Interviews: Rory Kinnear, Tom Basden, Matthew Baynton & Lydia Leonard of Quacks

Rory Kinnear, who plays Robert 

 

Wha made you want to be part of Quacks?

I read the script and I thought, 'That’s actually really funny…', so I did the pilot. Then it took more than a year before we were all available to get back together, which meant that James had time to work on the scripts and get everything in place, then we could rehearse a month before we even started filming, which is an unbelievable position to be in. 

 

And what was it that particularly appealed to you about the writing?

I quite like doing stuff that I haven’t necessarily seen before or feels reasonably distinctive, and James is so meticulous and thorough about his research that it’s funny to do.

 

You could see a comedy show about 19th century medicine as being quite broad with quite a lot of possibilities for slapstick, but actually what he’s done is really delve into the time, and this period of grim discovery and invention, when all these people were pioneering new techniques that all of our lives have improved from, but equally as there would have absolutely been plenty of failures along the way as well. 

 

Tell me a little bit about Robert. 

Well, surgeons – particularly the top surgeons – were rock stars. People came to the theatres to see them perform and to operate, and I guess we still sort of think of surgeons in terms of their levels of confidence, shall we say.

 

Robert has that kind of God complex whereby, you know, a centimetre either way can end somebody’s life, and you have to have a certain degree of conceited arrogance to be able to do that sort of thing. 

 

Also, he’s married and has presumably been attracted to his wife through her independent spirit and her questing, but come the chains of marriage being put on, he seems to be wound up by the very same things that he found attractive originally. 

 

He probably didn’t expect her to go this far with it. 

She had used her skills to attract the right man, and now she can settle down and be a normal woman, seems to be his attitude to it all. And obviously he is unaware about any kind of flirtations going on between Caroline and William, and he sees himself as top dog. 

 

He’s probably the least pioneering of the three. There are elements of him that's trying new techniques and wanting to do things as fast as possible to minimise people’s pain, and that’s why he really finally allows John to try some of his drugs. But in terms of that period of time, I guess a surgeon’s role hasn’t really changed that much over history.

 

How authentic do you have to be in your acting, particularly during scenes where you are operating?

Well, James in particular is a stickler for trying. Obviously there is no one alive today who would be able to tell us, but the medical historians and The Wellcome Trust have been involved with this in terms of giving advice. 

 

I’ve spoken to a few surgeons as well because lots of it hasn’t changed that much, apart from perhaps size. An appendectomy would have involved a cut from top to bottom, whereas now it's tiny.

 

In fact, when I was born I had something called a pyloric stenosis, which I had a small operation for in the old stomach muscle, and I’ve seen people 20 years older than me who have huge scars down here, and I have a quite big one across here, and now of course they’re absolutely miniscule in size. So even in that 40-year period there has been change.

 

Are you squeamish?

I don’t think I could be a doctor, I hope everyone would be pleased to hear that. But yes, it’s funny, we have had prosthetic stuff to do, and quite a lot of delving around in guts, which are luckily not people’s, they are totally made up. But also you have supporting actors who come in for the day to lie on the table, and it’s amazing how quickly you distance or disassociate them from being human beings to being flesh. 

 

What actually happened in terms of people watching the surgery in the operating theatre?

The surgeon would do one show a week, so there would be one public showing, and they would usually try and get the goriest or the most pioneering or the most exciting.

 

Obviously when the big crowds were in, you wanted to do your best job, and you wanted to make sure they didn’t die. And there is an element of playing to a crowd, sometimes introducing the type of surgery, what the patient is, what the problem is, and Robert loves it. 

 

So in terms of your approach, did you approach his physicality as a rock star or as a surgeon? 

It’s probably more the peacock side of him, the conceited side, and the inviolable sense of right. I think he has to have an iron-clad confidence in what he is doing, and his right to be doing it. So that’s pretty fun to play, that kind of character, as well as him being deceitful and underhand and a drunk and all the other things. 

 

He has a bit of a hand tremor which we touch on lightly during the series and he’s self-medicating with alcohol, so we don’t know where that might go. 

 

He plays up his lothario status as well, and enjoys it, and does very well as a surgeon financially.

 

And what’s his relationship like with the others?

I think they kind of admire and hate him, but they feel like a gang, friends that have known each other a long time. They love each other and would do anything for each other and are well aware of each other’s weaknesses and stupidities, and certainly they find him unbearable at times, but equally they sort of know how important what he does is, and they sort of support each other. 

 

They take the piss out of each other, the three of them, but if someone else was to take the piss out of one of them, they would defend each other. 

 

And what about in real life? You’re all writers, you’ve all done plenty of comedy, so I would imagine there are a lot of laughs flying around.

It’s quite fun. In fact, probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve had, and that comes from Tom and Mat and Lydia as well, as well as Andy, the director, and Justin the Executive Producer. It’s a really jolly little team. 

 

Are you a corpser? 

Yes, I’m terrible, and Mat’s pretty bad too. Tom’s the steely resolve amongst us. 

 

What makes you go? 

Nothing! People slightly stumbling over a line, I mean, it’s pathetic! But it’s been really fun. Before we started filming, we were all coming up with different stuff, and luckily James didn’t feel threatened by that, and Mat’s written an episode, so it’s not as if he feels so possessive over it. 

 

Your career is hugely eclectic: you've done lots of brilliant theatre, films, and TV… how does this compare? The sets are quite lavish...

Obviously having done Penny Dreadful for Showtime, that's set in a similar-ish time but a bit later. But in terms of sets and costume that have been created with this level of detail, it feels incredibly detailed and lavish. 

 

And in terms of your character, how does Robert compare to your other work? 

I try and find different characters each time you do a new role, because otherwise you get a bit bored, but he’s… he’s an arse! 

 

Is he the biggest arse you’ve ever played?

I think he’s the biggest arse that anybody’s ever played! I mean, there are other arses, but not arses that are quite so justified. The most you can think about Robert is that he’s an arse. Because he knows he’s good at something, and he’s right – and he is one of the best surgeons in London, if not in England. I don’t think you can be a surgeon and be racked with self-doubt, particularly, well, specifically not in theatre. 

 

Mathew Baynton, who plays William 

 

You've been in talks about this role for a long time, haven’t you? 

Yes. I was sent the script to audition for it before it was commissioned, maybe three or four years ago, and I absolutely loved it. 

 

It’s such a great cast.

It’s amazing. And then I think another compliment you can pay the scripts is the people we’ve had coming in to play for a day or two. You don't often get people as brilliant as Andrew Scott, Miles Jupp… the list goes on… I can’t sit here and name them all... Jamie Demetriou as well, absolutely amazing people. I think that's because they read the scripts and they go, 'Yes, I’d do that, that sounds fun'. 

 

And what did you love about the script?

I don’t know if I would say this directly to James, because I don’t want to inflate his ego too much, but I haven’t read a better script since. And you’re sent so much stuff, 90% of it has nothing new or different or challenging about it, or just the quality of the writing is not great. But this had everything going for it. 

 

He just writes dialogue so well. One of the things I love about it is the characters are always in the position where they are lying or covering their true feelings, so there’s always a lot of subtext. There’s always the thing they’re saying, and quite heavily present is also the thing they’re not saying.

 

With my character it's often that he's with his best friend’s wife who he is falling in love with and he can’t contend with his feelings, and you know that they’re there, but they’re not being said. 

 

These three pioneers are actually trying to do things that society is not yet up to speed with. William is possibly the most tragic of them because in attempting to treat mental illness, he has this drive, this idea that people can be treated humanely and gently, and that they shouldn’t be chained up, they shouldn’t be beaten, that they should be spoken to, which seems very obvious but is incredibly pioneering at that moment.

 

He is very progressive as well. 

Without giving too much away, we discover why it’s mental health that he is interested in, we discover that he has a really personal connection to it.

 

It wasn’t an area of medicine that he would have chosen to go into, because it was derided and frowned upon as the lowest thing really. So for a person like him, he would have to have a really big personal reason to face that sort of derision. And so we discover that there is a very personal connection to it, but it means that he fears madness, or he is trying really hard as an individual to be as conventional and as proper a person as he can.

 

When he falls in love with someone else’s wife, not only does he know that that’s complicated from the point of view of her marriage, but it throws his own identity into disarray, because it’s a mad thing to do: a wild, uncontrollable thing to do. It’s a passion that he is not consciously choosing, so it troubles him, this attraction that he can’t control and that he can’t justify from any civilised sort of perspective. 

 

We have to try and make sure that it’s clear that what Caroline represents is wildly unconventional, and that anyone of that time – women included – would be shocked by what she suggests and what she does. I mean, people genuinely thought that reading too much was dangerous for women’s health, that they would become mad just by reading. Apparently particularly French novels. Even Queen Victoria said it’s a danger to society. 

 

But it’s really important to have that character, because otherwise it's far too masculine, isn't it?

Hugely, yes. And I think there’s a nice sort of trick to it in that I think in that it’s really about four medical pioneers, but you don’t realise that she is one of them until the series goes on.

 

Then you start to realise that in many ways, she is the greatest pioneer of them all, because she is the one who is going to open the door to half the population to be able to be a part of that profession. A big moment for me was the discovery that women had to pretend to be men to get into medical societies.

 

Hopefully, if we get to do more series, that journey for Caroline will be fascinating. The idea of her as one of the first female GPs for example, the abuse that they got just for wanting to treat people… it would be great. I hope we get to do it. 

 

Was it difficult, when you were writing your episode, to get the balance between the authenticity and the comedy? 

No. The researched fact very often turns out to be madder than anything than you could think of anyway. For me at least, it was far easier than trying to dredge something up out of my subconscious. You read this stuff and it just presents itself. 

 

I found this amazing book, written in the late 19th century, by this guy who had put together a dictionary of street slang which is brilliant. There's a bit where John comes in, having put someone to sleep, and I wanted to say, 'Have you killed him?', but that's not all that funny. So I just searched this book for a slang word for 'murder' and I found 'to burke someone'. So we got, 'Have you burked him?', which is hilarious.

 

It's doubly brilliant, because in the medical context, Burke and Hare were killing people to sell for medical research. 

 

It’s such a rich period, isn’t it? 

Yes, in terms of behaviour as well, this period gives us a rich vein of comedy, because these people have got funny prejudices, you know? They’re not PC, for want of a better word. Not that I’m saying that’s something to celebrate, but it’s funny to see that in these people, that they can make bold statements about women being easier to mesmerise than men because they’re not as clever.

 

If you put that in a modern sitcom, it tells you that that character is a misogynist, whereas in a Victorian context you can laugh at the misogyny of that world as something outdated and old-fashioned, and therefore stupid. Some people actually thought men had bigger brains.

 

In the pilot, William was trying phrenology, which is absolute rubbish, the idea that you can tell what’s wrong with someone from feeling their head. I mean, there’s still some of that quackery around, to be fair. 

 

Even in surgery, there’s such a wealth in advancements, but at the heart of it still is basically carpentry. There’s still sawing.

 

Do you have any physical scenes like that? 

William needs a surgical procedure in one episode. I've got a bladder stone, and Robert tells me how he can smash the bladder stone, and shows me the instruments that will be inserted into my penis. It’s terrifying! 

I still shudder, thinking about it. And we had the props. You just think, “How did anyone go through these things?” 

 

You must have had some horrific dreams that night. 

Yes. Thank God for anaesthesia, and people like John who pioneered it. In fact, Rory and I were talking about how we can both say with some certainty that had we been born in this period, we wouldn’t have made it through our early childhood. 

 

We certainly have modern medicine to thank for being here, and how many of us could say that of ourselves or our parents? My dad had TB before I was ever born, so he wouldn’t have even got to the point where he could have had kids if it wasn't for these guys.

 

Like he did with Rev, I think James likes to find a world that people know a little bit about, then shine a light on it and show the full experience of these people.

 

Click here for interviews with Tom Basden & Lydia Leonard.

 

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