent.
Q: Is it difficult to put yourself in this situation as an actor because it’s so different from nowadays?
A: That’s something that Bill Gallagher has done so well; the attitudes and the characters are so relatable even though the circumstances are so different and archaic. And even though they’re strong women, they’re kicking against a system that does not allow for that. You see how much below the men we are in this life. Also, Dean’s character and mine are near the bottom of the social order. We’re grubbing around near the bottom so in some way we are allowed to get away with more. Dean’s character often brings up the fact that during the starving times, when the colony first was established, they used to eat their wives (laughs). I tell him that if I catch him trying to fatten me up I’ll beat the daylights out of him (laughs)!
Q: What’s the relationship like between the townsfolk and the natives?
A: It is so alien to Dean’s character and mine because we’re not traders, so we have no contact with them. The traders have a very respectful relationship with the natives because they were the ones who stopped the settlement from starving. Some of them can speak the language, Pamunkey. For the women, when they get off the boat, the natives are almost like the bogeymen, because we’ve been told that we must stay inside the palisades otherwise the natives outside will try and murder us. And when we do make contact with them it’s really interesting.
Q: How would you describe the tone of the show?
A: I like to think of it as though we’re making a Western. And there’s intrigue and politics and sex, but also it’s set in an outpost. It’s really hot and there’s a shortage of food, and it’s so remote. It’s like a crucible with all this stuff going on. It doesn’t pull any punches. There’s blood and death. And while the colony is so small, there’s the vastness of the land that surrounds them. The scale is huge with this little colony in the middle of it. It’s also great that it’s told through the eyes of three women. We step off the ship and the audience comes with us; we’re newcomers and the audience is, too.
Q: Does the fact that they’re women soften the drama in any way?
A: No, because there is nothing soft about the women. It does feel like a Western to me. It’s not a story that you’re expecting. It’s a violent world. The first thing that you see as you come through the gates are the gallows, and then the graveyard. And the rule of law means that you get marched out the gate and then hanged. There is just the garrison. There is no court of law.
Q: What sorts of things are you hanged for?
A: Stealing, which is a problem for Verity because she’s a kleptomaniac (laughs)! You can be hanged for assault, if you assault the governor. You can be shot if you anger someone!
Q: How religious is the outpost at Jamestown because it us quite a religious period of time?
A: It’s cool because the founding story of America is the Pilgrim Fathers, and they’re told that Christianity came first to America. But actually Jamestown was set up as a trading post for money. We’re all here for money; it’s for the Virginia Company. We’re not here on God’s mission. The community has a priest but he is awful! He is deeply troubled. He is desperately trying to impose religion on these people but they’re here for the gold.
Q: Is there a sense that your character can reinvent herself here in Jamestown?
A: That’s what Verity is trying to do. She is hoping desperately for a new start, and she turns up to find her new husband nailed to a post by his ear (laughs!) for misbehaving. All three women are pinning their hopes on this brave new world, but of course it never works out that way. The women all open up to each other about what went on in their lives beforehand. It’s a weird thing to do, to come out to this place, and you gradually learn why each of us has chosen to come. It’s different for everyone.
Q: Are the costumes for the three women very different? Is yours a bit rougher, for example?
A: Lucy Wright who does the costume is a genius. There are three different palettes for the girls. Jocelyn’s is very pastel and pale with very opulent fabrics and plenty of gilding. Alice’s is very practical with a lot of earth colours because she is a farm girl. Verity, meanwhile, is a real mix. I guess the thinking was that everything she owns she has stolen! So often the stuff was very nice once. Lucy didn’t want to put me in rags. She wanted the stuff to have once been very fancy. And now it is full of holes because she has had to keep mending it. We had one corset we found that was perfect. It was all stained and frayed. But we gave it into the costume company and they came back saying, ‘We’ve fixed that corset for you and we’ve added some satin around the edges!’ That wasn’t what we wanted! I think we ended up giving that to Jocelyn! With Verity, she sometimes has a bit of cleavage; she’s a barmaid and she knows how to get a tip (laughs). In fact, I’ve been a barmaid and not a lot has changed! Men are very easily distracted (laughs).
Q: Is she called Verity because she has lied so much? Is it like an ironic name?
A: I’d love to think so. I told my mum that I was playing someone called Verity Bridges and — we’re Irish — she said, ‘That’s a good Protestant name!’
Q: Did you do a lot of research for this role?
A: I did. I love all that stuff. And there’s a really cool book called Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky. The writer was a descendent of one of the real women who came over on one of the ships and she writes it from her great-great-great-grandmother’s point of view. It’s a first-person experience of a woman coming over on a ship so it couldn’t be more pertinent. And the character of Temperance [who is in Jamestown] is in the book. Bill Gallagher used real people for some of his characters. And by reading stuff like that you learn little things that even if the audience doesn't see it, it adds to your performance.
Q: Are yours and Dean’s characters the closest to each other among the husbands and wives?
A: I think so because he lets Verity be herself. I am allowed to be vocal and modern, and quite physical. I can order him around a bit. I’m allowed to run the business.
Jamestown is available on DVD and Blu-ray on June 26th